We talked to Zetane’s co-founders about the partnerships and bonuses the company offers. Patrick St-Amant represented them and had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Patrick St-Amant: Trying times like these are difficult for everyone. We do our best to manage by maintaining a stiff upper lip to adversity while keeping our eyes and ears open to those around us in need. The solidarity and courtesy we see among our colleagues and members of our community have proven to be the best remedy for hardship. Our team is quite multicultural; managing COVID means understanding what goes on in our home base of Montreal, Canada, but also what is going on in the US, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, France, India, and other places where our colleagues have a family. Empathy is the name of the game, and optimism keeps us sane. We look forward to a brighter future; however, we also make an effort to embrace this period as an opportunity to learn how we can better prepare for additional difficult times that are certain to come our way as we progress along the long road of life.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Zetane Systems.
Patrick St-Amant: Zetane Systems came into existence by following a similar path forged by iconic tech start-ups–now mega-companies–like Apple, which started from a garage. Our beginnings are just as humble, where our initial operations were from the basement of a suburban home. They remained so until this year, upon which the company’s growth required us to move operations to a more expansive office space. We still feel an element of surprise when thinking back to when Jonathan Magoon, Guillaume Hervé and I launched the company. We were confident that we had a great opportunity for a revolutionary product; we felt a need for change and to embrace a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Before you could say “entrepreneur,” we left rewarding careers or retirement to focus on building the next generation of software tools for artificial intelligence. None of us could have predicted our current reality a couple of years ago. So far, so good. This is a topic we discussed elsewhere. If you like, you can learn more about our origin story from here from a few months ago (we also discuss tips on securing funding for start-ups).
How does Zetane Systems innovate?
Patrick St-Amant: Innovation is central to everything we do: From the patent we recently obtained for our unique technology to the breakthroughs we achieved in gaining a fundamental understanding of complex algorithms that before were mysterious “black boxes.” Our company produces software that serves to expedite innovations in artificial intelligence for businesses and industrial processes.
In terms of our internal operations, there is one particular strategy for innovation at Zetane that merits greater awareness among members of the start-up community: partnerships. We seek out strategic partnerships with enterprises that challenge us to push our technology to a higher level. Here we connect with leaders who are looking to leverage machine learning solutions to remain competitive in their industry. We identify common interest points between our companies, where our partner obtains technology to address pressing business needs. We use the project to develop use-cases for marketing and gain experience in a particular industry vertical. Partnerships push us to continue to innovate new features for our software platform, develop the client empathy required to understand their business realities, and deliver state-of-the-art solutions that have an immediate impact. We are fortunate in Canada to have access to several programs and government grants that encourage start-ups to partner with leading corporations and research institutes. These subsidies often cover half or more of the costs for a joint innovation initiative. Such partnerships enable us to try out new ideas and take major risks with challenging projects that have a high potential to springboard innovation. Thanks to several government subsidies, we were fortunate to complete high-tech projects such as developing neuro-surgical simulation tools, building algorithms for autonomous trains, and bringing to market predictive maintenance technologies for heavy-duty vehicles, to name a few. Opportunities to complete such complex projects are typically rare for start-ups with limited resources.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Patrick St-Amant: Being upended is an understatement. The immediate shock of the pandemic placed all of our projects on hold. Our response was to divert human resources towards business development and sales, placing less emphasis on the hard-core development of our technology.
We had several trade show events planned, all of which got canceled. This was devastating because our software product is ideal for face-to-face demonstrations, close collaborations, and vivid displays in front of captive audiences. We still struggle to replicate that trade-show sizzle at virtual events.
Just before the pandemic, we moved our operations to our first office. Emerging from a basement to establish a commercial headquarters marked a major milestone for our start-up. After a couple of months, everything was closed during the lockdowns. We were lucky in that our company was already accustomed to having integral employees work from home since a few of us reside outside of Canada. This provided a valuable dress rehearsal that enabled a smooth transition to a fully remote workforce. We make an effort to professional cultural relationships and fiduciary bonds among our employees even though we are far apart.
Despite the adversity, we are coping well. 2020 is looking to be a year of accomplishments at Zetane. We tripled our staff, grew our client base, secured significant grants, patented one of our innovations, published a slew of press releases–we even got a new logo and branding to fit this period of rapid change at our company. We express gratitude for our good fortune.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Patrick St-Amant: The beginning of the pandemic was a period of significant uncertainty. As a small business, we got hit hard when many of our stellar customers had to put their projects for innovation and technology upgrades on hold. With revenue streams flowing to a trickle, we came together to discuss the difficult choices that lay ahead with our team. Everyone agreed to accept a salary haircut rather than layoff a team member during an economic downturn. We were lucky in that this sacrifice was short-lived since business picked up faster than expected. To compensate for the loss of customers, we kept everyone busy by initiating challenging projects that could become a source of pride and usefulness during the pandemic. The main project is our development of AI technology that predicted tentative anti-viral treatments for COVID-19. Overall, good came from this otherwise unfortunate situation because we, as a team, learned that we could depend on each other when times get tough.
On a broader level, we learned that artificial intelligence is having a break-out period thanks in part to the pandemic. AI adoption accelerated when companies began searching for means to automate their operations in response to social distancing measures and lockdowns that made it impossible for people to go to work. We now better understand the value of our services that enable clients to prototype AI solutions and complete proof-of-concept projects before progressing to a full AI innovation initiative.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Patrick St-Amant: We are fervent meditators; indeed, the three of us as co-founders i.e. Jonathan Magoon, Guillaume Hervé and I met through meditation events in Montreal. Nothing comes close to fanning away anxious thoughts than taking a well-deserved break to clear the mind by focusing on the present moment.
Beyond meditation, we employ strategies at Zetane to help our employees deal with stress and anxiety to provide opportunities for joy and beneficence. Here are two examples. Following a stressful period associated with a product launch, we gave our team a surprise paid vacation day with strict instructions that everyone was to go outside and do an activity they love. Being well aware of the melancholy in society today, we decided to give each employee a bonus that they were to donate to a charitable cause of their choice. The goal here was to empower our team by bringing forth bits of happiness and positivity to those in need, which in turn uplifted our spirits as well. We were overwhelmed with the love that this produced in the company when team members started sharing how they chose to donate their “feel good” bonus.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Patrick St-Amant: It’s hard for us to pin down a close competitor because our software provides a diverse ensemble of digital tools for machine learning. Though there is no ‘Pepsi’ version of the Zetane ‘Coke,’ there are groups working on the same bits and pieces that comprise the digital tools in our toolbox. That said, our plans to remain competitive place a significant focus on determining a great messaging and communication strategy for software and its features.
Your final thoughts?
Patrick St-Amant: Companies that will succeed beyond the global pandemic will be those that adapt to our new reality and identify opportunities for new growth. Your ability to identify those novel opportunities for growth will reside in your ability to understand the post-pandemic needs of your clients and employees. The needs for businesses have changed a lot and require leaders to feel immense empathy for the strain undoubtedly being felt by everyone.
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