Which area in your working place is the busiest?
How much money could you save if you utilised your office better?
According to statistics, the office space generates the biggest expenses after staff costs. At the same time, the utilisation of facility in big offices usually includes a big percentage of waste that could be easily avoided, if it was monitored.
At Untitled Kingdom, we believe that the technology is a tool that we use to support good causes, changing a world little by little, and making it a better place to live. Facility management may not be the sexiest use of AI technology, but considering its role in economy and ecology, it’s one of the most urgent needs of contemporary businesses.
Today, we’re proudly introducing our partner, VergeSense — a game-changing Y Combinator -backed startup. Their “sensor as a system” smart platform uses computer vision to measure the utilisation and occupancy of office spaces. I’m talking to Dan Ryan, the CEO and Co-founder of VergeSense.
N: Dan, how did you come up with such an innovative concept of empowering building management with AI sensors? How did the idea evolve, and what problems are you aiming to solve with VergeSense?
D: I’ve worked in the building management sector for about 10 years, and I’ve spoken with a lot of property managers, building owners or other people who occupied the buildings. The consistent problem that we observed was thatbuilding operators and owners had no data about how their buildings were actually used. In the same time, building management costs were typically number 2 cost of those companies, right after employees’ salaries.
The most frequent scenario was the huge expense of assets and no information about how these assets were used. At this point, we decided to use the AI sensors to gather data about how the building is operating, measure what exactly was going on in the building, and provide analytics, that would help building professionals cut expenses and operate their offices more efficiently.
N: What makes VergeSense unique? What’s your biggest advantage?
D: First of all, VergeSense is 10–100 times cheaper and easier to install and operate than any of our competitors’ solutions. While most of our competitors use very expensive wired hardware, VergeSense sensors are wireless, and they operate on battery power for years.
Another advantage is that VergeSense gets the data from the sensors back to the cloud with no need to struggle with integrating systems into corporate IT networks. It’s easy, and it’s a real money and energy saver.
N: What’s the purpose of basing VergeSense on AI technology? How does Artificial Intelligence improve the value of your solution?
D: We’ve put a lot of work into building well optimised neural networks, and we hit the bull’s eye. VergeSense sensors have 99% data accuracy, and at the same time, it runs on a very cheap hardware, we don’t use any GPUs or costly, complicated machines. Basing VergeSense on Artificial Intelligence let us create a highly accurate solution, save time (usually needed for installation) and money, and provide comfort in use.
We also continuously improve the data collection capabilities of the sensors. The current product that we have on the market is taught to be a people-counting product, and there’s a bunch of customers interested in gathering information about other objects in the building, e.g sygnalizing the necessity to take out the trush or clean up the kitchen.
With VergeSense, we can using the same hardware and update the sensors over the years to let it collect different types of data.
N: What exactly can we learn from analysing the data with help of the solution?
D: With help of Untitled Kingdom team, we’ve put a lot of effort to visualize the data gathered by VergeSense.
There are 2 components of the tool: the first one is a nice, easily understandable visualization of the data, which allows users to compare different types of spaces together. The second one provides some actionable insights, that help users understand what’s going on and take up action.
For example, you analyze the data and learn that one of your conference rooms is just 10–15% occupied. At this point, VergeSense gives you the recommendations e.g to give up on large-format room, and reorganise it into a few smaller rooms.
N: If you were to name the biggest challenge of the VergeSense project, what would it be?
D: The first six months of running your company are usually the most challenging ones because you basically have no credibility. You’re starting from scratch and face the biggest challenge: getting your first client.
We’ve built the first product pretty quickly — I would say it was a basic prototype at that point, but it was already something that we were able to sell. We’ve reached our first client after four months of starting with VergeSense. It gave as the possibility to validate the product and make sure it really solves the problems we were aiming to solve.
Now when we have dozens of customers, our main challenge is to scale, rock the market, and provide sufficient support to our customers.
N: What’s the importance of digital transformation in work environments?
D: Digital transformation at work is a great chance to eliminate work frustration, increase productivity, and bolster working comfort. Using VergeSense’s sensor technology helps people work more effectively.
In large organizations, it’s typically common for it to be hard to find a free meeting room or reserve the meeting slot. Lack of free room may be a common problem, especially in the context of remote work — let’s say one of four on-line meeting participants can’t show up at the meeting. What happens? The meeting would probably be canceled for the entire group.
Furthermore, gaining more efficiency from space helps companies free up the part of their capital that would be normally spent on building operations. Now, they get a huge return of capital investment and spend this budget on other things that contribute to their business development.
N: What’s your customers’ feedback on VergeSense?
D: VergeSense’s users love its simplicity and the ability to be wireless. The second thing that they praise about VergeSense is the accuracy of our product and the opportunity to get the specific occupancy count, to measure the level of rooms’ utilization.
On the software side, our customers love the simplicity of data visualisation in high-level analytics. We also got a lot of enthusiastic customers’ feedback for the VergeSense UX/UI — this is what the Untitled Kingdom team was really helpful with, as your design team is really strong and creative.
