Last year we wrote about how South African-based company WooThemes and its popular online retail theme WooCommerce were making waves in the online world. At the time, we termed it a true WordPress child revolutionising ecommerce the world over. Since then, WooCommerce has grown up – quite a lot actually. In fact, these days it is helping give other businesses a leg up.
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Started by Robert Elliott and Nick Pentreath, Cape Town-based company Graphflow is a big data and predictive analytics startup that is available in WooThemes’ official store, and is adding to the latter’s vision of making online shopping tools available to the world.
Elliott and Pentreath have known each other for a while. While Pentreath studied actuarial science, Elliott worked as a consultant in banking after which they both ended up working in London.
While in the UK, Pentreath gained exposure to cutting-edge big data technologies used by companies like Google, Yahoo and Netflix.
Those unfamiliar with the terms ‘machine learning’, ‘big data’ and ‘predictive analytics’, should look no further than their most recent product suggestions online. Some of the world’s biggest consumer sites like Amazon and Netflix are popular examples of companies that prompt customers with suggested products based on their search history, demographics, the time of year and so forth. The technology forms a crucial part in building an audience and increasing customer engagement. Netflix, for instance, spends over US$150-million and 300 staff members to run its content recommendations.
“It soon became clear that there’s a unique opportunity within the data space,” says Pentreath. “I had quite a good idea of what the back-end architecture would look like, while Rob took care of the design and front elements of the business.”
Elliott came back to SA where he started up his own software company. Pentreath, on the other hand, did his Masters in machine learning and artificial intelligence at the University College London, after which he applied his skills when he headed the data team at Mxit — the South African mobile social platform boasting over 6-million users.
In an attempt to bring the tech company up to speed with the latest tech in big data and analytics, Graphflow was piloted with Mxit for little over a year, achieving phenomenal results. With the recommendation engine provided by Graphflow, the social platform saw a more than 60% increase in growth in user activity and engagement on Mxit’s digital store. This number was a huge confidence boost.
“Our initial focus was to try and sell to the bigger digital content and ecommerce players in Africa. We spent the better part of six months establishing relationships with some of the biggest players in this space,” Elliott tells Ventureburn.
One thing that’s very comforting is that the application of machine learning can be applied anywhere. It’s a very broad field which includes education, the environment, healthcare and finance. What we wanted to do was to find something that has immediate, commercial appeal and use-case.
The fact that the field is so broad also presents complications of its own considering the company is headed by a two-man team.
Given the B2B dynamics, the process of engagement was incredibly long and tedious. Graphflow found that in order for it to stand a chance of succeeding, it required a much larger workforce (sales team, consultancy specifications, and so forth) on a global scale.
The company joined the Google-funded acceleration programme, 88MPH, for three months in 2014 where it managed to find some much-needed focus.
This was around the time the two data junkies got in contact with Mark Forrester and Magnus Jepson from WooThemes, who they know personally. Graphflow was then implemented in WooThemes’ official store where it proved to be very successful yet again.
Coincidentally, this was around the same time WooCommerce exploded — boasting 380 000 active installations, over 5-million downloads and became the most-used tool for online shop owners between November 2013 and March 2014.
Needless to say, the company did a slight pivot and decided to go from building a professional services company to being a product company, which can also be integrated into WooThemes’ platform.
This new strategy meant that Graphflow — a small company hailing from the tip of Africa — didn’t need to go directly head-on with giants like San Francisco-based RichRelevance which carries over US$50-million (around R500-million) in venture funding and serves large retailers such as Walmart and Overstock.
In steps WooThemes
After finishing the accelerator programme, WooThemes and 88mph put down an investment of R2.5-million in Graphflow in turn for a “small equity stake”.
Apart from the cash injection, the close relationship with WooThemes today enables Graphflow to tap into significant customer insight as well as having access to some of the PR and marketing functions to help refine the product. Graphflow is also currently based at the WooThemes office space in Cape Town. Forrester writes the following:
At WooThemes we’re all about democratising ecommerce and enabling budding entrepreneurs and business owners with the tools they need to compete and succeed. Our partnership with Graphflow hopefully demonstrates that focus and highlights the endless realm of possibility and innovative opportunity upon the WooCommerce platform.
The startup then launched the Graphflow plug-in on WooThemes in early October. Since then, the team tells Ventureburn that it’s seen impressive traction, pointing to hundreds of downloads and account sign-ups in just a few weeks, the bulk being small- to medium-sized businesses across the globe.
“We believe that small- and medium-sized stores should be able to flourish, despite the all-category online stores, by providing their customers with a tailored and relevant experience,” says Elliott.
It should be noted that although the startup has a close relationship with WooThemes, the recommendations tool is built in such a way that the API could be used by any company, regardless of whether or not it uses WooThemes.
Currently there’s a 60-day free trial after which customers will be faced with a freemium model. Part of the company’s focus now is to refine its product offering
Graph flow argues that two of the main advantages it has over other companies is the fact that it’s building cutting-edge tech while having a unique position and the ability to scale effectively. “We couldn’t have asked for it to go much better,” Elliott says.