How to balance the hype and practical applications of AI in business?

Robin Daniels, Chief business & Product officer ● Jun 18th, 2024

The full transcript

Oleg

Hi everybody! Welcome to Devico Breakfast Bar! Here we speak with different people involved in the business landscape, share their expertise, delve into the latest tech trends, and explore the ins and outs of IT outsourcing. I'm Oleg Sadikov, the founder of Devico and DeviQA, and today I'm excited to have Robin Daniels, an experienced executive focused on growth, marketing, product innovation, and leadership development. Don't forget to subscribe and hit the notification bell so you don't miss new episodes. Hi Robin, and thanks for joining.

Robin

Hey Oleg! It's good to be here, man. Good to see you.

Oleg

Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your professional background?

Robin

Sure, sure. So, I'm based in Copenhagen, Denmark, right now, and I was born and raised here. I've kind of been a nerd my whole life, if I'm honest about it. I love technology, and I love the way that technology can help drive the way we think about work or life and the way it can impact everything we do. So, I've always been a little bit of a nerd. I started coding websites when I was in my teens, in the early nineties, when I was using HTML, and I learned JavaScript and Java. So, I've always kind of been super interested, and then at the same time, I was reading a lot about the magic that was happening over in California, in Silicon Valley. And I always felt like I wanted to be a part of that movement. So, when I was 21, I bought a one-way ticket from Copenhagen, Denmark, to California. I didn't have a job. I didn't have a place to stay. I didn't know anybody. I'd never actually been to California. I just always had this desire, this kind of passion, that I didn't want to look back on my life when I'm 50, 60, 70 years old and regret not having the courage to follow my dream or not having the courage like to be part of this thing that was happening. And I figured always, you know, Denmark safe, secure, very peaceful country. Honestly, if it didn't work out, I'm like, 'I've got my family. I can always come back.' But I didn't want to live with that regret. So, I moved over there, and I applied to every job I could find, and I ended up getting roughly 15 job interviews because everybody was hiring at this point in time. Everybody needed talent. And even though I was only 21, and I didn't really have much experience, I ended up getting 15 job conversations going. And after that, I got two job offers. Tiny startup companies. And I ended up saying 'yes' to one startup company that was based in what's called Los Gatos, California. So, it's part of Silicon Valley. And I took the job, and I remember calling back and saying, 'Ah, I made it. I got a job. You know, it was a little difficult, but it wasn't that difficult.' I got hired as a web programmer, and then a month after I got there, in March of 2000, the whole market crashed. I was like, 'Oh shit, what just happened?' And many people don't remember that, they might not have heard about it, but it was pretty brutal. So, this company did not end up making it, and I had to go hustle my way and find another job. So, six months later, I was out of a job again. And I found a job at a company called Persistence Software that was doing more middleware and so on. And I was like, 'Okay, I've got a job. I'm safe again.' Four months later, that company also went under. So, shit! Another one.

So, the first year was a little rough, you know, like lots of hits and misses and so on. Then I ended up, in 2001, getting a job at a company called Veritas. And they were a little bit bigger, and stable, and growing steadily. And that's kind of when I really got my start. And I don't need to go through my whole history, but when you then zoom out and look about: I spent over 20 years in California, and lots of things didn't work out, but luckily I had some good hits as part of my journey. I was at early days at Salesforce. I was at Box when we took that company public, which was super fun. Then I was at LinkedIn for a while. Then I went to WeWork, which was a crazy ride and a disaster because it ended crashing very publicly where I was the chief marketing officer there. That was painful. Then I went to a company most recently called Matterport where I took the company public in 2021, which was super fun on NASDAQ.

