By Arunit Baidya (B.E Computer Science, 2018 – 2022)
From tedious databases to insightful speech, and the man making it all possible…
When you think about the incredible intelligence and capability of Jarvis and compare it to the voice assistants in our phones, we all would think we have come pretty close. Yet, the good people at Tact.ai know they can do better – for the corporate scene. With the focus of enriching salespeople’s work experience in their DNA, Tact.ai aims to create better CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software to decrease friction in the day to day work of salespeople using AI to power incredible functions inbuilt in their product such as a voice assistant, seamless integration of emails and calendars, and availability on various platforms. The wondrous work done at Tact.ai has caught the attention of the Valley and secured funding from various investors such as Amazon and Microsoft Ventures.
Running the entire show is our lesser known alumnus Chockalingam Ganapathi, better known as Chuck Ganapathi elsewhere; Mr.Ganapathi did his bachelors in BE SW Mechanical Engineering from 1988-1993. We present to you excerpts from an exclusive interview with Mr. Ganapathi, Founder and CEO of Tact.ai, and an inspiration for all aspiring entrepreneurs and data scientists.
You’ve had a pretty good career at E&Y and Salesforce even before founding Tact. When and how was the idea for Tact born?
I’ve been building customer relationship management and sales software since 1995, helping industry leaders such as Siebel and Salesforce. Yet, as an engineer and product builder, one thing always bothered me: even though we sold a lot of CRM(Customer Relationship Management) software to corporations around the world, I had never met an end user (a salesperson) that loved the products we had built.
I finally got the opportunity to scratch that itch, when I realized, in 2010, that a massive shift in computing was underway. Computing architectures change every 15 years or so: I realized that the pendulum was about to swing back again, thanks to the advent of smart edge devices and Artificial Intelligence. This emerging platform called the Intelligent Edge where data, computers and AI can run on everyday objects—like phones, watches, cars, and speakers—gave me the inspiration to attack the unsolved problem of poor user adoption and value of CRM software. We could finally build sales software that a seller would love.
So I left Salesforce and founded Tact.ai, with a mission to make enterprise software – especially CRM – more human-friendly.
How did you proceed with the idea? What were the challenges you faced in leaving Salesforce and establishing your own company?
Risking a senior executive position at Salesforce for a startup was a tough personal decision: both in terms of the friendships I was leaving behind, as well as the financial impact on my family. Thankfully, I was able to raise venture capital funding that allowed us to think big and do things that had never been done before.
Even though I had a lot of experience in the CRM industry, I had never worked at a startup. So the early days were as chaotic as they were new and exciting. My investors were seasoned entrepreneurs themselves, so I relied on their sage counsel on how to build a company and a culture.
Having a vision and capital doesn’t mean much unless you can find the right team to execute and deliver on that vision. So recruiting became my #1 priority and it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t enough for the early team members to have the right skills; they also needed to come from outside the CRM industry (without the “curse of knowledge”), believe passionately in the vision of the company, and be hungry for the challenge of startup work and life.
Today, many CRMs have adopted voice technology. What sets Tact apart from its voice capable counter parts?
Today, voice is most popular at home, thanks to the success of Alexa. As voice experiences enter our work lives, one may assume the office to be the next logical battleground. However, I have a different view. People, especially sales professionals, spend a lot of time driving and it’s the one place where looking at your phone could have the worst consequences. So I think in-car experiences will be the next frontier in voice.
We also believe it’s time to move beyond traditional speech transcription and commands, where the majority of the market sits. For Tact.ai, we call this Voice Intelligence. It delivers conversation-driven workflows that allow users, in our case salespeople, to control their enterprise applications with natural language. Unlike general purpose digital assistants that cater to a wide range of consumer interest, Tact is specialized: trained to support discussions tailored to the sales domain, seller persona, and enterprise terminology. Further, Tact allows the assistant to adapt to the user’s conversation flow in a more dynamic way and allows the assistant to avoid monotonous answers by providing more human-sounding responses in natural language, instead of mechanical readouts of database fields.
