Ultimate.ai secured a $20M funding: “There rarely is benefit of having Finnish as a first language, but it has been useful when building our AI”
Maki.vc’s portfolio company Ultimate.ai, the company building the world’s leading virtual customer service agent just raised a €20M Series A round. We sat down with ultimate.ai CO-founders, CEO Reetu Kainulainen and COO Sarah Al-Hussaini to discuss how they have managed to attract talent in their fast-growing team and the impressive companies to their customer base. They also revealed what differentiates Ultimate.ai from most of its competitors.
What have been your biggest milestones after your seed round in 2018?
Sarah Al-Hussaini: Expanding to Berlin was a big deal, obviously, because there is a huge language market here in central Europe that is currently very underserved by AI. Launching with Finnish as our first language has helped us build a super robust language-agnostic algorithm that can work in every single language.
Reetu Kainulainen: So many things have happened on the product side. I would say the biggest things for us have been investing in the AI itself, operating on multiple different languages and also across channels. We went from doing simple chat automation to a holistic platform that can automate website chats, Whatsapp, instant messaging, and email.
SA: When we raised seed in 2018, we were just an engineering team. We basically built our go to market team on top of that, meaning our sales, marketing, and partnership teams have been built and iterated in these two years. The fact that we raised quite a big Series A just goes to show that the go to market team has been really successful, especially in the last 12 months.
“A technology that works in Finnish has been easy to scale to other languages. It has been and still is something that sets us apart from the others.”
What are you the world’s best at?
SA: Getting the best people on board and enabling them to do what they do best. We give people a lot of autonomy and they feel empowered and trusted here. Our culture is very collaborative. As long as we have a shared vision, everybody knows what they’re working for — this means they can work autonomously and choose how to approach their goals and our vision. That and the fact that you get to work with really cool new technologies attracts a lot of amazing people.
What, then, differentiates you from your competitors?
RK: We’re not trying to build a chatbot that could replace FAQs on a website, instead, our goal is to really change how customer service works. We want to be able to not only provide instant resolutions for the consumers, but also help the agents by automating some of their administrative work. Our AI is really making the agent’s work more pleasing so they can focus on serving the customers a good experience.
Also, there rarely is any benefit of having Finnish as a first language, but it has been proven useful when building our AI, as Sarah already pointed out. A technology that works in Finnish has been easy to scale to other languages. It has been and still is something that sets us apart from the others — we work in Finnish, but also in Russian, Mandarin, Arabic, German, and other European languages.
“Thinking every business has customer service so we can sell to anyone doesn’t work.”
SA: Our mantra for every single day is “the best product is the one that wins the market”. We want to make the best product, we want to build fast, and we want to work closer with our customers to really understand what they need. Our work is really value-based. What’s different from most competitors is that we own both the AI and the product fully in-house, we have built everything ourselves from scratch. Especially on the AI side using an open-sourced English model is common, which means that those companies won’t have control of half of their product.
You’ve had major customers like Finnair and Telia on board already in 2018, and new one’s have joined at an accelerated pace. What’s your secret in gaining them?
RK: Understanding the customer’s needs. I think we have a strong product market fit especially when it comes to what these big customers need. Even though we’re still a small company in this space, showing the possible customer our product and what potential underlies in using it has been key in getting them to choose Ultimate. Product has always been the reason why they’ve chosen us.
SA: And it’s really about focus: you have to know exactly who you’re building for. Thinking every business has customer service so we can sell to anyone doesn’t work, because then you don’t end up having the strongest product and the strongest value proposition for a specific customer profile. We sell to high volume B2C customers and organizations in specific industries like e-commerce, travel, and telco, and we only sell to companies that work with one of our partner CRMs, like Salesforce or Zendesk. Whether it’s Finnair or Icelandic Air or Deezer, when we meet the customer we are guaranteed that we’re the strongest and the most customized for their use case. That confidence and that surety of the product we can show them really resonates.
“The team is still really diverse: over 30 percent of our team is still women, and their percentage in the leadership team is almost 40.”
What have been Ultimate.ai’s biggest challenges and how have you overcome them?
SA: We take hiring really seriously here. Maybe “challenge” is not the right word but hiring is something that we have put a lot of focus on, and we’re gonna continue to put focus on in the future as well. Reetu and I are involved in all major hires, and whenever we meet someone that’s amazing, we personally pitch them and try to close the hire. We feel quite strongly that at the end of the day Ultimate is just people, so it’s all about getting the right ones on board. We have tripled headcount in the last 12 months and we’re probably going to do something similar in 2021.
