39. The future of work and the collaboration with AI | Ilan Kasan, Co-founder and CEO of Exceed.ai


lan Kasan | Co-founder and CEO of Exceed.ai


Today we meet up with Ilan Kasan, Co-founder and CEO, at Exceed.ai. Exceed is a company that is disrupting traditional marketing and sales by using AI to reduce the cost of acquiring sales leads by up to 79%


Ilan Kasan web image


Ilan is an accomplished SaaS business leader with proven successes in building business,  and products users and enterprises love.

With deep expertise in AI,  user experience, and SaaS, Ilan has had a 20-year career in engineering, general management, and product management for leading global technology companies including, Cisco, WebEx, Comeet, and others.

Prior to starting Exceed.ai Ilan managed the WebEx product line for Cisco where he helped grow the business to $1B and a successful acquisition by Cisco


[00:00:00] - Ilan Kasan
If you think about it, all the things that robots are very good at, humans suck and hate doing, and everything that humans are good at, robots don't know how to do. Let's face it, they don't know how to do. So I see that as a partnership between humans and robots, whereby the robot is empowering humans by automating all the manual non-strategic types of activities, so humans can focus on what they really like doing and are good at doing.

[00:00:38] - Doug Foulkes
Welcome to Episode 39 of The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future. We release two podcasts a month featuring industry experts and thought leaders discussing how work is changing and evolving. The future of work is now. This show is brought to you by WNDYR for their blog Chaos and RocketFuel. WNDYR are productivity and human behaviour specialists whose mission is to break legacy behaviours before they destroy your team's professional productivity and personal health. And you can check them out at WNDYR dot com.

That's WNDYR dot com. Our podcasts are available on all main platforms. If you find this content of value, please follow and share. I'm Doug Foulkes, and today with WNDYR CEO Claire Haidar, we meet up with Ilan Kasan, co-founder and CEO at Exceed.ai, with deep expertise in AI, user experience, and SaaS. Illan has had a 20 year career in engineering, general management, and product management for leading global technology companies including Cisco, WebEx, Comeet, and others.

Exceed is a company that is disrupting traditional marketing and sales by using A.I. to reduce the cost of acquiring sales leads by up to 79 percent, and saving up to 35 percent of sales reps costs, and trust me, we'll find out how they do that shortly. We will also get Ilan's experience of working in both Silicon Valley and Israel's Silicon Wadi. Why Ilan thinks A.I. is here to help us humans and not replace us, and where in general the future of work is heading.

But first, let's briefly explore the difference between a technologist and a product engineer.

[00:02:30] - Ilan Kasan
I don't see myself as a technology-first person. I would refine it and say that I am more product-first. A technologist always is looking at how the best, you know, what technologies are out there, what type of economy of scale they give us, how to build the best product, scalable product at the lower cost. And I think a product guy is looking at how can I build something that people can actually use and see value and how can I delight users?

And a good product guy understands technology very well. I am a technologist by training, but really SaaS understands that the end user doesn't care about the technology. He cares about the value that he can rely from the technology. It can be about product and product is about utility and utility is about creating value. Technology is the how or how you build it and the magic that happens behind scenes.

[00:03:34] - Doug Foulkes
Ilan, nice to meet you. You currently live in Israel, which is a beautiful country and certainly the right place to be if you're a technologist. Just take us into your world if you don't mind. Share with us what it's like, the smells, the sounds, the shapes, everything around you. How is working and doing business in Israel different from living and working in the US?

[00:03:56] - Ilan Kasan
First of all, just background for the audience. I live 15 years in Silicon Valley, near Son Jose, and worked for several start-ups and large companies such as WebEx and Cisco in the Valley. And then I moved back to Israel seven years ago. So I moved from one tech centre to another tech centre, and I just read the statistics today that when you rationalised Israel based on population, we have the highest number of unicorns in the world, and specifically recently Israel seems to be generating a lot of unicorns just in the last a year, I think there were several, maybe five or six IPOs and just tech IPOs just from Israel.

So in many regards, you know, I move from one technology hub to another technology hub, but obviously there is a lot of differences. Israel obviously is I would say it's a small country. I don't really do business here. I develop and I recruit, but we do business in the UK and we do business with the US.

