We talked to Naeem Zafar of TeleSense about advanced data analytics and he had the following to say:-
First, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Naeem Zafar: We’re doing fantastic. I enjoy the time that I save since there’s no commute. I am getting just as much done, if not more. I haven’t experienced a drop in productivity. The work hasn’t slowed down much, and video conferencing has been extremely useful. I don’t have to buy any clothes or shoes, and I get to have lunch at home; what’s not to like. For me, this transition to work from home due to COVID-19 makes a lot of sense.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded TeleSense.
Naeem Zafar: I am an electrical engineer who moved to the US at an early age for undergraduate school at Brown University. After completing graduate school at the University of Minnesota, I started my first company at the age of 26. Three years later, I moved to Silicon Valley.
TeleSense is my 7th entrepreneurial venture, and my 5th time being a startup CEO. My last startup company, Bitzer Mobile, was focused on the mobile security space and was acquired by Oracle. Another company I was involved with, Quickturn Design Systems, went public in the chip design space.
I co-founded TeleSense in 2014 with the aim of applying IoT (Internet of Things) and advanced data analytics to solve problems in an industry that had been relatively untouched by technology.
Basically, I am a Silicon Valley native at this point, having invested in, advised, and worked with scores of companies. I also teach entrepreneurship at the University of California, Berkeley & Northeastern University.
How does TeleSense innovate?
Naeem Zafar: Innovation comes from two places. One is a deep understanding of the customer’s problem. And the second is the ability to think outside the box and be willing to break the rules. We do those two things rather well.
Central to our company culture is the idea that nothing you have to say when a customer speaks can be more important than what they are telling you. We listen carefully. Hence, we have a deeper understanding of our customers than our competitors do. We have continued to visit our customer’s in person, even during COVID-19, while practicing the necessary social distancing protocols, and the conversations we’ve had are crucial to our growth and vision.
We also believe that to stand out from the crowd, you must look at the problem from different angles. Remember, a hotel company did not start Airbnb; they were able to disrupt the market through their unique background and approach. At TeleSense, people who are experts in the agriculture/agtech/ grain space work in close collaboration with people from unique backgrounds, and this enables us to view the problem from multiple perspectives and be innovative.
How did the coronavirus pandemic affect your business, and how are you coping?
Naeem Zafar: Our business is difficult for three reasons. First, we are focused on the grain market. It is not a super profitable business, and margins are razor-thin. Second, farmers/ growers are the most skeptical customers you will meet. It takes a long time to build trust and for them to be willing to spend any money at all. Third, we have realized that instead of doing zoom calls with potential customers or a lot of email campaigns and social media marketing, our direct sales channel is the most effective. We have invested heavily in hiring direct salespeople and sales development reps.
Of course, the coronavirus presented a challenge to the direct sales method, but that has not stopped us. Our sales team has been visiting people as and when the situation permits while practicing the necessary safety protocols. The good news is that most of our customers are rural. So, most meetings occur in open spaces, like a farm, which does make this a bit more manageable.
We’ve had no choice but to roll with the punches. We identified our constraints and worked around them. We’ve had to be quick, adaptable, and agile about it. Has it been easy? No. Have we had to reduce our sales targets – yes? But with the strength of our story, our team, and our vision, we’ve been able to manage the uncertainty created by the coronavirus. We’ve kept working towards our goal, and we were also able to raise our Series B funding in the middle of the pandemic.
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Naeem Zafar: We did have to make some difficult choices because of COVID-19. Initially, the work slowed down, and not being able to visit our customers impacted sales. We used that time for product testing and improvement. We did have to right-size the company, not a lot, but maybe 10%. Then, helped by the payroll protection plan loan, we were able to weather the storm, and we are doing much better now.
The lesson learned is swift action is necessary when it comes to trimming the workforce. Nobody has ever complained, saying, “I fired that guy too early.” As a startup, you’re generally used to laying down the railroad as the train is coming down the tracks. For us, taking quick action and adapting smartly has been central to our survival and success during COVID.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and TeleSense in the future?
Naeem Zafar: To deal with stress, I generally exercise and get a good night’s sleep. For me going to sleep fixes almost all problems. Because of coronavirus, I have been able to get into a routine when I can wake up early, like six o’clock, and walk three to four miles every morning while catching up on reading by listening to audiobooks. Sometimes, I also take work calls during my walks. By 8’o clock in the morning, I feel like I have already accomplished quite a bit. By waking up early and having a routine, my productivity has been maintained, and I feel equipped to handle stress and anxiety.
As far as the future of the company is concerned, the problem we are solving is COVID proof. We are streamlining that grain supply chain. Even during or after COVID-19, people must eat, animals have to be fed, and grain keeps moving, and we help with that. As our products become more robust and more affordable, we can expand into more markets.
Currently, we are focused on the US market. We are testing the waters in Australia and Europe. The prospects for expansion into Asia and Latin America are huge. We are just trying to get the car into the second gear, to a situation where we can then accelerate to third, fourth, and fifth gear and drive at full speed on the highway. That’s what’s ahead, and it’s exciting.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Naeem Zafar: We put our competitors into three buckets. There’re the large companies that have been around for 20-30 years who make traditional hardware products for grain storage facilities, like Extron & [email protected] We don’t consider them as direct competitors. They are in the same industry, and their products are in some way complementary to the work we do, but technically we aren’t competing with them.
The second bucket is companies that have portable sensors or canisters. Their hardware products are like ours. There are a couple of companies in that bucket in the US and maybe three or four more in Europe. They’re all underfunded, early in their approach, and don’t sell enterprise-grade solutions as we do. We are the most focused and well-financed company of the lot.
The third bucket is companies using data and AI, and algorithms to give you prescriptive insights. When it comes to that, we are kind of standalone. A few companies are entering this space, but we have a head start. We already have about half a billion data points, which are being used to shape the algorithms. They will always be half a billion data points behind us. When it comes to AI, you’re only as good as the data you use to train the algorithms. So, we think we have a competitive edge that we can sustain.
Naeem Zafar: There are several industries in the last 40 years, which have been transformed by advances in technology. The one which stands out to me is semiconductor manufacturing. Then there are other industries, such as e-commerce and retail, that have been impacted to a certain extent. When it comes to high tech, industries like construction and agriculture have been relatively untouched. So, there’s a lot of room for growth and innovation.
There’s also the sheer size of the agricultural industry and the impact of the problem. The total world population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion in the next 30 years. The amount of land being used for agriculture per person is shrinking. The onus is on us to protect the grain we already produce and distribute it quite diligently in the supply chain. That’s exactly the problem we are solving. We are optimistic about the validity and scope of the problem we are tackling and excited for the future. It’s all about keeping our heads down and perfecting the execution.