Finnish customer service automation startup Ultimate.ai is one of the few companies that managed to grow despite the difficult year of 2020, and has raised $20M in Series A Funding, led by OMERS Ventures with participation from Felicis Ventures and existing investors HV Capital, and Maki.vc. Even though the company is Helsinki and Berlin based, their story began in Tampere, and they still have a branch in the city, at Platform6. Together with Tribecast, we had a chat with Reetu Kainulainen, CEO and Co-founder of ultimate.ai.
The whole idea of Ultimate.ai originally started in a hackathon, where a company in Finland was looking for help for event organising services. “The first thing we did was just build the deep learning based algorithms. We didn’t have a product yet, but we started to get some traction, and realized this technology could be used to help customer service agents to automate some parts of their workflow.” Reetu explains.
It took Reetu and his Co-founders Jaakko Pasanen and Markus Rautio a long time to come up with a product, and one of their earliest demos to a big company was just a console output of their algorithm. But the customer started working with it, and has remained a customer ever since. “Maybe that says, that you don’t really need this super polished product to get started, as long as you have a strong problem that you are solving.” Reetu says. In 2017 Reetu, Jaakko and Markus got into Techstars in Berlin, and that really started pushing the process forward into building a scalable version of their product. That’s where they met their fourth co-founder Sarah Al-Hussaini.
As many of their customers are big global companies, one might think that having Finnish as your first language might bring some difficulties in building a customer service AI. On the contrary, since they had to build their initial services in one of the most difficult languages there is, it is now easier to do it in other languages as well.
The platform’s flexibility and highly tailored services is also something that sets them apart from their competitors. One of the key values Reetu believes to have driven Ultimate.ai’s growth is having strong opinions, held weakly, and being very close to their customers constantly learning from them.
Ultimate.ai has always believed in solving problems with technology instead of money. However, the series A funding now allows them to really create the market and become the number one player when it comes to customer service automation.“We are going to invest in the product, and AI research, as well as create a world class customer success team, so our customers can get to success as fast as possible.” Reetu says.
When asked about tips for new companies, Reetu raises up two key points: “For me everything comes down to the product. You need to really think about who the customer is, what they need, and build the perfect product to solve their problem. You should also think about distribution from the very beginning; how will my customers buy this and how will they get the value. When you build that within the product, it makes everything so much easier.”
Reetu also talks about the importance of business communities: “It’s a marathon building a company, and it is so important not to be isolated. You of course have your co-founders, but it is also important to have a network around you, and get peer support, ideas and inspiration from them. It doesn’t mean that you have to participate in every single event, but having the support network will help you, and you will help them.”
Tampere also has a place in Reetu’s heart: “I want to give a big shoutout to the whole Tampere community. Especially the first people that were scrappy enough to leave New Factory and go to the old and moldy Nordea office we had back then, and hustle your way into this amazing Platform6 you have today. That’s good entrepreneur spirit! I remember so many micro moments with the Tampere startup community back in the days, and I hope we can scale up that kind of tight community mentality even when the community is growing.”
Even though Ultimate.ai seems like a fairytale success story, Reetu reveals that the road to success has not been an easy one. “It’s kind of a managed chaos. Even when the company is growing, and there are many customers, it’s still very hard, and we are still at a very early stage. Building a company is constant problem solving. Every step of the way is difficult, but that’s the point. The most successful companies are the ones who don’t give up. But you also need to be critical and not just stubbornly smash your head against the wall. Try new things. Listen. Learn. And don’t take things too seriously and drive yourself into a burnout. That is where the community can also help you; they can remind you to have fun too and that you are not alone!”