SaaS Founder Interview with Ann Marie Sastry, Founder and CEO of Amesite

Tony Zayas 0:03
Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of the SaaS Founders Show where we have fascinating conversations with founders of SaaS organizations that are doing some incredible things, just really learning from their journeys. Andy, how are you doing this week?

Andy Halko 0:21
I’m fantastic, Tony. You know, life is good. I’m inside for once because it’s gale force winds outside and show outside for a while. But yeah, it’s a couple you.

Tony Zayas 0:33
Yeah, I’m back. I missed last week because I was on vacation on the beach. enjoying that, so well rested and ready to go.

Andy Halko 0:42
So another exciting founder tell us they were talking to you today.

Tony Zayas 0:47
Yeah. So we actually we have Dr. Ann Marie Sastry. She’s the founder and CEO of Amesite, they’re an artificial intelligence software company, providing advanced AI powered online learning ecosystems for business and higher education. So let me bring her on and there we go. Hey, Ann Marie, how you doing?

Ann Marie Sastry 1:09
Hi, Tony. Hi, Andy, thanks so much for having me and thanks, everybody in the audience for coming along today.

Tony Zayas 1:14
Absolutely. excited that you’re here. Just to get started. So I gave you know, the high level overview of what ama site does. But can you go ahead and tell us kind of the origin of where did the concept come? And how did you turn an idea into, you know, business?

Ann Marie Sastry 1:34
Sure, I gotta tell you, I mean, on this journey, and I’m sure many entrepreneurs would tell you guys the same thing. And that is that you have an idea, you have a lot of passion behind it. And the thing almost self assembles, I mean, the thing almost assembles itself in front of your eyes, you pull a team together, and they often have, you know, hopefully, more, you know, the vast majority of the time have better ideas than you do. The thing that thing winds up being its organism. But the short version is I was a professor for a long time. And I’m an engineer by training, all my degrees are in mechanical engineering, Applied Mechanics, undergrad, Delaware, Ph.D., Cornell, then I went off and program in the big Cray at Sandia National Labs and I became a professor and I was there for 17 years as a chair, Professor started a couple of research centers started a big global graduate program, started a company. And that’s when I sort of started to understand what impact you could have as an entrepreneur, because the company I started first, actually three was a solid-state battery company was very successful, the great team ended up setting a world record energy density, a battery cell, won a bunch of awards, but the main thing is coming out of the university and starting that company, and then only leaving university to run that business. I learned that was an incredible way to create something out of whole cloth and make an impact. And so when I sold that company to a company called Dyson, stay on for a couple of years as an executive at the acquire and then decided to leave and start this company. Because the problems that I saw in in learning markets and education fundamentally, were really around access, but not only access retention, and the nearest term way to educate a lot of people is to do it online. There’s no question about that. I mean, people spend incredible amounts of time on their screens on the internet. And the experience was terrible. The experience and learning on the internet was was terrible. It’s like the worst experience on the internet. And it was frustrating to me because, at the same time, student debt was piling up $1.6 trillion now and counting. And the last nine years in a row, fewer Americans went to college. And the the the educational products were there, but they weren’t being delivered in a way that people could get access, the retention rates in the MOOCs and other free vehicles were very poor. And having done an online program myself, when I was a professor, it became large and successful. But the tools I had to work with, were not very good. So I thought, Okay, if you want to make an impact here, if you say, you know, you’re you sincerely want to move the needle, you sincerely want to get educational opportunities in front of people. What are the skeleton keys? What are the ways in that you can do that? And the answer was, was a light bulb moment, it’s a software company, do a software company get getting build software that helps people pay attention and keeps them engaged? And that’s where Amesite was born. If that helps.

Tony Zayas 4:23
Yeah, that’s great. And I love that quote there. He just said, what are the skeleton keys? Right? So what are you know, the fastest ways to get in there and make an impact and make a difference? So that’s fantastic. I would love to go more into a homicide in just a second. But I would like to ask, having been you were CEO and founder of your past company as well. Is that correct? Yep. What were some of the lessons learned that you know, made Amesite a lot smoother. I’m sure there was a ton that you know, made a little bit easier second, second time around?

Ann Marie Sastry 4:55
For sure. Although no Buddy, I mean, people ask me, you know, should I be an entrepreneur, it’s like, if you have doubts don’t do it. It’s sort of like math or music, it’s calling. And it’s tough, and it’s hard. And you’re always, you know, battling inertia, you know, battling a system, whatever it is. And so you have to believe there are a lot of things I learned, and I’m still learning. I mean, I think, you know, it’s a, it’s a sign of life to be learning, right. So I don’t, I don’t feel like I’m at some magic plateau where I just know what the next thing to do is all the time. Probably the most important thing is to bring great people on the team just really bring great people on the team and it’s not as important what someone knows that the point that you join forces, it’s much more important, important, what their potential and what their attitude are. And, and finding people who resonate with a message with a mission is very, very important because they’re going to take it places you can’t, you know, I tell my teams 99.999 Add as many nines as you want percent of the time, I’m not in the room, you know, it’s up to the people on the team to Carry, carry the work forward, live the values and pursue the mission. And so finding that alignment and hiring, it’s the most important thing you do.

Andy Halko 6:26
Yeah, it’s great. I kind of want to continue on this dichotomy of the two companies. I just be curious. They seem like they were very different, very different. Can you talk about the the mindset of, you know, growing a business that seems like in the first round is more of a, you know, physical product, and then moving to a digital virtual product?

