Diego Ventura is the CEO of noHold, a company that provides services based on Artificial Intelligence. Diego is a well-known and highly respected member of the Italian community in Silicon Valley. I thought that it would be of interest to our readers to have Diego share his experiences as an Italian entrepreneur in the US. Here is the interview:
Diego, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company, noHold?
I was born in Trento, Italy, but I consider my hometown to be Pordenone where my parents a brother and a sister still live. Pordenone is about one hour away from Venice. I attended high school there at the Liceo Scientifico and then got a degree in Computer Science with the University of Maryland. I met my wife, Tammy who is from California, in Aviano where she was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. We have a son, Francesco (20) and a daughter, Stephany (18). I founded noHold in 2000, raised about $15M and created an expert system, we call InstantSupport™ that helps big companies reduce support cost, by providing technical support automatically without human intervention. The solution manages millions of sessions per year for customers like Microsoft, Cisco, Acer, etc.
Artificial Intelligence has been promising exceptional results for many years. Only now, when it’s not anymore the coolest area of Computer science, AI is starting to deliver interesting results. Why now and not before?
I agree with your comment, but just to be specific, I will limit my answer to the area of AI we work with, Expert Systems. A solution like ours needs several ingredients to work well: Smart algorithms, easy connectivity and fast execution. The smart algorithms may have also been available in the 80s, although things improve all the time, but ease of connectivity and fast execution were definitely lacking back then. There was no Internet, so creating a scenario where millions of people could easily connect to a single computer system was unthinkable. Processor speeds were order of magnitude slower than what we have today, so even if the main algorithms to mimic inference did exist, they could not be executed fast enough from the machine of that time. In my opinion AI is still cool, but with the added bonus of being practical.
In competitive environments, it is becoming more important that companies communicate effectively with their customers by not only providing the right answers to their inquiries but also by recognizing and empathizing with their emotions. How well can software applications handle the emotional level of communication?
We found that it is absolutely key to be straightforward with end users to create a constructive experience. We refrain from using avatars or smiley faces for our user interface, because it is important to set the proper expectations for the customer. We tell them that we are an automatic tool and that we will try to get them as fast as possible to the right solution for them. If we are not successful, we will promptly escalate them to an agent via live chat, email or phone. One way to think about it is to consider what happened with Banking. Banks have trained us in using ATMs and now for certain operations, like just getting cash, people prefer ATMs, they don’t want to walk into a branch and spend some time in line. I think the same can be achieved with solutions like ours. However, the key is to choose the right battles, situations were the emotional component is predominant should be handled by humans.
The interaction between a service and its users is quickly spreading over several media: phone, IM, webpage, etc. How is your company addressing this proliferation of channels?
The name of the game here is “Interconnectivity”. noHold is and wants to continue to be a point solution that is best of breed in its space, but we recognize the importance of other communication channels. Therefore, our strategy is to connect and integrate with applications that take advantage of other communication channels. We can currently connect with the most popular Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. We can escalate our virtual agent sessions to live chat systems or email and we are considering partnerships with companies that provide voice recognition functionality, so that the whole solution can be used over the phone.
The dot-com collapse ended up destroying not only poorly conceived startups but also several companies based on solid business models. How did your company manage not only to survive but also to grow during those times?
We got our first round of financing in the summer of 2000, right after the burst of the “Bubble”. A really bad time because investors expectations were still pretty high, but the market had crashed. We were lucky enough to recognize the change and adjust for it; we knew we were in for a marathon, not a sprint. I think a lot of companies ignored the signs and kept spending like there was no tomorrow. I actually believe that the Italian background here helped quite a bit. Let’s not forget that my generation was raised by wonderful people who saw the Second World War and knew the meaning of saving and being resourceful, so thank you mamma e babbo! The other element that helped us was the character of the people my team is made of. I am talking about resilient, battle-tested professionals who never gave up even in the toughest situations.
Would it be possible for a business like noHold to be based in Italy?
Yes! We are a software company, so all you need are smart dedicated people to make things happen. I have to say that however, there is nothing like the fertile grounds of the Silicon Valley for a young startup. Ultimately the ideal scenario is a company with a presence both in Italy and the U.S.
The Silicon Valley and the Bay Area continue to attract young entrepreneurs from Italy. Based on your experience do you have any recommendations for them?
Here is what worked for me:
I would like to thank Diego Ventura for taking the time to speak with me today. If you have any questions for Diego or for BAIA, please leave a comment below and we will be glad to answer.