You might not realise it, but artificial intelligence (AI) is here, and you’re probably already using it.
In many cases, we already take AI for granted, whether talking to Alexa or Siri, having a conversation with a chatbot, or having product recommendations driven to us by some of the world’s most popular e-commerce platforms.
If you’re running a digital business in a Software as a Service (SaaS) world, you can derive value from AI—but you might not know it yet.
In this article, two businesses reveal where they are in their AI journeys and what it means for their products and services.
Here’s what we cover:
AI can differentiate you from the competition
Forecast is a SaaS business that sells project and resource management software—a market saturated with companies such as Trello, Asana, and Basecamp.
Transparency Market Research says the global online project management software market expects to attain a value of $6.08bn (£5.05bn) by 2025.
Forecast differentiates itself through a resource management platform that uses AI to help project team members understand their work, with a machine learning algorithm generating precise estimations around time, budget and profit.
There’s an obvious demand for its AI-based software, as Forecast can claim significant growth in the past few years, beginning as a Danish startup founded in 2016 by a team of computer scientists and growing to become an 80-strong business with offices in Copenhagen, London and New York that has attracted around $40m (£33m) of funding.
Forecast also made the Deloitte Fast 50 as one of the top 50 fastest-growing technology companies in the UK, based on revenue growth over the past four years.
Find a problem that needs an AI solution
The success of Forecast shows there’s a hunger for AI-based software that can take away the pain of spreadsheets for complex processes.
Before CEO Dennis Kayser co-founded Forecast, he worked on e-commerce projects for a global technology provider.
He discovered a problem that needed solving after experiencing chaotic projects that never came in on time or within budget.
His teams were always using spreadsheets for delivery, which, although widely used for resource and project management, quickly turned into unwieldy mishmashes of data.
Dennis investigated project and resource management systems but couldn’t find a solution aimed at the mid-market business segment that met his needs.
So he sought to tackle the problem himself.
He says: “We wanted to build a holistic finance, resource and project management system with a best-in-class user interface and experience.
“We also wanted customers to be able to connect their existing systems, such as Salesforce, HubSpot, Sage and others, and through that data, use AI and machine learning.”
Selling and funding a SaaS AI product
The founders of Forecast originally intended to bootstrap the business, but as interest grew in what they were doing, the complexity of the questions that needed answering grew.
They realised they needed external financing to accelerate development. And after a short period where the product was available for free, they started monetising it.
“There’s that classic fallacy when you’re technical that if you build something, people will find it by accident, they’ll love it, and come in droves,” Dennis explains. “But you must consider the commercial and marketing aspects of pushing the product early on.
“The founders will always be the best sellers of the product because they know the problem in depth. We talked to each and every one of our first customers to try and understand their problems and how to solve them.”
With $40m of funding, Dennis and his fellow founders have been very successful in attracting capital from investors.
But it’s not an easy process, especially with the economic climate as it is now.
“The market can be a little strange sometimes,” says Dennis. “It’s not always a great idea to build something completely novel.
“An investor should know at least one aspect of your business, such as your target market or product.
“I would always try to get warm introductions through your network or people you know within the industry instead of doing cold outreach to investors.
“They get many of those, and you’ll be a needle in a haystack.”
How to bring in people for growth
To scale, Forecast needed to bring in more people, especially as it wanted to accelerate and grow in the US market.
Dennis says:, “At the start, we had bookkeepers and a handful of different systems. We matured from there. We first brought in a finance director to create more structure, and now we have a CFO with a fully fledged finance team.”
Simone Goodman came in as the CFO to support the growth of Forecast into the US market.
At the Series A stage, a startup probably won’t have a fully formed leadership team. Over the past 12 months, that’s what Dennis has been working on and developing.
He says: “We’re very optimistic about what comes next. We recently hired a VP of sales and marketing working out of New York, which is super exciting. We’ll also be building a New York-based Centre of Excellence.”
Suppose you’re in a SaaS leadership role. In that case, you should understand that constant change is the reality and that you must navigate that situation with people to ensure everybody has a good experience, whether they choose to stay or leave.
To some extent, you need to be doing things that some people in the business will have never seen or experienced.
Right at the beginning, Forecast’s founders were content with bringing in technology that worked best at the time. However, as the business matured, any tech that didn’t fit with how Forecast grew would have to be replaced.
For example, with financial accounting, Forecast started with a small Danish system, moving on to QuickBooks and other systems in different regions—it started to get complicated, and that’s when it turned to Sage Intacct.
Simone says: “At the same time as bringing people in, you take a critical look at the tech you have in place and whether it’s fit for purpose, today and tomorrow.
“Does it play harmoniously with your systems, and can it scale with your business? If not, rip it out and replace it.”
Digital businesses can take advantage of AI
Even if your business isn’t developing an AI product, that doesn’t need to stop you from taking advantage of using AI.
Pete Hanlon is group chief technology officer (CTO) at Moneypenny, an outsourced communications provider.
Since he arrived at the company in 2019, Pete has driven Moneypenny’s digital transformation, moving the business to the cloud. He’s overseen the development of a cloud platform that brands use to offer services such as energy switching.
The company is exploring how to embrace AI across customer service, telephone services and the use of live chat.
In addition, Pete believes deep learning, particularly Natural Language Processing (NLP), is an exciting space and many opportunities exist to use the emerging technology. This includes its live chat functionality, where human operators can surface information they can incorporate into their responses.
Pete advises digital businesses that want to use AI to use third-party services instead of embarking on the journey of developing their own platform.
He says: “You could spend months building a scalable infrastructure that could never turn into a real product. Instead, leverage a SaaS platform. Don’t build it yourself. Let others build the technology for you who know what they’re doing.”
It’s important for somebody in a CTO/chief information officer (CIO) position to understand the perspective of a CFO looking at areas such as performance metrics and return on investment (ROI).
Pete elaborates: “You should be able to explain to a CFO how the technology in question will impact the businesses. Consider capital and operational expenditure. It’s important to frame what you’re doing.
“You need to take your tech hat off, put your business hat on, and make sure you’re resonating with the CFO—if they understand the technical roadmap and why we’re doing what we’re doing. They need to if they’re going to be open to investment.”
Huge opportunities for AI in the future
Tech leaders such as Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Google have made highly publicised investments in AI while OpenAI’s ChatGPT has opened the eyes of many people to the potential of machine learning.
“Coronavirus quickly revealed that our current systems are not as resilient as we thought they were,” says Martin Nuska, a research manager at global market intelligence firm IDC.
“We have seen digital transformation become urgent, with disrupted supply chains, a shortage of workforce and skills, and a critical need for fast and accurate data to support decision-making processes.
“Artificial intelligence proved to be a solution to many real-life problems, which did not go unnoticed among businesses.”
Dennis Kayser says AI technology has matured incredibly in the six years since Forecast was founded and advises digital businesses wanting to use AI to utilise existing technologies rather than start from scratch.
He says: “The advantage of starting now versus some years ago is that you can leverage third parties and not build stuff yourself.”
In certain cases, computers can perform tasks better than humans. However, Dennis believes that we’re more likely to see AI automating general business workflows and removing mundane manual work.
He adds: “It’s about letting technology do what it does best, so humans can do what they do best. With problem solving, humans are still better than any computer, which will continue for the foreseeable future.”
This article was created by Sage, a community-supported Product on our Tech 100.