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A Mission-Critical Focus to Enable Growth

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This article originally published at https://www.admentus.com/podcast/a-mission-critical-focus-to-enable-growth-with-tony-nash-of-complete-intelligence/ on March 26, 2021.

 

 

Every company wishes they have a crystal ball when it comes to making business decisions, and while a physical iteration of that wish is not possible, Tony Nash has developed the next best thing for his clients at his startup, Complete Intelligence.

 

Tony is the CEO and Founder of Complete Intelligence. Before founding Complete Intelligence, Tony was the global head of research for The Economist and the head of Asia consulting for IHS Markit.

 

Complete Intelligence is a fully automated and globally integrated AI platform for smarter cost and revenue proactive planning. Using advanced AI, they provide highly accurate cost and revenue forecasts fueled by billions of enterprise and public data points.

 

Key Takeaway: As a growing, scaling business, you must know what you are good at, what you do, and what you do not do. Maintain your mission-critical focus on the most important aspects of your business and outsource the parts that you are simply not good at or are outside of your mission.

 

Lessons Learned:

 

• Put Significant Thought into Your Senior Hires – hire low first, then hire the upper levels as they will be the ones that have to share your mission and must be the right hire.

• Know what You Do Not Do – Knowing what you don’t do is just as important as knowing what you do do.

• Define Your Culture – Define the culture you are building and continually and intentionally reinforce it.

 

Show Notes

 

JC: Hello everybody, Jeff Chastain here with the building to scale podcast again, where I get the opportunity really to speak with entrepreneurial business leaders growth-minded leaders who are working to grow and scale their own companies. And some of the we’ll discuss some of the challenges. Some of the successes as they’ve had over the years working through that.

 

Today’s guest with me here is Tony Nash with Complete Intelligence out of the Houston, Texas area. So first off Tony welcome to the show and thank you for taking a few minutes out of your busy day to join us here.

 

TN: Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate the opportunity.

 

JC: So give us a little bit about what Complete Intelligence is and what you guys have got going on there?

 

TN: Sure. We run an artificial intelligence platform. We use it to forecast market activity say currencies, commodities, equities for investors. We also help people companies understand their costs and their revenues which are really important on the budgeting side. So we help people de-risk their future business decisions by understanding where their costs are going to go and where their revenues will likely go.

 

JC: Okay, so I’ve got a background in technology and we kind of talked about AI and stuff beforehand but if we were to bring that down. And say okay I put you on the spot here but it was well the networking questions I’ve heard before like. Okay, if you describe that to a five-year-old what do you really do? So I know we kind of talked beforehand that this is typically big enterprise focus but for those that are not into that industry or not dealing with 9 10 figure dollar budgets, kind of a thing. Proactive budget planning. What does that really mean from a obviously from a company your size or your perspective?

 

TN: Sure, if I have to describe it to a five or ten year old. It’d say look, if you run a lemonade stand you have to understand how much the lemons are going to cost. How much the water is going to cost. How much the sugar is going to cost you. Also want to understand how many customers you’re going to have. How much money they’re going to spend. How much money you’re going to take in through the lemonade stand, right?

 

So we work with customers to understand all of those things. Now when companies themselves forecast this stuff and we know this from talking to our clients. They typically have 30 error rates or worse, even for raw materials costs. So their planning is way off, okay? When you look at industry experts investment banks economists, industry experts, these sorts of things. Their error rates are typically 20% off, okay? Our error rates are typically about around 4.6 percent, okay? And that’s on an absolute percent error basis. So we’re not gaming the pluses and minuses, okay?

 

So if you’re buying those lemons and that sugar and that sort of thing you can pay a dollar 20 for it. For us maybe a dollar five or something like that, right? So we’ll help you save 15 cents a lemon, okay? And you’ll understand where those costs are going. And so when you scale that up to very large customers who have you know 2 billion, 5 billion, 20 billion dollars in turnover or more. They’re buying in tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.

 

So let’s say a 17% improvement in their ability to forecast things, those are very large numbers. And so we’re working with enterprise scale data in the cloud and helping them understand where their business is going. And I would say probably better than just about anybody else out there. And so it doesn’t have to be the biggest company in the world doing this stuff. We work with mid-sized companies as well, okay? Because we’ll take data out of their enterprise planning system or something like that. And we’ll use it on our platform to help them make better decisions. We’re not telling them what to do, we’re just telling them where the data tell us that things are going to go.