And then, most recently, about a year ago, I joined this company in Copenhagen, Denmark, called Zensai. And we're really focused on being an HR platform for people willing to become the best version of themselves. And I'm so passionate about this idea of learning, and growth, and development. Again, when I look back on my whole life and career, I'm so convinced that I am where I am today because so many people have believed in me, and invested in me, and giving me the knowledge, and skills, and support, and comfort that I needed to become better, and better, and better and progress towards where I could be in my life so I could realize my full potential. And even when I first came to California – you know, I got my first job there in 2000, and I was working for the VP of marketing – I was 21, and I didn't really have much experience. And Si saw something in me, and she invested in me and said, 'Hey, you can go in this direction.' And she put me on a path of what was called product marketing. I didn't even know what that was, but again, being surrounded by people and mentors who kind of believe in you, and ultimately, this is why I joined this company because our platform is really all about can we nudge people or push people in the right direction to get the right knowledge, skills, motivation to every single day they feel like there's this forward momentum with your life because we know what a game-changer that is when people show up full of dedication, passion, motivation, and want to pay that forward to as many people as possible. That's a very long answer about who I am and what I've done, but it's a little bit of my story to give you some background of my journey.

Oleg

Sounds great. So, all your career was in marketing, mostly marketing, right?

Robin

Mostly. I mean, in high-tech, you know, if you – I know you come from the high-tech world as well – I mean, marketing, and sales, and product are so interlinked, and they've become more into like, I think it's impossible nowadays, honestly, to really separate them out. Of course, if I look at the three core parts of go-to-market – sales, marketing, and product – my expertise the deepest is by far in marketing. I've been chief marketing officer a few times. Now, I also, since I run also product as well. And because I've always been involved in it, I mean, I've always had the greatest dialogues with my counterparts as the chief product officers in the companies, because I can't go and market stuff that I either don't understand or it's not good enough. So, they're so interlinked today, and now I get to run both go-to-market and also product, which is super fun because that way I think I can really influence the direction of the company, of the product, but also, of course, how we take it to market as well in an even tighter fashion. But just, you're right: the majority of my experience has been mostly on the marketing side and on the product side. But again, I'm a nerd, I'm a self-professional, so I think I get to do a little bit of both in this new role.

Oleg

Thanks for sharing all these details. What about your hobbies and interests outside of work? How do they contribute to your professional success?

Robin

Yeah, that's a great question! Not many people ask me this, but I would say my job as a leader, especially in the last 10 years, as I've risen through the ranks – maybe the last 15 years – my life is so busy. Many different things. I'm always on. I feel like there's never really many moments where I don't work. And it's also because I like to work. Passion that gives me the purpose is really important. And much of my day, because I lead large teams around the world, I'm really busy talking to people all day. And even though I was thinking I'm more extroverted than introverted, but I also just need time for myself. The way I refuel is by getting time for myself. And I love running. Running for me is kind of my passion. I try to do it as much as I can. I recharge, which is a little weird because you're using energy. But I actually think I recharge when I go for a run. I always feel better after it, no matter if I have a shitty day, or a hard day, or whatever's happening. There's always stuff that happens when you're building a company, as you know. And running to me is the ultimate meditation. I'm a little too hyper to meditate, and I've tried it many times. And so, running for me is a kind of meditation. Nobody's talking to me. It's just me and my thoughts. And I can get in my creative space, in my happy place. And lots of times, the way I solve challenges, or I get creative ideas, is by doing that. So, that's one thing. I love traveling because it always provides me a new perspective on people, culture, situations, seeing things from a different perspective. I love challenging myself in new ways – new foods, new experiences – where I'm a little bit out of my comfort zone.

Something I write about frequently on LinkedIn is around this idea of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to build grit and resilience. I don't think you can read about it and learn grit and resilience from that way. I think you can, of course, get inspired by it, don't get me wrong, but I think at some point you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. And I try to do that as much as I can. It's not always easy. As I get older, I find it harder, if I'm honest about it. And so, for example, three weeks ago, it was the Copenhagen Marathon. And it was on Sunday, and on Thursday night I signed up for the Copenhagen Marathon, and I'm like, 'You know what? It's going to suck. But you know what? It's going to be a good reminder for myself that I can get through it.' It's okay that the thing sucks sometimes. It'll build the mental resilience, because I've done some marathons before. And there's always a point – I mean, 42 kilometers is no joke – there's always a point, where you go, 'Ugh, it sucks. Why am I doing this?' And it's not because your body can't do it. It's, of course, super tough physically, but it's more mental game, in my experience. And so, for me, it was a reminder like I feel like I'm a little too complacent. Can I remind myself of the sucky part of actually life that happens? And can I kind of build up, keep me rebuilding that resilience? Cause I don't know how it is in your life – I'd love to hear your perspective – but as you get older, and you get more stuff and more success, you get a little bit more complacent, a little bit more comfortable. So, I never want to be that way. That's not my growth zone, if that makes sense. I don't know about you. How do you see it?

