The biggest firm you've never heard of: Meet Yext's Howard Lerman

 
Elliott Haworth
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Howard Lerman

Searching for Yext chief executive Howard Lerman’s hotel, I grew rather lost.

It turns out the Renaissance Hotel adjoined to St Pancras looks an awful lot like one might expect a renaissance hotel to look. Jagged spires upon a red brick facade – an ode to the Victorian gothic revival; a continuation of the grandeur and tradition of London at the height of the industrial revolution. And inside sits Lerman, chilling in a dim corner, nonchalant, wearing shorts and a vest.

Yext is one of five businesses Lerman has founded since “barely graduating” from Duke University, three of which he successfully exited, two of which remain; the aforementioned Yext, and Confide, an untraceable business communications app. He’s an All American Entrepreneur, clearly very bright, self-aware and earnest. His piercing eyes look through you with fixed gaze, apart from in moments when he pauses to think. He looks down when I ask him where his business drive comes from, pauses, then returns to his fixed gaze.

Glamour

“It has become glamorised to become an entrepreneur,” he says, with an East Coast accent I can’t quite pinpoint. “It has become sexy to be an entrepreneur. People move to Silicon Valley in hopes of chasing extreme wealth, they make insane statements. I’m the kind of person who would have been an entrepreneur 500 years ago. That is, I would have tried to build the shipping company, or tried to build the sugar trading company. And so while there’s no magic formula to success, the point is that the glamour behind it is the wrong reason to enter it. I start things simply because I see an opportunity.”

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Why not Silicon Valley? "I'm East coast man!" (Source: Getty)

His latest opportunity is the pivot Yext has taken from a pay-per-call lead generation business into creating a SAS platform, the Knowledge Engine. “I started Yext because the world is witnessing a platform shift. We’re moving from mobile to intelligence, and artificial intelligence, and every one of these intelligence services you see is going to need knowledge to provide answers”.

I agree that we’re witnessing the end of the mobile era and the start of the AI era, but ask Lerman where Yext fits into this shift. “Yo”, he says. “Remember when you would search for things before, you’d get 10 blue links back on a page? You’d click the one you want, and you’d end up on a website. That’s how search used to work. But today’s services give you a structured direct answer.”

He picks his phone up off the table:

“Siri, where’s the nearest Tesco?”

Siri replies: “OK here’s what I’ve found.”

“She just tells you the answer directly. Now the question is, how does Siri know where the nearest Tesco is? The answer is Yext.”

Knowledge is power

Yext is a SAS system that businesses can use to make sense of the plethora of information available about them on the internet. So for example, when one searches for something (Lerman uses the example of a Jaguar F-type), crawler bots will scour the web for information from the official website, from dealers, from Wikipedia and other third party sources, and present it in what is known as a Knowledge Card.

You’ll have seen one, just search for anything. With a car, for example, it will present you with costs, dimensions, location.

What Yext’s Knowledge Engine does is give businesses control over what appears on said card. “Intelligent services are hungry for knowledge. The challenge is that the way that these services, Knowledge Cards, and maps are compiled, is from web-crawling, from user generated content, from third party lists. They pull it all together and their algorithms decide what to show you. At Yext our founding principle is that we believe a business is the ultimate authority in their own knowledge. And today they express that authority, that knowledge, on their own website, on jaguar.com, on tesco.com”.

We believe a business is the ultimate authority in their own knowledge

He says that presently, that knowledge, in the form of data, sits on a firm’s website in an unstructured way. “Like, if this restaurant we’re in right now were to put its menu on its website it would probably be a PDF. They’d take a picture of this menu or they’d put the text on the website. But it’s very challenging for a crawler to find that. What the Knowledge Engine does is let our customers structure all their digital knowledge in a way that the menu is predefined natively in the cloud and syncs it proactively into all these intelligence services,

“So if this place added a full English breakfast to their menu, or changed the price of it, they would simply add that using our software. So the next time you ask Siri how much a full English at the Renaissance Hotel costs, she’d be able to tell you.”

Floating around

Yext recently floated on the New York Stock Exchange, which Lerman believes (and I can’t find evidence otherwise) is the earliest software company to go public, headquartered in New York City.

“Look, Yext will be the last company I ever start. It’s a little bit of a forward looking statement but we’re building a really really big company. We believe structuring the knowledge of the world’s businesses is a huge idea. And it’s an important idea. You’re going to notice this now, because in every query you run, you’re going to see all these structured answers. Even Uber for example. When you go to book a car, you know the little pins showing where the business is? We help our customers set those within the app and communicate that to Uber.”

I suggest Yext is the biggest company the public have never heard of.

“We’re in the background all the time, and one of the reasons we went public is so that people would hear of us, and we would have total transparency in everything we do.”

New York, New York

I ask him why he chose New York, rather than the sunny Palo Alto, but I already know the answer: “I’m from the East Coast man. I grew up there, I had the fortunate luxury of going to one of the top high schools in the United States, called Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Washington DC. It’s this really techy high school, you have to take a math test to get in. It had a million dollar supercomputer, it was an extraordinary school, public as well.”

Graduating in 1998, Lerman experienced the dotcom boom and bust, and gradual transmogrification of the internet over the last two decades. In the era of fake news, filter bubbles and online radicalisation, what does he think of the state of the internet?

“I have a lot of trouble with user generated content personally. I don’t know about you, but I deleted Twitter from my phone. I woke up one morning and it was filled with hate on all sides of the equation. I took a look at this, and I thought ‘I don’t need to hear this chorus of hate’.”


User generated content isn't (Source: Getty)

Like a true businessman, Lerman pivots my original question with an answer about Yext’s Knowledge Engine function. “Yo,” he says again, “when you look at the stacks of content that make up the internet you have third party aggregated content, and things that come from a trusted source, like City A.M. for example”.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he chuckles. “When there’s a byline involved, from a URL that has an authority, I think that’s a good thing. Another source of authority about things is a company’s own website. When they say a store is open at a certain time, I believe them because they’re the ones that have the incentive to get it right, as being the source of truth for that particular type of content.”

Artificial intelligence

We get talking about artifical intelligence as a fundamental component of the new economy. “I think it’s incredibly important. I’m sure that you saw how Facebook was hacking around to see if bots could negotiate things. The bots developed their own language that humans couldn’t understand, to moderate transactions. That’s the reality that we live in today. When you look at technology shifts, they tend to happen more subtly than people realise and then boom! They’re here. In terms of AI, the UK is in the middle of this – I mean Deepmind, that now is a core part of Google, and arguably the world leader.”

I suggest that public discourse often focuses on the consequences fifty years from now, rather than the present.

“It’s already here, today,” he says. “It’s subtle. The Knowledge Card is a perfect example of that. It used to be ten blue links and now you get answers. How did Google know to show me all these facts about where I am and what I’m doing? It’s all AI. It’s Yext.”

Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.

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