Interview with Impress.AI CEO and Cofounder Sudh Ahuja.
More than ever, it’s critical for big companies to find the right candidates. But upon receiving thousands of CVs for dozens of open positions, how is it possible for a company to sift through all of the applicants and find the right candidate for a job? Well, it’s possible now with Impress.AI, which has helped to automate the process to make it easier for recruiters of enterprises to hire at scale, making the hiring process more efficient and fairer at the same time.
Impress.AI co-founder and CEO Sudh Ahuja joined startup coach Roland Siebelink on the latest episode of the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. The conversation focused on how Impress.AI has been able to change the hiring process for the better, as well as some of the successes and shortcomings during Sudh’s first experience as a startup CEO.
Roland Siebelink:Hello and welcome to the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. My name is Roland Siebelink, and I'm a coach and facilitator for fast-growing startups, of which we have an amazing one in our studio today. It is Sudhanshu Ahuja, if I pronounced that correctly. He's the founder and CEO of Impress.AI. Hello, Sudh, welcome to the podcast.
Sudhanshu Ahuja:Thank you, Roland. Happy to be here.
Roland Siebelink:Excellent. Excellent. Where are you dialing in from today, Sudh?
Sudhanshu Ahuja:I'm based in Singapore. Our company headquarters are here. I've been in Singapore for about 13 years.
Roland Siebelink:Excellent. Excellent. Also a big startup hub these days, right? Singapore. That's very exciting. Let's talk about the company, Impress AI. What do you do? Who do you target? And what big difference do you make for your target group in the world?
Sudhanshu Ahuja:Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for the opportunity. Impress.AI makes accurate hiring of quality candidates easier for enterprise recruitment teams. Before we started, we noticed that a lot of recruiters were struggling with managing hiring for 30 to 40 different jobs, managing conversations with hundreds of candidates for all of those, and struggling to figure out how to effectively evaluate these candidates objectively. We wanted to make a system that makes it easier for recruiters to hire more accurately at scale. That's what Impress.AI Does. We enable recruiters to autonomously interview candidates. These interviews are done via chat bot. And the platform makes it extremely easy to set up these interviews based on competencies required for the job. That's probably our biggest differentiation as well. We are entirely based on IO psychology principles. The interviews that are done on the platform are based on competencies required for the job. That's what our customers like.
Roland Siebelink:In what phase of the interview process, I wonder, does this chat bot come to the fore? Is it very early on or is it more when you're in the psychological testing phase?
Sudhanshu Ahuja:It's very early on in that. If you look at the hiring funnel, there's a top of the funnel. There's a mid-stage funnel. And there's a late part of the funnel where the hiring has been completed and the candidate has become an employee. We focus on the mid-stage - to quote your name as well. We focus on the mid part of the funnel. In the hiring process, all of this is still the early interviews, the pre-screening, and the screening interviews that we do. We enable recruiters to skip the phone interview. We don't remove the hiring manager interview; those are still essential. All we're doing is helping recruiters and hiring managers prioritize which candidates they want to speak to first.
Roland Siebelink:That's really about far more efficient screening of that huge candidate pool where you make a big difference.
Sudhanshu Ahuja:Exactly. And it's about giving everyone an equal opportunity. Every candidate who applies gets an interview, even if it's with a chat bot. In the past, the same candidates won't ever hear back or they'd struggle to get a response from the company. But in our case, every candidate, those with stellar resumes and those with not-so-well-written resumes also get objectively assessed. And our customers find that many times, they're able to identify and hire candidates who they otherwise would have not even noticed.
Roland Siebelink:That's very interesting. I was just going to ask about that. Now you can actually not just avoid phone interviews for selection, but even the pre-filtering, as you say, based on what the CV looks like or a good school that may be on there, people might, in a way, be selected out very early. I've even heard - I'm not sure if you can confirm - that many companies get so many CVs that they just look at the first 100 and all the rest that come in later, they don't even look at anymore.
Sudhanshu Ahuja:Yeah. Those are the tales that we've heard just before starting the company. And those are the ones that shocked us. I think that companies, in general, have these heuristics where they look for certain universities - the top hundred universities - or they look for people with high GPA, without giving it a thought that most of these things don't really matter as to doing well on the job. There are many people who may not have done well at university because they found that - they were just studying the wrong thing. But on the job, they have the exact skills that you're looking for. We enable large enterprises to cut through some of these heuristics and just focus on the skills required for the job and evaluating candidates rather than having any preconceived notions of what predicts success.
