SSON Presents a Startup to Watch: Roots Automation
From SSON Network / Barbara Hodge
Shortlist for the SSON 2020 “Startup Zone” Award (North America)
Roots Automation is the brainchild of John Cottongim, CTO, and Chaz Perera, CEO, who met at AIG, identified a frustrating gap in the automation market, and found they had a common passion in solving it. Fast-forward to October 2018, and the duo cemented their plans to launch Roots Automation, which came to market in April 2019. A year and a half later, Roots joined SSON’s inaugural Startup Zone to pitch their solution to thousands of Shared Services execs attending SSO Week Live North America. Shortlisted for the winner’s circle, John then stepped in front of SSON’s version of Shark Tank to defend his company’s value proposition alongside the two other businesses that made the final cut. [The winner was Bid Ops – more on them later.]
This week, SSON editor, Barbara Hodge sat down with John Cottongim (below, left) and Chaz Perera (below, right) over Zoom, to find out what makes their new business so impressive.
Barbara Hodge: John and Chaz, congratulations on being short-listed for SSON’s inaugural Startup Zone. You are both inspirational advocates for the “digital workers” Roots Automation offers. How did you meet and what led to this partnership?
Chaz Perera: John and I met at AIG, where I led Global Business Services and he headed the Automation Center of Excellence. We both used to get into the office early, around 7-7:30 AM, and as I passed John’s desk on the way to mine I got into the habit of stopping every morning for a chat. Our discussions inevitably shifted to automation technology and the opportunities for solving business problems, and specifically what wasn’t working so well in our automation implementations. Often, this wasn’t down to the tool alone but rather the complex set of technologies and skills required to automate a process correctly. We saw a real disconnect between what needed to come together to enable the future of work - that we could clearly see before us – and what was actually happening in our office. When we’d talk to our peers at other companies, they’d have similar points of view. Even after John left to take up the role of Automation Director at Mars, we still met regularly at Starbucks to carry on these conversations.
John Cottongim: One thing we both felt strongly about was that although everyone was talking about Intelligent Automation, the truth was that the intelligence didn’t really exist. The intelligence – primarily custom machine learning algorithms – comes in many flavors and requires talent that few companies can afford and deploy at scale. Add to this the total cost of ownership of an automation (software, talent, infrastructure, etc…) and delays associated with corporate politics and siloed decision-making, and the results fell far short of the promises made by software vendors and systems integrators
In truth, we found this challenge wasn’t readily solvable within our corporate jobs.
Barbara Hodge: So how did you transition from IA debates at Starbucks to forming Roots Automation?
John Cottongim: That transition happened very easily. We both have entrepreneurial DNA, but we also worked for companies that encouraged and valued entrepreneurialism. At AIG as well as Mars, people are encouraged to experiment and come up with innovative ideas to create value. So the transition to Roots came naturally.
Both of us believe fervently in the future of work, and in fact predict that within a decade offices will be staffed 50:50 by humans and bots. But we saw that no one was actually thinking about, let alone planning for, the ecosystem required so that both parties work well together. There was a certain element of kinship that was missing. So that is where Roots came in.
Chaz Perera: We both clearly recognized the gap in the market and believed we could solve it. We also saw that many automation solutions were targeting larger enterprise organizations that had the resources to support an IA strategy. But if you consider that 50% of the world’s GDP comes from companies that are under $700 million in revenue, there is a huge gap waiting to be filled … waiting for a complete solution. And we felt that we could be their solution.
Watch the interview with North America's 2020 Startup Zone Winner, Bid Ops, here
Barbara Hodge: The bot market is already well-supplied. What differentiates your bots from those already out there?
Chaz Perera: The fact is that many of the early RPA tools – or bots – required a lot of additional help in order to be effective. Consider that a process might start with an email and an attachment. The challenge is to extract content out of the attachment and understand its contextual needs. That means using NLP and OCR, for example. But it also means more skilled resources are required. So the real cost of automation is significantly higher and implementation will take substantially longer once you take these extra capabilities and technologies into account.
