There’s No AI in Team | Danny Tomsett at Uneeq

In part one of my conversation with Danny Tomsett, the founder and CEO of Uneeq, he talked about his efforts to make AI interaction more engaging with his product, digital humans.

In this second part of our conversation, Danny talks about launching his own telecommunications company at the age of 25, making the choice to leave that for something new, and he shares some important lessons he learned along the way.

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Danny Tomsett is a tech visionary and relentless innovator with a passion for customer experience – so much so that under his leadership, FaceMe (now UneeQ) was the winner of the Sir Richard Branson ‘Virgin Business challenge’; and in 2018, FaceMe was recognised at the ‘Deloitte Fast 50’ NZ awards as one of the country’s fastest growing businesses, with revenue growth of 317%.

He has a successful entrepreneurial track record – developing games at eight years old, founding and exiting a telecommunications company he started at 25 – before starting UneeQ. UneeQ is passionate about people and how we can use technology to change people’s lives. UneeQ enables companies to reimagine the customer experience of the future through a conversational platform designed around leveraging the ‘human touch’ to create amazing customer experiences.


DISCLAIMER: Below is an AI generated transcript. There could be a few typos but it should be at least 90% accurate. Watch video or listen to the podcast for the full experience!

Danny Tomsett 0:00
We understand that the way that you win is that you have super good collaboration between very complex problems that all have to come together to make this work.

Alexander Ferguson 0:17
Danny, I’m excited to continue our conversation. Now hearing your journey as a tech leader over the past 10,11 years. I’m sure this has been an interesting ride in itself. Tell me, how did you get to where you are today? What’s your story?

Danny Tomsett 0:35
So yeah, look, I think like any story, it’s not a solo effort. So you know, I think to answer that question, where I am today was probably making way too many mistakes on my own, and figuring out that I need great people around me. And once I figured that out, I think things started going a lot better. And so to this very day, you know, if anyone asked me, you know, the team that you’ve got around you, and supporting you, and believing in the same vision, that’s just fundamentally the number one thing if you can get that right. And probably have a really good problem that you’re obsessing about. That’s worthwhile. But But yeah, before

Alexander Ferguson 1:15
unique, you had another company, you were founder of? How did that differ from what they when you started uni?

Danny Tomsett 1:22
So yeah, so when I started at 25 years old, I left corporate job and one of the largest telcos in New Zealand has pretty much monopoly at that point. And, and I, like many people who work for these big companies, you have the fortunate experience of a lot of training and a lot of investment in you, as an individual. And, and so I’m very grateful for that. And that training kind of gave me the confidence to really give it a go. And at 25 years old, I set up my own telecommunications company, and, and just a matter of timing, like anything, you know, a lot of luck in this game. And, and that was just on the verge of, you know, seeing real disruption through things like Voice over IP and software telephony. So we’re able to disrupt the market, particularly across small medium business very effectively, and grow quite quick. And it was through that company, that obviously, I was trying to learn about how to be a good, good CEO, good businessman, and, and, and all the kind of challenges that come with rapid growth. And, and so yeah, that was, that was a privilege. But, you know, at some point in the latest stages of that journey, before I exited, you know, I really felt that one of the things I was learning was actually more around a passion for purpose, and a passion for a vision. And I was not passionate about building a domestic telecommunications company. And so for me, already, my heart and my mind was moving well into, I want to be part of a technology company, I love technology, but I want to be part of something that’s global, that’s impacting lives. And so the opportunity obviously presented itself to exit that company, which was fantastic, and gave me the freedom to then experiment with new businesses and Bootstrap those. And, you know, that was where our company really started in 2011. And it started building out video tech, but you know, like any company, it’s, it’s a journey. So you

Alexander Ferguson 3:38
started with unique, or the first variation of it bootstrapped at the beginning. You were beginning that while also being at the other venture, and then you had the opportunity to go then full into it. Talk to me, did you get funding? What was that process like? And what kind of lessons learned there on being able to then grow a company with funding?