Roland Siebelink:That's awesome. And yes, I do indeed love that it's not just about efficiency. It's also about equity. Giving everyone an equal chance to participate in the interview process. And I think we can at least assume that a chat bot will not be putting in unconscious discrimination unless it's been given to them by the programmers. Of course, it's always possible. You already mentioned you're targeting large enterprises. How do you define large enterprises and how is your go-to market built to reach them?
Sudhanshu Ahuja:Just before I jump into that, you touched upon a very important point, which is bias. I thought I would address that. One of the great things about how we've built the platform is it's all white-box algorithms. There's very little use, if any, of algorithms that cannot be explained. The scoring that happens on our platform is based on competencies, based on questions asked to the candidates, which have objective answers. We're really not using any black-box algorithms where you don't know what basis it's scoring the candidate on. Our recruiters are actually able to modify these algorithms in an unexplainable way. That's something that we have invested a lot of effort into right from the start, being true to our principles of making hiring fairer. Just thought I'd touch upon that before moving back to your question.
Roland Siebelink:Going back to the go-to market, your target group is large enterprises. Where do you do the cutoff? How do you define them? And then also, I'm curious, how do you break into these large enterprises and turn them from initial leads into prospects and then customers.
Sudhanshu Ahuja:Large enterprises with more than 5,000 employees, mostly regional companies. We do work with companies who are large within a country and may not have a lot of geographical presence. Our fastest growing customers have been those with regional presence using multiple languages in multiple cities. The way we approach these companies - with large enterprises, I think a lot of the audience may recognize that it's a lot about trust in large enterprises. Whoever's making a decision or whoever is even making these evaluations does not want to be caught off guard for working with a startup. Establishing that trust takes time. Time is a critical component. It takes a relationship. It takes a lot of signaling as well. I think whatever tools that are to build trust - including press releases, including having strong backers, and being able to show a team that knows what it's doing - all of these components become really important when you're working with large enterprises. And these don't matter as much when you're working with smaller companies or with consumers. To be able to do that, some of the things that we've had to do is we've invested quite a bit in cybersecurity. As a young startup, we're already SOC 2 audited every year. And we're investigating the standards, which tell large enterprises what kind of standards we follow in cybersecurity. In terms of reaching out to companies, I think what's been most important is our early case studies. Getting the first one was, of course, the hardest. One of our largest customers is a bank called DBS bank. And they were the first to see how we can transform the hiring experience, both for recruiters and for candidates. They signed up with us in the year that we were founded. And they've been with us since, renewing multiple times. We've been able to partner with them to do quite a bit of PR announcements. In fact, their marketing team churned out PR announcement after PR announcement about the results they were achieving. We were mentioned in their board meeting. All of that added up to give us quite a bit of credibility in at least the Singapore market. And then we were able to leverage that and get backing from the Singapore government. We're accredited by the Singapore government - that's another stamp of approval that this is a startup that knows what it's doing, the technology works.
Roland Siebelink:Just maybe as context for international listeners, especially our American audiences, the Singapore government is really a badge of quality. It's not like government approval in a bureaucratic country where the government is not trusted all that much, I would say. Singapore is famous for having the best people go and work for the government rather than for the private sector.
Sudhanshu Ahuja:I actually used to work for the government before starting my own company. The kind of people who work in the Singapore government are some of the brightest you will find anywhere in the world. That was a perfect point to clarify. I have that mindset in Singapore and this is a different stage. The Singapore government has been really supportive and we're looking to use some of these similar strategies as we grow outside of Singapore. We have customers using us in 10-plus countries. But some of the dominant ones for us as high-priority markets are Australia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. In these countries, we still need to establish more credibility and we're using some of the same techniques we used in Singapore. Find a marquee client. Once you have that first one, do a fantastic job. Make sure you shout about it with the permission of the customer. And that's how you get noticed. As a startup, we talked about earlier, getting trust from companies, getting trust from enterprises. And one of the ways to do that is to elevate your brand. Of course, we're looking for companies who can elevate our own brand. Based on the solution that we're selling, we're finding that we're in the early adoption stage. We have to look for early adopters. It's going to be probably a couple of years when this becomes mass adoption. Using AI in recruitment is still, I would say, in those early adoption stages. We have to look for companies who are serious about digital transformation, who are willing to talk about it, who are willing to adopt it, and experiment because there's a lot of learning to be had when you implement these technologies.
