Company Closeup: All About ABBYY


The story of a digital intelligence company that began its journey with an idea, a paper on the bulletin board, and $3000 loan

It was a regular college day in 1989. A student named David Yang was just out of his French exam when he had a million-dollar idea. He decided to create software that would help people translate languages. The idea of an electronic dictionary led to the launch of the BIT Software company, which was renamed ABBYY in 1998. With over 30 years of experience, the brand is a leading expert in Intelligent Document Processing (IDP), process discovery, and mining. 

The company was founded with a vision to solve an obvious problem of Linguistics. It is hard to learn a new language, especially when the skill is needed at the most urgent hours. The Armenian-Russian Soviet entrepreneur founded the company along with and Alexander Moskalev, a member of the Institute of Microelectronics Technology of the Russian Academy of Science. In its 32-year journey, ABBYY serves as an inspiration for any aspiring entrepreneur. They began their business with loans and, despite the numerous complications, rose to fame. 

Today, the software company is headquartered in the United States and run by CEO Ulf Persson and Board of Directors Chairman Robert Youngjohns. The company has offices spread over 14 countries with over 30,000,000 global customers. The platform allows organizations to deploy solutions in standalone configurations or as a tightly integrated extension of industry-leading RPA, BPM, and packaged application solutions.  

The Inception

The journey began with a piece of paper on the school bulletin board with the sentence, “I’m looking for a computer engineer.” 

Yang’s original idea stemmed from his desire to help people learn foreign languages with ease. With deeper thought into his plan, he decided to work on a commercial product that would focus on the English language first. Understanding foreign taxes and handwritten documents with an electronic dictionary software was unheard of in those days. Imagine being told that a software could read a person’s handwriting. 

The First Complication, the First Sale

The first working model was nine months in the making. A software with a 32-kilobyte footprint of memory was ready to be tested. It could capture words from a screen. All one had to do was move the cursor over the words. 

Working out of a rented apartment and managing a living with just over $55, Yang had to get a loan of $3000 to start his company. After solving his initial funding issue, he faced a bigger problem. 

The third-party company that was supposed to provide lexicographical content in 30 days, took eight months. When Yang finally did receive the content, it was packed in 20 discs. Not having the time and resources to check the content before payment, Yang later discovered that the content missed an important letter, ‘K.’ A week before the final, promised delivery to a customer who had already been waiting for over six months, Yang and his partner burned the midnight oil for days to manually finish the process and type in the missing Ks. After a tedious week, they finally made their first sale. 

Taking a page out of phone books, literally, and calling companies and institutes, Yang and his team began to market themselves. Although the technology was new, people were interested. A year later, the company only had 15 products sold and not 100, like they originally envisioned. What went wrong?

The Illegal Case of Pirated Software

Soon their direct marketing and sales calls signalled them to a new complication. Several organisations claimed to already have lingual translation software. They realised that the organisations had acquired copies of their in-house technology illegally. Despite the low sales, in six months, most organisations were already equipped with the software. Yet, Yang found a silver lining to it. His product was a success.

In time, ABBYY relied on product and brand awareness to get ahead of the situation. They educated customers and in a couple of years, they sold over 50,000 legal software packages called Lingual Systems. No wonder they have over 400 patents today.

Also Read: Documenting With Intelligence

The Inventor and His Destiny 

Yang wanted to be a physicist like his parents, but his mind pushed him in another direction. Apart from ABBYY, he has several initiatives and inventions. One of his early inventions was a pocket communication computer for teenagers in the late 1990s. Unsurprisingly, The World Economic Forum in Davos had named him as one of the Top 100 World Technology Pioneers in 2002. 

Another factor that sealed his destiny and put his dreams of being a physicist to the ground was a fascinating story of his grandfather. Yang had not disclosed his entrepreneurial activities to his parents for two years. After garnering thousands of customers, he finally spilled the secret and also suggested that he would get back to Physics later in life. On that day, his father shared a small anecdote about Yang’s grandfather, who was a labourer in Shanghai. 

It was the 1920s and his grandfather collected pennies to purchase an English-Chinese dictionary to help him communicate with the American and French customers for better business as a construction developer. In 20 years, he became one of the popular developers of the city. Yang found the story to be inspirational and he then knew that ABBYY was his destined future. 


OCR Initiative

He observed another problem that every company faced – the time taken to process masses of handwritten documents manually. In the early 1990s, Lingvo’s output translations were rough and the company’s OCR had a long way to go. The initial problem was that whenever the system encountered a new character in a specific font on the image, it required several user confirmations before beginning the process. Additionally, any small change in font face or size, the entire process had to be done from the beginning. 

In 1992, ABBYY was not the only company that required good OCR technology. Sales began to dampen, and competition turned intense. ABBYY had a decision to make – do they wait for the technology to hit the market or do they develop one themselves? Choosing the latter, they gave themselves a deadline of May 1993. 