Danny Tomsett 4:01
Yeah, so we bootstrapped for a while because of the ability to do so out of, obviously, the success of the previous company, and I had my shareholders and the previous company, being real supportive about this new new venture as well. So there are three of us primarily that really got in behind the bootstrapping of what we called it back then was face me. So that was the name of the company. And it later became unique, but But yeah, and we got to a point actually, were really the business was coming to a stage where we were growing quite nicely on some of the product and have taken a while to get there. And definitely a lot of challenges around building the right product team. In fact, I think that was for me, one of the hardest things was really transitioning from telecommunications business where I was taking a lot of other vendors products versus building your own products and really learning those lessons. And if I could do it again, I would just hide some of the great people I have around me. Now the equivalent of them way back then it would have been so much more pain free. But what would you say that

Alexander Ferguson 5:15
the lesson learned there is? Is it just hiring better people, more skilled people, more specialized people? Like what if you had to do to get in or instruct someone else?

Danny Tomsett 5:25
Yeah, building a good product company actually needs people that understand product really well. So the dimensions of product are not just let’s get some good devs and build some stuff and hack it up, right? Like, how do you get really good disciplines and the focus around what’s most important, because you got all these conflicting priorities. And back in those days, that’s like a typical Danny walk in and coming up with like power, but like almost shooting guns going, Yeah, we should do this. And let’s add that feature and everything and every developers scrambling. Meanwhile, we’re also hiring developers that might not even be fit for purpose, because who’s really got the skill set to assess and things like that. So interesting time.

Alexander Ferguson 6:05
So having a good product team means someone that knows how to keep things streamlined and focused, and you’re not just all over the place, trying this ad this

Danny Tomsett 6:14
asking the right questions to write, like, really thinking about, you know, what is the right product strategy? And, you know, effectively saying, Here’s your trade offs, if you want to do this, this is what we’re going to trade off. Now. Tell me Do you still want to do it? Right? Those are good product people to have around you. And back then those are good, good lessons to kind of learn. But they take time when you don’t learn them through others, I have to say, and you either pay for experience, or you pay for experience. And as I just paid for some experience.

Alexander Ferguson 6:47
I like that phrase. So talk to me, then about the growth of the company, getting the first few clients and customers on board. What were some of the tactics that worked for that beginning stages that you would recommend others? So

Danny Tomsett 7:03
what’s this company, we’ve definitely focused around enterprise market initially. And the reason being is the r&d and the technology is quite complex. And the way that we would, I guess, mitigate some of the gaps and product was around people services. And when you start doing that, you start increasing the price, when you increase the price, you start qualifying your market segment, right. And that’s effectively how we started when we had really good growth rate, we were over 200% growth rate with the face meat company, when we kind of kicked that off and to what we would say market ready product. And, and we did the same with digital humans too. So when we pivoted the business away from video, and to 2015, as we started to move that more into digital humans, same focus, right as like, wow, there’s a lot to digital humans, we don’t know, let’s work with some big companies, we’ve got big budgets, and we can put some team around it and discover and learn together, knowing that our vision and our future was always going to be more aligned to where we are today. But that’s that’s how we went about it.

Alexander Ferguson 8:09
Would you recommend that strategy of as you’re developing something that’s fairly high r&d going after the enterprise so that it’s you’re kind of building it as you go, or with the services there versus building one thing and then trying to mass market? It?

Danny Tomsett 8:23
Yeah, it’s it’s hard to know, I think the way that I did that strategy was also because of the capital requirements for the business. Because I was bootstrapping it put a lot more bias on me to slow the burn through sales, right. So I was looking for early sales. And you could argue that you could find scalable Product Market Fit quicker. If you just raised a whole lot of capital, got a whole product team just focused on doing it through a product, lead strategy versus a sales lead. And I’m pretty sure that debates always up in the air across many founders. And we’ve seen success happen both ways. And our journey, I’m grateful, because what established was a really good traction and understanding of our customers as we went to investors. So that definitely helped from that point of view. But I can’t categorically say that this way was the best.

Alexander Ferguson 9:21
It’s just a way it can work. But intriguing the customer funded strategy versus VC fund or something else, you actually bringing in the sales, you then continue to develop product. Then, in these last you said five years that you’ve switched to digital humans, yes. What would you recommend the tactics of work to scale? The sales efforts?