And like most technology companies in Israel, we build everything here, but we sell overseas, mostly to the US, but other countries. And what I would say that here it feels much more of a community than at Silicon Valley just because it's smaller. And you tend to know people from high school, from university, from the military, everything, everybody around you, are people that you crossed paths with them in the past. As opposed to Silicon Valley, which is a lot of immigrants, both domestic immigrants and external immigrants who came to the U.S. and created that community.

It's more of a melting pot. And in Israel, it's more kind of a friends and family and people, you know, all coming together and creating new stuff. In Israel right now I would say it is "hushing and gushing" when it comes to tech. There was a time where hiring talent here was relatively easy and it was cheaper. But the gaps are slowly closing compared to the US. In terms of smell you know, first of all, Corona wise Israel is open, a huge percentage of the population is vaccinated and we feel kind of lucky to live in Israel in a place where vaccination was made a priority.

We just came back to work. So until now, we had like once or twice a week come to work. Right now, we changed our policy back to, you can work from home once a week versus you need to come to work once a week and they are really, really enjoying it, even though it's a little bit of a hassle to come to work every day just because it's nice to see people every day. It's nice to be together with people, to brainstorm, to pick somebody's brain, to have side conversations.

I now understand how much I missed it.

[00:06:51] - Doug Foulkes
Is it a fair question to ask you which one do you prefer, the US or Israel?

[00:06:56] - Ilan Kasan
I miss the US a lot, and before Corona I used to travel there very often, almost spent 50 percent of my time there. Business wise, marketing wise, sale wise, customer support wise, you know, we plan to move more of our operations into the U.S. because that's where the market is. I like both places. I feel like I have two homes they are very, very different. I think career wise and opportunity wise, I think Silicon Valley still provides more options.

But family and friends wise, I think Israel is much more family or tribal oriented. And, you know, when I'm here, I miss the US when I was in the US, I missed Israel. So I would say 50 50.

[00:07:38] - Doug Foulkes
That's a nice position to be in.

[00:07:41] - Claire Haidar
Okay Ilan, we are moving into, like, the really exciting part of this conversation where I want to get talking about Exceed. So I would definitely place Exceed and what you and the team are doing there on the forefront of A.I. and before we dive more specifically into Exceed and the practicality of what you guys are doing, I'd like to talk at a more high level about A.I. in general. So there's a lot of scaremongering going on about how AI is going to replace jobs.

And what I'd really like to hear from you as someone who is building a tool that is in many ways disrupting a very, very clear industry and jobs in that industry. What scares and delights you about AI right now?

[00:08:28] - Ilan Kasan
Well alright, let me start with my perspective on AI before I jump into what scares me, and what delights me. So, you know, the robots are coming. The robots are coming to help, not to replace. I don't see, at least in the space that we are, which is sales, marketing, customer success. I don't see the robots replacing humans. Robots are good at automating manual repetitive tasks. They're fast they can process a lot of data. They never get tired.

They never leave their job. They are persistent. There's a lot of good things the robots can do. And humans are very good at feeling empathy, understanding nuance, having relationships, talking to people, selling. Those are things robots are far, far, far from getting even close to that, and I think that in our lifetime, I don't think we'll see robots replacing humans in that capacity at least. If you think of it, all the things that robots are very good at, that humans suck and hate doing and everything that humans are good at, robots don't know how to do.

Let's face it, they don't know how to do. So I see that as a partnership between humans and robots, whereby the robots empowering humans by automating all the manual non-strategic type of activities, so humans can focus on what they really like doing, and are good at doing. I don't have any fear, I don't think anybody is coming to take somebodies old job. The opposite, the robots are here to help and make people more productive.

[00:10:07] - Doug Foulkes
That's very interesting, Ilan. So we've spoken a bit around it and we've sort of got to the edges of it. But let's get practically down to what he does. How is it replacing jobs and how is it creating jobs?

[00:10:21] - Ilan Kasan
OK, what's the problem we're actually solving for companies then I will explain how Exceed solved the problem. And I think it'll be clear from that how this partnership is created between humans and robots. A lot of companies spend a lot of money to generate leads. Obviously, that accelerated during the Corona. But also the price of generating online leads have increased because more and more people are moving to digital and that obviously increasing the price and the cost of acquisition. So companies spend all this money generating the need.