Ann Marie Sastry 6:49
Sure. Yes, three was a solid-state battery company. And because of that, we managed hazardous materials, it was a safety facility, a safety culture, we had a machine shop, several big laboratories, lots of equipment. And then the culture had to be a safety culture. And that’s true, anybody’s ever run a safety culture, run and run manufacturing or run, run a laboratory knows that this is the case that it has to rule over judgment, you can’t tell people well, you know, take this jar of something, when done dump to the H back machine could kill everybody in the building and just, you know, use your best judgment, that you have to have rules, you have to have processes and so forth, to keep everybody safe. And to, you know, not only obviously, the priority is safety, keep everybody safe, but also to execute with excellence to also develop repeatable process recipes, develop insights, understand process levers, so you can improve the product. And so all of those things are rules-driven. And, and you need to find people and create a culture that’s amenable to that. Amazon is a software company. And it is everybody who’s watching this who’s interested in SaaS knows pretty much if you can dream it, you can make it happen. And the worst thing is going to happen, anybody to homicide like to say is maybe somebody gets a paper cut or something. That’s nasty. Yeah. So it ama site is judgment overrules, you know, you don’t have to have a bazillion processes, obviously, for a product, you have to have processes for rolling things out, and QA and QC that makes sure that we’re delivering for our customers and make sure we’re delivering for our shareholders repeatedly. But in day-to-day processes, you’d like to minimize that. So it is very different. There are some common features to which I’m happy to talk about.

Andy Halko 8:35
Yeah, I’d love to hear about that.

Ann Marie Sastry 8:37
Oh, sure. I guess I’m more or less an applied mathematician. So I tend to look at the world that kind of a mathematical way. And was three, how we were looking at battery cells was let’s look at this. You know, from a math and physics standpoint, let’s think about if you could take everything in the battery that’s not active material out of the battery, what would it look like? And that’s why we came to Solid State batteries. And we started that with computational science. I’m one of my co-founders, Chai Wong and I had worked out some calculations and had done some simulations that were the foundation of the company because you know, we looked at that and said, Okay, we should be able to make one of these. It won’t be easy. But there is a mathematical solution that doubles or triples the energy density of battery cells. So that was the root of that. With Amesite, it was a little bit different. Although there were some proof points in other sectors, social media, video games, even banks have been able to keep people’s attention on the internet using AI. But education had not gotten the memo on that. And so we thought, I thought, well, if we, if I do a software company this time, rather than you know, try to do battle with all the good companies and all the 3300 colleges and universities. They’re all trying to do a good thing. Help them be that last mile, be that the last mile is the software company that they need so that they can deliver the learning that keeps people engaged. Because I really, I don’t believe that it’s enough to tell people, Hey, take your medicine come to class do this, because it’s important. We are fighting for attention in whatever we do. And just because learning is a good thing for people for doing to do for themselves, doesn’t mean you don’t have to work at it to make it interesting. If you sincerely want people to succeed, if that, if that helps.

Andy Halko 10:25
Yeah, for sure. I’m kind of curious, you know, going back a little bit to the origin story, or the startup of insight is, you know, what did it look like for you? And partially coming out of another startup in some ways? But did you know, bootstrap it? Did you build a team? Or did you start small, like, what did the first six to 12 months look like for the company?

Ann Marie Sastry 10:51
They were pretty hilarious. I mean, I, I decided that I was going to leave my position at the acquire it was a good position as well treated and stuff, but I was climbing the walls, I knew there were other things that I could contribute. And, and the education thing kept nagging at me and nagging at me and nagging at me because I’d seen it from both sides, or many sides, I thought a.gov.com.edu.org email addresses I’ve gotten to do a lot in my life. And, and wherever I looked, there was this missing piece, and it was just bugging me. And, you know, I thought about, well, maybe, you know, I did, okay, in my last company, maybe I can make some donations and try to help out that way. And it was way too expensive. It was way too expensive to try to create something that way. So I thought, Okay, I’ll do a company. But I’ll do a software company. As I said, that doesn’t fight the system, but helps it right, create that last mile software company, and come up with a business model where we can help everybody succeed, the learners, the delivers companies, universities, and I think we did a pretty good job with that. But the first few weeks, were kind of like, and I’m sure many people, maybe not, maybe it’s just me, but have had this experience of just feeling tortured by an idea, just like, you know, so I would say like, you know, in front of whiteboards and draw sketches, like, where are the energies here? And who needs what and what are the market sizes? And what is the willingness to pay? And why are there these gaps and understanding, I was reading papers on behavioral science and AI and markets and learning and, and internet protocols, and all kinds of things. It was just this massive soup. But my husband would come home, as I took a couple, few months to think about things before I started this. And he would say, Well, how’s the new company going? And every day, I would say the same thing. It’s going awesome. Well, as the CEO, we’re 100% aligned, we had some great discussions today. And everybody wants to do to say that. So just kind of funny, you know, there’s, you have all these thoughts floating around your head, and you’re trying to become not an expert at all the things that the company needs to do, but to know enough to be able to bring on the right teammates. And, and it’s hard, but it’s fun. So I did that, and then bootstrapped it, you know, rented a space in downtown Ann Arbor. And I was an Army, oh, one side, one empty office with a bunch of whiteboards. And then I asked people to come to see me and come to meetings. And then I did this kind of nonlinear thing. I sponsored projects at universities near where I live. And I had been a professor. So I guess I had a little bit of street cred, and I went to the Dean’s, and I said, Hey, I want to sponsor some student projects. You have a senior design class, and I was sure he was like, who’s going to mentor the students? I’ll do it. I used to be a professor for a long time. So there’s Okay, sounds good. So I sponsored a bunch of those just out of pocket. And I put these channels because I used to do that, right. So I put these challenge problems in front of students. And they were awesome. And I ended up hiring some of them and the first team. And then I went out and raised a few million to start the company and asked some good friends if they would come to be on the board. And they said yes, which was awesome. And then and then hired a team. And so that that was the order of things.