Danny Tomsett 9:45
Yeah, so when we when we went into the digital human pivot, we we went into it with some things working for us and something’s working against us. What was working for us was definitely years of lessons and experience and we’ve been building In a good team and building a good board, and we brought on investors at that point as well. And so that was super helpful for son to test the strategy. And what we wanted to do, what was working against us is that we were moving into a brand new category, and very high uncertainty around exactly what would be the right messaging. It’s not like anyone had thought about digital humans before, at least prior to that, when you talked about video, and how we’re solving it with say, click on a browser and talk to a video agent. That kind of conversation was like a we won’t have a video is we kind of get that we understand how to manage that. When you say, you know, put a digital human in front of all your customers now. And and so why would we do that? And and you’d have people that would just roll their eyes and laugh you out of a room? And and you know, I’ve even had shareholders, you know, from the earlier journey, just angry, and just just could not understand how, like, you’ve been playing too many games, kind of comments, right? And so they could not see a future where man and machine would interact with more human interfaces. And so that was a challenging time going into that. But ultimately, we knew enterprise market well. So we’re able to work across existing relationships that we had, and just started to test things out, took that same sales, that approach is like, what would it take to get one of these and here? And so and so these customers, you know, with good relationships, they would entertain those kinds of questions. But as they kind of got deeper into thinking about how this connects to the problem statement, they really were getting more excited about then validating, is this a good innovative play? For us? We think it is. And before you knew it, you know, in 2016 2017, we start having customers, we started with helping people with disabilities, it was a phenomenal privilege to work with National Disability Insurance System and in Australia, and then moved into banking and insurance and other areas as well. And that’s kind of in that journey. As we worked with these customers, we started to learn more then about the users as well. And so what what, what attracts a user to walk into a branch or into a store and want to use a digital human instead of someone standing there? And how do you how do you work through those dynamics. And that’s really been the key part of our I guess, success is just the curiosity and the hunger to connect with both the buyer and the user. And just obsess about that, with everything we’ve got and continue to explore. Where we might not have uncovered, there’s gold out there. That is the easy gold. You know, when you think about a ubiquitous platform, it’s great to say that it’s ubiquitous and applies to everyone. But there’s a timing aspect of this market. And there’s some areas that just need this today. And there’s some areas that are just curious. And then some areas that will take 10 years. And and so it’s just working through the process to get there.

Alexander Ferguson 13:15
Three takeaways that come from me what you say there first, the reality of even shareholders as well as new sales efforts, trying to convince them on a new whole product idea that like that, what are you talking about? It almost sounds like it needs to be a sheer force of of will and vision as the leader as the founder of CEO to say, No, this is the direction just to push in that direction. And then looking at the market and seeing what is the most timed place this is in this industry, they’re most poised for this. And eventually we’ll get to that industry. And I appreciate your your point of being obsessed with the interactions between the buyer and your clients and knowing what needs to happen there. The end consumer know truly obsessing that conversation, then whatever you build is going to help them you just have to convince the person that this will help them powerful stuff. Obviously, as you mentioned earlier, team is everything to you like that. That’s what has allowed you to grow to where you are today. How big is your team now.

Danny Tomsett 14:20
So we have 53 still a very small team. And but the beauty of what we do as well is it’s nice to be quite a diverse team. And the nature of that diversity is, you know, expressed also in the skill sets that you have to bring because we’re working with creative side of the technology stack. And we’re also working with a very scientific technical side with artificial intelligence, machine learning things like that.

Alexander Ferguson 14:51
Oh, any any things you’ve learned there as far as combining two different types of team members and having an all into one house of the creative analytical house. Do you lead that kind of team and build that kind of team?

Danny Tomsett 15:03
Well, I have to give credit to our chief operating officer more than myself, I think what I do is I set a pretty strong mandate that if we’re going to win this game, we’re not going to be the the largest funded or the largest team. You know, there’s going to be big players of big money and things like that. But we understand that the way that you win is that you have super good collaboration between very complex problems that all have to come together to make this work. And then so that’s really the mandated vision. And then our chief operating officers, his name is Bradley Scott. And he was just phenomenal at getting across, I guess, that vision and turning that into a very smart functioning team with, with the right approach to hiring the right product people, the product managers that obviously working as part of those various teams. And then also, how do we interconnect that now with marketing and sales and customer success? So we’re feeding in as much information back into those product teams as possible, to help make good decisions?

Alexander Ferguson 16:07
How long? Have you had Bradley’s part of the team from the very beginning? Or?

Danny Tomsett 16:10
No? No, that would have a nice. If he’s gonna watch this, he’ll laugh. But yeah, it will save me a lot of pain. But yeah, how

Alexander Ferguson 16:18
did you find him? Like, how do you how do you find someone you said, it’s a critical piece? So then man, bring it together? How do you find someone with it like that skill?