The bots we have created come pre-configured – pre-trained – and are ready to launch as a comprehensive digital resource, to replace a human one. They are effectively digital versions of fully-fledged new hires – skilled and experienced but also able to learn on the job, from interactions with others. No additional solutions are required, no additional costs are incurred, and time to value is very, very short.
John Cottongim: There are really two things we address. First, we lower the total cost of ownership, which extends, as Chaz says, far beyond licensing costs. And secondly, in just a few weeks we don’t just create a bot to automate a part of a process – we create a bot that “does a job,” for example, that of a fully trained claims assistant.
But there is a third factor that differentiates us, and that is that we create bots that are as human-like as possible. They reflect an awareness and an ability to make inferences that is unique. We do this by amassing loads of context via machine learning; but also by monitoring interactions with customers via our web app. Where the bots need additional information to complete a job, they know who to ask, and learn from the answers. They don’t hand work off to a human colleague. Instead they wait for responses and attempt to complete the work once they have more color. And the integrate what they learn.
Effectively, what we offer is not a piece of software but a new hire in digital form, a Digital Coworker, that comes fully equipped with the skills and knowledge to do a specific job, but also builds on these skills and expertise throughout its career.
Chaz Perera: Let me add something here. When Shared Services contract with outsourcers, they’ll often be told, “Rest assured, we’ll seed your team with our best and most experienced staff.” Unfortunately, that is often just not true.
Our solution, on the other hand, absolutely does offer the best available resources because we’ve taken what we’ve learned at our corporate jobs about shared services, process management, service delivery, automation, and Center of Excellence … combined with the knowledge the bots continually acquire, and packaged all that into virtual employees that specialize in certain roles.
For example, we could provide, at short notice and tailored to your organization, fully-fledged claims assistant bots, underwriting assistant bots, financial associate bots, and HR associate bots. In addition, for the healthcare industry, we have ready-made bots to replace patient intake associates and healthcare reimbursement associates. Again: these are bots can do the work of a human equivalent. In fact, on average our bots replace the work of four to eight FTEs.
Our value proposition is to create bots with as near to human qualities as possible. These bots can reach out to human experts for information, and can also recognize, through ongoing exchanges, who the “right” expert might be at any given moment, as these experts’ learnings evolve. And this happens without us needing to re-code anything. There is a self-learning element based on a cognitive capability that is built in.
What guides us is the question: what do people like about people? And that is what we embed in our bots. That ability to figure out the right source for an answer. A lot of what we are doing on the learning and engagement side just isn’t happening elsewhere today. So that’s our differentiator: true human-centric delivery along with automated and integrated collaboration with experts.
Barbara Hodge: How do your bots deal with volume shifts? How scalable are they?
John Cottongim: Our priority was to build scalability into the platform. So, as volumes spike, multiple versions of a digital worker can step in to manage the flow.
Let’s say that a customer is using a bot – let’s call it Dewey – to deal with first notice of loss insurance. Now imagine there is suddenly a spike in volume. Immediately, 10 copies of Dewey can pop up in the background to deal with this spike. And when it subsides, so do they. These temporary increases in volume are taken care of within the confines of agreed bands of volume, with full transparency. So there is no extra requirement from the customer’s side.
Barbara Hodge: What is your vision for the year ahead?
Chaz Perera: We will continue to build digital coworkers that have the best qualities of a bot, i.e., offering highly engaged, consistent, responsiveness; along with the best qualities of a human, i.e., ability to communicate, learn, anticipate and adapt to a changing environment.
Over the next year we hope to build digital coworkers (our bots) that show up to meetings. So, if the operations team holds a daily standup, the bots will participate. Not only that, but they will adjust their work day based on the conversation in that meeting. We will use a cognitive omnichannel communication to do this, so that the bots become active participants.
John Cottongim: Our tagline is Smart Bots, Happy People – and we live by that mantra. It’s great to make the CFO or the COO happy. But at the end of the day, the most important validation will come from happy line managers, and their employees.
Because that’s where work gets done and businesses thrive.