StartupYard will partner with AIMeetup in Krakow on June 8th, for an event full of AI speakers, workshops, and a presentation from StartupYard for potential startup founders.
I caught up with Tomek recently to talk about his company, AI initiatives in Krakow, and the Polish tech ecosystem generally. Tomek also contributed to our in-depth analysis of the Polish tech investment landscape last month. You can read it here.
Here is what he had to say:
Hi Tomek, first, tell us a bit about yourself, and your journey towards becoming a tech founder.
I’ve spent the last 16 years in the internet-industry as an entrepreneur, advisor, and board member of several companies. My main scope of activities was connected with the software house Empathy, which I founded in 2000. It started from 2 people, and then, with my business partner Bartek, we managed to grow the company to 60 employees. From 2012, after M&A process of three companies I was the Managing Partner of Unity Group (over 200 employees).
Meanwhile I was also a co-founder and board member of PROFEO – the community for professionals (Polish Linkedin competitor), founder of Techcamp – biggest Polish technological barcamp meetings and co-founder of Ecommerce director’s club.
In 2015 I decided to leave my position at Unity Group to build something new from scratch. Now I am fully focused on the new project, creating an intelligent assistant Edward, as a co-founder and CEO of 2040.io.
Tell us more about your latest startup: 2040.io. How are you hoping to change the way the sales process happens in the mobile connected world?
During all these years we’ve managed to complete hundreds of projects for different types of customers: from small to medium and big players. My main knowledge gained from this period concerned the observation of how end-users use their software. I found out that people are very reluctant to use programs that are too complicated. On the other hand, the constantly increasing number of data and processes somehow enforces this complication and makes it difficult to control the business without using modern software.
When we created 2040.io we decided to make it simpler. We wanted to create an intelligent assistant that will communicate with the users in the form of a “chat” interface, and at the same time will be smart enough to automatically learn the behaviour of the users. We also wanted to take advantage of the dynamic growth of the machine learning segment and combine these algorithms with a natural conversational interface.
What kinds of industries do you think 2040.io could disrupt, and how?
Starting from the name of our company: We believe that by 2040 artificial intelligence will be as smart as humans. Now, let’s imagine a world, where artificial intelligence will help you with most of your daily activities. A world, where machines and humans will cooperate to provide better products and services. The fact is that in the future every user will have his own A.I. assistant that will learn from his data and help him to draw proper conclusions.
Using these types of intelligent assistants will revolutionize the way we use business software. We like to think of this segment comparing its early stage of development to early websites. The capabilities of such typse of assistants may soon become unlimited, just like it was with the web-application industry. This is why we created Edward – an artificial intelligence powered assistant for sales teams.
What can Edward to right now?
We managed to create our own software for creating intelligent assistants for various industries. It consists of a multi-language platform for building interactive conversations, a system for efficient processing of large data sets (big data), and models for automatic classification of data based on machine learning. Edward was created on top of this platform.
When it comes to the interface, we focused on the user’s convenience, and not on the necessity of understanding a natural language. This is why Edward is not a typical chatbot. It uses a conversational interface, but we are not forcing the users to enter data, questions or messages. We must remember, that if we will try to fake a real conversation, the user will expect human behavior and intelligent conversations from the assistant. At the moment, we are not ready for it, so we decided to use a “hybrid” interface that combines conversation, suggesting action on the keys and other multimedia elements facilitating system use.
Searching for an analogy to other projects, we can say that Edward works in a similar way as Siri, Cortana or Google Assistant. However, he focuses on one particular area which he knows the best. That means we keep our focus on vertical AI instead of building a general, horizontal AI assistant, which is very hard to create. Sometimes we call Edward “Siri for sales”.
We are currently still in the beta phase, although we already have over a dozen customers using Edward. We are now working with them to decide about the future roadmap of development to make Edward even more friendly and useful, not only for sales reps but also the managers. This is why, for example we created beautiful dashboards that are giving the sales manager an opportunity to compare sales reps performance and draw conclusions about the whole sales process (eg. how much time spent on customer leads to particular effect in sales numbers).
You’re also the leader of a major tech meetup in Krakow. Can you tell us how this got started, and what has happened in the community over the past few years?
Building a tech community related to our work was always very important to me. In my previous company, in 2011 we started our first tech meeting, called Techcamp. It took us two years to became one of the biggest Polish technological barcamp meetings. We covered many topics starting from cloud computing to technological “fights” between PHP and Java.
And in 2016 when we founded 2040.io, we noticed that the AI community is not well integrated. There are some events devoted to technical issues, but there is still a need for a meeting where people can gather and hear some presentations covering both business and technical aspects. This is how we started our A.I. Meetup under the motto “Let’s meet to talk about AI.” Looking at the number of participants currently reaching 200 people it seems that we have achieved our goal. That is why we decided to extend the formula to other cities in 2017.
Is Krakow a good place to start a tech company? What are some of the advantages?
Krakow is a special city on the Polish tech-map. Thanks to many years of history and amazing climate, it attracts creative and open-minded people. Very often they choose to study at technical universities such as AGH, or Polytechnic. This means that despite the presence of many foreign corporations, Krakow has a very strong startup community, and the spirit of entrepreneurship leads a lot of people to open their businesses here. We also have access to amazing people who want to develop and learn new things while they are studying. I was born in Krakow, so I may not be objective, but despite our limitations in terms of infrastructure, having the option of starting a business anywhere in Poland, I would choose Krakow again.
Poland has a reputation in Central Europe as being somewhat isolated and self-sufficient. Do you think this reputation is earned? Does it present a problem for Polish startups?
It seems to me that the approach Polish businesses on target the internal market is a kind of myth that we must face when talking to people from other countries. It is true that Poland has a very large internal market and for many years it was enough to run a business here to be successful.
However, over the past 10 years that changed a lot. First of all, our entry into the European Union and opening of the borders made so many young people leave the country. Some of them came back with the intention of building their business in Poland, but already with an appetite for the global market.
Secondly, the development of technology has made us start competing with our colleagues who are working on similar projects worldwide. So now, almost everyone is thinking about the market in a global way, and some businesses do not even open their sales in Poland but direct themselves from the beginning to the USA.
Our big Polish market has its advantages. We are able to get some customers and financial base here, which will allow us to scale more freely into foreign markets. Whenever possible, it is sometimes a good idea to start a business on the Polish market, test some hypotheses, and then scale the solution abroad. It is also unmatched by the lower labor costs of engineers coupled with their high competences. This is why sometimes companies cutting their core business from Poland are leaving their R & D centers here, which makes their projects better, faster and cheaper than their counterparts in other countries.
Polish startups also have open access to a lot of government backed up programs dedicated to startups, and as you’ve noticed in your blog post related to this topic this may cause a problem in terms of building real innovations in our country. On the other hand, due to lack of private capital, young entrepreneurs sometimes have no other choice to start their business, so they choose to do it by taking some public funding.
What are your plans for the future of 2040.io?
We started only with our private money, and the company was also backed up by two business angels. We are currently raising our first early seed round, as we need some money to grow sales and expand our development team. We are talking with both government backed funds, and private ones, so after we finish this stage I hope I will be able to share with you some thoughts regarding the process.
In terms of product, as I mentioned we are now testing our first version of Edward with customers, getting feedback and tuning it to their needs. The plan is to stay on Polish market till the end of 2017, as the product will be technically finished and ready to scale abroad. That means we are now looking for B2B companies from all over the world, that are willing to try the beta version and share their feedback with us. If you are interested in testing Edward, feel free to register on our webpage http://edward.ai/ or contact me directly.