Oleg

I totally understand you. I'm ex-triathlete. So, I used to do triathlon in the past. And I was always in sport. Now, I'm playing tennis — big tennis. Our common friend Derek told me the same: his best thoughts come while he's biking. Also, I tried meditating, but it didn't work well. For me, it's too boring. I'm also an extrovert and, yeah, kind of the same character. So, I totally understand you.

Robin

Let's give a shout-out to Derek. He's one of my favorite human beings on the planet. Just like his energy, the way he shows up. He's been through a lot in his life as well, if you know his story, right? But the way that he shows up for his team, his family, the people in his life. It's very inspiring. He's very selfless, I think, in many ways. But he always shows up with this energy that you always leave any interaction with him thinking, 'Wow! I feel better about myself. I feel better about the world. It gives me hope and joy.' He's an amazing human being.

Oleg

Totally agree. And very positive. This is what I need to learn from him.

Robin

Yes. That's why we get along so well, Derek and I.

Oleg

You frequently discuss the importance of culture on LinkedIn. Could you elaborate on the specific strategies or practices you use to build and sustain high-performance culture within your teams?

Robin

It's a great and very profound topic because there's no easy answers. I always try to be very mindful of what I write because I don't want people to think that I can boil everything down to easy sentences or easy answers because the truth about culture is there are no easy answers. You have to do as a leader to work. That's why I think leadership is the ultimate privilege and honor. So many people want to be a leader. How many people in your life come in, 'I want to get promoted, I want to be a VP, I want to lead teams,' and then when they get there, they just don't live up to the amazing thing that it is to be a leader? And to be a leader is really a sacred thing in my mind. You have people now look up to you, rely on you, or depend on you, and culture is part of that. Culture is not just a leadership thing. Of course, everyone participates in the culture. But let's not kid ourselves that the more senior you are in an organization, the more you can impact and influence the culture because you have a larger voice, a larger presence, and so on than many other people. And so, it's really important that you take that seriously. And so, the way I think culture is evolving, I think we're seeing this trend in the world that it used to be the only thing that really mattered, even though people, of course, wouldn't say this is the results that you're getting. We're growing, we're releasing things fast, we're innovative, and so on. I think nowadays, the way you get there matters just as much, and the new generation of workers – I see this all the time – they don't just care about the outcome of things; they care about what goes into it as well. And so, as a leader, the way I think you drive culture is by you be super clear on what it is that you're ultimately trying to achieve. And if some people decide that they don't want to be a part of that, that's okay as well. And once you're clear on what you're trying to achieve, then you set out the guidelines for basically the goal, but of course with a lot of flexibility around how you get there. You don't want to dictate or micromanage.

That's super uninspiring to people. But if you say, 'Over the next three years, we want to become this company, with this level of growth, and we want to release these products,’ how you get there? Let the team decide that, of course. So the way I think about it is the way you drive culture – you have to be super clear about what it is. Number one is it's very hard to have a great culture if there's no clarity around what the culture is. So, you have to speak it out loud, you have to say it out loud, you have to put it into practice. The same with goals: I think about goals and culture being very interlinked in many ways. It's very hard to achieve anything great unless you're clear about what it is you're trying to achieve in the first place. So, for me, everything starts with clarity. But culture, especially it really starts with clarity. Here's who we are. Here's what we stand for. Here's what we want to become known for. Here's the ultimate aspiration that we have. Then the second thing, once you have that clarity, that is around, ‘Okay, now that we know what we want to get to, what values do we have? What actions do we take as humans to get there’ – and that the important part – ‘How do you hold people accountable to those actions?' I see so many companies that have all these cultural values on their walls: act as an owner, take intelligent risks, 10X things, move fast and fail fast, and all that kind of stuff. But if you're actually not rewarding the behavior or holding people accountable to the behavior, it just becomes empty words. And I think people are so tired of these empty words. I see this all the time as well. People want to be part of something. They want to believe in something, but it only happens if the what you say and what you do actually matches up. I had a CEO that I used to work for, and he used to say the say-do ratio. And it's one of the things that I've always loved. What you say and what you do should ideally be one-to-one, of course. But the more it's off, you start losing the trust of your employees and, of course, then also your customers in the market as well.

