The office environment at Stickboy Creative, like a lot of tech firms, fosters collaboration and creativity. Employees gather in an open space where they kick around the ideas and strategies that have propelled the once-tiny startup to a go-to firm for businesses near and far that are looking for solutions such as custom software, mobile apps and data analytics.
But it’s the company’s latest effort to enter the world of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) that is quickly transforming the firm and boosting it to a loftier sphere.
With Stickboy’s newer venture, Vectra Digital, data-driven marketing services fueled by AI are now available to clients. And as customers have taken notice, so have additional partners.
“We’ve started implementing AI in everything that we do in small bits here and there,” says Stickboy founder Reema Bhatia (pictured left). “AI is not just Siri or Alexa, and it’s not just science fiction. AI can be a lot of different things. And we’re just getting started.”
READY FOR LIFTOFF
Bhatia’s journey into tech entrepreneurship began 11 years ago, when she left a steady job at a local TV station and set up shop in a home office, investing $1,200 to buy a computer and nurturing her dream to introduce emerging technologies to Southwest Florida, hardly a hotbed for such things.
But this was part of the gamble. Bhatia wanted to persuade locals that they did not have to look west for the kinds of services and skills she intended to offer.
“One of the challenges has definitely been that people think they need to go to Silicon Valley to get the kind of talent that is actually available in their backyard,” says Bhatia, who earned an M.S. in digital imaging and design from New York University in 2006. “People don’t realize that they don’t have to go outside the area to get it.”
When the enterprising Bhatia and her team delved into AI (the ability for computer systems to learn from experience and perform human-like functions with greater speed and efficiency), Bhatia went back to school, completing a business analytics and big data program at Harvard Business School.
“I brought back a lot of knowledge and strategy on how to implement things,” she says. “Most people reading this will think AI is cool, but they don’t see the need for it. We were already doing big data and large custom software.”
Her job now: To show clients how AI will take their businesses even further.
DIGITAL MARKETING DONE BETTER
Stickboy and Vectra are housed in 3,000 square feet of space in a building the company owns. Visitors to the office see a vibrant purple wall when they first walk in, which features a graphic display highlighting the business’s defining values, words like honesty, vision and passion. But it’s not all serious stuff—there are also playful pillows on the couch emblazoned with the images of Bhatia and her husband, Matt Bernhardt (pictured right), who joined the company as CEO in 2009. “We like to think they are part of our company culture,” says Meredith Darnell, the company’s marketing specialist/content strategist, of the slightly silly sofa accessories that were ordered on Etsy. “This way, Matt and Reema are always at the office.”
With cell phone and laptop in hand to help her juggle her various projects and client meetings, Bhatia leads a team of 12, some of whom work onsite at the company’s office space and some who work remotely. They get excited when talking about new ideas, including AI. Perhaps none is as enthusiastic as Bhatia, who describes her ventures with cheerful knowledge, confidence—and passion. “AI is just a layer that we add on top of the big data analyses we were already doing. It just offers more insight and automates at a higher level for our clients.”
When Bhatia launched Stickboy, she had focused on 3-D graphics for TV use. But she and Bernhardt moved the firm into creating innovative technology-driven solutions for clients such as custom software and apps. In recent years, they began hearing clients ask for something else: data-driven marketing services.
To provide those, Vectra Digital was launched in January 2017. As part of their evolving approach to marketing, the team has developed a proprietary AI-based software platform called “Ada.” Currently, in beta testing with several clients, Ada manages and analyzes digital marketing campaigns and even generates its own creative content. Using data it’s been fed and has acquired, Ada tests different digital ads against each other to determine what works best, then breeds the highest-performing pieces of the “losing” ads to generate new creative possibilities.
“She can write her own ads right now,” says Harrison Ambs (pictured left), the chief digital officer for both Stickboy and Vectra, who calls Ada his “third daughter.” “It’s pretty spectacular.”
Ada does everything that people already do—but a lot faster and more effectively. “Where people are best is not going through reams of data to find out where the budget spend should be,” says Ambs. “Ada compiles all the data and then comes to us and says, ‘This works, this doesn’t.’ Then the next step is for her to say, ‘Well, if this is what works, then I’m going to create the stuff.’”
Using Ada to crunch the numbers and build on that information both improves companies’ marketing efforts and lets Vectra employees focus on creative and strategic thinking, areas where humans still excel over computers. “So our clients see massive ROI [return on investment] growth,” says Ambs. “Because we know how to run an effective campaign online, and now we’re able to build a tool that will do it faster than a person can and free that person up to think about how can I make this work better.”
Ada’s already produced some big results for some major companies and will get rolled out to more clients over time. “Ada is going to hopefully put Vectra on the map and help our clients immensely,” says Ambs.
