Paul: Welcome to another episode of The App Guy Podcast. I am your host, it's Paul Kemp. This is the show where we go and deconstruct the journeys of very successful app entrepreneurs, anyone who is building apps, promoting apps, or getting apps into the App Store; we learn from them so we cannot make their mistakes, but we can learn from their successes, and it's helped thousands of people in their app journeys. So if this is you listening to the show for the first time, do go back and listen to my archives. I've got 300 episodes and different versions of the archives in the podcasting apps. But let me get to today's episode. Today's episode is with the founder of an app called Scheduit, Dr Abdalla Kablan. Abdalla, welcome to The App Guy Podcast.
Abdalla: Hi, Paul. It's a great pleasure to be talking to you.
Paul: It's a great pleasure to have you on. So let's talk about Scheduit, what problem are you trying to solve?
Abdalla: With Scheduit we are trying to help people to maximize the potential of their available time by linking them with like-minded professionals, to help them grow their business network. So it's a business networking and compatibility app that helps professionals to connect with the right business contacts in the vicinity.
Paul: How did you get the idea for this?
Abdalla: The eureka moment came during actually one of my trips because of my line of work. I do a lot of consultancy, mainly in the areas of machine learning, artificial intelligence and computational finance, so I travel a lot. Once I was on one of my business trips. The way the bookings happen, I could only fly on Monday, had only one meeting on Tuesday and then I could only fly back on Wednesday. I had the meeting in the morning on Tuesday; after the meeting, I literally had nothing to do but to sit in my hotel room and do some coding, or watch some of the news, and then it hit me. I said, what if there was a platform where I could find like-minded business professionals in my vicinity to be able to network with them, discuss with them different ideas, and you never know what business opportunities may arise with that. So instead of having flown just for that one meeting, I would have had two, three or four other meetings, and the business opportunity may have come from a meeting that was not planned. So it all started with the premise that a meeting can transform one's life. A person can meet a future co-founder, an investor, a collaborator, a huge client. Business networking is usually the best way to find all of these. However, the most significant networking opportunities lie with those doors that are usually still closed. They lie with the relevant contacts that we have not met with yet. The problem with business networking is it's very time-consuming, and it's often left to chance, so Scheduit was born from the fact that this is a major problem in networking, which is time and relevance, and we try to solve that by introducing machine-learning and artificial intelligence in a very unique way, to facilitate that process.
Paul: This is wonderful, and, in fact I have to ask you: is there a meeting in particular that has changed your life?
Abdalla: Definitely, I've had many meetings that changed my life. I met with clients sometimes through random coincidences, sometimes I would be in a business meeting that nothing comes out of, but someone suddenly says "You know who you should meet? You should meet so-and-so." They are going to make one phone call, I meet with someone, and then a good opportunity comes. I found my company's investors through that type of meeting. So I truly believe that meetings do change lives. The most important thing and the reason why we're calling Scheduit a reverse social network and not a social network, is that in traditional social networks such as Facebook or LinkedIn you usually add people that you already know, or you already met with, or you have already interacted with or met at a conference and you exchanged cards, in the case of LinkedIn. These social networks were not designed to meet people that you didn't even know about. Scheduit is the reverse - it links you with compatible and relevant business matches in your vicinity, that are ready and willing to meet with you, and you didn't even know that they existed. Usually, the most powerful contacts are within your second or third degree of separation. Those people that you already know, you've already exhausted that relationship, so there isn't much usually you can get out of, but it's in these new contacts that you have most of the potential.
Paul: Actually, I was thinking, with 419 episodes, not one of these founders did I know before the podcast, and yet these have become very good friends of mine, so I love the idea of reverse social networking. Let's talk about machine learning. How are you tackling that? What does machine learning mean to you?
