"Take a leap of faith"
A career working in outsourcing, services and technology showed Terry Walby the need for a more flexible and efficient workforce. The solution was Thoughtonomy, an AI Software-as-a-Service platform that delivers digital workers to improve workplace efficiency and productivity. The company has been bought recently by Blue Prism for £80 million. Terry talks to Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame about how he built the business.
It’s one of the major growth limitations of any organisation: access to a flexible and talented workforce, able to scale up or down to meet demand, happy to work whenever needed and able to operate without ever making a mistake. Unfortunately, these are not the characteristics of most office-based knowledge workers – but imagine if one could have unlimited access to a digital workforce able to do exactly that? How much more efficient could an organisation be? How could business performance be improved? And how could old paradigms be rewritten, new business models launched or existing markets disrupted?
This was the original idea behind Terry Walby’s Thoughtonomy: “We sought to create a pool of cloud-based digital workers. One that could be taught to work in the same way as human office workers and could be directed at any task or activity across an organisation. One that was built on complex artificial intelligence (AI) but that could consumed as a resource by non-technical business users. One that would allow people, and the businesses they work for, to do and achieve more.”
After a career working for large technology organisations such as IBM and GE, and then outsourced services and software companies, it was clear to Terry that current technology did not address the drawbacks of human labour. “People are a limitation,” he says. “They are inefficient and inconsistent. They make mistakes. They need rest, sustenance and social interaction. And, for most roles and organisations, there is a shortage of skills.”
“Then there is the problem of the complexities inherent in most businesses. Systems that don’t talk to each other, organisations working in silos, fluctuation in demand and limited hours of operation, not to mention the cost and disruption of change.”
He saw that most approaches to technology transformation were cast through a functional lens, driven by the needs of one part of a business. For Terry, this meant everyone was operating independently, creating multiple niche solutions; tactical problem-solving rather than thinking strategically.
“Our solution was to think differently,” he says, “not about the function or role nor about the application or system in use but about the common denominator across all of them: the worker. So we sought to focus on creating a digital version of the worker - one that could be deployed without changing the systems in use or the processes being followed and one that could be set up without a big IT project.”
“Thoughtonomy was fortunate to have been born in the cloud,” he adds, “which gave us access not only to global scalable computer resources on which to build our platform but also the ability to continually innovate, iterate and make new functionality available.”
As Thoughtonomy grew and developed its platform, use cases evolved into new areas they refer to as three waves of value. Terry explains: “The first wave was focused on business efficiency, saving costs and improving productivity. Wave Two - what can we do differently with the time we free up? For example, one customer has automated workers receiving and registering invoices and making payments to suppliers; we were able to redirect the people doing that work to other tasks. When those people were redirected towards accounts receivable work, the company’s outstanding payments went down and their cash position improved. As such, the outcome wasn’t just efficiency but real economic improvement."
The company’s digital workforce has been used across multiple industries. For example, one NHS trust automated the process of registering oncology patients. This was taking up time for medical secretaries who could otherwise be carrying out the more complex medical work for which they are trained. In automating this repetitive data processing task, the medical secretaries gained more time and patient care improved.
The third wave is for companies using digital workers to transform business. For this, Terry says, companies need to ask themselves what they would do differently if they had an unlimited number of people. For instance, could it help to move hours of operation from 9 to 5 to 24/7? Could it allow a business to disrupt existing markets or to facilitate the launch of an entirely new service proposition, perhaps something that would be unviable with human labour but can be built with digital workers?
Terry’s professional background was initially in technology and later in business-focused leadership roles – building teams, then bigger functional groups, whole new offerings and eventually bringing a whole new technology proposition to market. Entrepreneurship was never the intended career aspiration, but these experiences prompted a desire to stretch the boundaries of his personal skills and forge his own path once the opportunity became clear.
Without funding readily available in the market, the business bootstrapped from the beginning. Terry sold his car and refinanced his house for the initial capital. Later, some investment under the SEIS and EIS programmes supported growth. This approach meant that he built a prudent, pragmatic business, focused on putting customers first and using working capital to drive growth. The growth potential has now been recognised by the wider industry and Thoughtonomy was bought recently by Blue Prism, a leader in robotic process automation, for £80 million.
Terry believes more people who have experience in the workplace and have identified solutions to real challenges should give entrepreneurship a try. “Those who are embracing entrepreneurship are primarily young, often recent graduates, and without business experience. Meanwhile, there are a huge number of talented people who are at a later point in their career, who have the experience to build considerable business value but are encumbered by financial responsibilities that limit their appetite to take the risk. My advice to those who spot an opportunity is this: take a leap of faith.
“Ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ It’ll help you realise that, while you might have to make some short-term sacrifices, if you have faith in the opportunity, you should absolutely pursue it. For me, that included living with more personal debt and without the car. Those sacrifices gave me the opportunity to test my concept and to test my ability to build something new. To be honest, whatever the outcome had been, I believe it would have been worth it.”
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