“We will begin to see a true AI search evolution”: Interview with Algolia’s CEO Nicolas

Algolia team

Algolia is a Search-as-a-Service platform with the mission to empower every company to create search and discovery experiences.

Today’s customers are accustomed to Google, Netflix, and Amazon experiences — and they expect to find what they are looking for quickly and effortlessly. Search and discovery are at the heart of great customer experiences, connecting users with the content and services they seek.

With Algolia, end-users are able to find and discover what they want easily across web, mobile, and voice. Algolia allows developers and business teams to build and optimize search and discovery experiences that increase online engagement, conversion rates and revenue. In 2020, Algolia is on a run rate to power over one trillion searches across over 8,600 customers including Stripe, Slack, Discovery, Medium, LVMH, Decathlon, Zendesk and Birchbox.

We spoke with Nicolas Dessaigne, Algolia’s CEO and co-founder to learn more about scaling Algolia to becoming a borderless global economy, hiring the right people, Algolia’s plans and how they are coping with the current coronavirus pandemic.

What first got you into entrepreneurship? What is your story?

I have always been passionate about developing products, solving problems, and building teams. My tech areas of expertise include SaaS, information processing (including search engines and text mining) and mobile development. Before we started Algolia in 2012 with my co-founder Julien Lemoine, we saw a void in the market — organizations did not have the technology needed to build consumer-friendly search experiences. Enter Algolia. When we first started Algolia, we did not offer a SaaS product, but rather a mobile search engine that could be embedded into apps and used locally on the device. The technology was great, but we did not find a clear market for it, so we pivoted to SaaS. Julien and I leveraged our combined experience in this domain from previous companies to build a multi-tenant architecture built for scale. Once we made the leap from being a mobile search SDK to the search API and search-as-a-service platform we are today, we raised a seed round of funding, hired our first employees and launched the product.

Do you have any advice for first time founders?

First, focus on building a culture-first company and have clarity on the values you want your company and people to stand for. Define those specific values in writing, as you will want to share them with your team. At Algolia, our  five values are: grit, trust, care, candour, and humility. After you have articulated your values, build your company around these principles, and hire people based on these values. During this company-building process, you should only create one set of core values. We did not need to adapt our values to different geographies, despite the fact that we have offices in multiple countries. These principles inform our hiring practices and day-to-day business operations.

What do you think will be the next big digital transformation in next year/the next 5 years?

We are going to see consumerization of the enterprise next year and beyond — and this will have implications for businesses and consumers. In my experience, the businesses that survive (and thrive) are those that integrate software into every aspect of their business, including their communications with, and experiences provided to, customers. We will begin to see key developments take shape along the conversational search journey, including better personalization, improvements within AI-powered search and a better understanding of users. This consumerization of the enterprise will continue to influence the search journey, and more businesses will look closely at their user experience and begin to further invest in search.

I also believe in 2020, or more specifically applied AI for better user/search/digital experiences. AI and machine learning (ML) already help with the personalization of results, but we will want to learn from user behaviour to further tailor the experience. As AI continues to mature, and natural language processing (NLP) becomes better at analysing intent, we will get closer to real customer interactions and a two-way dialogue. The end result: We will (eventually, perhaps in five years) interact with software like we would with a human assistant.

What would you say is Algolia’s scale up strategy and what makes it work for Algolia?

Our goal was to build a modern, “borderless” global company from the inside out. This requires a global mindset from the beginning. I think that companies that originate outside the United States are often better at global expansion. They understand the challenges of “going into” new countries. That is because companies that start in the US already have a huge built-in market at home and there is no incentive to go global right away. If your organization is looking to expand, you should strategize about where your next offices, data centers and customers would be, and it is important to not limit your business to just one country or geography.

We targeted the developer market, which is the same worldwide. As our search and discovery technology is a Search-as-a-Service solution, customers can be anywhere. We have always had one language across the company: English. English is the most common language across most of the western world — and this is where most of our customers and team members are from. Developers, our initial target, are accustomed to and often fluent in English. When we co-founded Algolia, many people in San Francisco thought of Algolia as a French company — even though we had a strong Silicon Valley presence. Meanwhile, people in France considered us an American organization. But I saw the company as a truly global entity, not French and not American. Today, we have six offices across North America, Europe and Japan and serve 8,600 customers across 120+ countries with our Search-as-a-Service platform that supports 70 languages.

What differentiates Algolia from its competitors?

Algolia has two types of competitors: open source search solutions and packaged search solutions. Algolia is the best of both worlds. Our Search-as-a-Service platform and Search API allow customers to be up and running quickly and have full control to build the experience they want, across any digital channel.

Algolia was founded in 2012. How have your objectives and goals changed since the company has grown?

In the early days, we were focused on refining our main value proposition and building technology that mapped to that. As we started to have customers and traction, we realized that our potential was way bigger than we thought initially. If you had asked us then we would never have thought that less than 8 years later we would be 350 across the world serving billions of queries every day for thousands of customers. That is where we come in, we are helping businesses around the world to bridge that gap. That drives our technology innovation and motivates our team.

How did you finance Algolia up until this point? Do you plan to achieve additional funding in the future?

Algolia is venture funded. We have raised €169.6 million in total, with our most recent round of funding last year being led by existing investor Accel and including new investor Salesforce Ventures. After our recent round we do not plan to raise again in the short term, but it is an option we keep open for the future.

What is your long-term vision for Algolia?

Our vision at Algolia from day 1 has been for every business to be able to deliver the best experience possible to its users — a search and discovery experience that is lightning fast, personalized, and highly relevant — one that helps people find what they want across this digital universe and how they want via any type of device at home, at work, and on-the-go. To achieve this, we are focused on investing in our technology and being at the forefront of the conversational search journey, enabling customer interactions and two-way dialogue via search.

What is next for Algolia in terms of international expansion? Which markets are most important for Algolia and why?

With our most recent round of funding, we are focusing on further global expansion across the US, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. Of particular interest to us are Japan (we opened an office there last year) and European countries where we do not have a physical presence yet.

What has been one of your biggest failures, and what did you learn from the experience?

The life of a startup is like a roller coaster with a lot of ups and downs. What matters is how fast we can learn. One of my mistakes was to wait too long to hire the right people with the experience we needed at each stage. Having someone in the team who has already built specific teams for example is invaluable. We too often waited too long and lost a lot of time along the way trying to reinvent things ourselves.

How has the current pandemic affected Algolia? What do you say are the greatest lessons/realizations from the current situation?

We were already distributed by nature with 6 offices and the move to mandatory work-from-home ended up being smooth for most of the team. We were lucky to have developed a lot of the right habits already. All our customers are also using us for their online business, and we have been fortunate that online activity is running strong. We are monitoring the situation very carefully but expect that when we exit the crisis, investments in online presence and online user engagement will only increase. The pandemic has actually encouraged a lot of community and connection — all in the spirit of helping. Algolia is making its Pro Plan free to any developer or team working on COVID-19-related, not-for-profit websites or apps.