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LinkedIn’s Data Guru’s Second Act At Salesforce

DJ Patil, LinkedIn’s former chief data scientist, just sold his new startup to Salesforce for $390 million–and it could change the way we do business.

LinkedIn’s Data Guru’s Second Act At Salesforce
[Image: Flickr user Clive Darra]

Last month, Salesforce did something they’re known for: They bought a company. But RelateIQ, which fetched the tidy sum of $390 million, is no normal acquisition.

RelateIQ’s core product uses machine learning techniques to automatically scrape and extrapolate information from customers’ calendars, address books, phone activity, and inboxes in real time. By purchasing RelateIQ, Salesforce didn’t just purchase a powerful commerce tool: They also acquired a potential future rival.

Last year, RelateIQ hired DJ Patil, one of the world’s best known data scientists, as their vice president of product. At his prior life at LinkedIn, he served as the company’s chief data scientist, head of analytics, and even chief security officer. Patil played a prominent role at high-profile failed startup Color Labs, and his resume even includes stints as a strategic advisor for the Defense Department and the Department of Energy. Along with Cloudera’s Jeff Hammerbacher, Patil even coined the popular job title “data scientist.” RelateIQ CEO Steve Loughlin is working with Patil on one of data science’s holy commercial grails: Turning the anarchy of the email inbox and the telephone call log into a revenue-generating product for enterprise customers.

Fast Company spoke with Patil earlier this year, prior to the Salesforce acquisition. Patil told us that “We’re focused on the whole idea of how you manage relationships as being fundamentally broken. How do you manage a relationship when someone emails you, how long has it been since they last emailed you? We’re building a relationship management tool, with the whole idea of building intelligence around relationships and, of course, the data science that goes into it.” In real-life terms, this means RelateIQ is trying to drastically cut data entry time by automatically filling forms and records with automatically populated information–which clients are charged a steep fee for the service of.

RelateIQ, for its part, seems to be on track to change how large, messy data sets like inboxes are used inside of traditional companies. VentureBeat reports that Salesforce is believed to be building a new research department around RelateIQ that would fulfill a role similar to that of Google X within Google. The company’s current core product is similar to an expanded version of LinkedIn and Google’s social analysis tools; among other things, they identify “warm connections” within a user’s extended social network to cold call/email, automatically ping users concerning unanswered emails from important contacts, and automatically transcribe every interaction with a customer.

Patil feels a big part of the current demand for data scientists is because more organizations realize their value and how they can transform businesses. “People became interested because of the 2012 Obama campaign, with Nate Silver taking on Karl Rove and even the rise of fantasy sports leagues. Then, tertiary, is the quantified-self movement. People are less intimidated by working with numbers or algorithms when it’s involved with their daily life or sports. Look at Mint.com, people thought math was a horrible thing but now they see data on how they’re spending or saving. Just look at LinkedIn’s profiles or Klout–they’re all analytics.”

Although the RelateIQ acquisition isn’t one of the largest, money-wise, in Salesforce’s history, the purchase augments Salesforce’s data science arsenal and means competitors like Oracle will have to bulk up their own staff of data scientists working on relationship-management projects. If RelateIQ fulfills its promises of stopping team members from accidentally emailing the same queries to clients or customers, or allows salespeople to decipher the corporate hierarchies of their potential contacts through algorithms, there could be some lasting changes to the world of sales.


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