Prem Kiran of Hypersonix On The Future Of Retail In The Post Pandemic World
Personalization is the key to happy customers — As much as we talk about personalization, it simply doesn’t exist to the level we talk about. There is so much customer information available through digital channels that brands and retailers aren’t taking advantage of — either to deliver better experiences or drive increased profitability. They should always be thinking about how their products and services, promotional offers, price recommendations and other value-add services can be tailored and served to their customers to drive higher sales or in-store/web visits (or both).
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Prem Kiran.
Prem is the Founder & CEO of Hypersonix.ai, the leading Enterprise AI platform for consumer commerce companies. Hypersonix helps business leaders, operators and decision-makers gain proactive & real-time insights across their enterprise systems and recommends specific actions to drive business goals.
Prem is a serial entrepreneur, with a successful track record of founding, scaling and exiting multiple enterprise companies in the enterprise applications, analytics, digital, and commerce space. Prior to founding Hypersonix.ai, Prem served as the Chief Strategy Officer at Fishbowl, overseeing Product & Sales, which successfully exited to Symphony Technology Group after having record growth during his tenure. Prem joined Fishbowl through the acquisition of his previous venture, CLYP Technologies, which he founded. Prior to these entrepreneurial stints, Prem was a senior executive at SAP, where he ran SAP’s Analytical Applications Group and was one of the youngest members of SAP’s Top Talent team.
Raised in Dubai, Prem’s professional journey has taken him from Europe to the east coast, and finally California. Prem is also a proud dad of two beautiful daughters.
I’ve always thought of myself as a self-starter who likes to “imagineer” things, which is what led me to become a serial entrepreneur. However, that’s not where my professional journey began. Prior to going out on my own, I started my career in the corporate world, eventually rising up the ranks to become one of the youngest global VPs at SAP. While the experiences I had and the relationships I’ve built during this time were invaluable, I began to realize that the slowness of innovation and lack of focus towards it in large enterprise organizations wasn’t for me. My passion, personality and skillsets were better suited for the startup world.
Prior to founding my current venture, I started three other companies. While it was a ton of fun, learning and exhilarating part of my life, I realized it’s not for the light hearted and requires lots of hard work and risk appetite. One of the biggest learnings I had during that process is it’s extremely important to be honest with yourself at each stage of your business and adapt to get to the next stage. In my experience, it’s possible to predict with fair level of certainty where your company will end up if you have clarity on market and opportunity for the problem you are trying to solve. Somewhere along the way, you’ll know if you’re going to make it, and if the future is bright, you’ll know what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like — whether that be a successful lifestyle business, a merger or an IPO. After my ventures successfully exited at different stages, I knew it was time to build something that was going to last and, more importantly, have a massive impact on a global scale. When I set out to start this business, I took stock of what I knew best, what I’ve learnt along the way from markets, to customers, to scale, in the areas I know best — industry business processes, data and applications. Put them together and you get Hypersonix, the leading enterprise AI platform for commerce industries.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Before starting my career as an entrepreneur, I spent several years growing in the corporate ladder. While it was exciting to get recognized and promoted and be on fast track, it was not necessarily fulfilling. It was great for lifestyle, but not fun and impactful or purpose driven.
I remember several times sitting in meetings after meetings that led to nothing and you had to attend because it was what was expected. You would travel half way around the world for absolutely no real outcome. “Alignment meetings” were what people spent so much time on vs product innovation or the customer. It was clear to me that there are foundational issues in large enterprises that stunt innovation and drive complacency — the classic David vs. Goliath story. People spend a lot of time posturing to add value. When I look back today, the amount of overhead in large enterprises is unbelievable. I had never felt complacent in my career up until that point, so I decided it was time to leave. I wanted that “Day 1” feeling. I wanted to start again on the ground floor.
While there were several risks and challenges, like not having a paycheck and burning your savings to near zero in 9 months — I felt, if not now, when. Fast forward 10 years, today I choose and enjoy being an entrepreneur every single day. By controlling my own destiny, I focus on things that matter to me — innovation, impact, and value generation for everyone, including my employees, my customers, my shareholders and my partners.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
This is an easy one. It’s the classic mistake most first-time entrepreneurs make — drinking your own cool aid. I, as well as many others, took the “follow your heart” route too seriously, and that frankly rarely works out if it’s not aligned with your background, experience, skills and so on. It’s not impossible, but it’s a whole lot tougher if what you’re passionate about requires you to learn a whole new industry. It’s a steep learning curve. When I first started my entrepreneurial journey, my passion was to build a consumer technology offering that I strongly felt a need for and felt was missing. I wanted to create an easy way to shop for the things I like on my mobile device with personalized items coming to me (mind you at that time mobile eCommerce was just getting popular) based on my preferences and behaviors across retailers and brands and price points — i.e. mobile personalized shopping. So, I set out to build a company around that, I spent six months researching, building prototypes, traveling and forming partnerships with retailers and doing the research required to build a stronger foundation and trying to get a product-market fit. After working on the business for another six months I was one year in without a salary, and I was burning time and all my savings. I still did not have a clear path to the single most important thing in a business — cash flow and revenue. The whole consumer economic model of getting users, establishing cost-per-click and other monetization models were far out, and it became clear that it was going to be hard to continue in this mode. It also became clear it was a hobby, not a business.
