Yogesh Kulkarni of Antuit AI: “I gave a Warby Parker example”

I gave a Warby Parker example. As a consumer, it was fantastic. It made everything come alive in terms of being able to actually try on glasses online with my face, and then being able to get the physical delivery at my home, so I could try them out in front of my wife and […]

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I gave a Warby Parker example. As a consumer, it was fantastic. It made everything come alive in terms of being able to actually try on glasses online with my face, and then being able to get the physical delivery at my home, so I could try them out in front of my wife and daughter (and they did not agree). Then, being able to take them back to the store and make the final purchase with my prescription. People call that kind of seamless customer experience harmonized retail. From a customer experience standpoint, it is going to be super important. That’s the hallmark of a good futuristic retailer — as a customer, the experience was completely seamless.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yogesh Kulkarni.

Yogesh Kulkarni is the Co-Chief Executive Officer and Head of the Merchandising and Marketing business unit at antuit.ai.

His core expertise is designing, developing, and implementing price optimization, promotion, and revenue management solutions for retail and consumer brands companies.

Throughout his career, Yogesh has obtained extensive experience in managing large transformational analytical programs for retailers and consumer brands in the areas of merchandising, pricing, inventory management, and marketing.

In 2007, Yogesh co-founded Prognos, a boutique retail and consumer brands focused advanced analytics firm. Prognos served large retail and consumer brands clients such as PepsiCo, MillerCoors, Nike, Adidas, and Sobeys in the areas of price optimization, demand forecasting, and personalization. In 2015, antuit.ai acquired Prognos. Yogesh assumed his current role as Executive Vice President.

Before Prognos, Yogesh held technical and product management positions at SAS Institute and spearheaded the team’s creation of SAS’ Retail industry offerings. Prior to SAS, he served as a co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Octon Technologies, an Internet services company based in India, Germany, and the United States.

Yogesh holds a Bachelor of Engineering in Electronics from Shivaji University.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I think for many people, a career path is a little bit of a discovery, isn’t it? I actually started out as an electronics engineer, which is a very different background than what I do today. I started my first start-up straight out of school. It was in the digital consulting space, and it did quite well. As I was exiting that start-up, I started to get interested in the field of data and analytics. That’s when I took a position with a company called SAS Institute in product management. That solidified my interest in the intersection of math, business, and data. Since then, I’ve been involved with data and analytics through various iterations — first as a product manager at SAS, then as a co-founder and entrepreneur for a company called Prognos, which got acquired by antuit.ai, and now in my role as co-CEO for antuit.ai. So, it’s been a journey. But I think my passion is actually how data, mathematics, and business can work together.

An example would be that a lot of people in business sometimes make very important decisions purely based on their gut feeling, but how can and will data change their outlook and the way they make those decisions? It is something that fascinated me in the field. So, that’s why I connected different parts of my background and interests, and landed where I am.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I have had a long career, so it’s very hard to pick one pivotal moment, but if you go back in time, I think there are several. I would say that, when I was doing my undergrad, one of the things that I was struck with was how liberating being an entrepreneur would be. So, I had seen a lot of people complain about being in corporate jobs, and how restricting it is, and how people can’t implement their own ideas. There was something in there that pushed me to become an entrepreneur out of school.

Something in my education journey that really helped me was that I had a lot of friends who thought like me, and so we got together to build our first start-up. That was a pivotal moment. I would say that building a commercially successful company but not achieving personal financial success, was a second pivotal moment.

I learned a lot from building my first start-up, which was over a hundred people and close to being listed. But we did not make the right choices along the way in terms of investors. It kind of grounded me in the way I should think more holistically about building a successful company. And then, obviously, the journey I talked about which is how much opportunity lies in the world where you can apply AI on the data, to the business problems. That was a pivotal moment in my career at SAS where I understood the power of that. You must take your lumps as an entrepreneur, where you learn from the mistakes. These are the pivotal moments that guided me as I transitioned from being a student to an entrepreneur.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?

There’s a story from when I was in my first start-up when I was in my 20’s. At that point, we had the euphoria of being in the ecommerce space. I was traveling all over the world to be at events, customer sites, overseas offices all the time.

My travel used to be hectic and I would spend a day or two in each city to maximize the time I spent with clients, employees, and prospects. I once landed in Athens, Greece and rushed to a prospective client’s office only to discover that I had gone at the exact time but one day early. The client was accommodating enough to take the meeting a day early and assembled their team. And then, most interestingly, my schedule opened up the next day, and I was able to spend time in Athens and enjoy my day.

Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

I always took pride in keeping mental notes of everything- conversations, schedules, and commitments. I thought I had an outstanding memory, that anyone I speak to or every detail that may be significant or insignificant — I had the capacity to remember. It was my swagger that completely went down the tube with my Athens fiasco. Then after that — if you come to my desk now, you will see scribbled notes all over. I write the names, I write the important parts of the meeting, and I use technology for everything. I’ve learnt to become slightly more organized for sure.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now?

Every day at antuit.ai is a great day for me.

I wake up with a huge amount of enthusiasm and a spring in my step. Because, at antuit.ai, we’re applying AI to some of the most innovative and data intensive problems. When you think of any retailer — like Nike or Adidas — they have found the most profitable price for every product in the store every week. Or take, for instance, Estée Lauder or Walgreens — they have to decide how much product they will carry in the store. Will they carry 6 different shades or flavors or something? How much of each quantity? How do we tell how much demand goes up or down because of fashion trends, influences or disruptions like Covid?

We actually solve these problems day in day out for our customers. We look at their data and how their business runs, and we give them millions and millions of decisions every day. We are the brain behind how a lot of leading retailers and CPGs operate. With the advancement of the internet, and with you, and me, and everyone else changing the way we interact with brands and shop, there’s a world of opportunity out there in terms of new forms of data. There are new opportunities to mine that data, there’s new decision-making that can empower and help those companies.

So, that’s what I’m excited about every day. We sort of take the best and brightest AI technology that is out there today — from the Googles, the Facebooks of the world — and apply those to everyday business challenges for these consumer companies. That is what gets me excited.

How do you think that might help people?

There’s a broader good that we take seriously. Every time we talk about how much product to carry and how to price a product, where to sell it, we think it’s helping broader problems in this world that relate to waste and sustainability.

A lot of retailers are producing stuff that may or may not be consumed or used properly. Take, for example, the work we do for one of the largest bread manufacturers in the world. We tell them how much bread to make to stock the shelves within each store on a daily basis, and they actually use our demand signal to stock the shelves. If they don’t get the demand right, they will throw away 10% of their bread, and it goes directly into landfills. So, for us, reduction of waste and sustainability are great advantages that we bring to the ecosystem because of the work we do.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I think there are a few things. This is sort of common advice — there’s obviously a lot of younger people with big promise and potential that work for our organization too — I always tell them that life is not a hundred-meter race; it’s a marathon. Meaning: pace yourself in what you do. The world is changing so fast, that people think “If I don’t get this,” or “If I don’t know this,” or “If I don’t solve this problem right away,” then the world is going to fall apart. No, it doesn’t. So, remember life is a marathon, not a hundred-meter dash.

And then, the other thing that’s important — if you want to succeed — you learn that you have to know when to say “no.” It’s as important to say “no” to things as it is to say “yes.”

Being energetic and being entrepreneurial, you probably want to please a lot of people. You’ll please your customers, and you’ll please your employees, but if you know what you want to succeed in, and have focus, then I think you’ll see a better outcome.

And beyond anything else, I think you need to have fun. The biggest thing today, that was true 20 years ago and is still important for me, is you need to love what you do. You need to have fun. Don’t treat your job like a burden, treat it as something you’re doing — a force within you.

Think of it like this: “This will be better for everyone. This is going to create more wealth for everyone. It’s going to be better for society.” Convince yourself that the work you’re doing is meaningful, and work will become lighter in a sense. It won’t become a burden.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Your family has to be a strong, strong support, and I’m no different. Whether it was the values my parents gave me, the unflinching support that my wife gave me, or the joy that my kids bring me. All of that is extremely important because success, ultimately, needs to be shared. And if you have no one to share success with, it doesn’t mean much for anybody.

But having said that, I have to say there are so many people that influence us along the way. People talk about important famous people that they have met — and they did something or said something that changed their life — but that’s not the case with me, and it’s not the case with most people. I think, to me, everybody that was my friend, my manager, my peer, my employees — they taught me small things when it comes to work ethic, respect, humility, and long-term thinking that aggregates over a period of some time: my co-founders in my first company, a lot of my classmates, a lot of my customers, and a lot of other people. They always surprise me with their intellect when it comes to market problems, so I learn from many people, and I like that. I think everybody has something unique to give you, and you just have to be open to receive it.