Abdalla: Machine learning is a subset of artificial intelligence. I mean, artificial intelligence is an area in computing where we're trying to design machines that mimic human intelligent behavior. But then the question that comes is "What do we mean by intelligence, and what do we mean by conscious behavior in the first place?" Jean Piaget, in the early 20th century, defined intelligent as what you use when you don't know what to do, when neither innateness nor learning has prepared you for a particular situation. So in simpler terms, intelligence can be defined as 'doing the right thing, at the right time, in a flexible manner that helps you survive proactively and prove productivity in various facets in life.' Machine learning is utilizing artificial intelligence to actually learn from all that data that we are getting, and to produce a valuable output by recognizing patterns and understanding them, understanding the behavioral side of the data and being able to extract valuable insight from that data and output them in a manner that is easy to comprehend and easy to understand by humans. There are many types of intelligence: intellectual intelligence, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, but as humans we generally experience all of these as a whole. However, when it comes to machine learning and artificial intelligence, we actually have to design these different types of intelligence separately. I mean, a system that is very good at playing chess is not necessarily a system that can understand social interactions between people; it's two different types of machine intelligence or machine learning. In the case of Scheduit, we are trying to use different machine learning architectures and methodologies to actually look at the digital footprint that people are leaving behind them on their public interactions, in their different social media profiles. At the moment, we are focusing on LinkedIn because it's a professional network, but we are planning to expand into other networks. We try to learn from all that data that we are gathering. Things such as your public posts reflect a lot about what you are thinking. People that you add to your professional social networks reflect a lot about who you are: "Tell me who are your friends and I'll tell you who you are." So if you're most likely to interact with people from media and tech, then you're less likely to get along well with people from agriculture. For example, your seniority level, your employment history, all that information says a lot about you, and that's what the system needs to intelligently learn, but also provide an intelligent output, and in the case of Scheduit it's how compatible are you with that person, and how relevant is that person to you now. However, learning doesn't stop there.
Paul: Can I just pick up actually on the artificial intelligence? It's a very hot topic at the moment, because we're talking around about the time when in the UK Microsoft just bought out SwiftKey, which claim that it's artificial intelligently learning your typing and the words that you use. And also, I'm not going to mention the name, but I have been using something that would sort of give you the profiles of the network, or people in your network, and tell you how to approach those people: do they like emojis, or do they like to be professional? I was going to ask you, how important is the artificial intelligence part of Scheduit to your goals?
Abdalla: It's extremely important. They key predicament with artificial intelligence since its early stage is that scholars have always attempted to begin with problems that are hard for us humans to solve, and that require a lot of logical thinking, as I said. For example with playing chess, the assumption was always premised on the fact that problems we need to think hard about are easier to solve. We are just now realizing that it's not these problems that are difficult, because a machine has beat Garry Kasparov's chess from 1997. That did not mean that AI actually took over the world almost 20 years ago. We're realizing that it's these other problems of relevance that AI needs to solve. Like you said, how to approach someone before sending them an e-mail. In the case of Scheduit, how are you compatible with that person, and how can we understand from your preferences, in the sense that, for example, if you announce your presence on Scheduit, you got three people that requested to meet you, Scheduit has already, through its AI algorithm, told you the compatibility rates between you and every other person. So if one is a perfect match, the other one is a medium match and the other one is a mediocre match, but you as a human, you still chose to meet with the person that Scheduit thinks is a medium match - that's when machine learning kicks in and starts understanding that this is the type of profiles that you are interested in. So it will recalibrate its internal metrics to actually start giving higher preferences to that type of person. In a way, it's like hiring a personal assistant. In the first week or two, he or she may not know much about your character and your preferences and what you're interested in. The more they work for you, the more they know how to organize your schedules and how to get you to meet with them. This is exactly what we are trying to use AI and machine learning for - to add relevance to the problem of efficient business networking.
Paul: I'm getting it, I think it's a genius idea, I have to say. So let me just summarize what I've learned from you: the problem - and I experienced this, and I'm sure many people listening experienced this - is that you sometimes meet with people who are not able to add value to your business or to whatever you're trying to achieve. It's almost like a waste of time, so you have to try to wade through all the wasted cause, the wasted coffees to get to that one important meeting where you can really see massive value in what you're both doing, loads of synergies. That's what I actually try to do with the introductions I make, but you're doing this with artificial intelligence and with an app. Do you have any examples of anyone who's met within Scheduit?
