Ever since I started working on the project that would eventually become CircleBack, people have been asking me why. “Why contacts? Why not stick with services business or mobile products? Why venture so far outside what you know?” I’ve heard every variation of the question and, truth be told, I always give the same answer:

Contacts are the foundations of both relationships and commerce.

It’s really as simple as that. I’ve always been driven toward innovation, toward doing something new, and I believe that, to do something fundamentally disruptive, it’s not about thinking of something no one’s ever thought before; it’s about looking at existing problems in new way.

The Contact Problem

I first began thinking about the contact problem on a flight from DC to Seattle. I had a stack of business cards that I needed to add to my address book, a dying laptop, and I thought “there’s got to be a better way.” After all, every element of our professional lives takes advantage of current technology—massive cloud-based processing engines—except contact managers. In that space, even today, all we have are shoddy algorithms that behave like old rolodexes: business cards go in and stay the same forever.

So, in a way, I went back to basics. I wanted to solve a basic problem as intelligently as I could.

The more I looked at it, though, the more complex the contact problem became. On the one hand, there’s the individual contact problem, the 2000-minute-per-year problem as I like to think of it. Basically, on average, an individual has 1000 contacts that, in addition to being all over the place, are in constant jeopardy of going out-of-date. Even if you take 2 minutes to update a single contact with current technology, I wanted to figure out how to save the average user 33 hours per year.

On the other hand, the contact problem grows even larger when dealing in enterprise solutions. Because businesses thrive on so many different kinds of contacts data–contacts for their prospects, previous and current partners, previous and past employees, etc.–there’s an enormous pressure to get the solution exactly right. After all, this data goes stale in exactly the same way as it does in our personal address books, only it costs enterprises billions of dollars a year.

The Contact Solution

After several false starts trying to employ more active, participation-based solutions, we realized we needed to go in a different direction. Active social participation in sharing contact information still put too much a burden on users already strapped for time, and creating a new process for receiving updated contacts–while still faster–wasn’t fast or effective enough. So we took to the drawing board, spending hundreds of hours thinking about the components of the contact problem, its guts, and how we could build something that carried its burden for users. And then, one day, we had our EUREKA moment; we realized that the foundation of a basic address book–the digital storehouse for contacts–held the two ingredients for successful AI–lots of data and tons of signals. Knowing both that AI would work and that it would bring our users a simple, painless experience, we brought on a world-class technology team led by our chief scientist Dr. Timothy Oates, an expert in the AI / machine-learning community, and the rest, as they say, is history (though I’ll expand on it in a future post).

Building Sideways

Early on, our team was too focused on a singular goal: to make the machine learning work as accurately as possible. While this is our main objective even today, it quickly became evident that we needed to provide users with tools to easily import new contacts from a variety of channels. We realized that unification and consolidation of contact lists, along with quick new-contact-importing functionalities, were complimentary to our CircleBack solution. They simplified tertiary components of the contact problem, creating an even-more-efficient solution for our user base.

But building sideways isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially on a startup budget and with startup-sized teams.

For example, we knew right away that we needed a business-card scanner—after all, business cards are still the most common connection-transaction on the planet—but we also knew that Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology is incredibly difficult and requires huge amounts of time and resources that we just couldn’t spare. Fortunately, at that time, we were able to acquire ScanBizCards. Already regarded as a best-in-class OCR scanner for business card, ScanBizCards seemed like a perfect addition to the CircleBack family of contact apps.

Similarly, we felt that a lot of contacts were being lost in email inboxes. Even though contact information was available in most email signatures, the process of converting those signatures to usable contacts in an address book was a lengthy, inconvenient process, rivaled only by the process searching through an inbox to find those email signatures again. From a user perspective, it was a no-win situation, and it was something we knew we had to solve. We developed ContactSaver as a result.

With these tools in place, we knew we’d built a solid runway for CircleBack. Now that users were able to easily capture often-overlooked contact information and centralize it, the full, powerful benefit of CircleBack could be seen.

The Contact Problem Redefined

When I began approaching the contact problem so long ago, I thought I was looking for a basic answer, a simple way to keep everyone’s address book up-to-date. But like all things worth doing, time reshaped the problem. What began in my mind as a glaring productivity problem has since shifted toward a problem of contact databases, of hundreds of millions of pieces of data becoming irrelevant, of failed marketing campaigns and dramatic losses in sales and productivity.

Solving the contact problem, then, was not an issue of creating a novel, “ingenious” app that solves an annoying problem. It was an issue of fighting data-entropy in one corner of the universe. And that corner is so fundamental to the forward-march of progress in business that I couldn’t ignore it. “Why contacts?” people ask. How could I not?