Ultimately, if you say you're going to do things, then you should also go do those things.

But think about what values and culture, so important. If you say all these things, then you're going to stand for this. We're going to stand for teamwork, and diversity, and collaboration. But then you don't live up to it. What do you think the employees are going to think every single day? Then they will think either you're not true to the word or it's okay, maybe, to cut corners or not live up to those values. And that's when culture starts eroding, and trust starts eroding as well. To me, the cultures, the companies I've been in where the culture were really valued is when it's so embedded into everything you do. So, LinkedIn – I used to work at LinkedIn for a while – they had one of the most amazing cultures and qualified cultures that I've ever seen in my life. Many meetings, or maybe not meetings, but many projects would start by us asking as a leadership team, 'If we embark on this project or this initiative, does this honor the values that we have as a company?' And we had a couple of different values, like act as an owner, or members come first, and so on. And so, for example, I remember there were some things we were discussing around the project, and we started the project by saying, 'Does this honor our commitment, our value of being members first, or is it too much about us and not about the members?' Because we never wanted to lose the trust of the members, because for LinkedIn, trust is everything. There was always the currency versus Facebook, and TikTok, and Google, and all these other companies that people like, but the trust factor is not out. For us, trust was everything. And so, we oftentimes started meetings by asking ourselves, 'Does this live up to the value that we have?' I think about LinkedIn probably sits on more data around you as a person nearly than any other company, besides maybe, of course, Facebook, and Google, and so on. But Facebook and Google have monetized the shit out of your data, right? That's how they make money. And for LinkedIn, we never wanted to monetize that because we thought then it starts compromising the trust between the members and their trust in the platform. And so even though I think if LinkedIn had just opened up the file host and said, 'Let's get as much of this data out to as many people as possible, all the advertisers and so on, and make so much money.'

They do that in a small way with some of their parties, but always keep a very close lid on. Once again, it was always 'Well, we lose the trust.' If every person out there just think that every time you go on LinkedIn, which is going to sell your data and everything you do, it's like, 'Oh, it becomes a little sticky.' Right? So, there's no easy answer, but I think it's about living the values that you say that you really have. Because if you don't do that, then you have many of these examples where companies have cut corners, or they've lost the trust of people. I don't want to beat up on Facebook or Meta, but I feel like they've been an easy one because everyone knows them. And just like the corners that they would cut, at least in the early days – I don't know if they've gotten their shit together more – but it was like, 'Oh my God, another data breach where all my data is out there,' or 'They've sold my data to some third party, and now I'm being targeted.' Every time, it's just like a little bit of erosion of trust. I don't think they set out to do that. Don't get me wrong, but I think it's probably because there was something in their culture that was a little bit about 'You know, we can make more money this way. You know, we can grow faster, because that's ultimately what matters.' And in today's world, I just don't know if that's, that's going to fly anymore with the next generation of people.

Oleg

To me, Meta is number one company that monetize your data. The biggest. How do you foresee AI transforming your role?

Robin

It's a great question. A lot, honestly. I think it's going to make it so many things, especially mundane things, much easier. I think the hype cycle, the hype around AI is crazy high. The reality is still a little behind the hype. So, that's just one thing.

Oleg

Too much fake around.

Robin

Oh, it's crazy. It's crazy, right? It's like, I still have not fully integrated AI into every part of my workflow. I mean, it's still like an afterthought. But when I use it at some cases, I think it can be pretty powerful. I think for building products, if you're in engineering, if you figure out how to use AI smartly and correctly, it can really be a superpower. I think it can really help with a lot of the mundane engineering that you have to do, help with a lot of testing as well, help you write better code, right? The copilots that we see out there, I think, are pretty amazing. I still am a little bit more skeptical around when it comes to creative endeavors: how AI will really be used, and how much it can be used. I think it can help you maybe sharpen some of your thinking, again, really, like you're building a program, or doing marketing campaigns, or thinking about sales outreach. I still think, at least where we are with AI today, it's fairly easy to sniff through that it's not authentic, or it's not good enough, or it's created by a machine. At some point, it'll probably reach a point where it's indistinguishable, but for now, we have a long, long way to go. Like, just again, coming back to a lot of the commentary or comments I see now on LinkedIn, and X, and so on, they're all just AI bots, and they're horrible. Just horrible. You can just kind of smell them from a mile away. So, when it comes to like creating genuine human connections, I think we have a long way to go. But in terms of automating mundane things, it's going to have a huge... I'll give you some examples. So, part of what we sell at Zensai is a learning platform. We sell a learning platform, a performance management platform, and an employee engagement platform. I'll give you two examples. The customers of ours who use us for learning, the L&D managers, the learning and development manager in a company, they might spend 50% of their time trying to put together courses for their employees to take.

