The Business Matters Interview: Tom Shrive, CEO, AskPorter

Tom Shrive

Tom Shrive the CEO of AskPorter, a tech company and AI messaging platform that supports businesses tells Business Matters how they can become more efficient through automation of their services.

What products or services do you provide?

Managing places and assets such as apartments, airports, and park benches is time consuming, high-risk and human resource intensive and unrewarding. askporter has a ‘Digital Assistant and process automation’ platform for different types of asset management, that enables the autonomous management of assets through AI.

What type of businesses do you work with?

Initially we focused on residential and commercial asset management, however we are now finding our services are applicable to any sector where the management and support of high-volume assets are required, such as insurance and logistics.

What problem does your company solve?

In essence, the problem is time: there simply aren’t enough hours in the day, and this is especially true when it comes to managing places and physical assets.

Given the sheer number of regulations, processes to undertake and the variety of systems required to carry out tasks that relate to managing physical assets, it is exceptionally time consuming. This means that resources that should be directed to other businesses activities, such as customer service, or business development are bogged down in administrative processes.

We solve the problem by helping organisations to manage these processes autonomously through AI. With our digital assistant shouldering some of the burden, enterprise and public sector entities can focus on improving their services and helping those in need while significantly lowering their cost and resource requirements.

What is your USP?

Perhaps the most fundamental unique selling point of askporter is that our platform and assistant is highly configurable. New conversations can be deployed in a matter of hours, and the platform is configurable to different operating models, no coding required, means we can quickly adapt to the needs of the client or operator – which also means that the product is built for scale and expansion.

By extension, another USP of our AI assistant is its capacity for understanding – and actioning – complex conversations due to its training across a number of highly specific data sources.

This grasp of complexity and deep integration within the organisations we work with, means that the assistant is also capable of understanding specific relationships, knowing what action needs to be taken, when it needs to be done, and who it needs to be done by.

What are your company values? Have you ever had them challenged and if so how have you dealt with it?

At heart, our values boil down to two connected principles: human resources are too valuable to be spent on routine tasks, and that AI and digital assistants have the capacity to make life better and easier for every party involved in a number of day-to-day interactions. Automate the transactional elements, to free up time to deliver critical human elements of the job.

In essence we firmly believe that AI will make businesses more human, and that’s great for everyone.

How do you ensure that you recruit a team that reflects your company values?

Honestly, it’s probably the biggest challenge. Specifically hiring Tech talent right now given the significant demand given the digitisation and automation drive happening since Covid hit. This along with not being able to onboard new starters face to face makes it hard to ensure a good culture fit.

During the pandemic, we’ve asked all of the team to input into our new values. Traditionally values come from the top down, but we think it’s important that the values reflect the team, not just that the team reflects the values.

Are you happy to offer a hybrid working model of home/office post-covid?

Absolutely – like the majority of companies, it’s hard to imagine returning to a solely office-based working life following the events of the last eighteen months or so.

We have actively transitioned the company to a ‘remote first’ model and actively are looking into ways to ensure our team is set up in ways that support their desired lifestyles; we don’t just want to drive employee engagement for the sake of it.

Do you have any tips for managing suppliers and customers effectively?

Leveraging technology like digital assistants and chatbots to deal with minor issues or queries, which spares customers the inconvenience of waiting in queues and wasting their valuable time while investing in the individual human touch for any issues which require more sustained attention.

These kinds of courtesies and acts of respect equally apply to the supply side of any operation – and, more broadly, these kinds of sentiments apply to more or less any business with customer-facing elements.

Focus ruthlessly on what your customers really value you for, and look to use technology to automate the rest.

Any finance or cash-flow tips for new businesses starting out?

Every start-up finds themselves in a unique position, so it’s hard to give blanket advice to cover every situation.

I’d recommend boot-strapping for as long as you can. Don’t put pressure on the business until you know there is some degree of product market fit. As soon as you have demonstrated this, perhaps a first paying customer.

Banks are honestly pretty ineffectual, and rarely have the risk appetite for startup financing. Finding good angels that know and understand your domain can really be win-win, additionally partnering with a strategic investor that also likes your product can really move the needle in terms of market validation and funding.

Venture capital should be taken on only as a vehicle for scaling, as they will expect returns in a very set time-frame, which leaves very little room for finding product market fit, and will only invest in billion dollar opportunities. That kind of a business isn’t for everyone.

If you could ask one thing of the government to change for businesses what would it be?

They need to support young entrepreneurs from more diverse backgrounds. Being an entrepreneur has been mentally incredibly tough for me, and I’m coming from a privileged starting point.

It’s critical, if we want a vibrant economy in the future, the government needs to do a lot more to protect startups and entrepreneurs from big tech, both foriegn and domestic.

Simply put; entrepreneurs need to be able to start-up a company and pay rent, otherwise all we get are entrepreneurs who come from an affluent background.

Equally, young startups need to be given time to grow before they can take on the tech giants, otherwise we will find we have no alternatives and that’s critically bad for consumers when all they have to choose from is Microsoft or Amazon.

What is your attitude towards your competitors?

Competitors are a healthy and necessary part of building a business – it’s hard to be more specific than this, however, since we’re not necessarily going head-to-head with any one company.

Our competitors will vary depending on the sector we’re working on – or else they’ll be more generalised AI/automation platform companies.

Since, as I’ve mentioned, we have such a flexible system that’s capable of handling multiple complex issues at once, we often find that competitors are capable of performing one aspect of our assistant’s role – raising tickets about a maintenance issue, for example – but can’t handle additional tasks like chasing rental arrears in the way that our assistant can.

As such, though we always strive to ensure that we offer the best product on the market, we don’t trouble ourselves too much over direct comparisons – they just aren’t often very applicable. We like to keep focused on the customer, and not look sideways too much.

Any thoughts on the future of your company and your dreams?

I want our product to save people time. It’s a great thought that customers spend less time on hold, more with their families and employees spend less time doing jobs they find boring and frustrating.

I want our AI to make organisations, both public and private, more efficient so they can be more human where it counts.