Abdalla: I'll tell you what - Scheduit is becoming extremely popular at conferences, and with conference organizers, because they're realizing that there is a confined scenario of many people in a small space, that are all interested in networking. But the problem with networking during conferences usually is that people either network with those people that they already know - and this is very counter-intuitive. It's not networking, because they're not meeting anyone new. Or we have a lot of people who are introverts, and they find it difficult to say hello to someone they don't know, so they'll be in the corner, just drinking coffee and hoping that someone will come and say hello. But everyone is a warrior behind the screen, so if on the screen you can see everyone in your vicinity, your compatibility rate with them, then all you have to do is just to request a meeting. Then it becomes a completely different proposition, because only if they accept that meeting request, that's when the conversation begins. And to give you an example, I was a keynote speaker at a conference, Digital DNA, in Belfast, a couple of months ago. My speech was in the afternoon, so in the morning I was sitting and listening to some speeches, and I just look at the guy sitting next to me. By the way, Scheduit was the official networking app for that particular conference. So I look at the guy sitting next to me, and he was on his phone on Scheduit, messaging someone, so I decided to just nudge him and say, "Hey, how are you finding this app?" He said, "Oh my god, mate, I've been trying to track down this guy for the past three months, and I just found him here. We are just agreeing to have lunch together." Then he looked at me, and because my photo was on the conference program as a speaker, he was like "Wait a second, you are the guy who created this thing." And I said, "Yes, I'm just trying to get live user feedback." Anyway, after the conference, he wrote a very lovely blog post saying that he met three people during the conference, that are some fantastic matches, and he is actually following up already with them, and it all happened through Scheduit. That was a fantastic confidence boost, because we were just testing out the idea, and we had live user feedback. Since then, whenever we use Scheduit during conferences, we had overwhelming response from users, from conference organizers. They said that it has increased engagement during conference, hence we're adding new functionalities now to our app, that are geared towards conference organizers and conferences, such as taking notes, such as exchanging messages, such as posting your notes about the speeches, looking at the conference program, being able to look more information up about people that are at the conference or that are speakers. Also, for the conference organizers, the proposition has become fantastic, because whenever they used custom-made conference apps, number one - there was no compatibility matching in these conference apps; number two - the custom conference app usually dies the day the conference finished. Scheduit was not designed for conferences, which means that people that use Scheduit during the conference will still use it after the conference, because the purpose is to network. So for the conference organizer, if they had a thousand attendants attending this year, next year when they are organizing the conference again not only will they have a list of their thousand attendants from the previous years, but we will have a list of everyone else they have met with throughout the year, which is a very relevant audience to their conference by definition, because they're compatible with people that have attended that conference in the previous year. So the reach of the conference organizer goes up exponentially. If every person only meets with five people on Scheduit throughout the year, then instead of inviting a thousand, they're inviting five thousand people. So the proposition has exploded since. As I said, we are getting fantastic feedback from people who are trying to network on Scheduit, or people who are using it during conferences.
Paul: There are two things that came to my mind. One is that I'll have to remember in our post-chat to introduce you to a founder who actually has been on this show, that does a lot of conference-based apps, and has a template for conference apps. The other thing that comes to mind is that your example of when you actually meet someone using your app in the wild is one of the founder's best moments, and I've had several founders now that have told me that when they someone in the wild using their app it's just fantastic.
Abdalla: Yes, absolutely.
Paul: There's two more things we need to do before we say goodbye to you then, Abdalla. One is that we do love to try to understand your journey as an app entrepreneur. Are you able to perhaps take all your experiences - it's going to be very challenging, but can you think of one thing that a founder or a startup founder, or an entrepreneur should be doing with their app business to help them with their success? One thing they should be doing to help the startup get noticed.
Abdalla: I think what should be done is to always be dynamic and willing to revise your idea and willing to revise your model, depending on demand. The biggest challenge and the biggest problem is when someone keeps on trying to go down a path that has proven time and time again that it's not the easiest or the most straightforward path to take. One has to adapt to the different challenges and different terrains that they have to work through. In simple terms, not to be too stubborn about the idea and to be willing to accept external feedback, and whenever you walk into your office and speak with your team, the ego has to be left outside of the door, because everyone's opinion is as valuable as the founder's opinion, and the founder should be the one with the biggest ears and listen to as much feedback as possible. The biggest problem with founders is when they think that their idea is the best idea out there, and are not willing to... I'm not saying change, or discard the idea, but optimize it and to adapt it according to the feedback that they're getting. At the same time, one should also be persistent, never give up on the dream, never give up on their ability and their ideas, but be dynamic and be willing to change depending on the changes in the market, as well.
Paul: That is fantastic. Okay, so one other thing is that in your journey with Scheduit, has there been a moment where you've had like a breakout success, and you can then tell us what the result was? Maybe it's like a spike in downloads, or some kind of growth hack strategy that you followed that's been really good for you. Are you are able to give us any tips?