Craig Roth, research vice president, technology and service providers for Gartner, says having a clear focus and strategic messaging is important for AI vendors and service providers like Vectra. “AI is such a gold rush at the moment that it’s a very noisy field,” he says. “It can be hard to differentiate the real AI products from the ones just trying to take advantage of the term. It really helps to be specific about what you’re doing. If you can be specific enough to explain what you’re doing, what kind of AI it is, and why it would be better than what anyone else has, it helps you stand apart from the pack.”
With offerings like Ada, Stickboy Creative and Vectra Digital are positioning themselves at the forefront of the growth of AI. The percentage of companies planning to use AI is expected to double, from 15 percent to 31 percent, over the next 12 months, predicted Adobe and the digital firm Econsultancy in their 2018 Digital Trends report. Another report, BrightEdge’s 2018 Future of Marketing and AI Survey, found that 60 percent of respondents were “very” or “somewhat” likely to use AI to develop their content marketing strategy this year, and almost 14 percent said AI capabilities were a “must have” for their marketing technology providers.
“If you don’t have a good engine to start with, AI is going to do nothing for you,” says Bhatia. “We need to build a foundation first, and then AI is the extra thing that makes your company go even faster and gets you the additional competitive edge that you need.”
The company has positioned itself for the AI boom in other ways, too, from impressive financial growth to equally impressive industry exposure.
Year over year, Stickboy Creative has generally seen 30 percent to 40 percent revenue growth. This year, Vectra Digital is on track for 100 percent revenue growth. “We’re starting to catch people’s eye more,” says Bhatia.
Although Vectra and Stickboy tend to serve different audiences (franchises and large companies vs. growth-stage firms), many clients are either repeat customers or referrals from firms that have worked with the company in the past.
“We still work with customers that we’ve worked with since the beginning,” says Bhatia. “That is why we’ve grown a lot. And because of the trust that our clients have in us. It’s so important to be able to trust the people that you work with. Usually, when people come to us they know someone we’ve already done work for. It is very rare that we come across any kind of competition.”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
In 2017, Stickboy Creative was invited to join the Forbes Technology Council, an invitation-only organization made up of senior-level technology executives. It was also named to GrowFL’s Florida Companies to Watch list. Recognition like that is important for both the company and Southwest Florida in general. “I think what everyone wants is to bring more of a spotlight to this area so we can get more technology professionals,” says Bhatia.
Stickboy Creative plays its own part in strengthening the local tech scene. This past August, it announced that it had made an equity investment in T3 Communications, a Fort Myers–based telecommunications firm that offers services like cloud-based hosted PBX and broadband and metro ethernet.
“We see this as one of the best strategic partnerships for our companies,” said Bernhardt when the partnership was announced. “Bringing telecommunication and software services under a common umbrella benefits all our clients.”
Stickboy Creative also recently became the official technology subject expert for Tamiami Angel Funds, a Naples-based family of angel funds currently on its third investment round. Stickboy Creative advises the fund’s participants during the due-diligence phase of tech-related ventures.
“It’s great when you can turn to local source like Stickboy Creative and ask them to give us their technical assessment of a company,” says Timothy J. Cartwright, chairman of Tamiami Angel Funds. “You can do due diligence remotely; we could have someone from Chicago do it. But it’s nice to have it face-to-face and nice to have it local. And Stickboy has an industrywide reputation; they are leaders in what they do.”
This arrangement provides exposure and validation for Stickboy. “I think they have incredible potential,” says Cartwright. “They’re in the sweet spot of a megatrend, and Reema is right there on the forefront of AI, enterprise software, and cloud computing.”
Stickboy has also recently partnered with local entrepreneur Felix Lluberes (pictured right), who founded location-based software company Position Logic, which merged with RacoWireless and then was acquired by KORE. Lluberes and Bhatia first connected about three years ago and stayed in touch. Lluberes was always interested in working with her in some way, but the timing wasn’t right until now.
He’s entered into what he calls an “intellectual capital” partnership with Stickboy, but he says further investment is a possibility, as the official partnership is still being hashed out. Lluberes brings his experience in business development and scaling at a global level to a team that he considers one of the company’s greatest assets.
“They’re forward-thinkers, very reliable, and have been working together for so many years now that they’ve built a very cohesive business unit,” says Lluberes. “They approach issues or challenges with a common mind and very quickly come up with solutions. And they’re very positive and passionate and energetic about what they’re doing.”
He sees huge growth potential for both Stickboy and Vectra. “Innovation is going to be critical for us to continue to forge ahead and please our customers,” he says. “Large companies with huge budgets are pouring money into AI. I think we’ve found a specific area where our proprietary technology is very effective. As we increase our business development efforts and continue to expand our team, we’re going to gain a tremendous amount of traction.”