Swag has a long and patchy history in the world of business. For every hip pair of plaid socks, there are five t-shirts you may never wear, an itchy scarf, a notepad your kids might use, and an ugly mug; and most of all, likely thousands of dollars and lots of time invested to make those presents a reality. Now, a startup that has built a service to rethink the concept behind corporate gifts and make them more effective is today announcing a round of funding to continue expanding its business -- and one sign that it may be on to something is its progress so far.
Alyce, a Boston startup that has built an AI platform that plugs into various other apps that you might use to interact and track your relationships with others in your working life -- sales prospects, business partners, colleagues -- and then uses the information to personalise gift recommendations for those people, has raised $30 million, a Series B that it will be using to continue building out its platform, signing up more users, and hiring more people for its team.
This round is being led by General Catalyst, with Boston Seed Capital, Golden Ventures, Manifest, Morningside and Victress Captial -- all previous backers -- also participating.
Alyce says that it has grown 300% year-over-year between 2019 and 2020, tackling a corporate gifting and promotional items industry that ASI Market Research estimates is worth around $24.7 billion annually. Its customers today include Adobe's Marketo, G2, Lenovo, Wex, Invision, DialPad, GrubHub, and 6Sense.
As with so many other apps and services that aim at productivity and people management, Alyce notes that this year of working remotely -- which has tested many a relationship and job function, led to massive inbound and outbound digital activity (the screen is where everything gets played out now), and frankly burned a lot of us out -- has given it also a new kind of relevance.
“As everyone was flooded with spam last year unsubscribing soared," Greg Segall, founder and CEO of Alyce, said in a statement. "When a prospect opts out, that’s forever. It’s clear that both brands and customers crave the same thing - a much more purposeful and relatable way to engage."
Alyce's contribution to more quality engagement comes in the form of AI-fueled personalization.
Linking up with the other tools people typically use to track their communications with people -- they include Marketo, Salesforce, Vidyard and Google's email and calendar apps -- the system has been built with algorithms that read details from those apps to construct some details about the preferences and tastes of the intended gift recipient. It then uses that to come up with a list of items that might appeal to that person from a wider list that it has compiled, with some 10,000 items in all. (And yes, these can also include more traditional corporate swag items like those socks or mugs.) Then, instead of sending an actual gift, "Swag Select", as Alyce's service is called, sends a gift code that lets the person redeem with his or her own choice from a personalised, more narrowed-down list of items.
Alyce itself doesn't actually hold or distribute the presents: it connects up with third parties that send these out. (It prices its service based on how much it is used, and how many more tools a user might want to have to personalise and send out gifts.)
Yes, you might argue that a lot of this sounds actually very impersonal -- the gift giver is not directly involved in the selection or sending of a present at all, which instead is "selected" by way of AI. Essentially, this is a variation of the personalization and recommendation technology that has been built to serve ads, suggest products to you on e-commerce sites, and more.
But on the other hand, it's an interesting solution to the problem of trying to figure out what to get someone, which can be a challenge when you really know a person, and even harder when you don't, while at the same time helping to create and fulfill a gesture that, at the end of the day, is about being thoughtful of them, not really the gift itself.
(You could also argue, I think, that since the gift lists are based on a person's observations about the recipient, there is in fact some personal touches here, even if they have been run through an algorithmic mill before getting to you.)
And ultimately, the aim of these gifts is to say "thank you for this work relationship, which I appreciate", or "please buy more printer paper from me" -- not "I'm sorry for being rude to you at dinner last night." Although... if this works as it should, maybe there might well be an opportunity to extending the model to more use cases, for example brands looking for ways to change up their direct mail marketing campaigns, or yes, people who want to patch things up after a spat the night before.
Notably, for General Catalyst, it's interested indeed in the bigger gifting category, pointing to the potential of how this service could be scaled in the future.
“At General Catalyst, we are proud to lead the latest round of funding for Alyce as the company has reimagined the gifting category with technology and impact. The ability to deliver products and experiences that both the giver and recipient feel good about is incredibly powerful,” said Larry Bohn, Managing Director at General Catalyst, in a statement.