Talking investment with Adam Harrold, CEO of Humley

July 2021
Read time: 6 minutes

BDO talk to Adam Harrold, CEO of leading conversational AI provider Humley, which deploys conversational AI assistants for enterprise businesses across a wide range of industries including Sales and Services, HR, Finance and IT.

Hello Adam, tell us about the Humley offering and what makes your business unique...

Humley creates conversational assistants for enterprise businesses. We're different in the market because we can do this much faster than our competitors, through a combination of automated  setup, orchestration of AI providers, and ease of use. This makes the benefits of conversational AI much more accessible to organisations and brings delivery times down to hours and days instead of months.


Industry: Information Technology & Services
HQ: Northampton 
Size: 11-50 employees
Ownership: Privately held

How did Humley come into being?

We originally started in 2014, inside a mobile payments business called Infomedia, where we created end user experiences to support customer services for businesses such as Microsoft, EE, T-Mobile, Orange, and Nokia. As CTO, I oversaw the operation of that service for Android and Windows devices, predicting customer service issues and dealing with them in real time for the customer. The value of this, was that it reduced the pressure on contact centres through minimising the number of  users calling them.. We were successful and had 10 million users. However, the sales cycle was long. We had to embed our solution onto the devices, then wait for them to go through the warehouse, then get sold, and it was only when users interacted with the service that we finally got paid. We were also really limited in terms of the spaces we could operate in – we were restricted to telcos purely because the technology had to be embedded on to devices to make the proposition work.

In 2017, AI became more readily available as hardware costs reduced. This meant you could create AI capability a lot cheaper, and bigger providers like IBM and Amazon started to open up their AI software as a service. That’s when we decided to spin our proposition on its head. Instead of predicting the issues that customers were having, we allowed customers to ask us questions and tell us their problems through conversation, and then used AI to interpret the information and give them a response. We no longer had to be embedded on a specific device, which reduced the sales cycle, and meant that we could operate in any vertical. This is the point when Humley was really born.

"We didn't really fit within the mobile payments business that we'd grown up in anymore, so I was given the opportunity to spin it out into a standalone business."

What challenges did you face in terms of scaling up the business?

In 2017, we raised our initial investment of £700,000, which came from investors in Infomedia, and other Angel investors. In that first year, we did deals with a number of UK banks and telcos, but, being a smaller business, it was taking a long time to close those deals. I decided to take a partnership approach and go to market through businesses that already had relationships pre-established with end customers. We decided to target businesses from the big four audit companies and consultancies, so KPMG, Deloitte, PwC and EY. 

Taking a partnership approach meant we had to consolidate our product and make it simpler to use and onboard, so we could scale much more rapidly within those organisations. At the end of that first year we had built an enterprise SaaS solution that could be used by our partners. This led us to start another round of funding, which began in 2019 and ended last year with the institutional fund Mercier.

Our latest investment has enabled us to give more focus to individual verticals. In the past we’ve applied our tools to everything from helping people find information on websites, to supporting research scientists in product development for global pharmaceuticals. However, now we’re able to create pre-built experiences for specific sectors. Since securing funding we've been concentrating on HR creating a complete pre-built package with an integrated knowledge base specifically aimed at supporting employee processes. That’s now set up with  thousands of FAQ answers programmed with the platform and 15 experiences ranging from booking a holiday to asking about COVID rules within the office. With a few clicks, a new HR client can have a knowledge base that's up and running, and we're now looking to replicate that for other verticals such as customer service and IT support.

How did Humley weather the pandemic?

Similar to other businesses, the main thing we saw during COVID was that, whether they needed your product or not, many companies immediately put blanket stops on external spending. That lasted maybe three to six months while businesses got a grip on what the pandemic really meant for them. So there was a period of pause, which was  time we took to build out our HR solution. Beyond that however, I guess we were one of the lucky ones, because our offering almost became more valuable as a result of everyone working from home. 

As the pandemic dragged on, employers found remote working was impacting morale and productivity, along with driving extraordinary increases in volumes to shared service teams. Our technology enabled people to self-serve, whether that's doing things as simple as booking a holiday or working with a software robot to automate an internal task. 

Has the pandemic changed the direction of your business? 

In many ways, I feel like the pandemic has accelerated our business. Not necessarily in a different direction, but it’s definitely allowed us to concentrate our efforts. If we’re talking long-term, then one thing the pandemic has taught us is you don't need physical offices in other locations. Where we might otherwise have been looking to open up branches overseas, based on what we've been through over the last 12 months, I think I’ll be trying to save some of that cost and investing instead in expertise and specialist humans to help embed our offering in different locations.

What do you perceive as the biggest challenge in the next phase of your business journey? 

Although the markets growing, what we're doing is still relatively new. That means there’s an education cycle that businesses need to go through in order for us to find a place in budgets. The problem we often face is that people don’t know they need Humley technology until they give us a go, so they haven't budgeted for it and you have to wait for the next budget cycle in order for them to sign up.

Another issue is perception. More often than not, when you visit a website you’ll see a bad chatbot, not a conversational assistant. A chat bot that often is just trying to get your details or push you into some other area, it's not actionable and does not offer any meaningful interaction for the user. You can't get a result out of that interaction. Customers will then be automatically turned off by that experience as a whole. So next time they see one, they don't engage with it. And I think that's a risk.

"Similar to  when any new technology comes around, if people don't have good experiences or the technology buyers get burned by them, then they're reluctant to do it again or replicate it in other environments."

What advice would you give to other tech start-ups looking to follow in your footsteps?

From an investment perspective, it sounds really obvious, but get your pitch nailed. Try it on everyone, know it inside out, and where possible validate it with people in the space. Everybody will have a connection somewhere with a friendly VC or an angel, just get in front of them and ask them to be brutally honest with you. It will save you a tonne of time. It’s also important to acknowledge that the process will drain your time! So before you start, make sure you've got your house in order in terms of a strategy and make sure the team understands that inside out. That way things can still progress as you're raising. I think both times I've raised funds, it's taken between six and eight months, so I think that point's really important. Then in line with that, get everything built up front – models, case studies, competitor analysis. These are things you're going to get asked for, and if you have to stop each time to create it, then it's just going to add months to the process. And finally, I'd say just carve out time and go to as many investors as possible. You don't just want one investor. You want multiple offers so you’re in a position to drive for the best deal.

Looking for advice on how to give your tech business the best chance of success? Email us at [email protected].


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