Roland Siebelink:I want us to get back a little bit to developing software for the enterprise. You've already touched on the security aspects. But I had another interview this week that was also talking about other things that are just very different from developing your typical SaaS software for small business markets. What have you found is in the product itself really important, other than security for credibility and the enterprise.
Sudhanshu Ahuja:I think large enterprises care a great deal about reporting. That's been one of the keys. Different kinds of reporting and being able to get a data stream from the product, that has become really important for many of our customers because internally also, they have to report what is this investment in this new product yielding for them? Continuously, we've developed more and more reporting tools, more and more data stream pipelines. And the other thing that's important - user experience is at the center of everything now because if you don't have a great user experience adoption gets much harder. But beyond that, what's important is actually being true to your promise. If we are selling to the enterprise based on a particular promise that will increase accuracy of hiring, that we're going to deliver efficiency, then we have to make sure that the product delivers that for them in their context. Every large enterprise has their own culture, their own processes of hiring that have developed over the many decades that they've been around. The product may not have been built with that context in mind. But once you're in, you have to find a way to make sure you're delivering on your promise. Otherwise, you'll be kicked out. A strong customer success function plays a very important role in that. And that's something that we've had to invest in quite a bit.
Roland Siebelink:Out of the time since you've been working on this since 2017 - some four years now - what would you say have been the biggest successes, maybe the biggest surprises almost that you were positively encouraged by that you may not have expected up front?
Sudhanshu Ahuja:Probably one of the biggest ones was how important the government can be as a customer. That was surprising because in the audience, people may think of the government as mostly considered slow moving. I originally come from India and that's where you don't usually sell to the government unless you are a very established player. That was very, very surprising for us. When we invested in some of these government programs to get accredited in Singapore, we saw that that had a huge branding effect with enterprises as well. And now that we're expanding to Australia, we've seen that they respect the Singapore government accreditation. They can see that the Singapore government doesn't just work with any company. They follow high standards. And when we got into these programs, we had many different government agencies starting to buy from us. And that was an important flywheel effect because when we ended up working with one ministry, they would talk to the other ministries, the other government agencies, and there's a lot of movement or internal mobility between the employees of one agency to the other due to the internal mobility program. We started spreading really, really fast from one government agency to first 10 and then 20 and then 30. That took us by surprise how fast some of these deals were closing. And we're still maintaining that pace.
Roland Siebelink:That's amazing. Definitely also a good realization how important word of mouth can be in the enterprise sector.
Sudhanshu Ahuja:Exactly. That's one of the ways trust is earned - behind closed doors. People talk about your company when you're not present. And if they say a good thing about you over lunch, then you are turning that into a very, very qualified lead.
Roland Siebelink:What has been harder than expected? Have you had some disappointments as a team? Some things that you thought would be way easier?
Sudhanshu Ahuja:Yeah. One of the things that we didn't probably invest in enough is marketing. We find that even much younger startups than ours have invested quite a bit in marketing but don't have the kind of enterprise traction we have. We've made certain trade-offs, which I think in hindsight, we felt that marketing would be easier than it has been. Now I think our brand is better known in Singapore than it was two years ago. But that's been thanks to our customers. And we've been a part of programs by some very large organizations, which has helped us. But that's probably something that we'd want to invest a lot more than in. It hasn't been easy. None of the co-founders have a marketing background or they don't think like a marketer. I think in hindsight, that's something that we should have invested in.
Roland Siebelink:Yeah, absolutely., I think most of the B2B businesses I've talked to - and especially the enterprise - will typically reserve quite a substantial amount of their revenue for marketing and sales. But even out of that, the marketing is still substantial. I would say a lot of people are shocked the first time they hear those percentages. But it pays back, right? It's something that you can immediately see come back. If you start managing it on a payback basis, then it only makes sense to invest more if it starts generating more money. It's not a lesson that we learn in engineering school, for example.
