We talked to David Abbey of Penny AI on how to develop brilliant technology that inspires action, builds momentum and creates belief and this is what he had to say.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
David Abbey: Thank you for asking. My family and I are, fortunately, very well. Adapting to working from home with three kids was an awesomely challenging, but rewarding experience. My wife is incredible and has worked remotely for years in the direct sales industry while still balancing her nursing shifts so that she could teach me the tricks of the trade.
Direct sales have seen a surge of customers looking for trusted e-commerce products. The corporate side has been keen to find digital-first tools to support their independent business owners, so we’ve both been kept busy throughout this year.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Penny AI?
David Abbey: After witnessing firsthand the struggles my wife faced running her successful direct sales business, I grew to respect and learn so much about this industry.
Within a few years, she had a global business managing thousands of people and customers, but she was running out of time in the day to get everything done and serve her customers and team sufficiently. One day it became too much, and she said to me, ‘I just need a personal assistant that can organize my life.’ After months of research, we realized there wasn’t an app designed for the direct sales industry that was customer-centric and easy to use, and so Penny was born—the AI-powered virtual assistant for the direct sales industry.
I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart and founded my first business in 2003. After selling the company in 2006, I transitioned into the world of tech startups. Over fifteen years, I learned as much as I could about brilliant customer service, robust digital solutions, and finding ways to ensure that the tech we interact with enhances our day-to-day lives.
So in 2018, when my friend and co-founder, Chris Noble, and I developed Penny AI, we pooled all of our experience together, combined with my wife’s inside knowledge of the industry. We created the solution she needed to run her business and regain her free time. Our mission is to help millions of direct sales consultants, just like my wife, to build, develop, and grow their direct sales businesses, so they have more time to focus on what makes them happy.
How does Penny AI innovate?
David Abbey: Laughs. We’re innovating all the time! From installing a keg machine in the office, we have cider and beer on tap during our Friday Happy Hours to create a remote, global Christmas party experience for all our employees.
But, no, seriously. What excites me about the Penny app is that our team is full of industry experts that want to innovate direct sales. Historically, direct selling has predominantly focussed on corporate solutions with very little focus on the field. While developing Penny, we realized that it’s as much about an intuitive tool as it is about psychology for the area. We focused on creating an app that builds a habit-forming process. It teaches consultants how to increase income-producing activities and improves the experience of customers at the same time.
We created Penny to fill a sizable gap in the industry, to be the virtual assistant meets AI-powered CRM for direct sellers. I’m incredibly proud of the Penny app and how many direct sales organizations we’ve helped already, but I also know it’s only the beginning. We’re always listening, always asking ‘what if we…?’ and we’re never afraid to try something new.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
David Abbey: Around half of our team were already remote workers, so we had many of the tech tools and processes to help us communicate effectively and ensure everyone knew they were an integral part of the company. For example, we use a ‘Donut’ app that connects people within the business who don’t usually get the chance to talk to each other to have a casual coffee chat together (like you would if you bumped into someone in the kitchen while waiting for the kettle to boil).
From a business perspective, our primary target industry, direct sales, is thriving. As the world adapted to working remotely, this industry was one step ahead of the game as most of the associates have been building global remote businesses since 2012.
The pandemic has highlighted that tech innovation isn’t a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘must-have.’ We ran a survey with decision-makers in the direct sales industry to collate a 2021 Direct Sales Industry Benchmark Report. 60% said a challenge for them in 2020 was ‘Transitioning to digital-only interactions,’ which is excellent for Penny AI because that’s what we help achieve.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
David Abbey: Difficult choices are always tricky, but I think the pandemic has made some of these choices feel more personal. I always strive to lead by example, and my first call of action when I have a difficult decision to make is to consult with the rest of the company so I know we’re making the best possible decision.
Penny AI has grown throughout the pandemic! I feel very fortunate that we weren’t in the position many companies had to make difficult decisions involving layoffs, furlough schemes, and pay cuts.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Penny AI in the future?
David Abbey: Depending on the stress or anxiety, I adjust my strategy. Sometimes I work harder knowing that I will feel a lot better once this piece of work is over the line. Exceeding expectations and exciting customers is part of our culture, so it gives me a tremendous high when our Customer Success team gets a 100% happiness rating several weeks in a row.
On the other hand, sometimes I do the complete opposite. I stop, reset, and give myself time. Penny is based just outside of Vancouver, so we’re lucky to have easy access to some of the best mountains for skiing and mountain biking. Those two sports are excellent for clearing your mind and building team spirit.
We all have big dreams for Penny. I’m inspired daily by the work ethic, grit, and resilience of direct sellers and want to provide the best tool possible to manage and grow their business. We know that all companies are different, so I’m also excited to work with our future partners and continue tailoring Penny to their specific requirements.
And how do you plan to stay in the game?
David Abbey: Penny AI was to solve a problem. By focusing on the four pillars of direct sales success—customer service excellence, consultant success, leadership journey, and corporate innovation— we’re equipping direct sales organizations with a digital-first solution that is imperative to stay ahead of the competition.
While the world embraces digitization in the face of the pandemic, direct sales companies leverage the existing momentum and accelerate their digital transformation across their entire operations cycle. Customers, consultants, leaders, and infrastructure—will get ahead of the competition and lead this industry for years to come.
Penny is delivering this competitive advantage and partnering with organizations that share our vision to provide exceptional field experiences. Organizing the chaos of business so that every consultant can free up their time again to enjoy the things they love is our number one priority.
We also have some great plans for the future, and I’m very excited to see our 2021 roadmap playout. For our 2021 Direct Sales Industry Benchmark Report, we asked vital decision-makers what they thought would be the most significant opportunities in 2021. Over 40% answered ‘Better training and onboarding for consultants’, which made my team smile as our next big update will focus on Leaders and the insights they need to bring out the best in their units. I’m confident that, once again, it will be a game-changer for the industry.
Your final thoughts?
David Abbey: 2020 has only made me more grateful that we started Penny AI. The people in the industry are so inspiring, empowering, and friendly. Our team is fantastic, and I love learning from my incredible team and all the people I interact with daily.
Our motto is that ‘Every day is a big day—for the field, it’s about getting one more sale, for the corporate side is about improving the digital experience customers have with their brand. For Penny, it’s dreaming big and creating the best app we possibly can, one step at a time.