I had the pleasure to interview Ravi N. Raj. Ravi is the CEO and co-founder of Passage AI, the award winning and industry-leading AI platform that businesses can use to create a conversational interface for their websites without a single line of code. Co-founded in 2016 by Raj and Silicon Valley veterans, Mitul Tiwari and Madhu Mathihalli, the Mountain View-based company is powering chatbots for Fortune 500 companies including Kohl’s, Wynn, and Bridgestone. His work with Passage AI is dramatically simplifying how consumers do everything from scheduling a doctor’s appointment to buying a prom dress or getting instant answers to policy questions. Prior to co-founding Passage AI, he led product for @WalmartLabs, Walmart’s hub for innovation around social, mobile and retail. Raj came to Walmart through the acquisition of Kosmix, where he served as the VP and GM of Kosmix’s sites, which included Kosmix.com, Tweetbeat.com and RightHealth.com, then the second largest health site on the Web. Raj has also played leadership roles at Yahoo, AltaVista and Elance (now Upwork) and holds patents in search, social media, and retail.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve worked in the tech industry for several years for companies like Yahoo, Kosmix and Walmart. I founded Passage AI in 2016 with a couple of ultra-brilliant engineers I worked with at Kosmix. Our inspiration to start the company stemmed from our frustration of having to wait on hold for a while, sometimes even hours, to get help with simple issues such as the return policy for a product or to schedule an appointment with a technician to troubleshoot internet connectivity issues.
We felt that given advances in AI and natural language understanding and processing (NLU/P), such issues could easily be resolved by an AI-powered agent. Three years later, we are very excited that some of the largest brands in the world are using our platform to provide instant and accurate responses to their customers’ issues. At the same time, their agents and employees are now more productive and are able to add more value to the business since their time has been freed up from resolving mundane issues.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Since we are a global company, one of the main challenges I’ve encountered is making sure that every team understands the requirements of a project and their end-deliverables. If requirements and deliverables are not clear, a lot of time and productivity is wasted given the time zone differences and language barriers.
I encountered this at a prior company a number of years ago when a critical deadline was missed because one team was expecting a deliverable from the other which was not communicated properly and this led to a lot of angst and frustration.
If clear communications are consistently provided, your organization is working 24/7 in the sense that when one team finishes their day, the other team is starting theirs and taking over. This helps increase overall team satisfaction while ensuring projects are continuously moving forward.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
There are three factors that have been critical to our success. Firstly, I’m fortunate to have a world-class team. Together we’ve been able to build not only an innovative product but also one that our enterprise customers are seeing tremendous success with.
Secondly, we’ve always had both a clear vision and a mission for Passage AI that we’ve firmly believed in. Also, because we were able to decisively relay this mission to all of our employees, their enthusiasm and passion has led to the development of a top-notch conversational AI platform.
Thirdly, we have had the courage as a company to say no to things that were not aligned with our vision. This laser sharp focus has enabled us to do great things for our customers.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
Lesson 1: Being an entrepreneur is hard and demanding. You must have a clear vision about why you are building your company. Also, as a leader, your vision enables you to prepare for the future of your company.
Lesson 2: One of the best lessons I’ve learned is that when you are an entrepreneur, you should not be afraid to fail. The fear of failure leads to inertia, indecisiveness, and maintenance of the status quo. Given the pace at which technology is evolving, no tech company can afford to remain dormant. If they do, the startup next door will make them irrelevant.
Lesson 3: I wish I had known that patience is as important as speed of execution. As an entrepreneur, you are sometimes impatient about the speed at which things, many of them outside your organization, move and you tend to make rash decisions. When working with larger enterprises, sometimes, waiting for things to materialize can be more fruitful.
Lesson 4: To build a sustainable business it is important to combine lessons 1 and 2: “move fast and break things” but with stability, reliability and consistency top of mind.
Lesson 5: It is critical to foster, inspire and help employees find their way to success. As a CEO, since it is your job to create a winning culture, it is important to urge your employees to focus on tasks that have the most positive impact as opposed to working long hours on things that don’t move the needle. The impact could be technology enhancements, product improvements, business expansion, attracting new talent, or creating an awesome atmosphere.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I would say, to thrive you must have employees that believe in the same mission as you and are passionate about it. And if their talents are leveraged in the right way to strongly contribute towards fulfilling a mission they believe in, they will never “burn out”.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally and personally, my goal with Passage AI is to build the best conversational AI platform that generates the most value for our customers. If we are able to continue to deliver on this goal, our customers will become our biggest advocates, which will in turn bring in new customers who will also evangelize us. This creates a virtuous cycle that will maximize value for our employees and shareholders.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
We are on the precipice of unlocking human potential. Technologies like AI can be used to free up time from monotonous and repetitive tasks, leaving people unburdened and free to pursue creativity and more innovative thinking.
There are countless hours that are being spent every day on tasks that could easily be automated using AI. Have you ever felt good for having spent 30 minutes looking for cancellation policy information because of a flight delay when that time could have been spent finding a creative way to get to your destination on time? Probably not.
When we let bots do the mundane work, and let humans focus on more impactful work, the world will be a better place — for both individuals and societies.
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