 

So the real problem we’re solving aside from the obvious of what’s going to happen in their markets and their costs. Every company has a very painful budgeting process, okay? Some companies it takes a month or two or three months. Some companies some of our customers it takes six or seven months. And they’re going through in a very meticulous way of proactive planning their budgets. And there are hundreds of people involved and at the end of the day it goes up to the CFO and the CPO the chief procurement officer or the CFO and the head of sales and it’s a verbal agreement on what’s actually going to happen. This is actually one of the CFO pain points.

 

Not all that data driven, right? And so what we do is we give them a straw man to base it on so they can a very meticulous and detailed straw man. So that seven month process is taken down to a couple days, okay? From data transmission processing to sending back. And they also get a continuous budgeting exercise, okay? Every month we’ll reforecast their budgets for them so if something like Covid happens as it did last March, April. We help them understand what’s likely to happen uh in their business.

 

JC: Now that makes sense and that’s really one of those things that regardless of the business side that it’s like, okay having actual real data not seven month old data actually having it on a monthly basis or even closer kind of a thing. You can actually make real decisions on it at that point rather than just thinking like you said one code would happen. Everybody had their budget set January, February for what 2020 was going to be. And now two months later they’re completely invalidated that either the like you said earlier some some businesses are up, some are down, some are pulling back the the expenses. So it may have turned out okay but all the proactive planning they did initial on is completely out of window at that point.

 

TN: Right and most of those guys their revenue budgets were blown out like they had no idea what was going to happen there. They were saddled with their cost budgets that they had to continue paying for all this stuff. They didn’t know what was coming in on the top line. And so they then had to be very reactive on the on the cost side. And initially it was just a lot of you know arbitrary cost cutting and no disrespect to anybody. They were doing the best they could right but a lot of these big companies initially were just like, we don’t know what what we’re going to be in three months.

 

We were initially told covered was four to six weeks. And you know it’s still going on right and so what we saw is a lot of companies cut costs in the second quarter and the third quarter and by the end of the third quarter the management views looked up and said, well we’ve cut it as much as we can through the first three quarters let’s not release any more budget in Q4. So that just helped them on the income side so that they you know their bottom line looked better than it probably would have if they would have been a status cooperation.

 

JC: Yeah

 

TN: But still what we’re doing is using actual live data to help clients make the actual decisions that they need to make to run their businesses.

 

JC: Yeah and that’s really to me the key whether you’re got the small business that you simply just don’t have that much data to be processing all the way up to the enterprise. It’s still the same thing of saying, okay making those decisions on the numbers rather than, like you said with with Covid where it’s almost an immediate knee-jerk panic reaction of, hey we’ve got to cut things or hey everything’s going to be down. It’s like okay let’s look at the numbers and hopefully by a Q2 Q3 et cetera we’ve got some actual real data that we can start looking at.

 

So but yeah that’s that’s interesting so going back to Complete Intelligence then take us back. And say I think you said it 6 to 7 years old for the company itself. So how did this how did this kind of come about from a entrepreneurial standpoint.

 

TN: Sure, yeah, I used to run global research for a company called The Economist based in the UK, publishing company. And then I moved to a company called IHS Market which was just bought by S&P about six months ago. I was their Asia head of consulting. I was working with clients on a lot of data-driven decisions. And what clients were telling me were two things first the forecast that everyone was doing not just stuff, us were wrong and there was no accountability for that, okay?

 

The second is they could never get a forecast for their exact decisions. Forecasts were always too high level or not the right thing or something. So I rolled out of IHS market saying I want to have a data driven company that actually helps people make real decisions about their business. And so we started as a consulting firm for our first few years we were a consulting firm. And I was trying to understand the types of decisions that people needed to make I knew it from my consulting days with bigger firms but I wanted to understand what we could actually do.

 

About three years in we decided to turn into a product firm. Which is a very different type of business and so you know we built an initial platform that was very customizable but then to productize it out to build it to scale really is a very different skill set. Aside from a little bit math and a little bit of code it’s a very different same marketing and sales operation. It’s a very different you know infrastructure and all that stuff, right?

 

So a couple years ago we decided to productize with some subscription online subscription data products. And then we’ve got more specific with say cost and revenue products. So, I started the company in Asia in Singapore and then in 2017 we moved to Texas. So part of our, my calculation there was the talent in my mind is better here in the US. The customers are much easier to access here in the US and the business environment is pretty friendly. So it was a pretty easy decision for us to decide to come to Texas.