Oh, we've got to give an employee a course on cybersecurity, or on new corporate pitch, or whatever it is. You have to be compliant. And employees spend so much time putting this content together: slides, and images, and so on. Now, with AI, you can do it probably 10x, if not 100x, faster. For example, you could point AI to, let's say, a one-hour YouTube video or one-hour video that, hey, you maybe have on your intranet and say, 'Based on this one-hour video, can you create a 15-minute course with 3 questions at the end for the learner to ensure that they've maintained and taken in the knowledge?' And it'll do it like that. Versus you're sitting for 40 hours and trying to figure out the right flow, and the right questions, and the right graphics, it can do it instantly. So, it's just like, those are one things where we can automate some things that are very mundane and very like that. Of course, you still have to check through the results and so on, but at least you get a pretty good draft. So, that's one thing. The other thing, for example, our product does is we have this notion of a weekly check-in where every single week the employees who work for me directly do a self-assessment. They answer four questions. On a scale of 1 to 10, how are you doing? What have you achieved this week? What's holding you back? What's blocking you? And who do you want to give kudos to? And it's meant to take you a couple of minutes to answer. This should be very short because the whole idea is you do this weekly, and it kind of gives you the connection with your manager, but also raises up visibility of what's happening, and what's going well, and what's not going well. We just implemented recently AI coaching and mentoring for managers. If I see an employee is putting in a couple of blockers, and they're stuck with some things, the AI coach now will come back and say, 'Here's some suggestions for how you can respond,' because you can respond right back in the application.

And even with the tone of voice, like, are you trying to be empathetic? Or are you trying to be sympathetic? Are you trying to be helpful? Are you trying to be a little bit more stern maybe, or something, right? So, one of the hardest jobs, I think, for people is when they first step into coaching and management. How do you suddenly deal with people who are working for you? Right? That's a very tricky thing. Very few people go through extensive training for that. It's hard because every person that works for you is different. The way they see the world, the way they care about, the way they're spoken to, and so on. So, AI can come in, and I don't think it's going to do all the coaching for you. That's what I'm saying, or the management. But it can help you, kind of guide you to. Well, this person, Tom, on your team, you know, he's a more sensitive soul. So, maybe you should respond this way or give him this kind of feedback. Versus Susan, she likes direct feedback. You know, she's much more pragmatic. Here's the kind of tone of voice that you should give us so it's clear what. AI can really help guide you in that direction. And it makes it easier for a manager to go, 'Okay. I can now write something to that person and get a check maybe by AI to ensure that it's kind of hitting the right tone and so on and giving the right suggestions. In a way, I think that would be very hard, you would spend a lot of time on before go, do some Google searches, figure out, read some articles. I'm dealing with this issue. AI can really help there as well. So, very hopeful. There's so many cases where AI, I think, can really help. But I also think, again, we're at early days of this. There's a lot to figure out around trust, and privacy, and all kinds of things. But I'm sure some of that will be solved.

I'm curious, I mean, you run a tech shop. What are some interesting use cases you're seeing? What do you think about AI?