I finally came to the realization that there was no clear path forward, so I decided to pivot. This taught me a valuable lesson — passion alone doesn’t lead to business success. While it’s an important ingredient, it’s not the end all be all. Also, just because you’re passionate about something, that doesn’t mean you’re good at it. At the end of the day I learned a lot from this process and had a great time doing it, but unfortunately having fun doesn’t always pay the bills.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m obviously very excited about my most recent venture. We’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth since we launched in 2018 and there has been a very positive response from the market. But more importantly, I’m most excited about the opportunity ahead of us. I can see this business having an impact on a global scale because we truly help organizations drive profitability and growth, along with improving the productivity of people who run them.
Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic businesses across industries were forced to undergo some level of digital transformation in order to stay relevant and avoid disruption. When the pandemic hit, the pressure was on to rapidly implement and even expand these initiatives, especially among consumer facing organizations. One of the first steps businesses can take to adapt to the digital world is leveraging their own data to inform smarter, faster decisions that can lead to positive business outcomes. However, the majority of companies do not have the resources to do this successfully.
Our core principal is to democratize data driven decision making by helping every business — from small to large enterprises — that lack the time and financial resources to invest in massive data science initiatives. It takes a lot of time and money for businesses to rewire their applications and processes to be smarter and faster. However, this is critical for avoiding missed opportunities or unanticipated losses. By offering an AI driven enterprise platform targeted at business leaders and operators, that augments data scientists or analysts, we even-the-odds and enable businesses and decision makers to be self-sufficient, so every company has the opportunity to compete on a level playing field.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
First of all, don’t try to be everything to everyone. As the great Ron Swanson from the NBC show Parks & Recreation said, “Never half ass two things. Whole ass one thing.” Focus on what you’re good at, and map that back to a real business problem that can be fixed or isn’t being addressed. Then build a solution to that problem that works so flawlessly that someone is willing to pay you for it.
Second, it’s extremely important to be self-aware in the business world, and it’s equally important to avoid allowing success to get in the way of that. Similar to my previous point, once you’ve identified the problem you’re going solve don’t stray from that mission. Make sure everything you do maps back to your original goal in the form of a product or service. Also, as I said earlier, never forget that you’re running a business, not pursuing a hobby. If you find yourself going after the latter, it may be time to move on.
Lastly, know your limits and don’t expand outside your core until you’ve mastered your area of product or service. I’m a big believer in author and management consultant Geoffrey Moore’s core vs. context paradigm. Core activities are key differentiators — things that your business must do much better than your competitors. Context is all the rest. In his book Dealing with Darwin, he gives a great example that brings this paradigm to life by talking about Tiger Woods. Tiger knows that his core business is golfing while his context business is advertising. A large portion of Tiger’s net worth comes from his endorsement deals, but he wouldn’t have that (the context) if he wasn’t a good golfer (the core). While both are important, don’t forget about your core business by focusing too much on your context business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Like most entrepreneurs I have a number of mentors who I’ve never met, but I’ve learnt a lot from each day. People like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Grant Cardone — essentially entrepreneurs who have been able to have an impact at scale by approaching a particular business or industry problem in a new, unique way and pushing the world/ cause forward.
But on a more personal level, one of the most influential people in my life has been Gokul Rajaram. He’s played an essential role in the success of many Silicon Valley greats, including Door Dash, Square, Facebook, and Google. He has been an invaluable mentor and good friend throughout my entrepreneurial journey. I met Gokul during my SAP days while he was working at Facebook. He has always been very active advisor and investor in the valley. After a few casual meetings I followed up with a personal note to get his opinions about the venture I was starting. He has since coached me through several important milestones in my career, including advising me to make key pivots that were crucial in my businesses. Remember that consumer tech business I talked about earlier? Early on, one of the most important pieces of advice he’s offered was telling me I’m not a “consumer guy,” and I should focus on my strengths in enterprise software. For more than a decade he’s been an extremely important advisor and early investor in my businesses, and I can definitely say he’s played a critical role in helping me get to where I am today.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I mentioned this earlier when talking about my current venture, but I believe the democratization of AI plays a huge role in helping the little guy, or the not-so-big-guy, stand up to and compete with the big players by offering superior service to their customers. In my opinion this is extremely important, especially in today’s business climate. In order to have a positive impact, and help as many people as possible, it’s also critical to do this in a way that is scalable, so it must appeal to many different market segments across the globe. I’m always thinking about how we can better serve our customers so they can succeed and in turn help their customers who are people like you and me, the consumer.
