In preparing for a presentation this week, I ran across this quote from one of my favourite authors:
“The enemy,” Saul Bellow wrote in an essay, “is noise.”
Want to talk about noise? Bellow wrote that long before the Internet.
Do a Google search for any subject and try to sift through the millions of results. Need more noise, literally? Then set some Google alerts and drive yourself into insanity with the cacophony of pings that will leave you with tinnitus. I just got off the phone with the VP of a global financial player whose Google alerts hound him from morning to night.
So much distraction, so little time.
Bellow brought me back to December, 2010, when VitalBriefing was a gleam in my mind’s eye, sparked during a walk on the beach by a phone conversation with a banker friend complaining that he was “drowning in information” and planned to use his entire holiday vacation to try to “filter the noise.”
Six months of intense market research confirmed that my friend was one of the great masses struggling with the enemy…and losing. And that explains our first tag line when we founded the company:
VitalBriefing, the cure for information overload.
At the time, the market was overtaken by the quest for the Holy Grail: algorithmic, automated solutions that could cut out the middleman and get you exactly what you were looking for. Machines over pesky, expensive, non-scalable humans to find exact results.
In other words, machines that would understand meaning. Your meaning.
We went against that grain because Artificial Intelligence, smart as it is, just isn’t smart enough to crack that nut.
“No matter what their proponents (and sellers) say, algorithms aren’t intelligent,” writes Jean-Louis Gassée, a venture capitalist, blogger and former president of Apple Products. “They’re dressed up in rich-sounding names and euphemisms such as “Machine Learning,” or oxymorons such as “Affective Computing,” but however they’re decorated, algorithms don’t understand meaning.”
So instead, we decided to use available technology and the algorithms to survey the vast universe of available information on specific subjects our clients needed to follow.
To find the meaning – to beat the enemy – we hired expert human editors, top financial journalists who could create the exact information our clients were struggling to stay on top of. In other words, we would use the machines to survey the universe of available information, while humans would provide the specific and precise meaning our clients in the financial industry hungered for.
A small group of long-time friends from media and banking who believed in the concept joined the visionary Luxembourg Economy Ministry in backing us financially. Meanwhile, dozens of others – rich investors, VC’s and business angels – rejected our concept as “unscalable,” “not technology focused,” “too reliant on humans.”
We went ahead anyway, exactly four years ago this month – cue up “Happy Birthday to us” – and founded VitalBriefing.
And we quickly discovered that we were ahead of the wave. Convincing key financial industry players of the value of humans over machines proved a tough sell at the beginning.
Yet, a brave few among Luxembourg-based financial institutions were ready to start surfing that wave with us. We were gratified to find that our value for them was immediate and measurable: For the CEO and his executive teams, our products resonated as we hoped they would – curated, essential, must-have business intelligence, exactly what they needed to know, timely, reliable and relevant.
The mark of that success was that they soon ordered our products to be expanded first to dozens, then hundreds and in some cases to thousands of staffers.
What had started as “nice-to-have” products quickly became “must-have.” Our clients not only renewed their contracts with us, they deepened them, asking us to develop new services – business-critical information to keep them on top of their industry, competitors, clients, as well as their own brand.
Since then, we’ve evolved from “the cure for information overload” to “intelligence that moves your business: Your job, your clients and your career depend on it.”
And I’ve watched with increasing pleasure as the rest of the world acknowledges what we knew way back when:
“Human curation is back,” writes Gassée. “The limitations of algorithmic curation of news and culture has prompted a return to the use of actual humans to select, edit, and explain,”
“Apple is placing a big bet on human editors with a strong knowledge and a love of music,” Business Insider recently wrote about Apple’s foray into curated music with Apple Music. “The idea is that these human editors, like the radio dj’s of yesteryear, will help turn Apple Music into a great way to discover new music.”
We’re happy to be the Apple Music of financial intelligence – helping our clients around the world to uncover new opportunities while protecting and deepening their existing business.
So I will immodestly wish my colleagues, investors and especially our highly valued VitalBriefing clients a Happy 4th Birthday to us. Many happy returns.
From one human being to millions of others.