The promise of CRM was to improve a company’s revenue performance and customer experience. But CRM today is nothing more than a database – a system of record – that relies on the sales team to record their customer interactions and sales activities and pipeline. This introduces tremendous friction in the salesperson’s day-to-day work which results in poor data in the system, defeating the purpose of a CRM in the first place. Tact aims to disrupt that vicious cycle by creating a new way to work – a frictionless system of workflow – that sales teams love because it’s easy and it helps them make more money and keep customers happy. I love Richard Branson’s(of Virgin group) idea that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers. We help sales leaders do this for their salespeople. That focus on enriching their experience is the DNA that truly sets us apart.
But how do we do it, technically speaking? First, we don’t assume CRM is the single source of truth. Customer data that a salesperson needs to do their job is scattered across many other systems: email, calendar, Box, LinkedIn, SAP, data warehouses, etc. So, Tact connects to multiple systems and creates a federated customer graph. Second, we don’t believe things should only happen in the Cloud and only through browsers. Salespeople, like the rest of us, have smart devices all around them. Tact pushes computing to the edge – on their phones, in their cars, on their home Alexa devices – in order to contextualize customer data in their daily activities. Third, we don’t accept that customer (human) relationships should be reduced to a set of database forms. Using AI, the Tact AI Assistant allows a more conversational approach to work with data and people, through a mobile app, chat or voice across any device. Finally, we don’t expect every customer, especially large enterprises, will use Tact the same way. That’s why every part of Tact is ‘platformized’ so that it can be configured to work differently for each customer.
This combination of our differentiated DNA and patented IP is what’s led us to the unique distinction of being the only company in the world to be backed by Microsoft, Amazon and Salesforce.
Tact preaches #No friction in all its campaigns. From what we decipher, it means reducing the sales person’s mundane jobs by providing him with a virtual assistant. With the increase in capability of AI, do you foresee a future where CRM software will conduct sales on its own with consultation from upper management alone? Will dedicated human salespeople still be required in the upcoming corporate environment?
I believe that AI’s purpose should be to augment human performance. Even though B2B sales is about two companies doing business with each other, at the end of the day, people buy from people. So we want to use AI to help sales teams get more human interaction with customers, not less. Large deals don’t get done without the human touch, so it is important we try to help salespeople be the best versions of themselves in front of customers. That’s why we call it human-friendly AI.
#Nofriction is a rallying cry to help salespeople who are constantly chasing two things: the data they need, and the people they need to get deals done. Today, salespeople are stuck in endless meetings, email threads, and clunky apps, which takes away from them the very thing they are paid to do: being in front of customers. So, we give them two things: an AI Assistant that’s the next best thing to having their own Personal Assistant. And a digital workspace that’s the next best thing to having their own war room for every deal with all the right people to help them close the deal. Both have been built on our conversational AI platform that connects any application to any device.
What is next for Tact? With incumbent funding from Amazon and Microsoft Ventures, what do you hope to develop and achieve with Tact.ai that will make what you have now obsolete?
Our North Star at the company is to build a product that salespeople love. A product that helps them be more personally successful and have more fulfilling work lives. Sales is one of the oldest and largest professions on the planet and the life-blood of every company — and it is our mission to get Tact.ai in the hands of every salesperson in the world.
As a product and technology company, we have an ever growing need for engineering talent. We opened an R&D Center in Bengaluru last year to tap into the amazing talent there. We expect to have more than 50 people in that location alone by the end of this year. We’re also expanding into areas where we’re seeing sales growth in new verticals like Pharmaceuticals and new geographies like EMEA.
Your career is packed with stints at big firms like E&Y, Siebel and Salesforce. What has your experience at all these places taught you?
I have had the good fortune of working at some amazing companies, but what I cherish most are the awesome people I worked for and with. They taught me that hunger and passion are far more important than experience. And that soft skills like messaging, communication, and ability to influence are far more important than hard skills.