Oleg

I think it's too much hype around it. I still do believe that It's too much crude role at this stage. There are definitely benefits in operational day-to-day activities, for sure, but at this stage, I would say too much fake around it. It goes through the same path as everything during hype, like blockchain. It's like up where on the highest point right now, the top. So, it will be definitely correction around AI when people would understand, 'Okay, do I really need AI in my current activity? And does it really help me? Or does this application really do what it's supposed to do around AI?' So, we'll definitely have, I would say, correction around it, but that's still very valuable thing, and it will definitely have future for years. What was the last hype? Blockchain? The biggest hype? Yeah. And blockchain, to me, it's a little bit different because blockchain connected with trading anyways, like Bitcoin, Ethereum. Of course, blockchain is not just cryptocurrency. It's a technology. You build tech products around it. But still, to me, blockchain is very connected with the market, with trading, with cryptocurrency. So, when Bitcoin grows, everyone get back to blockchain, start building new protocols, new things, new platforms, et cetera. When it goes down, everyone forgets about it. So, with AI, it's different.

Robin

Yeah. It's so interesting. I think you're spot on. I think that I put on my branding and storytelling hat. The problem with blockchain is it's way too technical. I think you tell people, and their eyes kind of glaze over. They know it's kind of like they hear the word, but they don't really know how it works. AI has kind of finally crossed that chasm, I think, which is why we're in a different pile, and maybe blockchain will one day. But I remember in 2017, doing the keynote when I was working at LinkedIn for our CEO, it was about AI. It was all about AI. But back then, it was still kind of like, it felt more theoretical. It was very early days. I mean, kudos to OpenAI for making it more seem accessible. The reality has been around for a very long time, right? I mean, even in the nineties, we were talking about AI, but it was always this kind of theoretical technical thing, that was kind of like in the background. Now, it's constantly come to the foreground. And I think if there are some applications where blockchain can be just more easily understood, where people can relate to it, I think they're huge applications. There's no doubt about it, right? And it's going to run a lot of the way we share information, I think, and build trust. But I still think it's way too technical for most people. But it's also further, much further behind than AI. I mean, AI – again, if you just compare – we started with that probably around 60s or 70s, and then it's celebrated in the 90s with IBM and so on. And now, in the two thousand, and then now, of course, the last two years, it's been crazy, right? But blockchain has been around 10, 15 years or so, I think, right?

Oleg

Yeah. And the blockchain, I totally agree with you that it's too technical. And also, it's not something you can see. I mean, blockchain is way below. It's too low-level where you cannot touch it, cannot feel. Okay, if you are using some application, and it's built on blockchain, you might not really know that it was built on blockchain. But with the AI, this is what you can feel. It's something tangible that you can see the result of improving your thing. So to me, it's totally different. With blockchain, you can only see the values from Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. If it grows, you get more money.

Robin

Let's say I was trying to transfer some money to you, and we were using an app for that, and it came up and says, 'This app is powered by blockchain.' That suddenly becomes part of like how people do things, right? But right now, it's like. People – you're absolutely right – they relate it to cryptocurrency a lot, or trading, and so on. So, it's kind of like this is the thing. It'll get there. I mean, it has a lot of applications, from what I understand. Again, I'm not, by no means, an expert, but I think I get it enough to understand the power of it building trust. And I think we definitely need it because we need to build more trust in the information that's being shared.

Oleg

Definitely. In today's highly competitive market, what is the single most crucial piece of advice you would offer to companies striving to differentiate themselves and stand out?

Robin

You can build the greatest technology in the world, but if nobody knows about it, you're screwed. And so, it's so interesting, I think. Companies, and I see a lot of innovation. I moved to Europe a few years ago during COVID. There's so much great innovation coming out of Europe! So much of it! But I think the go-to-market sensibility in Europe is way behind what I've seen in the US. We're building this great technology that can change the world, or at least change the lives of people or companies, and we're like, 'Let's go see if anybody wants it.' You know, it's like, ‘What? What are you talking about?' In the US, it's kind of the opposite. A lot of products are there half-baked, not even always that great, but they go out. Just the best thing in the world. We're going to go sell it to everyone. And there's even confuse a little, combine a little bit of that storytelling courage, I think, to how you build products. I think this is what companies need. Because you can build, again, like the greatest products in the world, but if nobody knows they exist, who cares? And so, I'm encouraged. We're living through what I would classify as the golden age of storytelling. Just think about how many great ways there are to tell the story of who you are, what you do, what you stand for, what your product does. You can use TikTok if you're a consumer brand. You can use LinkedIn. You can use podcasts, like we're doing one right now. You can go sponsor and pay for a Netflix documentary. There's so many great channels and ways to tell the story of who you are and what you stand for. The downside of being in this time – there's so much noise out there.