Andy Halko 14:12
Yeah, that’s great. So you did go out and raise money to grow it? I’m kind of curious, I guess, moving into the software side of it. You know, although you had a very background, it sounds like you weren’t probably as knowledgeable about building a software product. So how did you have to, I don’t know, learner or, or come around. How to approach that from even given your background.

Ann Marie Sastry 14:43
Yeah, I mean, I had a computational background. I’ve been a new Mariss, you know, most of my life. So there was that and understanding the math was something that that, you know, has come easily to me, but in terms of building a software product, so really ran my last company because it was computation. But the software wasn’t the product, the hardware was the product. So you might different. And I read a lot, I talked to a lot of people, I figured, I guess, I don’t mind, at least hopefully not forever. But for a while being like the least informed person in the room. I don’t mind that. If I feel like if I just knuckle down Emory and I learned this, and I, you know, learn enough to team with great people. And I learned enough to maybe chart out a vision and learn enough of the details to be able to manage it. I don’t mind being the ignorant person in the room. So I guess it is pretty important to get your ego out of your way. When when you do and do company.

Andy Halko 15:46
That is the goal surround yourself with smarter people. Right? Absolutely.

Ann Marie Sastry 15:52
Absolutely.

Tony Zayas 15:56
So my apologies I have for a second. So if I asked for something that’s already been addressed, just let me know. But Ann Marie, I would love to hear a bit more about the team that you have assembled. And we started talking about that I fell off, but we’d love to hear about the team a bit.

Ann Marie Sastry 16:14
Yeah, they’re terrific. And so we went completely distributed. So and that was the plan from the beginning. The plan from the beginning was to do a completely, you know, some people call it remote or distributed business. And then my thinking was to have an office at the beginning. But then segue and then COVID accelerated that. So by couple-three months, so COVID struck in, in March of 2020, our lease was up in May, we didn’t renew the lease, and we ended up increasing the size of the company by more than 50% During the last year or so. So a lot of the colleagues we hired, we just met in person for the first time last month. And when we had a company summit met everybody so that the people come from all over, we have people now in 12 states, we have a team in South Asia as well and are very diverse. It’s about half the leadership is female, and very good representation across the board, all demographics. So that’s fun. And it’s essential. And I think it’s essential for every business, I can tell you, it’s essential for our business because we’re trying to improve the way the world burns, not one segment, not one demographic, not one narrow band. And so our composition must reflect the population we serve, which is everybody. In our case, it’s not just people who like candy canes are people who wear a certain kind of shoe. I mean, it’s like literally everybody. So the people who came and joined the company in you know, are sincerely are extraordinary. And we have people who could be doing a lot of different things but chose Amazon because of what we do for people because of our mission. We are a for-profit business, of course. And it’s very, you know, Paramount is our obligation to our shareholders for sure. I mean, we understand that to get to do what we want to do, we need to make ama site, self-sustaining. So that’s why I wanted this to be a company rather than a nonprofit or charitable activity, I do other stuff, shareable activities, but this one needs to sustain itself. So you get people who have that combination of, you know, commercial acuity and also, mission focus. And I would say every member of staff is like that. That helps,

Tony Zayas 18:39
Though, that’s fantastic. You’ve mentioned mission a few times you talked about core values, how do you how would you describe Amesite culture? And then how do you find the, to the point of having, you know, getting that team getting the right people? That was something you learned from your last venture? Any tips for others out there and find, you know, hiring the right people?