N: Great to hear such an enthusiastic feedback. Could you tell us how your customers contributed to the new platform creation?
D: We’ve built VergeSense MVP really quickly. after we got to the market with it we gained a lot of users’ feedback. We’ve used their opinions to redesign and relaunch VergeSense together with the Untitled Kingdom team, according to our users hints.
Even today, on almost every customer’s demonstration or call that we do, we’re gathering requests for additional features and insights into visualizing the data. The UI of the product is designed in a modular fashion, so it’s easy to add components according to users’ suggestions.
N: On VergeSense website, you mention 3 main values that the sensor may bring to offices. Would you describe them one by one?
D: I’ve talked a lot about VergeSense helping companies to manage their workplaces more effectively. But besides this, our solution brings opportunities to discover savings. Whether it’s about dividing big rooms into smaller ones or deciding if you need to rent a bigger office or not — VergeSense analysis lets building managers operate their budgets more efficiently.
Last but not least, VergeSense sensor data may be integrated with companies’ productivity tools to empower teams.
Where is the meeting room?
Where is the desk?
How long is the line in the cafeteria?
VergeSense can give you answers to all these questions, saving time, keeping people focused and raising their productivity and work satisfaction.
N: Can you think of the particular statistics on how VergeSense improved the efficiency of work at some of your clients companies?
D: For our first customer, we’ve made an initial pilot project — so we deployed the sensors over the course of 6 months. We collected the data about office performance, and we saw that the office was dramatically under-utilised. Although the team claimed they needed more space, our analysis showed that a lot of desk areas had actually no traffic at all. With VergeSense data, our client redesigned another floor in the same building with smaller office rooms. After this, we’ve compared the efficiency of the redesigned floor versus the original floor. It turned out that the optimized office embraced 50% more staff compared to the old design. When we look at the prices of real estate, optimising a single floor gave the company the saving of 400 thousand dollars per year.
N: Now, let’s skip for a while to the process of developing VergeSense. In your opinion, what’s the value of running your project cross-functionally, by the team of Untitled Kingdom developers, UX/UI designers, and a product owner?
D: Developing VergeSense in a cross-functional team was super-important. It gave us a very disciplined product development approach. We didn’t start right away with building things. We waited until we truly defined the purpose of the product, its users, problems that they face, and how we can help them solve these problems. Untitled Kingdom showed great product management discipline, and running one week sprints after discovery sessions gave us the sense of “Go, Go, Go!”.
After building a product, we’ve shown VergeSense to users, asked for their feedback, and incorporated their feedback into further development to meet our customers’ needs even better.
N: You’ve mentioned the topic-focused Discovery Sessions that you’ve taken together with our team. How did they influence the direction of the redesign?
D: The Discovery Sessions were really insightful in terms of drilling down and surfacing what the real customer problem was that we were working to fix. Doing it upfront before we wrote a single line of code gave the project super-efficiency because, after the sessions, we knew exactly in what direction we should move forward.
N: How did you get to know about Untitled Kingdom and what made you choose us as your partners?
D: I think that I saw you on Y-Combinator’s forum post first, but it might have been also a Quora post. I can’t remember for sure, but I know I stumbled upon you online. I already knew Poland had an excellent reputation for technical professions and design — previously, I’ve worked with some Polish developers and designers, and I was impressed by the level of Polish software development and UX/UI design.
N: Could you tell us a short story of getting your VC funding? Was it a rough path?
D: We applied to Y-combinator pretty early, actually even before me and my co-founder were incorporated. The Y-combinator program made us really connected to the Silicon Valley reality. After YC, we’ve got an additional investment with a Venture Capital firm named Bolt. From today’s perspective, I’m really proud of the VergeSense funding journey. But in fact, it all happened organically; no secret recipe behind it. To be honest, I was pretty shocked when we got the first funding from Y- Combinator.
N: Would you give some advice to other companies struggling to get funded?
D: I’m always pretty reluctant to giving advice because every business is different, so there is no universal way to succeed. The advice can never translate from one company to another. But if I was to tell one thing to other startup fellows, I would say: It’s never easy. Make sure that you really believe in what you’re doing, and if you really do believe, don’t give up.
The most important thing that influenced my career is persistence. In the startup world, tons of things go wrong, tons of challenges will happen. You just need to keep calm, push through, and stay flexible. The first product that we build at VergeSense was something completely different, to what we ended up with. We were listening to our customers, redefining their wants, and adjusting our solution to their needs.
N: What are VergeSense’s next steps? What will be your primary challenge in the short and long-term?
D: In a short- term, we’re planning to face the operational challenges: scaling the business, collecting more orders and shipping more products. Obviously, it comes along with growing our team to support VergeSense customers. Also, according to users’ feedback, we’ll probably be figuring out the next key features that we want to build.
In a long-term perspective, we want to figure out other problems that we could solve using our platform. For the time being, we’ve got our hands full with working on VergeSense’ use in the real estate market. But I’m sure that VergeSense sensors and analytics could bring impact also to other industries in the future. Just stay tuned and watch us grow!
Originally published at towardsdatascience.com on September 4, 2018.