Inspired by the already existing OCR technologies, the company decided to create FineReader, an in-house OCR program that could automate the cycle of document processing. Yang studied Artificial Intelligence Computer Science in his college, MIPT and had a good idea of how the solution could help people. 

ABBYY acquired a prototype from a young scientist who had developed it in his home to jumpstart the development process. As it was not built for commercial purposes, the prototype could only process uncompressed BMP images. Although the changes required were intense, Yang and his team found it inspiring. With FineReader 1.0 almost complete, they began to draft plans for the next version, which made fewer recognition errors and had better formatting solutions with exceptional recognition accuracy. 

Yang and his team launched FineReader 1.0 with omnifont text recognition which was intelligent enough to identify and read any font style. The then young company sold more than 100 copies in a month. Today, ABBYY prides itself on over 100 million FineReader users including document capture vendors, Ladig technology companies, and scanner and MFP manufacturers. 

Also Read: Company Closeup: IBM – Networking The World

Stepping Up with IDP

Four years later, the rising brand believed that the quality and accuracy of FineReader was better than every other OCR solution in the global market. ABBYY stepped into a better terrain of Intelligent Document Processing. It acquired a timeline process mining solution and discovery capabilities that could help customers overcome their people, business process, and content complications. Although the technology is more enhanced today, the brand’s content intelligent solutions set their technological foundations decades ago. Over the years, they evolved into AI-driven solutions to meet the emerging content-centric challenges. The company set the bar high by leveraging ML, NLP, and CV to analyse and reason to augment human intelligence. Currently, ABBYY is a major player in the intelligent automation market with strategic partnerships and embedded technology licencing. They provide their services to several industries including insurance, healthcare, financial services, transportation, logistics, and legal services.

Overcoming the 1998 Financial Crisis

The 1998 financial crisis in Russia had repercussions worldwide. The company suffered a fall in local revenue. While other international revenue continued to churn in for a while, the local revenue declined two times and ABBYY soon could not afford to pay the full salaries of their employees. They verbally promised to pay the rest back someday with six per cent interest. Not a single employee quit and in two years, the company fulfilled their promise. It was an important milestone in their history because the value of the team was understood and they witnessed the steady progress of becoming an international company. Today, the brand provides one of the industry’s most advanced digital intelligence platforms.

The company is trusted by over 5000 brands that include several Fortune 500 companies such as Siemens, Fujitsu, Epson, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, RICOH, and Xerox. 

The Expansion

With great success, it was in 1999 that they were able to expand their offices. In 2000, ABBYY USA opened in Silicon Valley, California, ABBYY Europe in Munich, Germany. In 2010, realising the emerging markets of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, offices were set up in different regions. In 2011, ABBYY Australia was launched and in 2014, ABBYY Japan came to be. The most recent was ABBYY Singapore in 2020. 

The Other Innovations

In 1999, ABBYY Fine Reader Sprint, the first Mac OS product was launched, followed by an advanced FineReader 5 Pro, two years later. In 2004, the company developed a product that worked on PDF documents. The first version of the PDF Transformer was simple, and after intense research and developments, they built a versatile tool that could edit, convert, create, comment, and protect PDF files. 

Leading with their pivotal PDF tool, they launched Fine Reader 9.0, the first document conversion software that could understand the multi-page document structure and detect headers, footers, page numbering, footnotes, and reconstruct them in output documents, in 2007.

With further technological growth, FineReader branched into four new writing systems by their ability to learn complex languages like Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and Hebrew. They could now recognise ideographic texts with thousands of symbols. What’s more, they could support horizontal, vertical and right to left writing despite multi-level text line structures and bi-directional text flow. Challenges like mixed alphabets within the same document, paragraph and phrase could be managed. With such technical capabilities, ABBYY garnered two billion more FineReader users, worldwide.

In 2014, the company conducted an internal survey that revealed that over 60 per cent of files were PDF documents. Understanding the increasing use of PDFS, Yang decided to expand their focus and develop PDF Transformer+, and enter the PDF solutions domain.

ABBYY FineReader 14 was brought into the market in 2017. This version aimed to centralise document-related tasks into a single tool and allow direct access to PDF files from editing and approving to converting, comparing and protecting. FineReader became a universal solution for companies worldwide.

The following year, the intelligence platform recorded over 192 languages understood by FineReader. Companies including Panasonic, Fujitsu, Xerox, and Samsung trust ABBYY’s technology and have licensed access to their OCR solutions. 

Future Belongs to Them

Recognised as a market leader in Intelligent Document Processing (IDP) and Process Discovery & Mining for driving impact where it matters most: customer experience, effectiveness, profitability, and competitive advantage, the global brand has over 1000 employees today, and over 5000 companies and over 50 million users in 200 countries who rely on their solutions and applications. IDC predicts the Worldwide Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) market to reach $30.5 billion by 2024. 

Identifying ABBYY’s digital intelligence platform as a strength to deliver faster and effective AI-based automation, Marlin Equity Partners recently joined hands. Led by Yang the company is set to develop more solutions and reimagine how AI and human intelligence can create potential futuristic possibilities.