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Founder Interviews: Oleg Rogynskyy of People.ai

After witnessing all the time wasted by sales people doing manual data entry, Oleg set out to create a better solution. Two year later, People.ai has just closed a $30M Series B led by Andreessen Horowitz.

Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on?

My name is Oleg Rogynskyy and I am the founder and CEO of People.ai. That’s what I’ve been working on! People.ai is a powerful enterprise platform that drives intelligence and optimization on all revenue creation for sales, marketing, customer success, and other revenue-generating teams. For example, enterprises use it in the sales cycle to efficiently optimize sales opportunities, free up additional sales capacity and help manage sales force on a day to day basis. You can learn more about our products at www.people.ai.

We’ve been in existence for a little over two years and have taken funding from Y Combinator, Lightspeed Venture Partners (Led Series A), and GGV Capital. We just announced that Andreessen Horowitz led our Series B round of $30M. See here: https://people.ai/news/seriesb-andreessenhorowitz/

What motivated you to get started with your company?

Early in my career, I was a salesperson at a Canadian company called Nstein Technologies. I was diligent, I was driven and I used our company’s CRM religiously. It took me a LOT of time to enter all the prospect contacts and activity. I didn’t like it. One time I was forced to spend a week on cleaning CRM data manually by our COO at the time. I thought I should be spending more time with prospects and less time entering data, but, as I said, I was diligent and thoroughly did even the worst parts of my job. Soon after that, I was managing a sales team at Nstein and then later one at my own, newly founded company, Semantria. Now I had a group of people who I relied on to enter their sales activity and contacts into our CRM so that I could have visibility into our pipeline and track how we are doing against our targets, quota, etc. I learned quickly that not all salespeople were as diligent as I had been in entering sales activity and capturing all other valuable data about our clients and prospects. My insight was only as good as the data that was input…and, to put it mildly, the data was, at best, incomplete (at worst it was complete garbage!). I knew there had to be a better way.

What went into building the initial product?

In early 2016, I invited some of my engineer friends to help me build a software product that would automate the capture of all sales activity, contact and account data into the Salesforce.com CRM. It would pull from emails, calendars, chat sessions and anything that we could think of and deliver that data straight into a specific prospect’s or customer’s CRM contact or account (currently, People.ai pulls from 90+ sources). Such automation would give all salespeople the gift of time. It would also give all sales managers, and as we later learned, marketers, data scientists, customer success leaders and even the CEO, the gift of data. Shortly thereafter, Y Combinator funded us to help us get this idea off the ground. I’ll never forget how during our first YC interview (with mostly B2C-focused YC partners), folks looked at us like we are out of our minds when we explained to them that the whole B2B world is still doing this manually. Since they simply could not believe that manual data entry still exists in the sales world, they sent us for re-interview with B2B-focused YC partners, where Michael Seibel instantly related to the problem, had felt the pain, and we got accepted into YC.

How have you attracted users and grown your company?

With seed funding from YC, Shasta, Index, 65+ angel investors, a handful of brilliant engineers and a great problem to solve, we went about building People.ai. Giving salespeople back time back on their calendar is already significant and an important innovation, but our customers wanted to be able to see the sales data and use it to help them actually sell and service their customers better. More than just helping sales, if we did this right, we knew this would have a major impact on anyone touching the customers, including marketing, support, services, data science, etc.

Using AI, we were able to see what activities and contacts in the buying group were needed to move a deal from opportunity to sale…and once we had the customer, how to move them to buy more. We use a company’s own data to see which activity patterns work, which ones don’t and what’s the ideal buying group on the prospect side needed to get the deal closed. We are able to automatically build if you will, a step-by-step playbook on how to get a prospect to say YES.

Growth for the company has come from having the right product at the right time of course, but we’re taking advantage of a growing brand and market awareness through the marketing team, word of mouth recommendations and a growing number of Executive Briefing Center intro’s with our investors. So far, we’ve got a pretty good batting average when we get our foot in the door, we just passed our first renewal season with no churn and saw expansions across the board. With a little over a year in the market, we’ve also seen salespeople who have worked with us move to other companies and bring us into their new companies because they don’t want to ever do manual data entry again.

With our Series B announcement today, we are ready for our ‘close-up’. We’re ready to serve enterprise sales teams and give them insights and give them time. One of our customers, Palo Alto Networks, said: “People.ai has already paid for itself multiple times over.” That’s a pretty great endorsement of what we can do and we’d love the opportunity to prove this to more and more customers.

What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

We are a SaaS business, and we’ve already grown our revenue by over 400% since in the past few quarters. We’ve grown our revenue by proving our value to our customers…immediately in the case of automating data entry into their CRM…and, over time, with our AI showing enterprise companies how they can get to a “yes” in a more efficient and effective way, at scale.

What are your goals for the future?

Simply put: We are ready for more customers. We have the platform, we have the team and we have the impact that enterprise sales teams need. We now need them to know about us. With our Series B funding, we will now more aggressively market our technology, we’ll expand our sales force and we will continue to improve and add to our product.

Our long-term goal is to be in New York City with our entire team ringing the Nasdaq opening bell as we go public.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Our investors have been amazingly helpful. I joke with our Partner at a16z, Peter Levine, that it was love at first sight. Peter teaches a class at Stanford on solution selling and does a lot of executive sales boot camps for large Enterprises, and when he learned what we were doing, he could immediately see the what we were solving for in the sales cycle. He knows what salespeople have to live through in entering data into CRM and he wanted to help People.ai get rid of that pain for all salespeople. He could also see that with the insights that our AI gives your enterprise, we are now treating sales like a science.

Similarly, for our series A, we worked with Nakul Mandan at Lightspeed, and the companies he’d invested in were all going through the same challenges, we were solving for. So his experience in the Enterprise space has been invaluable as we’ve built our platform and focused our go to market.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

Early on we spent a ton of time with customers. I literally met with 100+ potential customers over the course of a month, asked them the same questions and LISTENED. I saw the pattern through this and then we set off building.

This dedication to customer listening is what caught the eye of both Lightspeed and A16Z as it’s the best way to validate the need in the market before you build the product.

And when they both saw how much time we dedicate to listening (our one-pager sales process, our 1hr-month each engineer in the company has to spend in front of a customer), they realized that we will be successful because listening to the customer is in our DNA.

My advice — build your company AROUND listening to the customer. Create processes and structural elements that maximize customer listening and encourage and incent your employees to always listen to what the customer is saying.

I encourage all entrepreneurs to read this great article on listening from Andreessen Horowitz: “Ears, Use Them” — https://a16z.com/2017/07/11/sales-listening/

Where can we go to learn more?

To learn more about People.ai, please go to www.people.ai and to follow our progress, please follow us @ppl_ai on Twitter.

And, if you are a talented engineer who wants to be a part of AI and machine learning that actually works, please visit our jobs site at: https://people.ai/careers/

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