Business

New CEO wants to push one of Durham’s most successful startups to the next level

Marc Zionts, who has led seven tech companies, is the new CEO of Durham-based Automated Insights.
Marc Zionts, who has led seven tech companies, is the new CEO of Durham-based Automated Insights. Courtesy of Automated Insights

Marc Zionts is a very active man. He’s run seven technology companies since the 1990s, competes in extreme cycling races often and commutes from Chicago to locales across the country for work. He talks quickly and says he likes to pour himself into his work.

Now he’s bringing that energy to Durham as the new chief executive officer of the technology company Automated Insights.

Durham-based Automated Insights (Ai) is an artificial intelligence company that uses algorithms to create written reports for clients from data rather than using humans to write them. Its flagship platform, Wordsmith, can automate 2,000 stories per second and has been used by outlets such as the Associated Press and Yahoo Inc. to create sports game recaps and financial stories.

Founded in 2007, Ai has been one of the city’s most successful technology startups. In 2015, the private equity firm Vista Equity Partners acquired the company for a reported $80 million, after Ai raised $10.8 million from venture-capital investors such as AOL founder Steve Case and Durham’s IDEA Fund Partners.

Zionts comes to the company after its founder and former CEO Robbie Allen announced earlier this year he was leaving the company to pursue a doctorate in computer sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill. Allen remains the chairman of the company.

Zionts, who plans to move full time to Durham by the end of the year, has led companies across the U.S. The Georgia Tech alum was most recently the CEO of the Atlanta-based company Numerex.

“I have previously run seven companies,” Zionts said, noting six of those companies have either been sold to other firms or went public.

“I have started some or taken some over in process — and, in many cases like this, I’ve had a situation where the founder is going back to school or wanting to do something else, but they are staying involved in the board.”

While Zionts now leads the company, he refers to Allen as the spiritual leader of the company and praises the culture he left behind.

“I have a wonderful situation where when I walk into the door there is nothing broken here,” he said. “I wasn’t brought here because something isn’t working.”

The next level

Zionts said his goal is to scale the company to the next level. While the company doesn’t reveal revenue numbers, he said 2016 was a record year for revenues, albeit it from a small base.

He plans to accelerate Ai’s revenue growth by beefing up its sales and marketing division. In the two years since the company was acquired, it has grown from around 30 employees to 55, a number that could that soon expand further.

“When you pioneer a new technology, you spend a lot of the early cycles in sales and marketing not doing what I call sales and marketing — you are doing much more education,” he said. “(O)nce people understand how it can add value to your business, the sales cycle shortens.”

The growth in headcount going forward could take place away from Durham. So far the company has always operated under one roof, but it could choose to put sales and marketing representatives where its clients are. “If our clients are in California, then it makes sense to have someone work there,” he said.

Automation

Ai – its name shorthand for artificial intelligence – is one of many technology companies that have gained notoriety in recent years for creating products that replace human work with robots or algorithms.

Zionts is aware automation has gotten a negative rap, but in the long run, he says it will be critical for increasing productivity.

“When people talk about automation in the negative, I think it’s easier to embrace that from a populist side of the discussion as a threat,” he said. “But the fact is whether we think we are in a market unto ourselves or we are in world market, the world has embraced productivity gains through technology. That is just the reality and the ship has sailed.”

He added that individuals and companies that don’t implement artificial intelligence into their daily routines risk losing competitiveness.

“I don’t view it that anybody will lose their job because of what we do,” Zionts, whose daughter is a journalist in Arizona, said about Wordsmith. “I believe that what we will do is make everyone more productive. Maybe we slow down new jobs, but we make jobs more productive and meaningful.”

Chris Roush, a business journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, agreed with that assessment. The A.P. publishes more than 3,000 earnings stories every quarter using the software, and the number of reporters on its business desk remained the same.

“What Automated Insights has allowed the A.P. to do is give its business reporters more time to focus on deeper, more analytical stories instead of spending time writing earnings stories, which AI’s software can do,” he said in an email.

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes

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