If the sheer amount of information that we can tap into using the internet has made the world our oyster, then the huge success of Google is a testament to how lucrative search can be in helping to light the way through that data maze.
Now, in a sign of the times, a startup called Lucidworks, which has built an AI-based engine to help individual organizations provide personalised search services for their own users, has raised $100 million in funding. Lucidworks believes its approach can produce better and more relevant results than other search services in the market, and it plans to use the funding for its next stage of growth to become, in the words of CEO Will Hayes, “the world’s next important platform.”
The funding is coming from PE firm Francisco Partners and TPG Sixth Street Partners. Existing investors in the company include Top Tier Capital Partners, Shasta Ventures, Granite Ventures and Allegis Cyber.
Lucidworks has raised around $200 million in funding to date, and while it is not disclosing the valuation, the company says it has been doubling revenues each year for the last three and counts companies like Reddit, Red Hat, REI and the U.S. Census among some 400 others of its customers using its flagship product, Fusion. PitchBook notes that its last round in 2018 was at a modest $135 million, and my guess is that is up by quite some way.
The idea of building a business on search, of course, is not at all new, and Lucidworks works is in a very crowded field. The likes of Amazon, Google and Microsoft have built entire empires on search — in Google’s and Microsoft’s case, by selling ads against those search results; in Amazon’s case, by generating sales of items in the search results — and they have subsequently productised that technology, selling it as a service to others.
Alongside that are companies that have been building search-as-a-service from the ground up — like Elastic, Sumo Logic and Splunk (whose founding team, coincidentally, went on to found Lucidworks…) — both for back-office processes as well as for services that are customer-facing.
In an interview, Hayes said that what sets Lucidworks apart is how it uses machine learning and other AI processes to personalise those results after “sorting through mountains of data,” to provide enterprise information to knowledge workers, shopping results on an e-commerce site to consumers, data to wealth managers or whatever it is that is being sought.
Take the case of a shopping experience, he said by way of explanation. “If I’m on REI to buy hiking shoes, I don’t just want to see the highest-rated hiking shoes, or the most expensive,” he said.
The idea is that Lucidworks builds algorithms that bring in other data sources — your past shopping patterns, your location, what kind of walking you might be doing, what other people like you have purchased — to produce a more focused list of products that you are more likely to buy.
“Amazon has no taste,” he concluded, a little playfully.
Today, around half of Lucidworks’ business comes from digital commerce and digital content — searches of the kind described above for products, or monitoring customer search queries sites like Red Hat or Reddit — and half comes from knowledge worker applications inside organizations.
The plan will be to continue that proportion, while also adding other kinds of features — more natural language processing and more semantic search features — to expand the kinds of queries that can be made, and also cues that Fusion can use to produce results.
Interestingly, Hayes said that while it’s come up a number of times, Lucidworks doesn’t see itself ever going head-to-head with a company like Google or Amazon in providing a first-party search platform of its own. Indeed, that may be an area that has, for the time being at least, already been played out. Or it may be that we have turned to a time when walled gardens — or at least more targeted and curated experiences — are coming into their own.
“We still see a lot of runway in this market,” said Jonathan Murphy of Francisco Partners. “We were very attracted to the idea of next-generation search, on one hand serving internet users facing the pain of the broader internet, and on the other enterprises as an enterprise software product.”
Lucidworks, it seems, has also entertained acquisition approaches, although Hayes declined to get specific about that. The longer-term goal, he said, “is to build something special that will stay here for a long time. The likelihood of needing that to be a public company is very high, but we will do what we think is best for the company and investors in the long run. But our focus and intention is to continue growing.”