So, unless you stand out, unless you break free, and unless you have the courage to tell the stories that are a little different, a little bold, maybe even pisses off some people, if you try to please everyone and stand for everything, you're never going to hit the market. Going to market, if you're CEO, if you're founder of a company, so before I joined Zensai, I spent about nearly two years being an advisor to CEOs around the world on around culture and performance, but also a lot around branding, and storytelling, and category creation. And I think people are nervous or not bold enough because, of course, it's not fun if you put something out there and people don't like it. And don't get me wrong, of course, you aim for people liking it, but putting out something that has a point of view, and conviction, and passion also means that there will probably be some people who don't agree with you, and that's okay. But it can be a very uncomfortable thing to be in, right? And so you end up with a lot of storytelling, and marketing, and sales. That's kind of bland. But you're like, 'Oh, it's just sounds like everything else.' And so again, coming back to kind of the bigger point, when I see some of the innovation that's around impact, or climate change, and all kinds of great things, unless we get it out there, it's never going to affect anything. So, we need these solutions. We want to create a better world for all of us, which I'm very optimistic. There's a lot of people who think about it every day. We also need to figure out how to get these out there to people and companies who could use them every single day. So, that's why I would think the biggest advice is if you've built something amazing, don't be afraid to tell the world about it. It's so important.

Oleg

Okay. At what stage in a company's growth do you believe that significant investment in branding becomes crucial? And how can it drive the company's success?

Robin

Well, the interesting thing is I think you're always in branding mode. It's just whether you're paying for it, right? So, that's a different thing. I don't think you start paying for branding until you're probably 5 to 10 million in ARR, I would say. Because in the early days, you want to get customers, and you want to get volume more so, but branding doesn't have to cost money. When I go on LinkedIn and maybe post something, that's branding. If you go on a podcast, that's branding. So, in storytelling, a brand doesn't have to cost a lot. At some point, you probably will think about, 'Well, do we want to do something that's a little bit bigger?' Maybe it's advertising on podcasts. Maybe it's billboards in the airport or something. Those, of course, all costs can cost anywhere from a little bit to crazy amounts of money. And you do that at a little bit of a later stage, I would say, later scale. I think there's basically three ways you can get people to come to you, get customers. You can either pay for them to raise their hand and get in front of them digitally: Google, Facebook, you name it. Volume can be really high, and it works fast. But it can be very expensive, and, you know, it's not the best for branding, if I'm honest. Because how do you expect people to fall in love with your story by seeing 10 words on a Google ad? It just doesn't really work that way. But you can build some good transactional business if you want to get people to convert quickly. The second way you can get customers is by putting out stories that are interesting, where people raise their hand and go, 'This is super interesting. I want to go check out their website or going to learn more.' Again, it can either be free to social channels: on TikTok, LinkedIn, Instagram, you name it. Or you can also, of course, pay for it, right? So, you can put out interesting stories and so on. And then the third way is you can build it through community and word of mouth, meaning can you get in front of your audience and evangelize who you are and what you do?

Here we're talking about doing non-scalable things that take usually longer. But if you can go to a meetup with two people, and buy them lunch, and tell them about your story, or you can go and present at a small event for in front of 20 people, exactly your target market, these are great because you get more airtime, you get to convince people why you're special. But when it's non-scalable, it takes longer, and it's never going to be the same amount of volume. But the companies I work for – LinkedIn, Salesforce, Box, you name it – the best customers we always got by far were through the non-scalable things. When people really believed in who you are and what you do, they became the biggest customers, the most loyal. They spent the most money versus the ones we got through digital. A lot of times, they were transactional. So, the moment something better comes along, they switch because they've bought you for a feature, right? Usually, like, 'Oh, we bought you because we saw you had this feature.' Great. At the moment something better comes along, they just switch. But if people are really bought into your story and what you can do for them, and they feel like you're part of something a little bit bigger than just buying a feature or a product, they usually stay with you much longer. The loyalty is much, much higher. So, my point is you have to do a little bit of all of them, as a small company. Branding happens across all of these. But if you want to create a super brand – a brand that stands the test of time – it's really around cleaning into the second, to storytelling, and word-of-mouth, community-based marketing.