Sudhanshu Ahuja:The three co-founders are all engineers. Two of them have PhDs in computer science, but neither has any marketing background.
Roland Siebelink:Well, that's an interesting point. Have you become more conscious of that over time and maybe started to diversify the leadership a little bit in that sense?
Sudhanshu Ahuja:Yeah, definitely. Continuously, we've invested in talent that we ourselves lacked as engineers by training. That has been extremely important to success. For marketing, we're in the process of building that capability far more now. We've actually hired a marketing director who is ex-agency and very, very experienced in expanding the brand. All of these things are showing results and the company growth is getting faster, our brand is getting bigger.
Roland Siebelink:That's excellent. How big do you think impress.AI will be in, let's say, 10 years from now.
Sudhanshu Ahuja:I think there's a large future for conversational workflow automation. That's what we see developing as a large market in the future. If you look at the 10-year horizon, we believe that business workflow automation is always going to be a big thing. Wherever humans are interacting with software and an organization, there is a possibility to have a conversational component there in a big, big way. We're all used to messaging platforms, all different kinds of messaging platforms. In fact, they're taking hold in business. They're taking hold in consumer tech as well. We believe that conversational workflow automation will be a movement in the future and we want to be a leading part of it. In 10 years time, if you ask me, we'd be listed, probably on a US exchange, and being at the forefront of business workflow, automation problems. I think my biggest inspiration right now is the company that I'm studying is Service Now. And that's one that I look up to.
Roland Siebelink:Okay. Yeah. A great example of a company that had a great focus and then really built that across the board. Also internationally, and it started to expand from there. Very good. Last question, Sudh, is always what have been some of the lessons learned that you would like to impress on other founders that come after you?
Sudhanshu Ahuja:I think some of the things that have been really important to success - a lot of people might say this - resilience is paramount. You're going to go through such difficult times. You are going to go through good times as well. But mostly, it's going to be difficult at times because you're trying to go against the natural order of things. Sometimes, I like to talk to my friends about our journey and the way I think of it is a startup is a company that is not supposed to exist. You're trying to work against the economic forces and you're pushing a rock up a hill.There is a way to make it work. There is a way that you find that spot on the hill where you can start really performing. And until then, it's all about resilience. Even after that, as you grow to the next stage, resilience is extremely important. Keeping that faith in the mission goes a long way. And that brings me to my second point, sticking to your founding principles. As founders. I think it's really important to have company values that are written down and agreed upon very early. And all recruitment, all hiring of the rest of the team should be according to these early principles. And these principles will evolve. But I think the core treads remain the same. And that's worked out really well for us. We didn't know that it was going to be this important. But even today, when our employees talk about the company to their own friends, the things that they mention are company culture and how much everyone cares about each other. The other very important thing is because we set the mission as making hiring fairer right from when the company was starting, our product team and even our operations and sales team, whenever we are developing new features, we're surprised by how many of them start asking: "Does this feature make hiring fairer? Is it aligned to our principles?" You're able to see this impact of well-stated principles and make them more scalable throughout the company. That's been probably one of the biggest achievements for me as a founder to be able to spread that mission across the company.
Roland Siebelink:And a great example of how indeed setting a few strong principles can really not only guide but inspire your workforce much more than a revenue target effort could. I think that's absolutely the best practice that you're showing there. Last question after the last question is how can people listening to this podcast help you? What are you looking for? Where should they go for more info? And is there something they should test or download?
Sudhanshu Ahuja:We're actually looking to find a market segment we can work in the US market. We're looking for companies in the HR tech space who are selling assessments, who are selling HR tech solutions. We're looking for basically reseller partnerships or consulting partnerships where we can provide a recruitment automation solution for a certain segment of the market. That's really what we're getting out there for. If there are any companies whom this sounds interesting to, please feel free to reach out to us at our company website.
Roland Siebelink:And that's www.Impress.AI, I think, right? Sudh, thank you so much for joining me today. This was an exciting and very interesting conversation. I wish you all good luck in conquering the world that way and being a big public company 10 years from now.
Sudhanshu Ahuja:Thank you so much, Roland, for the best wishes. And I hope to prove you right.Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.