This Tech Guru Used Artificial Intelligence to Make Shopping More Human

Christian Selchau-Hansen turned buying stuff into a game.

A 20-year tech veteran, Christian Selchau-Hansen started his career doing data-driven work at companies like Square and Zynga. Eventually, he wanted to see how data could be used to improve the most human aspect of business — the customer relationship. That’s exactly what he’s doing as the CEO and co-founder of Formation, an enterprise software company that optimizes the customer journey through personalized marketing experiences. Formation counts Starbucks as both a client and investor and has raised $30 million in funding, according to CrunchBase. It was also named one of the 50 most sought-after startups in the U.S. by LinkedIn. 

Each week, GOBankingRates sets out to discover what makes the people behind top companies tick. We like to call this series “Best in Business” — and Selchau-Hansen really is one of the best. He told us why it’s important to not get caught up in the short term, his three-pronged approach to success and ways that you can find (or build) your own dream job, too. Below, find our favorite moments from the story of how Selchau-Hansen launched his business.

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His Company Vision Came to Life With a Cup of Coffee

Our origins trace back to my time as an entrepreneur-in-residence at BCG Digital Ventures. I was there after stints at Square and Zynga, and [was] interested in developing some machine learning-enabled concepts. Early on, I met one of my co-founders. We envisioned a world where customer experiences and offers were personal, relevant and helpful — effectively, good for both the customer and the brand. We also saw a gap in the market, and so began working on a concept for an AI platform that could leverage data to truly engage the customer and deliver on our vision. Shortly thereafter, lightning struck.

That lightning came in the form of a delicious cup of coffee. We had the opportunity to pitch our idea to one of the world’s largest restaurant brands. It was an awesome meeting. Their aspirations for their customer relationship matched many elements of our vision. With our concept and vision validated, we set out to develop the concept further, and quickly test whether or not it would drive the kind of impact we believed it would.

Delivering highly engaging, individual experiences at enterprise scale is really complicated. Customers are not static creatures — they’re always in a state of flux. Machine learning seemed particularly suited to the challenge, being able to both conduct the deep analysis needed to surface customer motivations and adapt as the customer changes and grows. And that really was the genesis of Formation and our mission — to use artificial intelligence to build and deepen customer relationships.

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He Figured Out How To Use Games To Engage Customers

Working in mobile gaming was a crash course in customer engagement. After all, that’s what the gaming industry is ultimately selling — engaging customer experiences. Engaging games must be challenging without being frustrating; they must be tailored to the player’s abilities; they must be fun. Formation’s experiences reflect those lessons. Our intelligent multistep offers are specifically calibrated to the individual customer, with the right level of challenge and incentive. And by employing these lessons, our marketing experiences have a level of repeat engagement that’s on par with the best customer experiences.

There’s a trap that data-driven companies can fall into, where they focus on the short term, where data is more accurate and more granular, over the long term, where data is often less certain and less precise. That was definitely something we wanted to avoid — and for that matter, want to help our clients avoid. Data remains central to our decision-making, but we want to be sure we’re always broadening our investigative horizon and putting equal emphasis on our short- and long-term needs.

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He’s a Team Player

Recruiting top talent is important for any startup, but the technical sophistication of our product gave our recruiting efforts an extra layer of complexity. We really needed to attract the best and the brightest in cutting-edge, in-demand specialties across engineering and machine learning. Initially, this seemed daunting. But as we started to tell our story, we found that people want to be challenged, to have an impact, to have fun.

My greatest support has come from my teammates — the people who show up every day with a passion to tackle big questions and work out the fine details. One of our core values is, “The most meaningful outcomes are made through teamwork and accountability.” 

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He Has a 3-Dimensional Definition of Success

There was always a fear that the success we had with our first client was a flash in the pan, but when we began to run programs for our second client, a Fortune 100 transportation company, we knew we were onto something. Here, we were dealing with a completely different kind of business — bigger tickets, less frequent purchases. Indeed, the only thing it had in common with our first client was the enormous size of its operation. And when we began to see the same incredible — almost unbelievable — results start to come in, we knew we had something powerful on our hands.

For me, success is defined across three dimensions. The first dimension is our customer: Are we having a transformative impact on our customers? Are we delivering unprecedented results that have a meaningful impact on their bottom line? Second is our team: Are our people excited to come to work each day? Are they motivated to do the best work of their lives? Third, our company: Are we pushing the boundaries of the possible? Are we challenging the status quo? If we check all three boxes, I think we’re a success.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.