Danny Tomsett 16:26
I think that that one’s credit to my board. And that, you know, as I said, when we kind of went into the digital human stage, we started bringing together a fantastic board we’re getting the new investors in. And when we brought those people in, they made a huge difference to have been able to connect to the network of people that just knew how to take our challenges and consume them as like, easy peasy for them, right? They love it. Whereas I would just struggle forever. And so. So once, once that came together, my conviction around team just got stronger and stronger. And so then all of a sudden, I was just my new role was just going out and finding the best people at what they do. And all areas of this company. So whether it be artistry, animation, whether it be leaders, executives, I just went after just going looking at the best companies, I knew that were doing it the best and trying to figure out who those best people were.

Alexander Ferguson 17:23
Brilliant. Looking forward from here, in our interesting world that we’re in especially is COVID. world, how, what kind of challenges do you see when it comes to communication both internally as well as externally with your clients? And customers? What kind of challenges do you see going forward?

Danny Tomsett 17:43
What’s coming communication? So I think, internally, communication has probably been more challenged in recent times, because we don’t have the ability to bring people together in the same cadence that we could before were quite a distributed company. And it’s worked in our favor in some regards, as well, because we already were distributed. So we had a lot of processes and systems. With that. One of the things that we continue to focus on is, how do you continue to build culture? I think communications is a key part for internally, but it’s that culture that really keeps people passionate about the vision and aware of, you know, what’s happening across the different teams. And also, I guess, the fun part about what we do, the reality is that we spend so much time at work, like it’s got to be a place that we’d love to spend the majority of our time. And so how do we bring fun when everyone’s at home, and you’ve got, you know, maybe the dog and the kids and everything’s coming together? So how do we still keep you excited about what you’re part of the team you’re part of? And so, yeah, so we haven’t quite mastered everything. But we’ve started our own unique TV, which is an internal TV channel, and it’s just bringing your stories and other things into it. And I try to be funny and probably fail most of the time. But yeah, and then, I guess, with customers, one of the interesting things for us is actually just getting a lot better at plugging into relevance for our customers. So when I think about relevance, it’s like, what are they doing at this time, whether they’re using our product, whether they’ve been looking at our website, you know, and just starting to think about what are the key things that is helpful that we know that’s going on, that could be really helpful for them. And so when COVID hit, you know, we saw a lot of our customers or their usage dropped, you know, some of them were retailers that relied 99% on people coming into their stores, and they had digital humans they had a welcome them and no one can go into the stores because a lockdown and all things like that. And so what’s super relevant for them, one of the things that we can really get them behind and help and so We came up with initiatives that would give them way more, I guess, reach. So we came up with if you’re doing kiosks, let’s extend that into your mobile e commerce app, and help accelerate that, because people used to love talking to your people in store. Let’s replicate that on a mobile app. And so we put communications out around there, or some of our clients, were even just thinking about the fact that the large banks, they service a massive population. And so they felt like they had a responsibility to do something. So what could they do? And so we talked to him about well, you know, COVID advice has been dealt with by the Health Organization’s but what about financial hardship advice, one of these things. And so because we got a lot of banking clients and others, we did a, you know, a whole lot of comms around, hey, here’s some really quick ways to build a financial hardship content system behind a digital human. So people could start talking to that character about, hey, what if I can’t pay my mortgage? And in the next couple of months, what kind of options do I have. And so those those engines that are now in place, getting quite sophisticated, so we’re actually getting data driving a whole lot of campaigns that will just run automatically, which I think’s coming together quite nicely.

Alexander Ferguson 21:16
Relevance, figure out whatever is relevant at that time, and that can help your customer that tightly. And I like the internal TV idea. For work. That’s great. And being as funny as you can make it. Yeah. So what kind of last questions for what kind of books audio books podcasts have you read listen to and would recommend?

Danny Tomsett 21:41
Quite quite a boring guy when it comes to this. I think I’m a big movie guy. You wouldn’t be surprised movies and games, right? When

Alexander Ferguson 21:50
it okay. We can do games movies, stupid.