They spend a lot of energy to try and get something out of them. And most of them do an OK job in following up and working those leads who are ready to buy now and want to talk to somebody. Most companies do a good job. But I think where most companies struggle is with the rest of the lead, which is maybe the 90 percent of the lead, they are the leads who are in different stages of the buying journey, they could be just the research, consideration, awareness.

And the challenge there is that typically sales people don't like talking with people who are very early in the journey and seldom like getting ready for sales, marketing always tries to identify which of those leads are ready for sales, which ones are ready to talk. And what they don't like doing is passing unqualified leads to sales. That's the worst thing that can happen. Why? Because sales get frustrated. Why are you sending me those people? And marketing is measured based on how many qualified leads they provide to sale.

And if you look at the message today of what marketing is doing to solve this problem, they do lead scoring, and they do lead scoring because they can't talk to every lead. They don't exactly know where they are and if they're ready for sale yet. So they score based on things like, you know, the profile from the graphics and some other engagement metrics on the website. Oh, they downloaded their white paper. And his profile seems a good profile.

He must be ready to talk to sales. The reality is that that's not true. And by doing so, two things can happen. You are either going to over score a lead and then you're going to send an unqualified lead to sale, or you are going to underscore a lead, then you're going to miss out on lead. So in an ideal world, if marketing could have talked to every lead, ask them what do they need, where are they in the journey, are they ready to talk to sales, make sure to follow up with them based on how they want to engage, provide them, provide them the right content, but do it in the form of a conversation over email or chat or SMS. That would be an ideal world.

But marketing cannot do it because marketing works with one too many, they are not designed to have one on one conversations. And that's where Exceed comes in. What we identify is that when you look at the initial stages of how leads engage with the company and how you want to nurture the lead or how you want to approach a lead, those initial engagements are 90 percent exactly the same. It almost doesn't matter what you are selling. Think of it, you can just replace the product name.

You know, if somebody signs up for a demo, and you are unsure if it's a good fit, you might want to follow up with the question. Maybe that lead might be qualified. You might say, hey, before I jump on a call, can you tell me a little bit about your business model? Can you send me more information? Can you share with me a case study? Do you have a free trial? Those questions repeat themselves and it almost doesn't matter what you're selling.

It might change based on industry, so different industries might have a different type of questions. And how each company would answer those questions would be different. But those interactions are very, very similar. I'll give you more examples, sometimes leads will say, look, I'm not quite ready yet. I'm just doing my research. Drop me a line next quarter. Happens all the time. There's no reason why humans have to deal with this. You want to schedule a meeting.

It's a lot of back and forth to try and find a good time to meet. All those steps that I described now we identified are very similar across multiple industries and multiple companies. We trained Exceed to identify those type of interactions and we can automate it. So what Exceed, we are actually a virtual sales development app or virtual sales assistant, that can do the initial engagement with leads over email, it knows to identify, to follow up, to nurture, and it knows to identify when the lead is ready to talk to a human.

It will then go ahead and qualify that lead based on the companies playbook and then books the meeting on the calendar.

[00:15:01] - Doug Foulkes
I'm just going to take a 10 second break to ask you if you're finding this podcast of value, if you are please follow us on your platform of choice, remember, we have new content published twice a month.

[00:15:13] - Ilan Kasan
We sell mainly into marketing. On the receiving side of the product are typically sales. It could be SDR or sales reps. The reps see meetings on the calendar, typically meetings with leads that were qualified. I'll give you an example. If somebody signs up to see a demo at Exceed, we don't show everybody a demo. Why? Because it takes time. It takes resources from our sales team so we qualify them. So our virtual assistant will respond and say, thank you very much for signing up for a demo.

Before we jump on a call, I have a quick question. How many leads do you engage per month. Based on how they answer, we'll know whether to path it over to sales or maybe send them a different route.

[00:15:53] - Doug Foulkes
What would you say Ilan is the difference between conversational AI and say just a normal chatbot? Is there a big difference? Is it something that one can cross over from one to the other?

[00:16:03] - Ilan Kasan
Conversational AI how most people understand is a chatbot, that is designed for marketing teams and they put a nice kind of sexy name, conversationally. What we're focused on, is on email conversations and email conversations are very, very different than chat conversations. Chat conversations are typically very transactional. They happen in the short time on the website and typically are designed for those leads who are ready to talk now with sales and want to see a demo. But the reality is that most of the conversations happen over email.