Abdalla: Definitely. As I said, initially we've developed Scheduit as a proof of concept. We focused mainly on the development of the app, and one of the biggest mistakes I've made is that I didn't focus on marketing from the first instances. It wasn't until suddenly we found ourselves on Yahoo! Finance and on Bloomberg, and on some big news or media outlets, and suddenly we had that huge spike in numbers of people.
Paul: Could you talk about the Bloomberg? I've been on Bloomberg before, with a project. Do you remember what that was in terms of the number of downloads?
Abdalla: It was at the time when LinkedIn, on the 12th May 2015 decided to restrict their API to third party providers, and we were using the LinkedIn API. Most of the companies out there that were making use of that API were complaining and didn't know what to do, but I personally looked at it as a blessing in disguise, because the first decision that I made was to go to my team, tell them "Guys, we have a big problem, but that big problem can become a blessing if we act quickly." So we decided to redesign our entire sign-up process. We managed to make a very nice, quick and dynamic sign-up process that doesn't take more than 60 seconds, and in that sign-up process we actually capture most of the information that we needed from the LinkedIn API anyway. So I just went out there and I blogged about it and said that this LinkedIn API restriction for us turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because now we are getting all the data that we're needing, without having to rely fully on LinkedIn's full API. That's when the external media outlets picked up on it, saying these are the first companies that have reacted to restrictions of the API, and we had a spike in the number of downloads. That's when the conference idea kicked in, because we got a lot of conference organizers asking us to use Scheduit during their conferences. That's when I realized we need to focus on our marketing, so I hired a brilliant community and PR manager, Jeffrey, and since then we have been doing proper outreach to our community, or managing the community more efficiently. Also, we have, in order to integrate a growth-hacking with our strategy, marketing has become a part of the development life cycle, so the marketing team and the developers are in continuous discussions with each other. We have implemented Agile, meaning that we do a daily scrum that happens between marketing and the developers. We do sprint, and in that sprint we have backlogged, we have predefined the tasks that have to be done, both from our marketing perspective and from a development perspective, and we have started integrating other social media sharing functionalities, such as when you announce your presence on Scheduit, it also goes to your Twitter and to your LinkedIn in order to actually get people on those other social networks that are not on Scheduit yet to see that type of announcement on their preferred social network, and then after clicking on the links, they will become Scheduit users if they sign up. So the entire model was revisited since then, and we've been having a massive success. Another massive success was during the Web Summit in November 2015, where we were featured as one of the most promising startups in 2015. We were shortlisted for the Pitch competition, where only a hundred startups from all over the world were shortlisted. We had some media outlets short listing us as one of the top 10 startups during the Web Summit 2015. So it's been fantastic, and the outlook for 2016 looks even better with our implementation of our event functionalities and continuing our growth-hacking strategies and investing more on the marketing and the community side. I genuinely believe that the real value or the true value of Scheduit is in the community, and we have to do our best in order to increase and grow that community as fast as possible.
Paul: Yeah, and just a quick shout out to Jeffrey Romano, who I think introduced us, so he's a great networker.
Abdalla: Yes, yes. Hi, Jeffrey.
Abdalla: That's why we brought him on board, he's a natural networker.
Paul: Yes, it's wonderful. So what I was learning from you whilst you were going through the successes, and what others could be doing as well is when there's some controversial piece of news about one of the big sites, you took a positive angle on it, rather than a negative, and you went against the stream, in a way, with your advice, and that's why the news sources picked up on it. Anyone could be doing that, as well - taking something that's naturally going to cause outrage and putting a positive spin on it, and talking through the positives. I think that could actually help get publicity and PR.
Abdalla: If we learned one thing from Monty Python, always look at the bright side of things.
Paul: Yes, well let's leave it there, on the high, with Monty Python. For everyone listening, you can get the show notes, it's episode 419. Just go to theappguy.co and search for Abdalla Kablan. Abdalla, how best can people reach out and connect with you? What's the best way of getting in touch?
Abdalla: On Twitter, my handle is @drkablan, that's the easiest way to get in touch with me, or via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul: Wonderful. Well, thanks very much for coming on our show, and all the best with the growth of Scheduit.
Abdalla: Thank you so much, Paul. It's been a great pleasure to speak to you. Thank you.