Ann Marie Sastry 19:04
Yeah, I mean, I think people can think that culture is kind of retail, and you can, you know, sort of borrow somebody else’s culture or, or take best practices. And I don’t believe that I think that having run, you know, different kinds of organizations if you will, I mean, I had research centers and programs and things when I was a professor, that I had a company before this one. And the culture shapes around what it is you’re trying to do in the world, in my view, and if I’ve seen, you know, this cases where people try to say, well, we like this thing that they’re doing over there, and we just want to do it here and it never works unless it’s organic. So actually, you know, pretty much I mean, not even metaphorically, but like literally sat under a tree and thought about it for a while. It’s like okay, what, what, what are the right values for a software company that’s trying to do What I want this company to do, and came up with eight beats, and they’re on there on our website. And I thought about this in terms of the tension between values that people often exhibit and the values that we want it to exhibit because I think often excellence is defined by doing the extraordinary thing by not doing what everybody else does. And so the first one is judgment beats rules. And what I, what I said about my earlier company is not always true. I mean, sometimes rules have to be judged for heaven’s sakes, but in this case, judgment beats rules, because we want people to take chances, we want people to be autonomous, we want to push a lot of authority forward because, in software, you can get so many cycles and even in a single day, so why not try it, just go, go. The second one is measurement BS conjecture, which is kind of the embodiment of a pet peeve of mine when people sit around talking about things like oh, what about this? What about this like, or we could just look at the data, or we could do that. So, you know, I always coach and encourage people to take measurements rather than pointlessly conjecture. And then bring those measurements and then conjecture based on the measurements, for sure. But start with measurements. The third one is humility beats arrogance, and I’m a big believer in that, that that coming into a room and saying, okay, every single person in this room is better at something than I am. Your job is leaders to figure out what that thing is empower them and say go and make sure that everybody is operating on their long axis to the best of their ability. And that requires humility, that requires coming into every room thinking, not I know everything, or I know exactly how this is going to go. But it’s important to me that I know what people’s strengths and skills and gifts and talents are. So we can come up with the best way. And then the rest of them are on that website if you want to look at it, but I could go through them all. But those eight beats became our culture. And I, it was a negotiation. plainly stated, when I brought on the first team members, I said, look at this is how I’m thinking about our culture, do you think you can get down with this? This, this makes sense for you? And if it doesn’t, we’re probably not a good fit. And that’s cool. But this is how I’m thinking about it? And how do you think and how do you see these values. And, and that’s important, because if the culture is just a top-down thing that winds up some pointless set of phrases on the back of your company badge, it’s not gonna, it’s not gonna be real. So really, people have to read it and say, okay, in my part of the company, in my responsibility for the company, transparency beats manipulation, because we write straightforward contracts, or we write code, that’s, that’s documented properly, or we write agreements with our consultants, where we have spelled out what the expectations are on both sides. So people making those their own is very important if that makes sense.

Andy Halko 23:00
I love those beats, and I love the values, I’m such a big fan of getting them right. Like, I’ve met so many companies that do I call them vanity values, they come up with these ideas that are just the, you know, set an impression to the outside world, but they don’t live by them. And they don’t define the people that they are. And it sounds like you’ve made it part of a this is who we want to be and the people that we have around us.

Ann Marie Sastry 23:26
I like what you just said there, which is, you know, sometimes they can be, you know, sort of light, right, in terms, Andy of how they’re practiced. And, and the thing is, is that I don’t think that comes from a bad place. I think a lot of us I mean, most people I know, have at least a few heroes. And so they sort of look at their heroes, and they say, Wow, I love this characteristic, or I love this about this person or this organization, or what have you noticed how it let’s just do that in? And it’s like, because it’s like, well, it’s just a template that looks good over there. And, and it’s real work to say, you know, I’m, I may admire that, but doesn’t apply to me, or doesn’t apply to what I’m trying to build. And sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it does it. I admire a lot of people in the nonprofit world. And I work a lot in the nonprofit world. But Amesite is a for-profit business. So some of the things that I admire about those organizations, and people just don’t fit or don’t apply to our organization, if that makes sense. So making that extra step of not just having the humility to be able to admire other people, but also really thinking deeply. Is this appropriate for what we’re trying to build here?

Andy Halko 24:39
Yeah. You know, one of the things that’s interesting right now is everybody’s talking about it’s hard to find people and good people at that. And I think every company struggles with keeping good people, have there been ways that you’ve, you know, outside of what you’ve talked about now develop the culture to try and attract great folks, and then keep them in the company.

Ann Marie Sastry 25:04
Yeah, I mean, treat them nice. I mean, we start, right. I mean, we have a practice. And by the way, that doesn’t mean, make it easy. I’m not a believer that one of our values is growth beats comfort. And so we try to be very forthright with people when they interview or even before if you’re looking for something, which is like, you know, you’re a point in your life, where you need to know exactly what you’re doing every single day, and you need a J, OB, and your other, you know, the other things going on in your life where you don’t have the bandwidth to have passion for your, for your work, then we’re not a fit. You know, we are like a high-performance sports team, we are trying to crush it every day. And it’s not for everybody, and that’s okay. But we try to be transparent about that. If, if you join, you’ll get you to know, a more than a fair wage, you’ll get great benefits and will promote you before you ask if you’re executing with excellence. And, and I think we promoted everybody on the team who’s been on the Team longer than a few months. That’s a goal. That’s an organizational goal. It’s like I asked my managers it’s like, okay, who on your team is crushing it, this was great. This is a great work product, this is awesome. Who did this? What are we doing for them? And, and the goal should be that everybody is always moving, everybody is always moving ahead professionally being promoted. We also have what we call PDAs, which I did my last company to sell professional development activities. And we put a lot of thought into those and require that not only they advanced the company, obviously, I mean, the PDA has to do something has to have something to do with a company’s execution, but also advances them as a professional. Because at the end of it, we’re made out of people. So are people being skilled? And again, that’s walking the talk, obviously, for what we do as a company. But it is very true if that helps.

Andy Halko 27:03
Yeah, and I would now just kind of turn into the product. You know, we always talk to founders about, you know, how do you? How do you come up with the feature set and the roadmap for a product? Because I think, especially in the early stages, a lot of founders have big ideas and a big vision of where it could go. But there’s a reality of you know, what, how’s the rubber meets the road? You know, so in those early stages, especially, how did you think about, you know, what the product was going to be, and where you focus your time and resources.