The well-being of my colleagues and their families is also extremely important to me. If I employ 100 people today, I’m making sure each and every one of them is taken care of — both on a personal level and professionally. The success and well-being of the people in my immediate circle is one of my top priorities. And going back to my first point, if I can build a company that helps other organizations do the same for their employees and customers that’s even better.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
It’s no secret that the pandemic has changed the landscape for large retailers, but when you’re talking about retail as a whole, it’s important to realize that you’re also talking about businesses like pharmacies, convenience stores, quick service restaurants, etc. The pandemic has accelerated the need for digital transformation in all of these market segments. It has also put a spot light on their weaknesses. More specifically, their ability to react, know their options, predict the impact of changes in consumer behaviors, or pivot amid shifts in the competitive landscape. This is not just in one area but across their value chain — from inventory, supply chain, merchandising, marketing, customer management and many other back end business processes. For the most part, retailers knew about these gaps but didn’t feel the need to address them because they were able to get by. The onset of the pandemic has caused them to face these weaknesses head on while also completely changing their approach and processes to solving them.
Overnight digital became the primary medium of customer engagement. Sales shifted significantly to eCommerce, new services like curbside pickup and delivery became a necessity, and customer service became more important than ever. Unfortunately for most retailers, they were completely blindside because the majority of these initiatives are directly linked to and managed by their back-end technology. However, in most cases, these back-end tools operated in silos and many of them were old legacy systems that are slow, with out-of-date applications that just don’t fit the digital first world. The systems weren’t able to talk to one another and the speed/agility simply wasn’t not there. While businesses were able to survive with this approach before the pandemic, the pressures of a digital first world have changed that.
With that in mind, one of the biggest undertakings for retailers has been leveraging data from all these systems and making sense of that information in near real-time, or as fast as possible, to take either proactive or fast reactive actions. In today’s world this is essential for ensuring operations on the front end can run effectively. Getting organized and having instant access to intelligence is table stakes in the new-normal. Once that happens, business can start revaluating their supply chain, demand visibility, pricing models, logistics strategies, human resource allocations, and more to make better, faster decisions about how to best serve their customers. As an example, if a retailer looks at the sales and foot traffic data for a particular location and notices that demand for that region is mostly coming from online orders vs. in store purchases it may make sense for them to convert that location into a distribution center as well as a retail store. That way employee resources can be reallocated, and orders can be fulfilled more quickly, which saves money and improves the overall customer experience. We’re seeing many retailers make adjustments like this to adapt during the pandemic, and it will be very interesting to see which of these strategies become permanent in the post-COVID-19 world.
In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?
My short answer is yes. The reality is people are social by nature and they cannot live 100% of their lives at home. This will be especially true immediately after the pandemic. I predict there will be a strong influx of consumers who want to go out and shop in-person when they can. Shopping at brick-and-mortar stores is more about the social interactions and entertainment than purely buying goods or a necessity.
That being said, will retail stores and malls continue to exist exactly as they do today? Probably not. Physical stores will no longer prioritize just commerce. They will transform by putting a greater emphasis on the customer experience and relationship management. In order to draw consumers in and keep them loyal over long periods of time, they will need to entertain as well as cater to more specific, personalized needs. Personalization and the consumer experience will become more and more relevant.
One example where this is already playing out is at Best Buy, where they’ve created different “mini brand locations” within each of their retail stores, which have become a place for people to research and experience products before ordering and selecting their method of delivery. They’ve created a place where shoppers can come in and touch, feel and use different products while allowing companies to offer a custom brand experience. Going forward I expect retailers to implement similar strategies within their physical locations.
The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
Even before the pandemic, the brands that couldn’t adapt, or simply didn’t want to, faced a number of challenges. Any retail business that was averse to innovation, technology or data prior to COVID-19 is not going to succeed in my opinion. Think about Amazon, people forget it’s a technology company first and retailer second.
For those brands that were already on their digital transformation journey before the first quarter of 2020, there are definitely a few lessons to be learned from these profitable retailers. It’s common knowledge that Amazon or Costco set the benchmark for customer experience within retail, so that’s the first-place struggling brands should start when looking to make changes. That said, I realize it’s not as simple as waking up one day and saying, “We’re now a customer first organization!” This shift needs to happen in waves. While today’s retailers definitely need to think about everything they do in the context of customer experience, customer engagement and customer satisfaction, it’s important to understand how that boils down to specific parts of their business. They need to ask themselves a number of questions. What needs to change in my supply chain to ensure we have the right number of products or alternatives to meet demand, so my business is never facing out of stock or over stock situations? How can my inventory and fulfillment software understand what’s in stock and what’s out of stock in real-time, so customers aren’t alerted to shipping delays after they’ve purchased a product or have a bad experience with late arrivals? What promotions are truly effective? Do we understand what “effective” means from a topline and bottom-line perspective? Should I reallocate inventory from one store to fulfill demand in another? Do I have this level of visibility across my channels, including the ones that are external to my company? What services should I be offering that I’m not i.e. curbside pickup and same day delivery? And, most importantly, how will any of these changes impact my bottom line?