 

JC: Interesting. Okay. So what kind of challenges or what did you face in going from I guess I don’t necessarily know what your role was when you were saying with the economist except I’m assuming you’re you’re managing a team but you’re not necessarily managing a company. At that point to now owning and running your own company here with you said what 10 11 something employees up to now?

 

TN: Yes, that’s right that’s right, I think. So you know first is always the administrative part of it, right. I mean I think every new business owner just isn’t aware of the administrative stuff. And also the fear of missing something, right. What have I not done. what what tax filing have I not done or you know something like that, right? So there’s always that which was not a major issue but it was an additional burden.

 

When I think the biggest part of it was, I was just doing everything. And you come as a as a business owner you come to a point where you’re doing everything and you’re involved in everything. And then you’ll come to a point where you have to delegate stuff. And finding the right balance of when to do that and how to do that is I would say it’s more art than science. And other things like scaling RIT infrastructure that’s never really a decision I’d make before. I’m a math nerd and economics and data nerd, right.

 

So you know those types of decisions were really new but also on the customer side. Although, I had been customer facing when and this is kind of a no-brainer of course but when you don’t have a big brand behind you. Getting to the right people is a much more difficult process. And so we, I knew that coming out of the gate but I underestimated how hard it would be.

 

We started talking with some of our sales partners right away. Knowing that they wouldn’t give us a yes, right away but starting the relationship so guys like oracle guys like Bloomberg, Microsoft, Refinitive Tompson, Reuters these guys are all major partners for us now. Major sales channel partners and it took us four to five years to get those relationships moving and commercialized. So for a small business owner who is looking at channels as a major part of their business strategy. I would recommend you have to start talking to those partners right now like a year or two or three before you intend on getting your first dollar.

 

And so the other part as we’ve grown is we’ve had to think through, what do we do well as a company. And what’s best for us to outsource so things like HR. You know what, we don’t have an HR team. We have an outsourced HR firm, right, that’s a no-brainer but you know I can’t do it all myself. I don’t know the laws and stuff so we have outsourced HR. As I said with our channels we are scaling up our sales force but to have that as a kind of a force multiplier is huge for us, right. And things like marketing we have a marketing team in the Philippines and we have some marketing here but where can we get great skills at the best price really, right. And so we have to look around to find out you know what that stuff looks like.

 

We don’t have any of our data science team or any of our developers offshore. They’re all here in the US and part of that is for our client base. We don’t want things going to Eastern Europe or Asia or whatever but where we can push things off and make sure that we keep our core business. We’re happy to push things off. And so what I mean is we are a technology company, okay. We are not a human resources company we are not a marketing company and we’re not a consulting firm. And so we partner or outsource so that we can stay small and scale but do it very very well.

 

JC: Yeah and really even still that’s giving you the ability to scale because you’re not having to hire in like you said a whole team of HR. It’s a lot more cost effective especially for a smaller business to say hey we’re going to go pay a much smaller fraction of that to an outsourced group still allows you to scale and grow the business but at a much slower cost at that point.

 

TN: Right.

 

JC: So kind of what was that did you just walk into that and say day one we’re just not going to do HR. We’re just not going to do marketing etc. or was that kind of a a transition process because I know a lot of people will try to do some of it before they finally throw up their hands. And say okay, yeah this is not us or how quickly did you make that handoff there.

 

TN: That was immediate. I knew we didn’t want to do that from the start. Just from my corporate experience I knew that that wasn’t something I knew that we would spend a lot of money there not necessarily get good value. And so when somebody is a vendor you can you know you need some output, you need some outcomes. And so we just chose to make some of those guys vendors instead of making them full-time employees.

 

JC: So I’m curious since obviously you’re a numbers driven company accounting stuff like that. What does your relationship with some of these vendors look like how much of a numbers kind of basis relationship are you doing with them or are they is that more free flowing?

 

TN: Well, U think when you say numbers basis what what do you mean by that? I’m sorry.

 

JC: A lot of times. I’ll work with companies to sit here and say okay we’ve still got to measure our return on ROI kind of a thing on everything. So do we have specific numbers do we have specific milestones measurables et cetera tied to outside vendors the same way as we’d have tied to an employee?