Ann Marie Sastry 27:38
So, my, my folks, I, from a product standpoint, we’re on two things in two things only really, in the earliest days. One was on the user experience. And so the design and technology that produced that great user experience, why why is it that people go to an application? Why is it that people stay? What are the combinations of challenge and reward, and communications and engagement that get people to stay? And so I did something semi, which is, you know, looked at a bunch of platforms, and looked at a bunch of platforms that I use, but also signed up and got credentials for all kinds of platforms and, and started to just make lists. I’m not, I don’t tend to write these down, I tend to keep them in my head, but I just make mental lists of, okay, what are the features? And then I started making spreadsheets. Okay, what are the features that I like, but and then if you blank sheet of paper, a clean sheet of paper, we’re going to invite someone to a learning experience, what would it look like? Don’t look into any other platforms? Who cares? There, they’re not working great. Nobody likes them. So. So what would that expect will be the look and feel of that experience? So that was the first bucket of things was user experience design? Plus, second, the second bucket was really about scale. So how do you launch a system where you could teach anything to anybody anyplace on the planet? Anytime? What does that infrastructure look like? What is the most future-friendly infrastructure that delivers with excellence, and ensures security privacy, data safety, etc? And those two things were really at the forefront. And, and I had some ideas and sketches and so forth, and filed a few patents early on and so forth. And, and, you know, then hired a team and the ideas got way better, of course. But one thing we did early on in the company was we banned, anyone looking at any other educational platform. Interesting. Don’t bring it. Because, you know, most people don’t like them. And we’re trying to and we’re trying to compete, not with ed-tech companies, that’s not our competition. If we sincerely want people to stay in a learning experience, we are competing for their attention. So we’re competing with anything else they could be doing online. And so we want this to be the best online experience. So rather than think about, well, you know, so and so has these features, as always, and we make a Franken platform that has everybody’s features, that’s not cutting, we want to win people’s attention. So they’ll do something good for them. That’s what we want to do. And I think that was a good approach, actually,

Andy Halko 30:19
That’s a new one out of all of our founder interviews, the bad looking at, you know, the competitors, or what’s out there. So, I think it’s such a really interesting point. I mean, has that changed at all? Or is it still the mindset that, you know, we’re playing this game for our audience, and, you know, we don’t care what other people are doing, because they’re probably not looking at it the right way.

Ann Marie Sastry 30:42
It changed because, you know, then we had to do the whole thing where we sell things to people for money, and they had other choices. And so we had to get savvy about what the other choices were. But it was more from the perspective of, you know, let’s understand why this product isn’t meeting the need, and what we’re doing to address and let’s always, you know, whenever we learn something that we might be a little bit better at than somebody else, let’s for sure, look at the things that they might have, that we might not, and decide whether we want to integrate them and make sure to do it. And so, you know, to the earlier point about what the things were, that was the important design and, you know, a technology where one bucket infrastructure was in the other bucket, making sure that we built with tools that would allow us to integrate other people’s code and other good ideas were essential. Because we knew that when we sold at an enterprise scale, that they would want our code, they would want our software to work with other things that they had, they would want it to work with other systems, maybe an NH RI S, or maybe a si s, or maybe something else in the company about communications or record keeping. So we built it in a way that allowed us to integrate 1000s of APIs if that if that helps.

Ann Marie I had to shift gears a little bit to talk about marketing and growth of the platform. I’d be curious to hear how given the the way, you’re looking at what you’re developing, and how it’s so different from the competitive, you know, everything else out there in the competitive landscape? How did that influence your marketing and messaging you were taking out?

We had to do a lot of experiments. And, and I think anybody else will tell you the same thing. I mean, I don’t think sales and marketing are any easier than tech or IP or, or, or doing business deals, or any of the other bazillion things you have to do when you start a company. It’s all hard. And, you know, you have to experiment, we had to experiment with messages. One of the things you learn and I think most people have experienced, maybe not, maybe it’s just us, but the kinds of things that you think are important are not always the things that your customer thinks are important. And so you have to turn the desk around, say, Okay, what are your objectives for your organization? What are we doing to help you and talk about the other entity much more than you talk about yourself? Just always make sure the background that the things you’re doing with your product, serve your mission, and you know, underpin what the market needs if that makes sense. So we could talk all day about what we think is important to give people when they come to work experience, or how to keep them engaged, or what makes you know, why our buttons and why our icons and why our layout is as it is. And of course, we obsess about that stuff our customers care about if they’re an enterprise, driving profitability and revenue for their business, and they need skilled people to do that. And they need people to be able to get the skills in a faster way and be able to grow. And so we need to talk about those things to the enterprise. Universities, are trying to grow and are challenged right now, because of COVID, and revenue loss, and so forth. And then it’ll all sort itself out. But they’re looking for ways to serve not only their matriculated students but all of their alumni. And so you know, communicating how you can set up an ecosystem very fast that does that, that’s turnkey, that’s branded to you, and allows you to do that without growing your infrastructure, do it in an asset-light way, is very important. And us being able to tell those stories, in a way is compelling. So we tell them in different ways we have. We have sales assets, we have ebooks, we have blogs, we have landing pages, we have ads, we have organic, we have you know, all kinds of different ways of talking to our target audience, but we do talk to them differently. In a way we’ve talked to a new hire, say on the tech side, if that makes sense.

Tony Zayas 34:43
Yeah. And going back to the point that, you know, sometimes your customers, your users are looking at things differently or they value different features. You know, more than, you know, your perspective. What are some of the ways that Amesite is collecting that user feedback for purposes of both the marketing as well as improving, you know, from a development standpoint? What are some of the touchpoints? And how do you guys manage that user feedback?