Retaining that strong sense of identity and culture is a challenge when you grow so quickly. We want to be able to grow sustainably, so even though we accelerated the last 12 months, the team is still really diverse: over 30 percent of our team is still women, and their percentage in the leadership team is almost 40. Our hiring is very value-based, which means people have to align with our culture to join us.
“Our view is that if we want to grow we all have to participate — everyone has to be an amazing recruiter.”
How did you manage to attract your current team?
SA: We’re still a new startup and a new brand, but at the same time we do rely on the brand and our network a lot. By network I don’t only refer to mine and Reetu’s, but to the network of everyone at Ultimate. Our view is that if we want to grow we all have to participate — everyone has to be an amazing recruiter. It’s not only in the hands of the people on our recruitment team or just the VP of engineering.
Around 20 percent of our hires have been employee referrals or referrals from our network. The second you meet someone good you need to really invest in recruiting, it can’t just be a standardized process: it is an actual, whole person who could really change the trajectory of your business. We pitch way more talent than to investors, you could say pitching to investors is almost way more of a side hustle to us than pitching talent. That’s a full-time job.
The fact that we build everything in-house is cool. It’s a very Finnish thing actually, being super technical and building everything yourself. Many companies want to add AI into their product as a selling point but we are truly an AI-first company — the AI is our product. It’s important to own the full stack.
What kind of partners have you aimed to have on board and why?
SA: We have two types of partners, technology partnerships and reseller partnerships. Our products are deeply integrated to our technology partners, which tend to be big CRM leaders like Salesforce and Zendesk. As Ultimate is a customer service automation platform, we are working closely with those CRM solutions. We have a great relationship with them and we are going to continue to invest in them. A lot of our clients are in a way joint with these players, for example Finnair is a joint client with Salesforce and Superbet is a joint customer with Zendesk.
“There’s a huge pull for automation of bot technology in the market and Covid-19 has only accelerated that, and that’s why we see huge potential in investing in these reseller partnerships.”
The reseller partnerships are newer to us. The CRM market is very partner-driven, and for example a lot of Microsoft products are sold through Microsoft resellers. Our new area of partnerships is meeting resellers of say, Salesforce, and introducing ourselves to show how Ultimate.ai enhances and brings more capabilities to their product. Essentially they could choose to sell our product alongside Salesforce. There’s a huge pull for automation of bot technology in the market and Covid-19 has only accelerated that, and that’s why we see huge potential in investing in these reseller partnerships.
How about investors, in addition to original investors Maki.vc and HV Capital you have some new names joining you on the A round?
RK: Our investors are very founder-first with operational background. They have an understanding of our pain, so to speak. They are also great culture fits, which we highly value in investors as well.
SA: We were actually not expecting to do the round this year, but then things accelerated and we closed the whole thing in five weeks. We had multiple offers and a lot of interest even from Silicon Valley and elsewhere in North America from VCs we had never even met in person before.
It was a competitive round, but what I love about our investors is that all of them already have had a strong thesis on the space before meeting us. For example OMERS Ventures’ Palaniappan brought Uber to Europe and after building their customer service functions for all the markets and languages he seriously felt the pain and has been actively looking for customer service automation in this space. Felicis Ventures said that they had literally envisioned a company like Ultimate.ai. This is a new category that is just coming to the world and we’re super excited that these investors recognize the potential. We want to be able to define this category: not only tell people that this category exists, but also to let them know this is going to be a thing. We care a lot about our product and we are happy that all our investors care so much, too.
“There are also some amazing product launches ahead, so stay tuned for those.“
RK: Alongside our new investors, Maki has always been super stable, a total rock supporting us founders. Pirkka Palomäki has a really long experience working with large and small companies. I’ve been super impressed how Pirkka actively not only talks about the company but talks about the founders — about how we are doing. Whenever things are going great, he’s there cheering for us, and when they are not going that great, he’s there to pick us up.
SA: Maki joined us super early and has been founder-first even when we transitioned from a group of founders to now being a bigger company that is scaling up and going international. They know us from the early days and interacting with them is almost like touching home base. The investors who join later see a different side of you and you have to be a certain way with them, and that’s totally acceptable, but Maki knows us from before we were pretty. It’s really nice that they still are a part of our journey.
What are the next major milestones we can expect from Ultimate.ai in the upcoming years?
RK: I think for us it’s trying to define this category of customer service automation and of course being the market leader. We’re looking forward to expanding our presence in Europe and also in the US. There are also some amazing product launches ahead, so stay tuned for those.
SA: Yes, we have a super ambitious product plan, you are going to see a lot of really cool releases. I hope you’re going to see us working with more and more cool and bigger than before brands. I’m talking huge multinational organizations. I think if brands like that trust us and we are able to bring value to them that it’s the true test of whether or not we have something that could be really big here.