Q&A with Oleg Rogynskyy, Founder and CEO of People.ai

by Y Combinator10/17/2018

We put together a list of the top YC companies by valuation as of October 2018. You can see that list at https://ycombinator.com/topcompanies.

Here’s a Q&A with Oleg Rogynskyy, Founder and CEO of People.ai, one of the companies featured on the list.

What does People.ai make/do?

People.ai is an enterprise AI platform that collects all of the contact, activity and engagement data of sales, marketing and other customer-facing employees directly from their email, calendar, and phone. All this is captured and enables advanced data science on employee activity, rep coaching and revenue insights, as well as automate all of the Salesforce manual data entry, freeing up over 1 day per week for every employee.

How many employees does People.ai have?


How many founders?


What is your most impressive recent product milestone?

We’ve expanded our product line to support users for every go-to-market function, beyond sales and marketing and now solving over a hundred of use cases across customer success, support, services, sales engineering, and even product marketing within a typical Fortune 500 company.

With this product expansion over 40% of employees in a typical Fortune 500 enterprise will need People.ai seats (up from 20%), thus doubling our total addressable market (TAM) overnight.

What is the larger impact / societal impact of your product in the space you work within?

We believe combining business activity data with Artificial Intelligence will create new productivity and revenue opportunities for every company and for every employee. That’s why we are here. We let people focus on being creative, productive and generating value and we do this by automating dumb manual workflows like CRM data entry, and making them smarter with AI assistance.

On average, People.ai frees up 1 day a week per employee, while providing them with guidance on how to do their work better, and giving their manager data to help the employee be even more effective through coaching and predictive capabilities.

There are over 25 million potential People.ai users in the US alone. Just imagine all the amazing things 25 million highly educated, creative, and smart folks can do with an extra day freed up on their calendar.

What’s an interesting element of People.ai’s company culture?

We have a number of values built around active listening, extreme transparency, and open discussion, which helped us form a very open culture where everyone is involved in the direction of the business and the product. We’ve made a concerted effort to create things like:

  • “ama_product” open forum channel where anyone can provide product
    input customer-facing roadmap portal so customers can directly
    influence the product
  • every employee in the company having an OKR to spend at least one
    hour per month in front of a customer
  • board members doing quarterly fireside talks in front of the whole
    team (without the CEO in the room)
  • We are focusing on building something people want, that will help
    their daily lives, and we are building this company in an open,
    meritocratic, and customer-focused way

Looking back, what motivated you to start People.ai?

When I was building my previous company, Semantria, I was always shocked by how much time my team was wasting on entering data in the CRM, and how little value I could extract from that data (barely 20% of it was collected, and most of it was getting out of date within days). I always felt like I was herding cats. It was fruitless and seemed like such a waste of human effort and precious time. That’s when I started asking myself “why are we still doing this manually, it’s 2016, not 1999?”. I realized that there was a set of really hard tech problems to be solved, that would enable a solution to this painful problem. Along the way we found that employee activity data is way more valuable than what everyone had thought and then we built a whole AI business around it.

Is what you’re working on now the original idea or did you pivot?

Yes and no. The original vision remains intact, but we originally started this as a product, aimed at startups (don’t do that!!!), and then quickly realized there was incredible value for large Enterprises. It was a completely untapped market; so we went back to the basics, rebuilt for enterprise level scale and security, with over 180 potential use cases we’d heard about from our customers. And it’s paying dividends – we’ve got over 50 massive companies on the platform today with tens of thousands of users freeing up millions of man-hours of time for people to do what they are best at – create.

Were there moments where you thought the company might die? Describe one of those and anything you learned from it.

Absolutely! And as anyone who’s built a company before knows, these moments happen quite often. A good example would be a situation that happened to us around a year ago. As one would expect, we’d been moving fast, optimizing for shipping code and expanding our product line. When you are in that mode, you probably won’t be focused on some of the less ‘interesting’ things like privacy, capacity planning, etc.

One day a large customer of ours calls in, freaking out, and mentions that there had been a privacy-related incident. Through an unexpected edge case, the system shared someone’s chili recipe (no kidding!) with colleagues. Nothing major, but it highlighted something to us, that could become serious quickly. We started talking to more customers and realized that unless we move really fast, we could be in serious trouble as a business. Another situation like this could happen at any moment and this time it wouldn’t be a chili recipe.

The good thing is we recognised it, and did the right thing. We shut down all of our feature development and focused 150% of our effort, energy, and attention to building the best privacy protection layer in the industry. When it was ready, we shipped it. Customers noticed how transparent we were about the potential problem, how quickly we reacted to a potential issue, came up with a solution, and proactively delivered a solution.

As it turned out later, privacy became a huge topic with GDPR going in to effect in May 2018, and we ended up pre-empting the requirements in time when everybody became extremely privacy-aware (We love the EU rules, really!). We went from “we might die” to being in the best place ever literally in the span of 2 months.

What was a particularly important insight you had about your market that made your product work?

I started my career out as a sales person, and I hated every minute of wasting my time on administrative tasks and not selling/making money. Having walked in the shoes of our end-users, it gave me a strong sense of empathy with our customers and deep understanding of how to make this process more effective.

What’s one piece of advice you’d share with a young founder?

Lars Dalgaard once said that you have two ears and only one mouth for a reason. As a founder, you are extremely proud of what you are building and want to scream about it from the rooftops. However, listening, especially active listening, is what will make you hear the true pains of your customers and their subconscious feedback.

Read more here: https://a16z.com/2017/07/11/sales-listening/

In fact, reading this blog post is a required step for anyone who joins People.ai.

Extreme perception skills are what make employees and companies go from good to great.


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