Durham is a key hub in the global operation that is CloudFactory, a company whose mission is centered around its employees as much as its customers.
CloudFactory has been around since 2010, but has graduated from startup status to growth mode. Since raising a $700K seed round in 2013 from Sovereign’s Capital that was led by Bandwidth Co-Founder Henry Kaestner, the company has recently raised a Series C round worth $65M.
CloudFactory recruits and manages a global workforce over 5,400 people strong on four continents.
The unifying link that makes possible a connection between all these people and places: data. Specifically, data that companies can use to “train and sustain” their AI algorithms, says Mark Sears, CloudFactory’s Founder and CEO.
“The whole idea of artificial intelligence,” said Sears, “is that it’s an artificial attempt at human intelligence. We provide the human intelligence to train up the AI, and then of course it’s still just not as good as we are, but we get to fill the gaps as well.”
CloudFactory provides the humans in the loop for AI. Its workforce labels, or annotates, visual and text data to prepare large-scale, high-quality pipelines of structured data for machine learning. Its teams also provide the data processing, such as data entry and transcription, that powers products and core business functions across many industries.
CloudFactory services are subscription-based, so organizations can purchase a block of hours each month, ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands of hours. Clients can increase or decrease worker hours depending on their needs. CloudFactory provides an alternative to traditional outsourcing and crowdsourcing, where workers are anonymous and change over time.
For AI projects, data engineering, preparation and labeling consumes up to 80% of project time. Nanette George, Senior Manager of Content & PR at CloudFactory, said in an email that it’s helpful for companies to work with the same data labelers because workers’ knowledge about business rules and domain increase over time, which has a positive effect on overall data quality.
Employees at the heart
CloudFactory was born from a trip that Sears took with his wife to Kathmandu, Nepal, over 10 years ago. They were scheduled to stay for two weeks but kept re-booking their plane tickets. They stayed for six years and had their two children there.
What kept them there was the people they met. Sears says he met smart, young software developers (in which he has a background) who wanted to learn a programming language he knew.
Sears says he bought the only iMac he could find in Kathmandu and and taught three developers the Ruby on Rails programming language. The three-week extension to his vacation turned into a three-month project that some of his North American-based colleagues, who didn’t realize he was in Nepal, asked him to work on.
Sears says CloudFactory’s core purpose is to create meaningful work for people who are highly talented but don’t have a lot of opportunities. Working with data helps CloudFactory accomplish that mission, because its applications are nearly ubiquitous.
“The way we go out and create as much meaningful work as possible,” Sears said, “is by creating the best offerings, the best products, to large, growing markets like autonomous vehicles, self-driving cars, drone applications, all the different technology that’s out there.”
Sears highlighted a few applications of CloudFactory AI training data that are exciting to him, which range from autonomous vehicles, to real-time analysis of human movement for sports and medical uses, to earlier and more accurate detection of cancer from colonoscopies.
“The applications in the industries right now are just off the charts,” Sears said. “The key is that none of it works without having both a lot of data and a lot of high-quality data. That requires a lot of people.”
CloudFactory’s employee workforce extended to Nairobi, Kenya, in addition to Durham. Sears placed corporate HQ in Reading, England, to “split the world in half” and bridge the large distance between work centers. Sears himself is primarily based in the Bull City.
The 2013 seed round was CloudFactory’s first connection to Durham, Sears says. Sovereign’s Capital was just starting up, Sears said, and Kaestner’s first investment was CloudFactory.
Kaestner made a pitch to Sears to open the CloudFactory U.S. office in Durham, and Sears says that even though he didn’t know anything about North Carolina before then, the “amazing people” have been key to a large part of CloudFactory’s success in the Triangle.
CloudFactory set up shop in an American Underground co-working space with one employee. Today, CloudFactory employs over 60 people in the Triangle and has moved through at least four AU offices as it has built out its main sales and product marketing efforts in Durham.
Sears says that for startups, there’s no question that founders have to find and time a market opportunity. The other side of it, though, is that organizations have to have an intentional and clear purpose—and that’s been the key for CloudFactory getting to where it is today, Sears says.
“For us, that’s a very unique opportunity, given the start of the company in creating meaningful work for people in the developing world,” Sears said. “But every company can have a clear, unique purpose.”