Ann Marie Sastry 35:14
We asked them, we asked them in surveys, we asked them in meetings, we set up regular meetings with all of our customers, we set up meetings with our users, we survey them. And we also surveyed our people, we talked to him, You say what was hard about this, what was easy about this, we’re in communication constantly. I view my role as a big part of my role as explaining everybody to everybody else. And to do that, I have to listen. And our leadership has to listen and say, okay, understand what the barriers are either the barriers to executing a particular campaign or, or a sprint, or even a purchase, and then helping people dismantle that are helping, you know, explain the story in a way that both sides can come together. So lots of communication. Communication in itself, in and of itself is not sufficient. You can listen all day long. But if there’s no execution, it was a waste of time. So really seeing yourself, every time you go into a room is explaining a situation a person and entity to another situation, person or entity. Very important. If that helps.

Tony Zayas 36:24
Yeah, that’s good. Yeah, we’re there.

Andy Halko 36:26
I’m always curious, are there were there any things that you felt like four key catalysts for growth? You know, and, and I know, there’s no silver bullet, we talked to a lot of founders, but always looking for that, you know, one thing that, you know, people felt like made a huge shift in scaling the business. Was it messaging, a certain marketing tactic, a specific hire? Was there any one catalyst that you felt was really impactful?

Ann Marie Sastry 36:58
Every hire is a catalyst. So I would say right off the bat, I mean, we tend to hire when we got a situation where we got stuff falling off the desk. And then we have a practice of identifying the first five tasks for new hires. And we try to be thoughtful about that and say, Okay, does this person have the right resources to develop five quick wins quickish, you know, week or two, and to make sure everybody can hit the ground running because we look for type a people who want to be successful want to drive the business for and so it’s incumbent upon us to make a situation where they can do that and be successful. So that’s, that’s one thing, new hires. In terms of external catalysts, oh, yeah, there have been many. We, we did a lot of experiments. We’ve rented a billboard one time we have done radio, we’ve done all kinds of different channels, just to see who was listening and what they were listening into. And, and everybody who’s run a business knows this. Nobody knows what they’re doing. If you started something, you’re probably the only person doing exactly what you’re doing the only entity that’s doing exactly what you’re doing. And there are always going to be lots of data and lots of case studies and lots of experts who say do it this way. But they’re not worth one gram of experience. You have to try things, you have to be willing to fail. And then you have to react quickly. catalysts for us. Understanding how to talk to people talk to our target audience on social media was very important. Understanding the right mix of empathy and challenge, especially during COVID was was very important. Giving people a sense of optimism that yes, education can be better online, while acknowledging Yeah, we know, we know the struggle you’re going through that was that we had several moments like that where we understood based on feedback, you know, how how to communicate that in a way that people could hear us. In terms of customers, we got our first customer early on, and we had to accelerate product development to meet that. So, we launched another on another stack, we were like an overlay on another code stack, even as we were building in the background, a full-stack solution. So we launched on an on a, you know, an overlay to another full-stack solution to test our design ideas and test some of our tech ideas, even as we were, you know, segwaying off of that system and building up what we called our gen two systems, which was full stack so that was pretty lively. But in you know, because it was divided attention. And you know, one of my great answers is to say don’t make the beds in a burning house. Well, we were making beds the whole time because we were delivering on a system that we knew was sunsetting but it was giving it gave us such important insights early on, in delivering for our first customer about Two and a half weeks into the first courses, we found that people weren’t using a critical element of the system the way we anticipated. And we had done, you know, I think, a fair job of focus, grouping it and sort of starting to understand it, but it was just completely unexpected. So we had a meeting. And in, I think, three and a half days, including a weekend, we completely rewrote the first pages, we just completely rewrote them. And that might have been an all-nighter too. And the decision was, you know, we can leave it as it is, and let everybody finish the semester, knowing that this is this element is causing confusion. Or we can do what we think is the stand-up thing, and just bloody well fix it. And so we did that. And we explained ourselves, you know, when we came back up above the waterline with this new solution, we just overnighted it and came back up and explained it. And the product got great reviews. So we weren’t punished for that early mistake. Instead, it was kind of a nonevent. And I think that was good learning for everybody on the team that you just, you know, kind of do the right things make the right decision make that user experience great.

Andy Halko 41:12
I’ve heard that as a common trend on this show with founders is the don’t want to call, you know, some cases vaporware, where there’s, you know, a first product that is just there to test the market. And it’s not fully featured, or it’s built on another stack or behind the scenes, there’s a lot of manual processes. Is that something new that you’ve kind of gone through that if you’re talking to other founders? Do you think that’s a successful way to go about, you know, doing things is, is looking at it from that perspective?

