By some measures, the digital transformation of industry has felt a little “one step forward, two steps back.” Part of the challenge, argues Skan.ai CEO Avinash Misra, is that there’s little visibility into how work gets done. You can’t digitize what you don’t understand.
Avinash, along with co-founder Manish Garg, founded Skan to bring transparency to business processes so organizations can automate and improve. DTC led the Series B investment in the company. We sat with Avinash to learn more about the Skan and how his approach to founding his second company is — or maybe is not — different than the first time around.
WHY THIS, WHY NOW
Over the last 25, 30 years, we’ve built many, many systems to help run our businesses. The challenge is that often, over time, the business intent behind those systems has diverged from the actual processes running on the ground. That creates a lot of opacity in how an organization truly runs.
Why does this matter? That study that found 70% of digital transformation efforts fail — that’s a lot of organizations spending big amounts of money for something that doesn’t work. Why doesn’t it work? Because of the opacity around how things get done. A transformation leader might want to optimize a business process. But if you don’t understand your starting point, how are you going to optimize?
Up until now, the only tools available to solve this problem involved either a fleet of business analysts or a deep backend integration which gives you a snapshot of committed states of work already completed. But what you don’t see is that 10 different people might have used 10 different mechanisms to move from A to B.
Here’s the second challenge: when you ask people how a business process works, they often give the process they’re supposed to be doing, not what they do. Humans have a level of abstraction beyond which they cannot describe what they’re doing.
When something becomes habit and moves from the prefrontal cortex to the reptilian brain, your explainability goes to zero. It’s the Polanyi’s paradox: we know more than we can tell.
Our approach is to not talk to people. Our technology observes the screen actions of multiple people involved in a given business process. From those screen actions, we’re using computer vision and AI to understand how work gets done. Is everyone involved using the same applications? Is one person adding with a calculator and another using an Excel sheet? Is a document being shared via email attachment or in Slack? We bring transparency to business processes by watching the nuances in the real work that hundreds of people are doing. You can think of it as the modern telemetry of digital work.
There is no way that Skan.ai could have happened five years ago. The cost of compute, especially the cost of computer vision-based compute, had to come down to be able to ingest multiple screenshots of different applications streaming at the same time. And then on top of that, we had to be able to do analysis on what’s happening on those screens across multiple people and reconcile that data. You could not do this without that level of democratization of compute that has happened in the last four, five years.
What’s exciting now is the notion of being able to continuously observe things. In business process management, in DevOps, in manufacturing and logistics, and in autonomy. We are able to look at things in totality as a stream of actions. Expert systems are being trained and behavior can be distilled. Now, we’re able to disaggregate large measures into individual actions and understanding.
LEARNING AND INSPIRATION
“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s a difficult question to say exactly what learnings I have carried over from the experience building my first company. It feels like something Emerson said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” You have to go through the process. It’s like, you fall in love, get married, get divorced. When you fall in love again, you can’t just short circuit the process because of your previous experience. You have to go experience the process again.
I would say I’m more zen-like now when problems occur – as they will. It’s not the end of the world. The highs and lows of startup life are a given. The lows too shall pass.
I think one has to be action biased, and there is no time, better time for action when there is chaos. It is in chaos that things change. There’s a term used in metallurgy chaotic annealing where you heat a piece of metal to the point that the atoms move around chaotically, it’s cooled so those atoms find a new point of stability. Startups are like this. Every crisis has given rise to new companies, new ways of working. As a founder, you have to act when there is chaos, when people are confused or don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s when your new trillion-dollar company is being born.
Another learning from my first 15 years of running a company is that any entrepreneur must always think of in terms of the team. That mindset will go a long way in terms of their success. My co-founder in Skan.ai Manish has been my co-founder for the last 20 years. We’ve already built on company together. Now we’re building a second company together. I can tell you – it’s not two plus two equals to four. For us, it’s two plus two is 22 when two people are able to work well together. My advice is to find a good co-founder who complements you.
As Shakespeare said, “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them, to thy soul with hoops of steel.”
OFF THE CLOCK
Behind me is my bookshelf. And in that you will find Tintin and Asterix comics, and P.G. Wodehouse. And I know for many, these are names that might sound alien. But these are the comics that I grew up with. And P.G. Wodehouse is one of the finest writers of English language that I continue to read today. You also find books on philosophy; I have a lifelong love with philosophy. And books on poetry and literature. I find solace in many of those resonances between thought and word.