Dubai-Based Twistar's IoT Device Offers Consumer Insights At Your Fingertips
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Remember the days when you were handed a piece of questionnaire at restaurants requesting you to rate your dining experience, or offer insights that could help improve service standards? At a time when we can’t hear enough of the “data is the new oil” maxim, customer feedback (be it in any industry) is undoubtedly growing in importance, but the touch points for engaging with consumers have seen a complete overhaul. Thanks to contemporary digital technologies, there are now various means for businesses to really understand their customers, and tech-savvy upstarts working in this market are heralding the change.
Nick Marshall, founder and CEO of the Dubai-based Twistar, a startup developing a smart customer feedback device, believes that even with user experience being a supreme goal for most businesses today, there’s still an “enormous disconnect” in understanding the customer. “80% of businesses believe that they are delivering great customer experiences, and yet only 8% of customers feel that their experiences are just that,” he says. The entrepreneur also feels that “[most] businesses have almost no understanding of who their customers are or what they feel,” and this is why he decided to leverage on new age tech such as IoT and machine learning to develop Twistar- a sleek, futuristic device that helps enterprises create “a deeper and more meaningful connection with their customers.”
Designed to work both as a product and a service, the connected device acts as a digital touch point helping businesses –be it restaurants, airport lounges, classrooms, hotels, waiting rooms, or public transport- ask important questions of their users to derive valuable insights. Customers can access surveys and campaigns via a sleek circular high-resolution screen with protective Gorilla glass 3, while on the client-side, the service portion of Twistar includes a business intelligence dashboard that helps enterprises “build, launch and analyze detailed surveys and user data in real-time.”
Launched in May 2017, and having filed patents for the technology in the US and Europe, Twistar’s development is characterized by what Marshall calls “moving parts,” with its team spread across Dubai, London, Shenzhen, Delhi and San Francisco, thereby supporting their resale partners across six continents. Despite this sweeping operational structure, Twistar has managed to meet its targets smoothly with the founder noting that they have moved “from idea, to concept, to MVP, to product and now pilots,” in the last 18-24 months. “We work with international resale partners who specialize in customer feedback and customer experience management solutions for clients like Marriott International,” he says.
“We are able to offer a new and unique solution to position with their own clients, and easily integrate our data feeds into their existing and client’s platforms.” Having succeeded in wooing their initial partners, Twistar also went on to sign more than 40 collaboration agreements over a threemonth period, adds Marshall. “Since then we have worked with these partners to understand where, when, and how we can make Twistar work best for them; whether their focus is hospitality, education, public services, transportation, healthcare, etc.” Not just that, the founder’s own track record of having established and scaled startups across Europe and Asia, and experience as a technology consultant over the past decade lends Twistar a boost in achieving its development goals.
And as an entrepreneur hustling away with his hardware startup, Marshall also seems to have figured out the key ingredient needed to scale such ventures- the importance of testing the prototype in a real-world setting, through pilot projects. For Twistar, this opportunity presented itself in the form of Marriott Hotels’ TestBED accelerator, an initiative by the global hospitality giant to find cutting edge technologies that can transform guest experiences. The Middle East edition of the 10-week program gave selected startups an invaluable opportunity to test their products within a Marriott property in the region. In November 2017, out of almost 200 submissions received, six startups were shortlisted, and three out of these emerged as finalists, which included Twistar from Dubai. According to the program, Twistar’s proposition of “analyzing guest’s actions and voice for real-time insights, and using beautifully- animated and uniquely designed customer surveys,” played a role in making the cut. “The Marriott TestBED accelerator was an excellent experience and came at a great time for Twistar,” Marshall remembers. “We were able integrate learning from Marriott International to restructure our product, service and communications strategy.”
Most importantly, he adds that the pilot with Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel & Suites, done as part of the program, also helped them refine their product to suit a large-scale commercial entity. “We learnt quickly that a ‘one size fits all’ solution was never going to work, and that the individual hotel had immediate challenges,” he says. “We listened, and rebuilt the device and the Twistar app, to better align with hotel difficulties. We definitely consider TestBED a success [for us] as Marriott is continuing to work with Twistar beyond their program completion.” Despite the association with the hospitality major, Marshall points out that customer service is not a virtue restricted to the sector, and Twistar is equally suited to any business that values user experience.
However, he explains that, as the name suggests, customer experience is of utmost significance in the world of hospitality, and as the industry goes through a transition, many new challenges have emergedbe it online bookings, Airbnb, or millennial consumer behaviors. “New technologies, and specifically IoT, offer an amazing opportunity for the hospitality and tourism sectors to better understand who their customers are, and to provide resulting products and services that are capable of exceeding expectations,” he says. And with its advanced specs such as an augmented AI-voice core, and being powered by IBM Watson, Marshall believes “Twistar is wellequipped to identify and understand user sentiment on an unparalleled level.”
Marshall’s confidence in his product is admirable, and is also perhaps a key trait every entrepreneur working on such technical products needs. It is this certainty that helps drive development, and helps get products off the drawing board. “With Twistar, we have been through a lot of 3D prototyping, testing and trials to receive as much client and partner feedback as possible, to align our product to their objectives,” Marshall says. Though selffunded for the first 12-18 months, Twistar also closed a pre-seed funding round (an oversubscribed round) of US$230,000 against a convertible note from undisclosed American and European angel investors in October 2017, which helped them fast track product development. “Since this time, we have won a number awards including the 2017 Dubai Tourism Future Stars award for best startup in hospitality services, and currently we are preparing for a seed funding round in mid-2018,” says the entrepreneur.
The Twistar device
Though fairly new to the region’s business scene, Marshall is no stranger to the region’s ecosystem, and that reflects in his views, as well. “The MENA startup investment landscape is still very young, and while there are some excellent VCs offering incredible support, they are small in number, and due to this, they hold a disproportionate amount of power and influence,” he says. “Until the MENA angel investor community becomes more mature and comfortable with the ‘risk-return’ associated with startups, earlystage fundraising in the region is going to continue to be difficult.” When asked to share his top tips for other aspiring entrepreneurs in the region, Marshall says, “Talk less so you can listen more, search out partnerships with like-minded companies and individuals, and the harder you work, the luckier you get.” Marshall practices what he preaches- which may explain why we think he’s on the right track with Twistar. Here’s to the future!