Artificial intelligence touches just about every aspect of the tech world these days, aiming to provide new ways of making old processes work better. Now, a startup that has built an AI platform that tackles the ever-present, but never-perfect, business of customer service has quietly raised a large round of funding as it gears up for its next act, an IPO. Afiniti, which uses machine learning and behavioral science to better match customers with customer service agents — “behavioral pairing” is how it describes the process — has closed a $130 million round of funding ($75 million cash, $60 million debt) — a Series D that Afiniti CEO Zia Chishti says values his company at $1.6 billion.
If you are not familiar with the name Afiniti, you might not be alone. The company has been relatively under the radar, in part because it has never made much of an effort to publicise itself, and in part because the funding that it has raised up to now has largely been from outside the hive of VCs that swarm around many other startup deals that push those startups into the limelight.
At the same time, its backers make for a pretty illustrious list. This latest round includes former Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg; Fred Ryan, the CEO and publisher of the Washington Post; and investors Global Asset Management, The Resource Group (which Chishti helped found), Zeke Capital, as well as unnamed Australian investors.
The previous Series C round of $26.5 million, also has an interesting list of backers and also was not widely reported. They included McKinsey & Company, Elisabeth Murdoch, former Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer, and former BP CEO John Browne, alongside Global Asset Management, The Resource Group, Seidenberg and Ryan.
That Series C was at a $100 million valuation, meaning that Afiniti’s valuation has increased more than 10 times in the last year on the back of 100 percent revenue growth each year over the last five.
That momentum led the company also to file confidentially for an IPO — although ultimately Chishti told TechCrunch that the company decided to raise privately at the potential IPO valuation since the money was easy to come by. (It’s also been one of the reasons he said he’s also rebuffed acquisitions, although at least one of the companies that’s approached him, McKinsey, now an investor.)
Now, Chishti — who is a repeat entrepreneur, with his previous company, Align Technology (which makes teeth alignment alternatives to braces), now at a $24 billion market cap — said that Afiniti has started to tip into profitability, so it seems the prospect of an IPO might be back on the table. That is possibly one reason that the company has started to speak to the press more and to make itself more visible.
Chishti and Afiniti are based out of the US, but it has roots into a range of local businesses globally in part by way of its well-connected team of advisors and local leaders. Among them, Princess Beatrice (or Beatrice York), currently 8th in line to the throne to succeed Queen Elizabeth, is the company’s vice president of partnerships. Alonso Aznar, the son of the former prime minister of Spain, runs Afiniti’s operations in Madrid.
The company itself sits in the general area of CRM, and specifically among that wave of startups that are trying to build tools using AI and other new technology to improve on the old ways of getting things done (it’s not alone: just today we noted that People.ai raised $30 million for its own AI-based CRM tools).
Afiniti on one hand calls itself a traditional AI company, but on the other, its CEO laments how overused and hackneyed the term has become. “AI is just a bubble,” he said in an interview. “The intensity of interest in AI is unwarranted because nothing has changed. It’s the same algorithms and software, and we just have faster hardware now.”
In actual fact, what Afiniti does is supply an AI layer to a process that is otherwise “ninety-nine percent human”, in the words of Chishti. The company uses AI to analyse sales people’s performance with specific types of calls and situations, and also to analyse customers in terms of their previous interactions with a company. It then matches up customer service reps who it believes will be most compatible with specific customers.
Afiniti’s pricing model has been an important lever for getting its foot in the door with companies. The company does not price its service per-seat or even per-month, but on a calculation between how well the company does when its call routing and running through Afiniti, versus how much is sold when it does not.
“We run systems on for 15 minutes, off for 5 minutes, and we do that perpetually,” Chishti said. It integrates with a company’s CRM, sales and telephony systems at the back end, in order both to route calls but also to track when those calls result in a sale. “We count the revenues, calculate the delta, and we get a share of that delta.”
If that sounds like a tricky measure, it doesn’t to customers, it seems. The zero-cost-to-try-it model is how it has surmounted the hurdle of getting used by a number of large, often slow-moving carriers and other large incumbents. “It means we have to continuously prove our value,” Chishti added.
As one example of how this works out, he used the example of Verizon (which is the owner of TechCrunch, by way of Oath). “Say Verizon makes $120 billion in revenues in a year,” he said, “and $30 billion of that is in phone-based sales. Afiniti would make $600 million on that.” Times that by dozens of customers in 22 countries, and that may point to how the company has quietly reached the valuation that it has.
Beyond its core product, the company has dozens of patents and more in the application phase in the US and other jurisdictions.
By Ingrid Lunden