 

TN: Oh, yeah absolutely. So like with our HR you know our outside stage our vendor. What we get from them on a monthly basis, I would probably have to hire a couple people to do internally. It just doesn’t make sense for us the the fully loaded FTE costs are just way too much. On the marketing side, unless somebody has absolutely stellar marketing skills, a lot of the direct marketing campaigns, social media marketing all that stuff for a firm our size at least it just doesn’t make sense to hire somebody. We can direct that activity manage it every day that sort of thing but the execution of it is better outsourced because we can do better with an outsourced vendor like dramatically better than we can by hiring those people directly, right. And so and so and we’re not talking a small kind of we’re saving 20% we’re saving a lot more than that by hiring marketing people directly.

 

JC: Yeah, that makes sense.

 

TN: Yeah and so I think again with most of the decisions we make. We really question how core is that to our business does it add to the technology, does it add to the customer relationship? And that’s really what it comes down to so I think we’re you know we’re at a place with things like video calls. And with a lot of the other technology that’s come around over the last 10 years. Where you don’t necessarily need that you don’t need everything in house it’s just not necessary. And if I have a vendor then I don’t necessarily have to pay for them to learn. If somebody is on staff I have to pay for them to learn. And so it’s not necessarily all fully productive time, right. And so again we’re very results oriented company. And so again we think through all that stuff. So for the guys who are watching your podcast. I would say look you know if you’re growing a company you really need to think through what your head count expectations are. What are they doing can you get that outsourced do you absolutely need to hire that person or can you turn it into an invoice.

 

JC: Yeah and that’s that’s really the the key because I see a lot more today of having a lot more availability and options of those outsourcing kind of a thing. That it’s not just necessarily the one big accounting firm that you had to be local face to face meeting somebody with the technology these days. I can have my account on the other side of the country kind of a thing and it’s just no big deal or I can have a marketing firm like you said all the way over the Philippines. It’s no big deal at that point so it’s almost it’s driven competition in those fields for sure. So it’s really almost like you said a no-brainer that okay why would you why would you want to go build your own in-house marketing firm when you’re a technology company or when you’re a financial services company something like that. It’s like that’s not your core business but still really identifying that core business is obviously the key there.

 

TN: Right.

 

JC: So talking about that core business you said you kind of made a an evolutionary change there with within your own company of saying okay consulting to now today being the the 100 product focus. What did that process look like or I guess for that matter? Why did you necessarily say because a lot of people I was that was my own background coming out of corporate America was, okay we’re going to be a consultant kind of thing. So how did you go from the consultant to saying okay we need to do something different or something transitioning towards the product side?

 

TN: Yeah, it’s very simple. As a consultant my upside is limited. I only have so many hours in the week and I can only bill against those hours. And if I hire people the upside is limited for them, right. So and if I want to grow a large revenue base I then have to hire a lot of people and then add x percent on top of their cost. And you know if their time isn’t sold then I can’t hire them anymore, right.

 

So I just got really tired of being the main guy consulting and you know billing against my hours. And so we productized because you know I wanted to make sure we could scale the kind of intellectual property that was in my head. And build that out as much as possible. Now that process was a it took a lot longer than I thought and a lot longer than I had hoped. That transition really took 18 months to two years. So you because you know, I had resources that were helping us on client engagements. I had to take them off of client engagement so they weren’t revenue generating to develop the IP around our product business because they can’t do both, okay. They can’t serve clients and develop IP because the development of  IP always gets put off. And so I had to make as a business owner, I had to make a very hard decision to say we’re going to stop you know selling, right now, okay.

 

And I’m going to pay the cost on these resources to develop this capability so that we can then productize it in 18 months time. And that was a very very hard decision but we did it because we had to otherwise I would have been flying all over working you know 90 hours a week, all that stuff. And we did it we bit the bullet and we came out with some pretty amazing capability.

 

JC: Oh and that’s really the key to me of saying, yes it’s a longer term vision you’re playing the longer game there even like you were talking about with the channel partners. Okay, you gotta start investing in things now looking towards that that longer term goal. And if you’re only looking towards next quarter, next month even next year. You might not necessarily have made that change to go product because you’re just looking at okay how can we get more billable revenues here in the next quarter.

 

So yeah it’s looking at that so kind of going down that direction. What does what does the vision look like for Complete Intelligence? Well how do you define vision from a company perspective and what’s your what’s your bigger picture vision there since it obviously sounds like you’re one to look longer term than just focusing on the immediate short term?