Ann Marie Sastry 41:45
it depends on what you’re doing. I mean, you know, certainly we, we were able to handle a lot of processes manually, they weren’t manual. But the hard part for us in our Gen one was, I would say, making the pieces work together from a technical standpoint. So we were constantly fixing things, we weren’t, you know, sort of the man behind the curtain, but we were trying to integrate the technologies, the overlay lay that work that we had done with the borrowed coast, least licensed close deck. But so that was challenging. I would say the big learning from that was how to do rapid deployment of new code. And it taught everybody the mindset of, okay, eight bugs Friday, four o’clock, gotta be up by Monday. And we do have a policy the company called to rest, which is required external slack time. So we have, I would say, very sane work hours now. But when we have an evening or a weekend, we, that’s a manager’s responsibility to give people time off to compensate for that. So it’s up to them, whether it’s a Tuesday morning, Friday afternoon, whatever it is figure it out. But you can’t sustain that. But having gone through that experience, really helped create a mindset of you do what’s needed, you do what’s needed. So I don’t think anybody’s first product is ever fully ready. I mean, I, I brought examples to the team, when we had bugs, like, you know, look what just happened, and I won’t name the companies. But you know, there are software giants in the world that have had bad rollouts. And so I would bring news articles into a team meeting, right, put it on the big screen and say, okay, you know, this happens to the biggest, most impressive companies in the world, it’s going to happen to us. It’s not a question of whether or not it happens to us. It’s how we behave when it happens to us, and fix it transparently, right?

Andy Halko 43:50
Yeah, no, I totally agree. I mean, that’s the sign I think of a successful team is, you know, how you react to something, especially when it is a challenging situation. And that’s so important.

Ann Marie Sastry 44:06
And you get better as a result, do you improve your processes? Do you get better? I mean, are you gonna Are you gonna remake mistakes are only like I said, I like to say only fresh mistakes. Oh, only fresh mistakes, right? So learn from them and get better, right?

Andy Halko 44:20
Yeah, I agree. Um, how is your, you know, thinking about your product change now versus in the beginning? You know, what do you what are you really thinking about where it’s going to go and how you make those decisions about the future of the product?

Ann Marie Sastry 44:41
It’s based on need. I mean, you know, when you get out there in the marketplace, at first, you have an idea of what you think people ought to want. And then there’s what they want. You have an idea of what you think people are going to do, and then there’s what they do. So more and more, you realize on market signals, rather than then you know your imagination. From an r&d standpoint, you’re always imagining things that your customer cannot imagine because they don’t spend nearly the time thinking about that one little part of their lives that you do. So. But as you go along, you have different people in those functions you have, you know, where’s the founding team, the early founders are kind of doing everything, you know, kind of listening to the marketplace, listening to the customer, imagining things executing new things, then you find that people are getting differentiated in their roles, which is good and healthy. And, you know, some people will play all octaves of the piano, but more people have more of a focus on what part of it that they do. And that’s fun. Because we get together and exchange ideas, there’s a lot of understanding.

Andy Halko 45:51
So just talking about the future a little more, what is in the future for your product and company, like what do you see happening over the next, you know, 12 to 18 months of, of growth and approach to the market and problems that you’re going to be solving?

Ann Marie Sastry 46:09
Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, the kinds of problems we’re solving now we’re solving problems for universities, who are trying to build, build ecosystems that they can gain revenue from alumni markets, and we set up ecosystems that are turnkey. So those are very needed. And we have a lot of good market signals. We have a healthy pipeline there. We’ve even moved into delivering summer camps for universities so that they can engage with high school kids, and they have a lot of reasons for doing that. One is to try to build enrollments for their undergraduate population, but also to serve the children of their alumni and communities, and so forth. And it helps them make a case for funding as well because they are a public good. And they go to their assemblies and legislatures every year and talk about what they’re doing for the population. And this is a big value because they value society when they can do that. Amesite makes it easy for them to do it. They don’t have to hire anybody, we create the content, we’ll even hire teachers for them. And it’s branded to them. So they can deliver something just by making a decision. And in working with a trusted, trusted partner. For businesses, increasingly, businesses are going to greater degrees of flexibility and work which I’m a big fan of, you know, I’m a mom, I have two kids. I mean, my husband and I have two kids. And we, you know, we’re professors, both of us when the kids were little and the flexibilities amazing. It’s these are hard jobs, but they eat you have flexibility. And I’m a big fan of giving people flexibility and autonomy as much as possible. The data are very strong and supportive, that people are more efficient with remote work. And so that the traditional mindset had been well, I got to see Jones and Smith in the office, make sure they’re doing their job, but actually, it’s better for the organization, if people are empowered and have more flexibility, that is a result is leading to some functions that used to be on the ground be completely online and learning is one of them. So when you think about sort of the top 10 or 20 reasons that someone would go physically into an office training isn’t one of them, it just isn’t I mean, people go into an office and expect to engage with their colleagues and do joint work. Training increasingly is going to become remote, and we think it’s going to be 100% remote. So for businesses, we set up these flexible ecosystems where they can train any number of people, millions of people if they want to, because of our scalable system very fast without hiring people. Learning and Development, people love us because we make it easier for them to focus on the strategy rather than on the details. They come that load content will be low content on our systems, they deliver IT people retain, they liked the experience, and they get a dashboard. And what people’s skills are in the company so they can deploy the right teams to do the right things. We love it. And I love it because it keeps people employed. It keeps giving people access to the economy, it builds people’s professional portfolio so they can provide for themselves and their families. So I love this. I mean, I love it when companies commit, it’s good for them, it’s good for their employees and an Amesite can be a real enabler there. And of course, we’re a SaaS company. So the markets are enormous. The learning markets are over a quarter billion dollars, the enterprise markets for learning are over a quarter billion dollars. So these are huge, enormous markets in the aggregate globally well over a trillion so there’s lots and lots of room for us to find customers and we built a healthy pipeline. We have awesome sales and marketing, awesome sales and marketing teams who can get that message out. So and every time we close we help people so it’s a pretty win-win situation.