Most of the communications happen over email and email is asynchronous type of communication. So we can have discussions with leads that can go on for a year even, and those things are all automated until they're ready to talk to human. And then we schedule the meeting. Based on how people respond, we start cleaning up the CRM. So, for example, if somebody leaves the company and you get a soft bounce, we mark that as, left company, we can identify who the new contact is, reach out to the new contact and update the CRM, somebody changed the role, we can update it to the CRM.

We collect information from how they answered questions. Their signature, any type of information we can collect and we update the CRM. Today if somebody says, hi look, it's not a priority for me, but next quarter we interested in talking to you guys, a human today has to go put the reminder in the calendar and make sure to follow up. We can completely automate that. And as you know, humans typically, especially sales people most of them like thinking about the now and not the potential yield that might happen in six or nine months.

Some call it conversational marketing. I just think that there is kind of a shift in the industry now, where we're moving from one way communication to two way communication, replacing phones with chat we're replacing one way email with two way email.

[00:17:59] - Claire Haidar
It's very clear that what you guys are focussing on at Exceed is that robotic skill set and removing that out of the human workflow, which frees the human up to really focus on the relational building and all those things that humans are really good at.

How much time are humans spending right now, on that non relational stuff? And how does a product like Exceed come in and actually reduce that? And how are humans then coming back and actually, like, filling that up with other stuff?

[00:18:31] - Ilan Kasan
So I can give you some data from some of our customers. We had one customer, a big public company that they, according to the case study, we did with them, they say a 79 percent reduction in the cost of a sales qualified lead. So they measured it based on cost. 79 percent. Right. And it comes mainly from the humans, the human cost, which is the most expensive resource, if you think of it typically the most expensive part is not software, not media spend in most companies and most businesses it is humans.

And where did this come from? It came from the fact that they've got to get a lot of leads, a lot of the leads are not real leads not all of them already. Some are not qualified period. Some are just not ready to buy and some are ready to buy. And when you have such a big volume, just understanding who is ready and who's not, requires sometimes people to follow up, pick up the phone, have some conversations over email, maybe then if they qualify, then meet them. So we can take all this part and just completely automated it.

I wouldn't say 100 percent automation, because at the end of the day, robots are good at what they were taught to do. And when there is a new situation or a first time encounter, you need a human to help them. But even with that, with minimal intervention of humans, we were able to realise the 79 percent reduction of acquisition. We had another customer, a big company, who sells software to SMB.

Based on the case study we did with them. They saved 35 percent of the reps cost and otherwise they measured based on productivity. So each rep now was able to have 40 percent or 39 percent more meetings. And also reps now don't have to go all back and forth with the scheduling and the follow ups because they give them more time to have conversations with leads and less time going between the back and forth nonstrategic type of communication. And another metric which we really like is we actually able to find more leads from the existing leads.

And this is for two reasons. One, because we are able to make sure nothing fall between the cracks. That's human nature, people forget to follow, people will start scheduling. People start ghosting the sales rep, the sales reps give up. But also we're now able to process more leads. So if you have maybe lower priority leads, maybe leads who have gone dark on you. Maybe you have some leads, and you want to not just do your typical nurturing campaign, but you might want to provide them a new offer and automate this whole process as we're able to get more out of their existing investments that they have made.

So we've seen in one case, again, quoting to their data 3x more sales qualified in terms of volume, in terms of how many meetings they used to see before.

[00:21:22] - Doug Foulkes
Ilan our podcast is focused really around the future of work in general. So far we've focussed a little bit on Exceed and on the sale side of things. How do you see the future of work if you sort of extrapolate that out over all spheres of work? How do you see it developing with the technologies that you and others are developing at the moment?

[00:21:43] - Ilan Kasan
I believe we're moving to an augmented workforce where you're going to have robots working alongside humans. You're going to see it not only in sales and marketing, you're going to see it in security. You're going to see it in H.R., you're going to see it in success in every area. You're going to have robots who are going to do the heavy lifting. They will alert people. They will ask the humans what they want them to do, not always are they going to make the decision by the way.