As soon as retailers start thinking about and improving the customer experience at the tactical and strategic level, they’ll begin to better understand what’s possible and what’s not. From there they can begin making changes that will allow them to compete. Additionally, this is not a one and done process. Retailers must be flexible. They need to continuously follow the trends, identify the market shifts that are happening around them, adapt in-real time and maintain a customer first mindset. Consumers have more options than ever when it comes to where and how they purchase goods, and they’ve come to expect a certain level of service from today’s retailers. It’s important for brands to accept this because it’s not going to change anytime soon. Agility in business has become the cornerstone for success, and this comes from data and data-driven decisioning.
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
At the end of the day it’s all about a consumer first mindset and keeping your customers close. That’s Amazon’s formula for success. They are able to do this because they have access to a significant amount of data as well as technology that allows them to analyze that information, turn it into actionable insights and take action — all in a well-orchestrated and in many cases, automated way. They have the data driven digital expertise to personalize experiences whether its price, promotion, product recommendations, service suggestions, new offers or even preferential treatment. With the rise of DTC brands, it’s more important than ever for other retailers to start utilizing the tools that are available so they can compete.
Retailers need to leverage data and insights to truly understand and know their customers at a personal level and tailor experiences around them. That’s the primary success factor. It’s also important for them to think about how personalization can help their business drive profitability growth. For example, if a retailer knows a specific customer will pay a premium to receive a product the same day, they can offer that price point and get more revenue out of the transaction.
The key to combating disruption is to leverage data to provide better experiences and keep customers close. At the same time, retailers also need to use this data to optimize their own businesses and drive revenue and profitability growth.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Consumers hate broken experiences — This is very basic, but retailers must have a real-time understanding of their inventory, so they always have enough product to meet demand. However, there’s a delicate balance. Retailers should never be out of stock, but they should never have a surplus of overstock either.
- Personalization is the key to happy customers — As much as we talk about personalization, it simply doesn’t exist to the level we talk about. There is so much customer information available through digital channels that brands and retailers aren’t taking advantage of — either to deliver better experiences or drive increased profitability. They should always be thinking about how their products and services, promotional offers, price recommendations and other value-add services can be tailored and served to their customers to drive higher sales or in-store/web visits (or both).
- The post purchase experience matters — When looking at the overall customer experience the post purchase experience is what keeps customers loyal and committed because it’s where you deliver on your promise. Additionally, it creates the opportunity for proactive communication with the customer to keep them informed and engaged. Every touchpoint is a data point that can be put to use to drive business growth. There is no reason for retailers to miss out on that opportunity.
- Proactive engagement with customers drives sales — Retailers need to nudge customers, and data has shown they like to be notified about promotions and new products as well as reminded when items are back in stock or sales are happening. Retailers shouldn’t miss out on potential revenue by not engaging with customers.
- Retailers can help consumers save time and money in exchange for loyalty — People are used to a level of service due to the instant gratification of services like Amazon Prime. This will become more and more important, and retailers need to think about how they can offer this level of convenience and savings, even if it costs more on their end.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people goes back to what I said earlier about the democratization of data access. By offering a system that can take data and turn that information into personalized insights with recommended actions that drive the highest level of possible success — whatever that might be i.e. financial growth, loss prevention, efficiency gains, time saving, or increased awareness — businesses, and in turn their people, can thrive. I honestly believe there is tremendous potential in taking useful data and turning it into actionable insights that can potentially help people, and this should be available at the push of a button or by simply talking to the system.
Look at what happened at the beginning of the pandemic. There was so much misinformation, and no one knew where to turn. It was hard to know what to believe, what not to believe, what’s best practice, what actions should be taken, what’s the “best possible” thing to do, etc. Imagine if people could better understand the data that is out there and easily digest that information to make more informed decisions, and then share that experience with the global community. It could have a significant impact for every business around the world.
How can our readers further follow your work?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
About The Interviewer: Orlando Zayas is the CEO of Katapult, an award-winning omnichannel payment platform. Zayas is known for his revenue growth strategies and visionary leadership in the eCommerce and retail space. His future-forward expertise has led companies such as GE Capital, Safe-Guard Products International, and DRB Capital. Zayas is also highly committed to providing educational opportunities to underprivileged communities through his philanthropic endeavors. Zayas’ business insights are regularly featured in publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Retail Insights, and more.