Andy Halko 49:52
That’s fantastic. I’d wanted to ask you. You mentioned COVID And we just talked about remote work a little bit I’m curious how the COVID situation impacted your company. But I like to look at it more from a situation of not COVID specifically, but, you know, how do leaders manage through and handle external influences that are major on there, you know, in their companies, because I think every founder, you know, in your career, something that’s going to come in from the outside that is out of your control, it’s gonna, you know, shift your world. So can you talk about either COVID or your thoughts around the idea of how you manage through internal or external impacts?

Ann Marie Sastry 50:44
I think the first thing is to gain understanding, and that’s it’s incumbent upon you to gain that understanding. It’s, you know, no one’s gonna hold your hand as a CEO and say, well, here’s what looks like is the megatrend. Because the news is fear the blogosphere, the internet is a soup of disagreements, there are normal human beings rise made out of human beings. So there’s not going to be some magically lit path, to wander, this is why things are gone, you have to read a lot, you have to listen a lot, and you have to make some judgment calls. And in your little part of the world, you have to take all of that information and sort of distill it down to what does this mean for my team? What does this mean for my team? What does this mean for the way we operate? What does this mean for what we’re doing? Well, that’s first. And second, what does it mean for our customers, because you can’t even really think about the customers if you have a nonfunctioning team. You have to work with people to do anything for anybody else. So

Andy Halko 51:46
Air mask over your face first before the kids

Ann Marie Sastry 51:49
Well, I’m sorry to say I would have done that on a plane every day of the week. And despite instructions, and then the reality is, you have to take care of your team first because the team is the company in terms of how you lead through change. You know, you have to walk the talk, oh, I’m not, I’m not big, you know, public statement on issues of the day kind of a person, my background is the stem, I’m an engineer. And so I tend to be pretty fact-based, I tend to be you know, you know, tend to look at things kind of mathematically and tend to try to find whatever is the ground truth that as best I can understand and communicate that, but then really communicate it, then really explain it, it’s not enough to say hey, this is the vision, there’s got to be a Y, there’s got to be this is why this is this is what’s in it for you. This is what’s in it for our customers. This was what for colleagues, this is why we do this. And I learned for the years I was a professor many years, that people need to hear things about three times or so before it sinks in. And there’s behavioral science on this as well. But it grew. So the first time is mostly just to get their interest and attention because there are lots of other things people could be doing with that frontal cortex, so but you have to be willing to repeat things and change the message, alter the message, position the message so that it’s understandable, and it resonates with people. And that’s about it, you have to make some tough decisions, and some tough calls. But if you’re communicating the whole way through, you’ll bring people along for the ride is my experience. MSI has already run one six Workplace Excellence Awards, which I’m super proud of. And on behalf of the team, it’s not me, it’s a team. And two of them national. My last company one eight. And so, you know, having had that speak for itself, I think is important. And knowing that you’re not going to make everybody happy. You know, I think we try to be transparent about what we are and what we’re not. We’re not an easy job. We’re not a JOB where you come to the office with a stack like this, and at the end of the day, you have a stack like this. And you know, that’s not us. And that’s okay, the world needs those jobs, for sure. It’s just not our job right now. Maybe someday in the future, we’ll have some jobs like that. I don’t know. But we don’t have any jobs like that now. Yeah. And, and so being clear about what the values are, and hiring is also very important.

Tony Zayas 54:24
That’s great.

Andy Halko 54:25
So before I kind of ask a closing, final question, a bit curious, you know, can you tell our audience a little bit about how they can reach you and where they should go to, to learn more about Amesite?

Ann Marie Sastry 54:39
Absolutely. Just reach us at [email protected] And we’re always happy to get information and insights from the people we serve and from our shareholders, so please, please reach out anytime.

Andy Halko 54:54
That’s great. So, you know, I’ve asked the same question of every founder that we’ve interviewed by If you were able to go into the past before you started the business and have coffee with yourself, what advice would you give?

Ann Marie Sastry 55:10
None? Because I don’t? Well, that’s a really interesting question. None, because I don’t, I don’t really believe I figured everything out. And my younger self made the decisions that that led me to the life I have now. Where I think that I’m very lucky. And, you know, personally and professionally, so I would, I would give no advice. Just none.

Andy Halko 55:39
That is the first time we’ve had that answer. And I, 100%. Respect it. So that’s fantastic.

Ann Marie Sastry 55:45
Sorry, I don’t mean to dodge your question. I just never got that question before.

Andy Halko 55:49
No, I think that’s great.

Ann Marie Sastry 55:54
I wouldn’t do anything to disrupt the timeline.

Andy Halko 55:57
You definitely aren’t thinking about it very logically. That’s great. Well, all I can say, you know, Tony decided that he did want to be part of the conversation today. So it’s me, it’s okay. Yeah, I’m sure he’s having connection issues. But I really appreciate you taking the time. And your story’s really cool, fantastic. There were so many things that I took out of it. I love your values and the beats that you have, and just some of the mindset. So I think this was immensely valuable.

Ann Marie Sastry 56:32
Well, thank you for asking for challenging me with some questions I hadn’t heard before. So thanks for that and thanks for the audience for coming. I appreciate it.

Andy Halko 56:41
Awesome. Well, thank you very much again, and I appreciate everybody joining us. Join us again next week. We’ll have some more founders and we’ll talk soon.

Ann Marie Sastry 56:49
Thanks so much Andy. Alright, see you bye.

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