I think many times their job will mainly be to monitor, sign, make a recommendation, and execute. But I think in many, many cases, humans are actually going to make the decisions, especially when you have areas where there is some element of nuance and complexity that robots do not understand. Context and nuance is something the robots are very bad at. And I think that's where we're going. And in every area you are thinking about, even b2c and what not you're going to have a system.

So every knowledge worker will be paired with an assistant, whether it's a personal or just an assistant that looks at a certain function in the organisation and humans are going to operate it. Makes perfect sense.

[00:22:55] - Doug Foulkes
That makes perfect sense.

[00:22:56] - Claire Haidar
Let's move on and talk about the competitive landscape. What are the other products like Exceed that are out there? And why did you guys decide to go after the sales vertical? So why was that your starting point rather than, for example, marketing or legal, one of the other areas inside business that is as ripe for disruption as what sales is? And then if you look at the competitive landscape, what other tools are out there that they should be considering to bring into their workflows to create those cost reductions, but also create that optimisation between what we know the future is going to be and the human capital inside the building.

[00:23:39] - Ilan Kasan
Let me start explaining why we are doing what we are doing.

And we do sale to sale and marketing. And we are actually starting to find out that it's easier to sell tp marketing because we giving them new capabilities, they are not able to do today because they typically work one to many and do not have the headcount. Sales are more a user on the receiving side of the software. Now, we do sell to sales as well but what we noticed is that sales, it's harder to sell to sale, there are all sorts of reasons. But I think one reason we saw is psychologically, it's a little strange to them.

Like once in a sales call, we were talking to the head of VR and then he popped the question, who exactly are you replacing, and I have to dodge this question because, of course. I didn't say I'm replacing him. I said, look, we're not replacing we're making your team more productive. You know, mature companies understand that you don't have to fire people. You can repurpose them. You can make them more productive.

But some people are immature and see it as a threat sometimes. So that's why we decided to focus on marketing. We see it's easier to sell, as they are much more open to new technologies. With sales it's a little different story. So let's say 30 percent sale, 70 percent marketing but on the receiving side. Even when we sell to marketing, it's always sales who sees the meetings on their calendar. So they are users of the system, but they are not necessarily the functional group who bought the product.

In terms of landscapes. Obviously, the marketing and sales vertical doesn't suffer from lack of attention, there are plenty of solutions out there, many of them designed to solve different parts of the funnel, lead scoring, AI for content, intent data, ABM platform, marketing automation, CRM, chatbots, SMS marketing, personalisation. There's many, many, many tools out there, and it is a confusing landscape for a lot of marketers. And I think that at the end of the day, there probably is going to be a consolidation.

And I think people want to buy one platform that will have all the pieces. In terms of competition. I mean, the obvious one a lot of people are comparing us to is Drift, but Drift is really only focussed on chat. We also have a chat and we actually don't sell or we prefer not to sell our chat as a standalone, we typically set up as part of our platform. And what most of our companies come to us for is for our two way email solution, which is unique and different and there is very little, very few companies that actually know what we are doing. And the chat is an addon, buy our platform, and by the way we will give you chat aswell.

And if you have Drift you can reply if you don't, you don't have to. If you don't, you can use Exceed or you can continue to Drift. So we try not to compete with them. I think the chat today doesn't have a lot of technology. It's really a rule based decision tree. There's not much NOP, especially in marketing and sales. And I think it's going to be very, very competitive. It's easier to use as many players over there.

And we decided not to play in that field. On the email side. There are definitely a lot of solutions out there that know how to send emails and they are much more cheaper than Exceed. So if you're just looking for a tool to send emails or to do outbound prospecting, Exceed is not for you. If you're looking for real two way email communication, you really want to offload a lot of the heavy lifting of going back and forth, qualifying, following up scheduling meetings, that's where Exceed excels.

And that's where we are different from all the email solutions out there. Direct competition, there's one main competitor which we see in accounts, that's a company called Conversica, which I would say are a 15 year old company, have been around the block for a longer time. They're a bigger company from us. But again, they have a lot of respect to them because they, in some regards, created this market, but we know and believe that we have the better product, the better technology stack, because from day one, we built it for that purpose on modern technology and in a modern kind of AI, machine learning stack.

[00:27:56] - Claire Haidar
That stat that you shared with us, like 79 percent in reduction of costs there, of lead is just that.

