Co-founder and Chief People Officer of tech firm [24]7.ai, Shanmugam Nagarajan, shared his insights with TNM.

Perseverance and right culture key to a thriving business What tech startups need
Atom Startups Wednesday, November 01, 2017 - 13:55

Tech company [24]7.ai is one of the first three contact centres in India that was set up in 2000 and amongst all the Business Process Management (BPM) companies that began operations around then, they have stuck to the customer acquisition & engagement domain. Given the client requirements in the early years, they started with customer support through voice and email channels from India before expanding quickly to other locations in India and other countries. The company partners with 250+ of the world’s largest, most recognisable brands to help them attract and retain customers, and make it possible to create a personalised, predictive and effortless customer experience.

Shanmugam Nagarajan is the Co-founder and Chief People Officer of the company and along with PV Kannan, he co-founded [24]7.ai in 2000. Their India operations started with 20 people in an office at ITPL, Bengaluru. California remains the global headquarters. Today, they are a 16,000+ people organization spread across 10 countries.

In an interaction with TNM, he shared his insights on the company, the challenges of starting up a business and comparisons with the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the West among other things.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

What are different products of [24]7.ai?

Using artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand customer intent, [24]7.ai’s technology helps deliver simple, effortless and delightful customer experience across self and assisted channels. Our products span the entire customer lifecycle from customer acquisition to customer engagement. We have 7,000+ digital chat agents, highest in the world.

How different is [24]7.ai from its competitors?

What differentiates our offerings is our deep domain expertise, predictive models based on terabytes of real customer interaction data and expertise in artificial intelligence & machine learning in the customer acquisition & engagement space.

[24]7. ai today is the only company in the world to offer intent-driven, ‘true’ omnichannel experience, at a scale. The platform allows customers to traverse multiple channels, be it web, mobile, chat, social or phone, without the context being lost, so customers never have to start over. It can help a customer resolve their issues in the channel they prefer and also helps them choose an optimal channel. Based on the context and the complexity, any interaction can be seamlessly transitioned from self-service options — a virtual agent or Natural Language IVR to assisted service options — digital chat or voice human agents.

How is the company funded?

Marquee VC firm Sequoia-backed us 13-14 years back. Since then we have been fueling our business growth and expansion through internal accruals.

What is the revenue model?

Given our platform + services offerings, each client engagement is structured around what’s the specific requirement of a particular client which could be just the platform + a specific set of the products or the entire array. Some would also have the services component. On services side, we predominantly have outcome-based pricing – that means we don’t get paid unless we achieve specific metrics that we have signed off on such as Customer Satisfaction (CSAT), Net Promoter Score (NPS).

Is there any plan to strengthen the workforce this year?

For Innovation Labs (iLabs), we typically need talent with niche technical skill set and we are on the continuous lookout for talented people in the areas of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Big Data, Natural Language Understanding.  On the services side, we are hiring 3,000+ digital chat agents this year in India – our people growth validates the success of unique products + services business model in the customer engagement space.

Are there any CSR activities the company is engaged in?

[24]7ites are passionate about community engagement and through our various CSR initiatives, we are constantly looking to giving back to the community. Whether it’s teaching children in government schools, organising blood donation camps, supporting the underprivileged children through our very successful and innovative Box of Joy initiative, we have been contributing consistently towards the wellbeing of the community. The spirit of giving runs through all our offices. We recently did a global fundraiser, to contribute to the Mexico Earthquake Relief Fund and Caribbean Hurricane Relief Fund to help the victims of these devastating natural disasters.

What do you think are the primary challenges of starting up on your own as opposed to joining a large conglomerate?

Anybody can come up with an idea, but transforming an idea into a successful business is the true test of an entrepreneur. When you are building a business from scratch, you have to take care of all departments, functions and grow it steadily to turn into a sustainable venture. You have to make all the decisions however hard some of those might be and take responsibility for the outcomes. Nobody is instructing you when you are starting up, you have to think on your own, figure out your own priorities whereas when you take up a job, the role is typically defined for you. While there is scope for creativity, and demonstrating ownership even when you pick up a job, the buck doesn’t stop with you and you can walk away whenever you want.

One piece of advice for budding entrepreneurs?

If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, persevere! Hard work, intelligence, ideas...all of this will help but perseverance is the most important quality. Perseverance and tenacity are extremely crucial to build a thriving business. The other equally important thing is building the right culture. At [24]7.ai, we have been able to create a thriving culture based on our values and the right attitude. I always say that when we take care of our people, they will take care of the business. So, the right culture and people focus are indispensable. And it’s not only to be preached or just be part of the decks and other collaterals, you must walk the talk. And when you build a culture like that, it puts you in a different league so much so that the companies we acquired preferred us to the other suitors despite [24]7.ai not being the highest bidder.

What are your perspectives on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the West vis-à-vis India?

I think entrepreneurship is in our genes. Prior to opening up the economy, up until 1991, employment opportunities were limited to govt. banks and a few big companies. So, at the time, most Indians were engaged in some sort of business or trade activity, albeit at a very small scale. And that is true even today for smaller towns – you will find micro-entrepreneurs across these towns and villages – in fact where I grew up, in the town of Salem, it was looked down upon to work for someone else and you were expected to start your own venture, even if it was a small business. I think with the new startup wave, we are going back to our roots – and actually, the word startup connotes tech startups. And I am really excited that this trend has taken off which is rekindling our entrepreneurial ambitions. It was also said that there is a ‘taboo’ in India around failing – that has disappeared considerably.

Any inspiring anecdotes from your entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with us?

When we pivoted [24]7.ai Innovation Labs (iLabs), many people doubted the direction in which we were headed, some also thought that a services company can never truly build great products. But as I mentioned before, we stuck to our vision and have built a highly successful and top-notch technology organization. This goes back to the point I made earlier. You must persevere.

Also, a very inspiring example I remember about holding up the values of continuous learning and humility. In a couple of years after starting up, one of our insurance clients, which was then one of the top three firms globally, invited both PV and I for their global strategy meeting where their top leaders around the world had converged. All of them-- business veterans, were attentive and keenly absorbing and taking notes of our ideas around how customer service can be transformed. Despite years of experience, they still believed that they had something to learn from a small company and young entrepreneurs. Their open-mindedness towards learning and the passion for customer-centricity really resonated well with us and we have tried to instill such aspects in [24]7.ai.

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