How Ben Stein, CEO at Staple is converting documents into structured data.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Ben Stein: We are all doing well, thank you! Like most of the world, all team members have been involuntarily separated from friends and family. Our team is decentralized across Singapore, Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka. Our relationships have shifted online, and that is something we have grown accustomed to. Thankfully our team, our families and our friends are all doing well.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Staple.
Ben Stein: I previously worked with KPMG in Australia, Europe and North America for almost a decade, then in various corporate positions in London and Singapore. After working with clients in banking, energy, manufacturing and real estate, I noticed persistent inefficiencies in both enterprises and SMEs around data management. I left my CFO position at the time to explore how deep technology (“deep tech”) might present potential solutions to these inefficiencies. I joined EF (joinef.com), where I met my co-founder, Josh, a Ph.D. computer scientist. Together we met with more than 150 companies to understand their most pressing pain points, and we built Staple to address them.
Staple’s solution can read, interpret, extract and reconcile data from semi-structured and unstructured documents, regardless of layout or language. Currently, we support more than 90 languages, and we are helping customers process data-heavy workflows in Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Indonesian.
How does Staple innovate?
Ben Stein: There is a lot of hype around big data, RPA, AI and analytics and their potential to rapidly accelerate the digitalization of business. What many don’t appreciate is that these technologies can’t function without a core ingredient: clean, structured data. RPA and bots are fantastic innovations, but they can only work with structured data. There is so much reliance on data, yet enterprises struggle to access, unlock and use it at scale because the data is not available in a standardized, accessible format. Without structured data, RPA bots cannot function, analytics tell an incomplete story, and information for decision making is either not timely, inaccurate, or not useful.
Many businesses are unable to reap the benefits of automation technologies as they cannot cross the divide between structured system needs and the unstructured or semi-structured realities of business. It’s the classic adage of “garbage in, garbage out”: unless meaningful, accurate, standardized data is ingested from the outset, RPA and automation implementations will fail. It’s important that digitalization agendas have proper regard for the “first mile of data processing.”
We dedicate a lot of effort to building software that employees actually enjoy using, as opposed to software that employees are forced to use. We don’t think there should be a distinction between software for SMEs or software for the enterprise; it should all just be software to be more productive. We also have a sharp focus on developing solutions that anybody – from the most junior employee to a highly technical CTO – can use. We’re working on tools that allow non-technical users to develop new AI models without touching a line of code. This introduces a level of flexibility that was previously out of reach for many users.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Ben Stein: Our core product offering is focused on process automation and acceleration. These objectives facilitate both in-house and remote working structures, and given most companies’ transition to a hybrid workforce, we have had no shortage of interest from prospects. We have had to learn to adjust to remote sales conversations, as compared to the traditional “face-to-face” meetings, which we prefer!
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Ben Stein: Fortunately, Staple has not downsized during the pandemic. Instead, we have grown our headcount and will continue to do so in the coming months. Remote working presents an opportunity to attract the best talent regardless of employee location.
We’ve also found that within the company and within our decentralized teams, personal connection is more important than ever. We make deliberate efforts to arrange video standups and check-ins with team members as a priority. In this period of extended isolation, the mental health of our team is paramount. It is imperative that we make time for team members to connect with their colleagues, not just in a professional sense but in a social setting too.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Ben Stein: Staple’s customer focus is generally in the enterprise segment (1000+ employees). Decision-making can be slow and is subject to several layers of approval. Often the sales cycle exceeds 6 months, even before the pandemic. The inability to have face-to-face meetings has prolonged the sales cycle, and we have had to learn quickly to adapt to a remote business development strategy. To execute this strategy, we rely heavily on tools such as HubSpot, Zoom, Teams and more recently, Mmhmm.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Ben Stein: Staple has been fortunate to receive the support of the Singapore government during its inception and during the challenging times of Covid. Most recently, Staple received a grant from Enterprise Singapore to explore the applicability of our technology in the energy sector.
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