Who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I used to work for a company called SAS Institute, which is one of the largest private software companies. We were at this annual conference in 2008, and the world had fallen apart because the economy was bad. Very famous luminaries were on the stage — there was someone who had advised Bill Clinton, someone who was an international expert — and they were all talking about how big companies should think about this economic downturn and how they can work with what they have to overcome the difficulties. This one guy went on about how internationalization is important, another spoke about how you have to serve different markets, and someone went on about how you invest your assets.

Then, the founder of SAS Institute, the company I used to work for, spoke. They asked him a question, “What do you do that’s different — there are so many people that spoke about so many strategies?” He took a moment of pause and he said, “All I do is take care of my people, and they take care of my business.”

It was a very profound moment for me because, in many ways, companies don’t really give that importance to employees or people. But if you do, they will do the right thing for your business. It’s such a profound thing. We forget about people, and we think about balance sheets, money, resources, and more — but we don’t think of people as people. And truth be told, that is a principle that I’ve followed, which is to give importance to people. Give them a life. Give them a voice in what they do, and they will become equal partners in your success.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In my free time, I have given back to the entrepreneurial community. I invest with smaller entrepreneurs who I believe have the potential but could be stuck due to lack of finances, advice, or lack of ecosystem. So, I’ve done that on the side quite a bit.

I have an open door to all my alumni who come by and ask questions. I try to play a role of betterment to my school.

The thing I am mostly proud of is my work with 2 or 3 start-ups. I really get clued in with their David vs. Goliath battles and work with them sometimes on a weekly or monthly basis to help them get through their problems.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the pandemic?

The pandemic exposed the possibility of what can happen online, but as we’re sort of maturing over the pandemic, we are blurring the lines between the physical and digital world.

I’ve used one example in the past of how our journey has become different: I wear glasses, and I was interested in changing them. So, I went online to Warby Parker’s website, and I see the different frames. Now, Warby Parker allows me to superimpose my face with the frames in a phone app. So, I’m don’t have to go inside the store to try them out, but ultimately, I don’t know how it feels on my face. So, I clicked the option to have Warby Parker send me samples of five pairs of glasses to my home. They ship it to me, and then I take the glasses into the store, so they can adjust them and tell me which one fits best, and then I actually make a purchase.

So, think about how we’re interweaving the physical and online world. You can think of the customer experience as not complete just online or just in the store, and you can very well imagine that’s what retailers are striving for. They’re trying to create a compelling digital presence that can make customers’ life more convenient, but on the other hand, they’re also trying to change their physical stores to be more experience-focused. So, if you’re looking to buy running shoes, you probably want to try them on and run on a treadmill. Right? Stores are becoming experience-centers — that’s the way the world is changing. You go to a store to get that experience.

This is how the customer’s experience will change, so how you run the business behind the scenes is also going to change. For example, how do I manage my supply chain? How do I know when a sale is going to happen? Is it going to happen on the website or in the store? If it’s going to happen on the website, how do I make sure I have the right inventory close to the customer so that I can get that pair of glasses out within a day? It’s not easy.

When you stock a store, it’s very easy. I stock a store, you come in and buy a product. But now I don’t know when or how you’re going to purchase, or what customer service level you’re going to expect, which is probably going to be getting your glasses in a day if you have to leave town, maybe seven days if you have other glasses.

So, things have to drastically change. If you look at retailers, they are not only changing the way they face the customer, but also the operations and supply chain to react to that.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

I think the large malls will become more experience-driven, so they will draw traffic for things that are not just about a buying location. The reasons for going to a mall will be different, and the way we buy will also be different. You will probably research a product and make up your mind by looking at it online but convert the sale inside a store.

But I think the physical centers will still be there.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

The retailers who have grown during the pandemic have made a lot of customer centric futuristic investments, which in some parts are digital investments. Target is a good example. They had made those investments way ahead of time, so they were able to pivot and increase their online sales without breaking the back of their business operations.

So, how forward-thinking are you? How data-driven are you? How do you think about future-proofing your business? Whether you made those investments or not will determine your business’ success.

If you’re stuck in old business practices — you’re dependent on stores; you’re dependent on customers walking in. There is no experiential element; there’s only a transactional experience. I think those retailers are going to find difficulty surviving. We’ve seen some of that in department stores and old brands — companies who have lost customer relevance. Frankly, they are going to find it more and more difficult to survive.

But I don’t believe there is going to be a retail apocalypse. It’s not true. From food to fashion and everything in between, we’re going to continue to buy. It’s just how we buy and who we buy from that is going to change.