Equally important is what I didn’t learn at these large companies and was very unprepared for: the life of a startup founder. The highs are really high and the lows are really low. And you find yourself flipping from one to the next within the same day or hour even; all while staying strong for the sake of your family, your investors and your employees. A founder’s journey can be a lonely one.
But, in my career, I have never experienced anything as fulfilling as the work I’m doing at Tact.ai. While big companies are great places to get trained early in your career, nothing compares to the excitement of working at a startup. Large companies are risk averse and are constrained by their own success. Clayton Christensen articulates this best in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. As platforms shift from one to the next (like the shift from mainframe to client-server to the cloud to the intelligent edge), they create new opportunities for new companies, unbridled by legacy, politics and stock market pressures, to attempt crazy ideas and create massive companies by rejecting what’s worked in the past.
You have gone through a rigorous itinerary of institutionalized education, pursuing a masters in Industrial engineering degree from Purdue, and then completing two degrees in the same years from Stanford University Graduate School of Business(MBA) and Stanford University(MS, Product Design / Systems Engineering). What was predominantly beneficial from this?
My parents had humble beginnings and worked hard to build a better life for their six children. I am the youngest of six and the only one who had the opportunity to attend college. So I don’t take education for granted and I am eternally thankful to my parents and my siblings for contributing to and supporting me through my years as a student. Education was my passport to a better life.
The educational institution that had the biggest impact on my life was Rishi Valley School, where I spent six years. It opened my eyes to the world and built my love for learning. It was also my passport to academic success at PSG Tech. PSG Tech (and the PSG factory where I completed my Sandwich program training) helped me think like an engineer and builder; and it was my passport to graduate education in the US. Purdue introduced me to America and to systems thinking; and was my passport to my first job at E&Y. At Stanford, I fell in love with Silicon Valley, technology and entrepreneurship. And it was my passport to a career in building world-class software products and companies.
It’s quite surprising to know that your undergraduation was in mechanical engineering. There is a stark contrast between what you started learning and what you do right now. How and why did this happen?
Engineering education gives you a more structured way of thinking and problem solving. While mechanical engineering focuses on the physical world, the lessons I learned as a product maker have served me well in the world of software. Manufacturing is really about people and machines working together to build new things that benefit humanity. The core concepts apply equally well to building software and organizations.
If you were given a chance, would you like to do or undo any of the things you’ve done so far?
If I could do it all over again, I would have embarked on my startup journey sooner (not waited until I was 43 years old!)
Any memories of college you’d like to share?
Fond memories: My dear friends Aaron, Jack, Arun and Sirish. Famous Café. Lectures and discussions with Dr. Aravindan, Dr. Gopalasubramanian (who I got to reconnect with recently), Dr. Thyagarajan, and Dr. Nair. The 1991 college secretary election in which my roommate contested and lost (turned us from boys to men). Listening to the PSG Band performing the song “Circles in the Sand” during Renaissance.My mother going up on stage in front of the whole college and receiving the award for the #1 rank in my class.
My not-so-fond memory: The hard water in the hostel bathrooms, despite being so close to the best water in the world from Siruvani.
Finally, what advice or message, if any, do you have for any aspiring entrepreneurs and data scientists at PSG Tech?
As I mentioned earlier, hunger and passion are more important than experience; soft skills are more important than hard skills. Chart your own path – don’t be constrained by what others have done before you. Do go to graduate school if you can, but only after you work for a couple of years and figure out what you really want (and equally importantly, don’t want) to do in your life. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your career, but remember what you learned at the labs at PSG Tech – in any experiment, only change one variable at a time (company, job function, team size, location, etc.). Work at a startup, at least once in your life, even if it means taking a pay cut. Better yet, start a company.
Sincere thanks to Mr. Ganapathi from Team Bridge for his collaboration in this interview.
About the Author
Arunit is a motorsport enthusiast and is usually busy with more things that he wants to do then he can finish. The occasional incessant gaming session is also a defining characteristic.
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