WMNinTECH: From Academia to Google: Narjès Boufaden of Keatext on Building a Text Analytics Startup

For Narjès Boufaden, creating Keatext, her cloud-based AI-powered text analytics platform, was relatively easy.

But everything else, including completing FounderFuel, pitching at Google Demo Day in San Francisco, receiving money from Anges Quebec and two big US funds and going from 25 users in 10 companies in 2017 to 125 users in 30 companies a year later – the type of growth that Angels like to see – was new to her.

After a Master’s Degree and PhD in computational linguistics, two post docs and a couple years at the Computer Research Institute of Montreal (CRIM) focused on understanding natural language mathematically, Boufaden was confident in the product she could offer.

Keatext, now a SaaS solution, compiles and synthesizes huge amounts of data from surveys, online customer reviews, customer service chat sessions and social media interactions and funnels it into a custom dashboard. Clients get immediate feedback and see how that feedback changes over time as they adapt to the insights.

Boufaden credits CRIM with easing her transition into entrepreneurship. She’d worked with businesses there, applying her knowledge “to solve very specific problems in information management,” she said in an interview with MTLinTech. She left the research institute with her first client in 2010: the Government of Quebec.

She also credits Jean-Marc Rousseau (of GIRO and now CIRANO) with helping her gather a board of potential investors and find her co-founder and CTO Charles-Olivier Simard, who came onboard in 2015. That same year, they raised a pre-seed round and launched the AI-powered cloud-based version of Keatext.

“In addition to her high scientific skill, Narjès has extremely good business reflexes on top of natural leadership,” said Rousseau. “She is determined and passionate. These qualities are essential to launch a successful technology business.”

But at that point, Boufaden decided she’d need more than technical skills to grow her company. “Selling a product is different and I felt like FounderFuel would be a good way for me to learn about marketing, content, leadership, sales, while having the opportunity to connect with new investors,” she said.

As the company was already operational and had 12 employees depending on her and Simard, however, they found themselves stretched thin. “We were spending half time at FounderFuel and the other half back in the office, Charles and I, for months. I was exhausted. It’s a hard life. My weeks were mostly 80 hours,” she said.

FounderFuel was worth it, though, adds Boufaden. “Having a better understanding of how investors look at a startup, the key metrics – some KPIs are obvious of course, like revenue – but it’s more than that: the way you pitch, the confidence when you pitch. Seeing the impact of someone knowing where she’s heading, the confidence you can show when you’re pitching, how to develop your investors deck, and how to spend time as a CEO.”

The newfound skills came in handy in San Francisco where she was invited to Google Demo Day as one of the only Canadian teams. “We came back with an investor, that was the very actionable outcome, but the interesting thing is that we were advertised a lot. We were already on the local radar and now it was on the radar of the States, snow I have a lot of investors from the States who are unsolicited. They’re really interested to know about Keatext and they look at the website and contact me by email.”

That’s led to clients all over the world. It also led to last year’s exponential growth, which was “based on partnerships with current clients who were happy with the service and suggested it to their own clients, as well as by the growth of those companies themselves,” said Boufaden. The more her software helped, the more the companies grew and the more subscriptions she sold.

The growth necessitated introducing more multilingual processing to improve her software. Keatext can now analyze English, French, Spanish and Arabic text and has the infrastructure to support more than 100 different languages. “Whenever you have a customer that’s willing to share the data, we can develop in eight or nine weeks that capability,” she said.

As a company whose software often analyzes Voice of the Employee, Boufaden is uniquely aware of the importance of employee satisfaction. But adding employees has become one of the biggest challenges. “Whenever your team gets bigger, you need to make sure everybody’s aligned and understands the corporate objectives and have all they need to achieve their objectives.”

The other initial challenge was marketing. “I didn’t necessarily see the importance of marketing right away,” said Boufaden. “Hiring two people in the sales team would have been a good thing, because two people having different interpretations of the market, bringing more feedback from customers and prospective customers, I think that would be very helpful in terms of having a better understanding of the value perceived.”

The next step for Keatext, she said, is raising a Series A and hiring a CRO. “Our founders are mostly technical people.”

Has entrepreneurship been everything Boufaden dreamed of? “I knew I wanted to have a big company,” she said. “What I didn’t know was how successful I could be. So I’m already very happy that I have these 23 people on board and these customers who see the value, so I’m taking all the wins very modestly, without screaming victory.”

Photo credit: © Keatext


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