That is scary data, scary good for you. But scary in that if Exceed in the early stages that it's in is able to create that, that shows you how much work humans are doing that they shouldn't be doing. Tell us where you want to disrupt next. Where are you guys going to go next? I mean, I know there's a lot of work to be done in marketing. I know there's a lot of work to be done in sales.

But if you kind of pull things forward, assume great success, where do you disrupt next.

[00:28:39] - Ilan Kasan
We want to be the platform that automates all communications in the organisation, maybe we just focus on external communications, so what other type of communication we have, we have inbound marketing, the funnel, you have up sell, you have renewals, renewals by the way, is customer success. It's a whole different exercise here. Renewals is typically money on the table. Nobody wants to give renewals. It's a lot of work, especially when you have a transactional or SMB type of business and what you want to do is you want to build some sort of a system which can automate that and just identify which ones are at risk and then get a human involved only in those metrics.

So that's a great use case for us. And maybe there's an opportunity for things like even H.R., recruiting. Talking with the applicants and automate a lot of this back and forth, initial even qualification and meeting scheduling, so there's a lot of use cases around communication that happen between organisations and I don't want to say with customers, it doesn't have to be customers and their stakeholders and maybe you can even take it internally in the organisation as well.

[00:29:51] - Doug Foulkes
I'm going to ask you to leave us with one piece of advice. If you'd have a piece of advice for high school students, let's leave the C Suite and the executives for today. But for high school students who are coming into a world of work, what should they be thinking about?

[00:30:08] - Ilan Kasan
I think that the best way to develop a person and it almost doesn't matter what you're doing, is go work for somebody and a company that one, a good company that is growing. And second, somebody who has experience and knows what he's doing. Because where I learnt most is from other people. And second and very close to that is by just doing my own mistakes. You need to work in a place which will allow you to do your own mistakes.

So looking at other people, you learn from your boss's mistakes, you learn from your mistakes, and having a good mentor and a boss, I think is the most important thing. And there's no point in trying to rush your career advancement with fancy titles, go and do several, you know, entry level jobs. Don't do the same one for six years, but try and change around, if you want marketing or engineering and find people you can learn from.

That's to me, the number one lesson of how I would start my career. I would give another advice, just advice and getting stuff done. We tend to very easily get buried in our day to day and sometimes you find yourself that all you've done is you answered emails all day like you actually didn't get anything done. So I would try to set yourself a target every day to do one big thing. And just one big thing can sometimes be one step towards a bigger goal that you make sure you accomplish.

And then you can do all the rest, kind of the day to day. But always pick one thing that is, like today I'm going to do this. And if I haven't done that, this day was not productive because emails and small stuff and tactical stuff you're going to have every day, doesn't matter how many hours you're going to work.

[00:31:56] - Claire Haidar
Ilan, thank you so much for this conversation. As always, I really do respect your insights and how you lead from the problem that you're solving. It's always been one of the hallmarks of the conversations that I have with you is let's get back to the problem. What's the problem? What's the problem? How are we going to solve the problem? And I remain very excited about what you guys are doing. You really are disrupting, it was amazing for me hearing you say that you want to essentially disrupt internal communication completely, which just makes total sense.

Looking at the career trajectory that you've built for yourself and that you're still on, it's totally in line from where you've come and where you going. Nobody better suited to doing it than you thought.

[00:32:44] - Ilan Kasan
Thank you very much. It was great talking to you again. We haven't spoken for a while and a pleasure talking to you and Doug about my world view and my view of the industry AI, for Exceed and what we're doing. And I believe that I like starting small and solving one small hairy problem and then growing from there to other areas. That's our long term plan.

[00:33:08] - Doug Foulkes
Ilan thank you, thanks very much.

And that's where we'll leave it today. Ilan Kasan and Exceed using AI to help free us humans of the repetitive work we hate so we can do more of the things we're good at. We hope you've enjoyed this podcast. If you have, we'd appreciate it if you'd follow us on your preferred platform and share this with your friends and colleagues. Just a reminder, for more information about WNDYR and the integration services that they supply, you can visit their website. That's WNDYR dot com. And so, as always, for me, Doug Foulkes and Chaos & RocketFuel. Stay safe and we'll see you soon.

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