We also have to ask ourselves as the consumer: do we buy everything that goes into our pantry online? Do we go to the deli and get the cut we want? Do we touch the vegetables we want, and do we buy them ourselves? I think what you will realize is — though online shopping is increasing at a rapid pace, especially during the pandemic, people made compromises — as the dust settles, people will engage in the physical purchase of products again.

This is why we’re also seeing companies like Amazon increasingly invest in physical assets — and not just warehouses. They are acquiring companies like Whole Foods. They’re interested in other physical retailers, as well, because they realize to capture more markets, they have to become more physical. I would say that the percentage from sales online will increase and probably stay there, but physical retail will still be very relevant. In a very short time, the talk about the difference in physical stores and online will be inconsequential, they will merge to come what consumers experience as a unified brand experience.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

I think the price is only one equation when you have to address the consumers. Most consumers think of price value. When I say price value, what I mean by that is: why do people buy an expensive jacket from Patagonia, as an example? Because they have the promise of sustainability. If I have two pieces of clothing that look the same, why do I buy something with a logo? Because the brand appeals to me.

In a way, companies have to build a brand and build the promise of the brand with the consumer, and then you will be able to thwart the competition that is only about cost. While you might lose extremely price-conscious customers, you will still have enough market for yourself. With the example of Lululemon: when you buy Lululemon yoga pants, you’re probably paying twice as much as the Athleta brand yoga pants. But Lululemon is still growing their market share as we speak. As long as you build customer elements, build a brand, and build a brand promise, you’re going to be fine.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

I gave a Warby Parker example. As a consumer, it was fantastic. It made everything come alive in terms of being able to actually try on glasses online with my face, and then being able to get the physical delivery at my home, so I could try them out in front of my wife and daughter (and they did not agree). Then, being able to take them back to the store and make the final purchase with my prescription. People call that kind of seamless customer experience harmonized retail. From a customer experience standpoint, it is going to be super important. That’s the hallmark of a good futuristic retailer — as a customer, the experience was completely seamless.

Second, why Warby Parker? It’s a brand that attracts me. The brand holds a promise that I’m not sacrificing quality by paying less for my eyewear. It’s new-age, cool-looking but not expensive — that’s the brand promise. So, after customer experience is the brand promise.

The third is operations. Of all the things people do, that’s probably one of the hardest. Who do I buy products from? Who are reliable suppliers? What is their cost structure? How do I design my backing network? Where should my warehouses be? How much inventory should I hold in my warehouse versus stores? Do my stores have the ability to fulfill customer orders coming from a particular market or zip code? All of those are big supply chain decisions, and it’s not easy to operate a supply chain in a manner that can be profitable.

You look at Target, investing in the types of companies they’re investing in for last-minute fulfillment. Retailers now work with Instacart, which is a supply chain initiative where they are trying to get last-minute orders through partnerships.

Fourth, in my opinion, is what differentiates Amazon from the rest — they think of themselves as a data machine. What I mean by that is: physical retailers are used to making decisions based on experience. Today, Amazon’s retail decisions are based on data. For example, if you go to Amazon and you have a product you’re selling, that product is listed based on an algorithm. It’s not in a phone conversation. So, they run their retailing based completely on data. So, how much trust do you have in data, and how does that affect the way you operate?

I think the fifth thing, if I were to name the fifth thing, would be some sort of artificial intelligence. Essentially having decision automation through the use of algorithms — the matching of data and algorithms — is probably equally important. This is a theme you will see in any retailer that is trying to be progressive — if you open any CEO’s interviews — these things come up.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

You know, I think it’s probably using artificial intelligence to reduce waste and create better sustainability. People talk of sustainability more as a physical movement, not a data-driven movement. But there’s a lot of data and algorithms that can be used intelligently and applied to sustainability and waste problems. If I were to actually fully divorce myself from the commercial world, and if I were to have the flexibility to do anything, that would be the space of influence that I would invest my time in.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Readers can find us on our website, antuit.ai. I would also suggest they follow us on social media — we frequently post thought leadership articles as well as announcements. That’s going to be the easiest way for anyone to follow what we’re doing.

Twitter — @antuitAI

LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/company/antuitai/

Facebook- https://www.facebook.com/antuitAI/

YouTube — https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaLh-udgDwsFkoI-sLdojlg

In addition to that, they can also find us at the events coming up. These events are starting to go back in person this fall, and we’re very excited to be at the Promotion Optimization Institute Organization event in November and NRF in January.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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