Raising awareness: People know what business intelligence dashboards are already, but analytics teams — and people across other business functions — don’t know how to properly leverage this next wave of analytics tools. This includes showing a host of different use cases so that people can see what’s possible.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ajay Khanna.
Ajay Khanna, CEO & Founder of Tellius, the AI-driven decision intelligence platform, is a tech entrepreneur who has a passion for building disruptive enterprise products with an awesome user experience. Prior to starting Tellius, Ajay was CTO & Founding member of Celcite, a telecom analytics and solutions company with rapid growth to 100MM+ dollars in revenue that was acquired by Amdocs in 2013. Ajay has over 25 years of extensive experience working in various technical, business, and consulting roles. He holds a degree in electronics and communications engineering from Thapar Institute of Engineering & Technology.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a kid growing up in India in the 80’s, the typical professional career choices were to be a doctor or an engineer. I chose the path to be an engineer because of my passion for technology, and I hated biology. So, I came to the U.S. in 1998 and began my journey in the technology space.
Two areas that have been constants throughout my career — automation centric approach and data analytics. In fact, I had been thinking about automation and its potential impacts even before I came to the U.S., and it led to an obsession with data. In the early 2000s, I was working for AT&T in consulting, and I found data analysis was a very manual process. I became driven by a desire to make things easier for my team, so I built some small, scrappy data models to better automate the data analysis process. These models were pretty successful, and a lightbulb went off above my head: if I committed to working at this full time, it could be a great opportunity for me and the business community. In short, I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.
Not long after that we were building an analytics platform in my former company, Celcite, that was focused on finding insights from data in the telecom industry. I really like this quote from Geoffrey Moore that refers to the problem we were working to solve: “Without big data analytics, companies are blind and deaf, wandering out onto the web like deer on a freeway.” Celcite was a great opportunity for me to combine my obsessions — automation, data analysis and great user experience — while working to solve problems plaguing the data analytics departments of these telecom companies.
And, as we began to have more and more success in the telecom sector, we worked to expand to other industries. Data analysis is a problem across industries, and I found we could apply artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to solve it. We eventually sold Celcite to Amdocs, and I founded Tellius a few years later. After 26 years of working on these problems, I’m still just as passionate about them today. We’re just getting started with the applications of AI and ML — I believe our society is only about 5% of the way to its full potential — and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It’s tricky to find just one, but when reflecting on the beginning of my career, it’s hard to not mention a good friend of mine, Rahul Sharma. Rahul and I met 20 years ago in Denver, Colorado when working with a telecom operator there and we have known each other ever since.
Rahul told me early on in my career that you should jump at every opportunity presented to you. Like many others, I asked him, “How do you know when to jump?” His reply was simple: “Keep jumping.” This simple but sound piece of advice has been a mantra of mine ever since.
Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
Today’s organizations need granular insights to understand what is driving business performance in order to make better business decisions. It’s difficult for businesses to get these insights from vast amounts of data because their analytics dashboards show aggregated views of data that don’t explain the “why” and don’t allow users to ask ad hoc questions. This leaves data science inaccessible to anyone who isn’t an advanced practitioner and leaves the business without the insights it needs to stay ahead of the competition.
To solve this problem, we’ve developed the Tellius platform, which is the first analytics platform that combines the best of ad hoc query, and ML and AI models. Built from the ground up for cloud scale and analytical AI capabilities, Tellius helps businesses uncover insights in seconds instead of hours. The platform allows users to ask questions of their business data in Google-like natural language search interface to understand why metrics change and how to use that insight to inform more valuable business decisions.
Business apps are 15 years behind where today’s consumer apps currently are, so it was important to me that we build tech that makes data accessible for everyone. The goal is accessibility, or to be the Google for business data, if you will.
How do you think this might change the world?
That’s a great question. Marc Andreessen, the cofounder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, wrote a now-famous op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in 2011 about why software is eating the world. If it was true then, it’s even more accurate now. Software has indeed eaten the world, and now a bigger fish has come around to eat that software: AI.
As AI becomes ubiquitous, there’s been a huge shift in how we work with data. We need to democratize access to AI in order to let humans do what they do best, and let machines do what they do best. One example of this is Travelocity and Expedia, two consumer sites that revolutionized flight booking. Instead of working with an agent to go anywhere, everyone now has access to the up-to-date information they need to be able to make decisions about travel. And, travel agents are now able to focus less on monitoring flight details and more on driving better customer service.
Mirroring this shift in the consumer world that happened 15–20 years ago, businesses need to democratize data for everyone. Right now, the Amazons and Googles of the world can afford to hire hordes of data engineers to crunch data and stay ahead of the little guy who doesn’t have the funds to build out a team chock-full of data scientists. But, by democratizing business data, any company with the right idea would be able to compete with the giants in their fields. A world where everyone can access, read and make decisions based on data is a world with more business parity.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
While there can be drawbacks with any technology, there shouldn’t be any issues if companies use their increased access to data, and the insights they derive from it, responsibly. One area that’s really important to think about here is skills training. In order for humans and machines to work side-by-side, it’s critical that the government, educators and businesses all prioritize the necessary upskilling and reskilling of the workforce. This doesn’t stop with teaching workers new skills, but also helping teach people how to avoid inherent biases in their data. Our models are only as good as the people building them, so it’s critical we build them responsibly and are aware of ways our own beliefs may skew data sets. Only by investing in machines AND people can we realize this vision of democratized data.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
There’s no one tipping point, but there have been several factors that have led to this breakthrough. It’s a perfect confluence of a few factors, including:
- Reduced storage costs: Computing storage is so cheap these days, and allows for near-infinite scale and the ability to process massive amounts of data. With all this new data, it’s time for our world to put it to use.