Danny Tomsett 21:53
I don’t mind answering. I can definitely put some recommendations on that. But so what’s so there’s a book I’ve been recommended, and I’ve just started from one of my team called disrupted. Dan Lyons is it’s, it’s quite funny. I’ve only just started it’s hilarious. So so I’m loving that I’m going to finish that pretty quick. I think that’s that’s one current one. Like my, my, I guess, my Bible and many, I guess, startup CEOs Bible is the hard thing about how things been Horowitz. I love that book. It’s just so good. In fact, I really felt the other day like I need to read it again. So I think this will be third or fourth time Running and Reading through that but, but it’s a fantastic book, podcast wise. Again, I’m quite boring. You know, I listened to the sister podcast was a 116 podcast. So yeah, I don’t do too much. I spend a lot more time I love movies and gaming too. So

Alexander Ferguson 22:55
So what’s your what’s your top like a couple movies and top couple games? Ah, man, top couple of your favorite just the ones that pop in your mind? I will because I know it’s hard to pick among them all.

Danny Tomsett 23:06
Well, I like I like I’m into you know, diversity of games. So you know, I like the sports genre. I love the FIFA series. When it comes to just wanting to chill out with friends love playing Forza Forza Horizon is just a great great game and enjoy racing and and and then probably competitive side I think Call of Duty Modern Warfare and war zone. Definitely, definitely a good stress relief on that. So yeah, that’s much easier actually to do then the movies. There’s just a lot of stuff now coming through. But, you know, one of one of the one of my favorites and it’s not because Russell Crowe was you know, as a kiwi living in Australia kind of Dale but glad ad has got to be one of the best Ridley Scott movies of all time. And I put that up there.

Alexander Ferguson 24:04
Absolutely. I love it. I love it. Alright, last question for you. What kind of technology innovations do you predict we’ll see in the near term and long term. So next year so in year two and then 510 years?

Danny Tomsett 24:17
Well, I think near term I think we are going to see the virtual reality and augmented reality era properly come in. I just think that that just the digital transformation focus now across so many enterprise and business are going to accelerate their their ability to benefit from immersive interface. I think the you know, the nature that you can’t get an Oculus quest, because they’re always getting sold out is also an indication that these are getting into a lot of households now. So So that combination is definitely coming together. So I see that had been a key part of maybe the, the, the way that society is going to probably change a lot and these interactions and so with that the content will then change as well. So I think more immersive movies and entertainment, I think that you’ll also see, as I said, the commerce experiences move into that. The other things, I think in the short term, I think, ultimately, in the short term, you’ll still have a majority, like you have a majority of customer service today, which is still done by humans. So whether the call center or in physical stores, and a lot of businesses have really struggled because they haven’t been digital ready, like digital is not a first class citizen. So I think one of the biggest shifts, the next five years will just be seen everyone kind of wake up to the fact that it’s like digital or bust. That’s pretty much right. And so that one, I think is going to be pretty clearly evident. We’re seeing that already. And it’s just going to keep going. It verticals that I think will notice that the most will be definitely healthcare, like health care has constrained themselves from going down that path because of compliance and other issues. And they’re basically lifting that often we’ll see. And we’re seeing like tally, telehealth and other things start to come. But that’s just the beginning. Like the systems itself will change because telehealth doesn’t necessarily work for every doctor because of the way that they earn their money. And so all these things are gonna shift in the background, the next five years to make that work. I think longer term, I really do believe that we are going to see considerable shift in the way that AI becomes probably from, from what we see AI doing best today as a lot in the backend systems. And so, you know, we’re all using AI, you know, it’s just a big broad term. What I think will shift in the next 10 years is it will be evident in every part of our life through front end interaction, I think conversational AI in the next 10 years, we will have assistants that will represent brands and ourselves and the next 10 years, that will be there to support a range of activities that ideally support us with not just convenience, but I think there will be additional challenges that we’re facing. And I can see there’s high potential and the way that we deal with things like mental health, I think the way that we’re dealing with education, and even education equality, I think there’s the ability that we will see I increase in the way that societies have access to better quality of life through this type of technology and and so that’s at least the hope i i have as well. But that’s that’s my prediction 10 years.

Alexander Ferguson 28:01
That concludes the audio version of this episode. To see the original and more visit our UpTech Report YouTube channel. If you know a tech company we should interview you can nominate them at UpTech Or if you just prefer to listen, make sure you subscribe to this series on Apple podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcasting app.

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