 

TN: Yeah I think so so our focus is really to continue to build out what we’ve started to do which is licensing sales for our core capability and aligning with other products. So how do we get built into core let’s say core erp software or core e-procurement software or you know something like that. So that a client doesn’t even have to think about working with us it’s just all baked into that software, right. And so that’s part of the vision.

 

The other part of the vision is how do we ensure that the results of our efforts are easy for a client to work into their internal processes. So just producing data or just producing something. If it’s an extra step then it’s a hassle for people, right. So how do we make sure and part of this is integration with other software that sort of thing but how do we make sure what we’re doing is really really easy for our customers to use. So that it helps them rather than adds more tasks to their day.

 

JC: Makes sense. So a lot of times I’ll see this where the the company owner. I’m not saying you are but the company owner has the vision there the ideas going forward how do you bring that down or how how do you bring that down in your own company to the team to say okay there. How do you get them bought into that vision or them understanding that vision internally?

 

TN: I think anybody doing that has to be comfortable with a lot of kind of a lot of mistakes and ongoing iteration of processes. I may have a short-term view of things that may not be right my team may be doing stuff that ends up wrong. I have to be okay with that and we have to learn. So and it’s not that’s not a luxury if you’re doing something like we’re doing we have to be a learning organization that is always seeing things that aren’t just right. And say okay that’s not right let’s take a couple days fix it. And then we’ll you know we’ll roll it out again or something like that, right. So as a software company we can do that. If we were making something physical it could, it would be different.

 

JC: Yeah.

 

TN: But as a software company we can iterate as we’re going, right. And so I think delivering that vision is really helping people understand on an ongoing basis. What the original vision is but then adjusting incrementally on a regular basis. And those regular adjustments they may be technology issues where we can’t actually do what I want to do, okay but that’s fine we iterate and we move along toward that path.

 

JC: Makes sense. So running a little long here running out of time. I always like to kind of come back and we we’ve talked about a bunch of different things over time but still what is kind of the best tip the best strategy that hey if I had known this six years ago. When we started the company or if I had this in mind this path in mind things might have been easier? What comes to mind as being your kind of your top idea here that wish I’d known this or thought about this or done this earlier?

 

TN: I think you know the biggest thing that I would have done is really thought through what I needed in a management team. If you’re scaling and you’re building the people who you put in place in a management team are really really critical. So what I would say is higher lower levels first and then make sure that the senior level management team that you’re hiring is somebody that you can really trust and someone who can really manage a team.

 

So put off those senior hires as long as possible. And it’s going to be painful and it’s going to mean you’re going to have to work a lot. And you know that sort of thing but higher low first then higher the upper levels, okay. And that’s almost the opposite of what say a venture capital investor or something would tell you. They want to see a management team but the fact is you need execution and then you need to build into those senior people that you can really trust to execute on the vision.

 

JC: That makes sense that’s interesting since we hadn’t touched on that one yet. I was figuring you’d go different directions but yeah I know a lot of times I’ll see that especially with the small ones if you’re don’t not having to do venture capital or stuff like that because I do agree there but a lot of times it is. Still it’s almost more the challenge that was what I run into of you start building out the lower levels. And you’re still trying to wrap your arms around it for honestly too long before you start introducing that management but yeah it’s doing that lower level and really understanding what’s going on first. And making sure you’ve got to keep handle on it before you can start bringing in people and really focusing at that point on.

 

Okay, what even going back to like what you were saying. Okay, what’s our core focus in the business this turns into. Okay, what’s your core focus as a leader to say. Okay, what are the aspects that I don’t want to do that I don’t enjoy doing that I don’t do well etc to hire on but yeah I like that from the focus on on building out the lower level team first that makes a lot of sense because a lot of times you’ll see startups said hey here’s our full sweet sea level
suite all these people we brought in it’s like. Okay, who’s actually doing the work at this point so yeah very cool, right?

 

TN: That’s right.

 

JC: So the listener wants to learn more about uh your company about Complete Intelligence about yourself where can they go find some more information here?

 

TN: Sure, so you can find us on on the web at completeintel.com. On social media on twitter we’re @complete_intel and you know just look us up online and we have a lot of interviews. A lot of resources on our website to find out more.

 

JC: Okay, we really appreciate it so thank you for taking time out.

 

TN: Thanks Jeff.

 

JC: Thank you.

 

TN: Thanks have a great day.

 

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