- Global, distributed workforce: Even before COVID-19, we’ve been able to hire people across the world to work at Tellius. By being able to cast a wide net and get the best talent — no matter their zip code — to work at our company, we can ensure we’re doing the best possible work.
- Open-source software: Apache Spark, the open-source, unified analytics engine, has made large-scale data processing possible for all AI- and ML-powered startups. Tellius wouldn’t be where it is today without it. I still remember going to a Spark conference in New York in 2015. It was at that moment that I knew I could make Tellius a reality by leaning on their open-source software to get started.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
In order to achieve widespread adoption, there are three areas that we need to address:
- Raising awareness: People know what business intelligence dashboards are already, but analytics teams — and people across other business functions — don’t know how to properly leverage this next wave of analytics tools. This includes showing a host of different use cases so that people can see what’s possible.
- Frictionless onboarding: As a company developing this technology, it’s our responsibility to make the process of training and navigating the platform for the first time as easy as possible.
- Build a brand: Though this could technically fall under raising awareness, I believe it’s important to build brand recognition where Tellius is recognized as a leader. We’re working to distinguish ourselves not only as a company with a superior product and team, but with a distinct brand that is synonymous with decision intelligence.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
As part of education and awareness, we’ve found webinars to be a great way to showcase the platform and our customers’ successful implementations. In addition to marketing efforts, our goal is to get our product in the hands of as many people as possible, as we believe that the platform can speak for itself. We’re experimenting with an on-demand product offering where prospects will be able to take it for a test drive, so to speak. And, we’re working on a new product-led growth strategy where we would be selling the product with a consumption-based model.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
As I mentioned before, Rahul Sharma is a great friend and mentor — as well as being an investor in Tellius. We have opposite personalities and opinions, so we really balance each other out. We worked together for 9+ years, and we approached things in such different ways that I came to think of ourselves as the North and South Poles.
Now, as an entrepreneur, I still really cherish his opinion and often will come to him for advice, which is especially valuable with his sometimes-conflicting perspective. We do have some things in common though: a passion for building great products and companies and an entrepreneurial spirit. He’s like an elder brother to me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Personally, I try to give back in a way that feels true to my experiences and who I am, so I’ve been mentoring entrepreneurs navigating the startup world for some time. I often joke that I can tell them exactly what not to do! I may have made mistakes in the past — and will make them in the future-but hopefully some of the individuals I mentor will learn from me. It’s a tough journey and one that I still need guidance on, and it’s the least I can do to share my experiences with other young founders.
As a company, we’ve made financial contributions to parts of India that have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have some employees based there and wanted to do everything we could to support them, their families and their communities during this challenging time.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Perseverance is Key: There are highs and lows in startups — and mostly lows when you’re starting out. As your company grows, hopefully the ratio of highs to lows starts to swing in one direction, but it doesn’t always. You need to cherish the highs when you can and use them to fuel your fire.
- Team Alignment: It’s important to rally the entire team behind the mission. Just because you see the goal as the company’s leader (remember, you did set it) doesn’t mean that everyone is on the same page. You have to share your passion as the person in charge because it’s contagious and can be a massive motivator.
- Product Fit: Too often, people don’t pay attention to how the product actually fits the market. Just because you can build a great product doesn’t mean there’s a place for it as it originally exists. You have to work to identify the gap between what you build and what is needed, and then work to close it.
- Start Marketing Early and Often: Marketing often falls by the wayside as you build out a product, team and other structures in your company, but it’s critical to start as early as possible. It seems simple, but when my head has been down on developing the platform, it’s hard to pick it up for anything else. But, if you can start building your brand early, it will pay dividends.
- Network: Work to meet as many people as you possibly can. Whether it’s mentoring, being a mentee yourself or just drinks after work, it is critical to build out your rolodex of connections. I’ve found colleagues become investors and customers become colleagues. It’s a small world out there, and you’ll always be glad you put in the time to meet someone today who may be able to help you out tomorrow.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’m not good at it myself, but I’d like to inspire a movement around work-life balance. I’ve always been someone who has a spark and passion for work, but that’s not all I care about. I love my family and really enjoy spending time with them. The pandemic was a critical turning point where everyone started to view work-life balance differently and rethink the way we work. It may sometimes be elusive, but I try to encourage everyone to find their own work-life balance at Tellius, too.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You have to believe it before you see it.”
I find this relevant because no matter what you’re doing — starting a company, playing sports or music, applying for college — you need to visualize your success before it happens. Have faith and confidence in yourself. It’s critical to motivate yourself this way. The initial months working on Tellius were hard; it took six to nine months before any shape of the product was even somewhat formed. I was bought in before I even knew it could be a reality.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
The Tellius platform is breaking the barriers between BI and AI, an absolutely critical need in the business world. By enabling analytics and business teams to get faster insights with incredible ease using a search interface across billions of records, organizations can understand not only ‘what’ happened, but ‘why’ metrics change and ‘how’ to improve outcomes.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.