Online retailers may not be able to predict the future, but they can certainly try to influence it. That’s the idea behind 4-Tell, which equips online retailers of any size with the tools they need to provide product recommendations based on their visitors’ shopping behavior. While powerhouses like Amazon have had access to this kind of technology for years, 4-Tell is the first company to take it out of the hands of the elite few and make it available to the masses.
A winner of the Gorge Technology Alliance’s Technology Organization of the Year Award and recently listed as one of Oregon’s top 10 startups, 4-Tell is making waves—across Oregon and around the world. We sat down with co-founder Ken Levy to learn more:
Can you describe the path that led you to found 4-Tell?
I love data and understanding why people act the way they do. 4-Tell is a combination of these two passions.
I actually have a PhD in computational auditory physiology. I realized though that academia was not where I wanted to be because it wasn’t tangible enough. I started my first company and sold part of it to Digimarc, where I worked for five years. There, I developed internal ID security architecture, which actually became part of U.S. law. That’s the reason they check your ID with a black light when you go to the airport. I started to get very interested in data and in 2009 entered the Netflix Prize, which asked participating teams to improve the accuracy of its movie suggestions. Out of 41,000 teams, we got up in the top 1.5 percent – and that’s the technology my co-founder Neil Lofgren and I used to start 4-Tell.
What problem does your business solve?
We solved problems for both retailers and shoppers. For shoppers, we give them a better shopping experience by helping them find products they will enjoy.
For retailers, 4-Tell increases sales by 17.1% by showing shoppers products they would like to buy with product recommendations (e.g. “People also bought…”). This kind of technology isn’t brand new, but we are the first company to make it economically viable. What was done before was for the top 1,000 retailers. 4-Tell is for the other 1.5 million retailers.
I appreciate that my hard work and decisions have a significant influence. (Tweet this.)
What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur?
I appreciate that my hard work and decisions have a significant influence. I am responsible for my company’s success. And, I love the variety being an entrepreneur brings because I get to do a wide range of tasks across the entire company.
What has been the biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date?
I have had two surprises, and both are obvious in retrospect. First is the importance and difficulty of attracting top-notch talent to ensure the success of 4-Tell. Second is the difficulty of explaining my vision to potential investors in 30 seconds.
What successes have you enjoyed so far?
We get more spontaneous compliments from customers than cancellations. We’re a monthly service, and have a 99% retention rate. For three years in a row, we’ve tripled our revenue almost every year. On CyberMonday in 2013, we averaged serving 1,000 recommendations a second for 24 hours (usually we average about a billion per month, or 385 per second).
Do you have a failure story to share? What did you learn from this failure?
We tried to grow faster than we were ready and had to lay off almost half of the team. It was a very painful experience for all of us, one which I hope to never repeat. We have refocused on sustainable growth, and have at least tripled revenue for each of the last three years.
As an entrepreneur, what keeps you up at night?
Profitability, investment and how to grow faster!
What is the best entrepreneurial advice you have received (and from whom)?
Matt Hall, a Managing Partner at HFM LLC, told me once: “The job of an advisor is not to answer your questions, but ask you the proper questions for you to consider in coming up with an answer.”
What song best describes your work ethic?
“Take it to the Limit” by The Eagles.
Imagine your venture becomes wildly successful. What does that look like?
We help all retailers compete with Amazon.com, have happy and efficient employees, and promote the Portland/Vancouver/Gorge economy.
Can you describe your typical day?
No. I focus on the most important aspects for 4-Tell’s growth, which continually change. It’s like trying to describe the typical day with a newborn baby.
In the Bay Area, you get employees who are switching jobs every nine months because there’s a new hot company. You can find employees here who will stick with you and really like what you’re doing. (Tweet this.)
As you think about the growth of 4-Tell to date, what are you most thankful for?
The team. We have an amazing team and we keep each other going and motivated!
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was a kid, I met an engineer that worked for GM and designed new features for cars. I thought that was the coolest job.
Do you think Oregon is a good place to start a business? How has it helped you, and what challenges has it posed?
Yes. Employees and investors are loyal and stay with you. In the Bay Area, you get employees who are switching jobs every nine months because there’s a new hot company. You can find employees here who will stick with you and really like what you’re doing. Our employees on average have been with us for two years—as a startup, that’s a huge benefit.
However, we need more access to venture capital to enable disrupting markets. We’re ready to really grow!
What’s your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Enjoy the process and wins as you move towards the end goal.