Oleg

With the decline of traditional mass email marketing, I'm talking about cold email marketing, what innovative marketing strategies do you see emerging as the next big trend?

Robin

I actually don't know if email marketing is as dead as many people think it is. I think it's very much alive, and the data that bears this out is still one of the most effective channels. It's effective, I think. Again, coming back to the earlier point, if you have something interesting, something worth, and you have interesting ways of telling those stories, so I think email marketing is still very much alive. I would say the boldness comes from trying out new channels. I think, you know, there's a huge potential for B2B companies on some of these social channels. I think consumer marketing has been way ahead of the game when it comes to using social, and especially at TikTok and Instagram. But guess what? Your buyers are human. Even though you're selling to a head of procurement, or a CFO, or a head of marketing, guess where those people also are? They're also on TikTok and Instagram. They're just human at the end of the day. And it always blows my mind that corporate brands are not there. Many of them are there, but they're so boring. What are you trying to do on TikTok or Instagram? You're trying to get people to smile, laugh a little bit. But brands take themselves, especially B2B brands, take themselves very seriously. They're very corporate, right? We're professional. We can't be too funny, or we can't have a point of view. At the end of the day, nobody will remember what you do. If you can be a little funny, make fun of yourself, have a point of view that's kind of edgy or dicey, that's gold right there. And there's a few brands out there that dare do that, but very few of them. I'm just like shocked at how few of them actually do anything interesting from a B2B perspective on the social channels. What a gold mine there is!

Oleg

Thanks. Transitioning to IT outsourcing, what do you think the value drivers for IT outsourcing will be over the coming years?

Robin

Well, it's a great question. The obvious one is that you can just get much more capacity, and scale, and speed, which I think are great. That's why we do it at Zensai. We both have people in-house that work in our engineering team, for example, but we also outsource a decent amount of it. And for us, it's really a matter of speed and scale. Like we can get people much faster. And we can also scale and deliver products and new features much faster as well. I think in the future, as companies move to much more experimentation, I think there can be a lot more outsourcing for other functions as well – marketing, sales, finance, and so on. I think the main thing people think about it – maybe I could be wrong, maybe you correct me if I'm wrong – but I think still a lot of like the IT aspect of it: engineering, product, and so on. Maybe some back office finance, and so on. I think there's huge potential. I mean, we're sitting on a gold mine of creative talent, for example, in some of these places. Why not outsource some of your marketing, your sales, your social media, and so on? Do it. I mean, maybe at a lower cost, and maybe you get new ideas that you hadn't expected before. So, I think we're going to see a shift that it's not going to be IT. We're already starting to kind of try to think about how can we scale our own operations in that area.

Oleg

Okay. As we wrap up our conversation, what advice would you give to business leaders considering IT outsourcing as a part of their strategy?

Robin

Absolutely, I think you should do it. I mean, pretty much every company I've worked for have done it to some extent. I think it's just the key is finding a good partner who kind of see your value, see your mission and are excited by. I mean, cause the ones times I've been burned is when you're just hiring people, and you end up treating them as the other. They're part of your circle. Whether they're directly employed by you or employed by a third party that you work with, they should be treated as your employees, they should be seen part of the circle, they should be part of the decision making of what happens. You will get much better result, much better output of those people because they feel like they matter, and they're part of something bigger than just like, 'Oh, we're just taking orders from someone.' That doesn't inspire anyone. Yeah, I'm sure. Don't get me wrong, you can do a lot of good work that way because a paycheck goes a long way.

Oleg

Transactional.

Robin

Yeah, it's very transactional, but it's like, if you want to get the best creative aspect out of people, we know from data that companies who figure out how to engage and motivate employees, those employees are 59% percent more innovative than companies who haven't figured it out. So, think about that. If you're outsourcing a lot of your engineering, your marketing, your product, if you can actually make them engaged and motivated, they will bring better ideas to the table, more creative ideas. And this is what everybody wants.

Oleg

Robin, it was an amazing conversation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, your vision, advises. I'm pretty sure that my auditory will find it very useful.

Robin

Thank you. Thanks. Oleg. It's good to have you, and it was good to see you there.

Oleg

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