As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharath Keshava Narayana, a solutions-focused Senior Executive with more than 18 years of success across the hi-tech SaaS, enterprise SaaS, and health and wellness industries. Leveraging extensive experience with growth, he is a valuable advisor for an organization building go-to-market strategies and messaging, sales strategies identifying revenue targets, product pricing, and building out scalability processes. His broad areas of expertise include new business development, pricing and structure, team building, and building sales processes.
Throughout his executive career, Sharath has held leadership positions with Observe.AI, Practo, and Unbxd Inc.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
The genesis of Observe.AI started when I had to hack together my own contact center for an Indian healthcare provider. As I scaled operations and trained agents, I began to understand the complexities of building out contact center infrastructure. I saw the conversational nuances that create a positive experience. It all comes down to training agents in the right way.
For contact center supervisors, time is money. My co-founder and I realized that by incorporating technologies like Natural Language Processing (NLP) and automation, we can take quality assurance and evaluation workflows that used to take managers 45 minutes to complete, and shrink them down to 5 minutes.
Even though we’re leveraging cutting edge AI technology, at the end of the day it still comes down to human experiences and making daily lives better. Contact center supervisors love us because we eliminate speculation by giving operators 100% visibility into customer interactions. We take large datasets and turn them into actionable insights. Agents enjoy using Observe because they get better feedback from managers, which helps them level-up faster. All of this compounded to creates more meaningful touchpoints with customers.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
You can’t build an AI company without good training data. So where do you get that data from?
By this time in my career, I had moved on and was running enterprise sales teams. For Observe’s pilot, I took my own sales recordings and we used them as training data for our algorithms to detect context, sentiment, and performance. Very quickly we realized this data wasn’t on the right spectrum. My B2B sales calls weren’t giving us the right indicators for a contact center use case.
Lucky for us, I had built a good network from my call center days. I reached out to established BPO players and offered a free pilot of our platform in exchange for R&D. Not only did we win these companies over as eventual partners, but their early cooperation helped us build superior algorithms off of high-quality datasets.
Today we compete with large competitors like Amazon, but their transcription algorithms are trained off of highly-varied data from products like Alexa, whereas our algorithms are trained on only contact center conversations. We pride ourselves on having the best transcription accuracy in the Contact Center AI market. (95% transcription accuracy, whereas many competitors average 80% or lower.)
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Y Combinator made a huge difference for us. When we joined YC, suddenly people started taking us seriously. We were no longer just three random guys wanting to build an AI startup. We had been recognized by the biggest accelerator platform on the planet as one of the top emerging AI companies. We even got to pilot our platform on our fellow YC cohort companies like Instacart.
We were quickly able to secure $8M in investment. With so much capital, we didn’t have to chase revenue on day one. We took a year and a half just to build, perfect the product, understand the use cases, and run pilots with many Beta users.
By the time we formally launched in January 2019, we had a very robust product. Unlike many other startups who go through the struggle of finding a product market fit, we had already done a lot of that validation in stealth mode. We were immediately able to enter a high growth phase and we’ve been sprinting ever since.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
It all comes down to creating positive human-to-human experiences.
Think about calling a brand like Nike today. The reality is somebody in Manila will answer the phone. If you have a problem with your Air Jordans, that agent probably might have a hard time relating.
The whole idea for Observe.AI was, “Hey, if you actually really want to make a customer experience impactful, you have to think about the agent.” So many of our competitors are building customer monitoring technologies, but nobody is thinking about the agent and their personal impact. If there is one silver bullet, that’s probably it.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Everybody knows when they call a contact center the first message they hear is, “This call is being recorded for internal training and quality purposes.”
The fact of the matter is that 70% of contact center calls are still happening over voice, and nobody knows what happens in that conversation. It’s a complete black box. When Observe.AI started, our whole purpose was like, “Hey, let’s address a part of that market where nobody has any visibility into. Let’s make it very visible.”
Today Observe.AI gives companies 100% visibility into these calls, so that business can make actionable business decisions.
In the past, contact centers have been seen as cost centers. We’re helping companies build business models that connect customer satisfaction to revenue.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
There are two elements at play here:
- Cloud Computing — AWS has led the charge in disrupting on-prem storage. Serverless cloud computing means cheaper and more accessible data. All of a sudden a company of any size can analyze large amounts of data at scale. This has opened up a huge opportunity to bring automation and analytics to the contact center space.
- AI & Deep Learning — Google’s research team significantly opened the door for speech analytics and AI by publishing research and sample datasets, and open-sourcing algorithms related to deep-learning. Data science teams could then easily iterate off of each other’s research to improve deep learning models for the whole AI community.
These innovations have opened the door for cloud-native, AI companies like Observe to thrive.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
Many companies try to automate jobs away. Our “aha moment” was instead to augment jobs and make them more satisfying. We aim to eliminate mundane, repetitive tasks so that agents and supervisors can spend more time doing what they do best.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
Today, Observe processes close to a 100M calls per year. Our product touches over 55K agents and makes their lives much better.
We’ve grown from zero to almost 200 customers in the last two years. We’ve seen our revenue literally quadruple in the last 12 months and we’ve been recognized by Gartner, Forbes, Business Insider, and The Information as a top enterprise AI startup to watch.
It has been a wild ride, and I am proud of our team’s dedication to providing a superior product experience while maintaining high empathy for our end-users.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
We actually haven’t had to pivot yet. Since our founding, Observe.AI has been hyper focused on the most common use cases in contact centers: Speech Analytics & Quality Management.
As we look toward the future, we want to continue helping supervisors level-up agent performance with better, more predictive coaching features. We’re constantly seeking out ways to streamline workflows and celebrate high-performers. How can we make a process 10x better or 15x better? How can we help managers identify their best performing agent, and replicate that success?
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
As a leader, I know I am only as strong and smart as the people I choose to surround myself with. I am extremely thankful for the partner community Observe.AI has embedded with such as Talkdesk, Five9, Genesys, Concentrix, and Transcomm.
B2B SaaS sales cycles are notoriously long. Traditionally, selling to Fortune 500 customers can take anywhere from 12–18 months in sales cycles. The only way Observe was able to get to 200 customers in two years is by building mutual trust and respect among our channel partners with a heavy emphasis on customer satisfaction.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Observe.AI takes a human-first approach to our product and our company. 2019 was an uncertain time for every company in the world. During such unprecedented times, as co-founders, we wanted to stick to the basics. We asked ourselves: What can we do really well and how can we make our employees’ lives simpler and easier? Hitting revenue numbers and roadmap targets are all very important, but none of this will actually happen if your employees are unhappy.
We took a very clear standard of managing our culture and boosting our employee morale, doing all the basic things of leading with transparency, increasing town halls, giving employees WFH stipends and wellness days. Mental health is paramount.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Know your limitations as a company. Spend less if you’re very uncertain and take care of your customers and your employees really well. If you’re calling your customer once a week, call them twice a week.
I think that’s the best way to kind of go through any turbulent times, because your employees and your customers are only two people who can actually make a company successful. Focus on them and the rest will fall in place.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Don’t try and copy your competitors. Don’t build a “me too” product. You have to be original.
- Focus on your customer. Many of the best product ideas we’ve had as a company came from our customers.
- Invest in your employees and help them see the impact of their work. Good morale is contagious.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is 10% intent, 90% execution.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
I love LinkedIn and frequently post about my business learnings on LinkedIn. You can follow me at Sharath Keshava Narayana.