Anant Kale founded AppZen in 2012 to bring AI to global finance teams, and is responsible for the company’s vision and business execution.
Previously, he served as Vice President of Applications at Fujitsu America, where he had broad responsibility for the management and delivery of the company’s global enterprise applications and infrastructure.
He has more than 20 years of experience in software development and engineering leadership. Anant earned a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Engineering and an MBA from Mumbai University.
He loves music and hopes to learn to DJ sometime in the future.
Intro: [00:00:04] Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s time for Learning Insights. Brought to you by TrainingPros. When you have more projects than people, TrainingPros can provide you with the right L&D consultant to start your project with confidence. Now, here’s your host.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:26] Lee Kantor here. Another episode of Learning Insights. And this show is brought to you by our good friends at TrainingPros. Today, on Learning Insights, we have Anant Kale with AppZen. Welcome.
Anant Kale: [00:00:36] Thanks, Lee. Thanks for having me.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:37] Well, before we get too far into things, tell us about AppZen. How are you serving folks?
Anant Kale: [00:00:43] Yeah. So, what AppZen does is, it provides an AI platform for finance. We have companies save money by using artificial intelligence to reduce their spend, increase employee efficiency, and improve their compliance, both compliance for company policies as well as any regulatory requirements.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:03] Now, if there was no AppZen, how would they be doing this kind of stuff?
Anant Kale: [00:01:09] Yes. So, what AppZen really does is we focus on AI as an spend. So, if you think about any kind of invoices or expensive boards that employ somebody, you typically hold that everything in those expenses are right. But the reality is that’s not the case. There could be duplicates in there. There could be spend that employees are having on things that you don’t want the company spend to be done, which they could be buying things off Amazon, they’re buying lots of alcohol, whatever the case might be. And companies rely on managers and finance teams to find those sort of expenses hiding in those expense reports. So, what AppZen does is, we use our technology, our artificial intelligence, to scan through the receipts, to read the receipts automatically, and find out if there is any problematic spend, if there is any fraud, or if there’s any misuse on, in some cases, just mistakes that are happening.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:05] Right. Because, nowadays, I would imagine with credit cards, you know, do you remember did I use my real American Express or did I use my company’s? Like, they look the same. You could do it accidentally and this would catch that?
Anant Kale: [00:02:19] Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, that’s one of the biggest pain points that we find where employees don’t realize that they have actually paid off their company card. And then, they find this loose receipt hanging out and they say, “Oh, maybe I missed it.” So, they put that in again. And the company ends up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars across all employees. And that’s an honest mistake on the part of the employee, but it does cost company’s monies. And it’s hard to find when you’re manually reviewing all these expenses. But with our technology, with artificial intelligence, this can get caught within seconds without any human involvement.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:56] Now, does this lay on top of their existing platform they’re using to submit their expenses?
Anant Kale: [00:03:03] Yes. So, it actually works with whatever you have. So, AppZen really has more than 1,800 customers, including companies like Amazon, Salesforce, Novartis, Boeing. They all rely on AppZen to audit through their expenses. And the cool thing is they don’t have to change anything that they are doing today. Their current expense systems, it could be an SAP or Concur or Oracle or anything that they use, any home-made system too. They can keep it as it is. AppZen just works behind the scenes. It connects with their expense system. Our technology then reads in real time within minutes, it can find out any kind of issues, any kind of mistakes or fraud that might be hiding in there.
Lee Kantor: [00:03:46] Now, because of COVID and the pandemic, are there different types of expenses that kind of your software had to relearn? Like, “Oh, this now could be a problem area,” where it previously wasn’t a problem area because so many people are working from home?
Anant Kale: [00:04:03] Well, absolutely. Before COVID hit us, a large part or the majority part of your expenses were related to travel and hotel stays. And we used to find a bunch of issues around that. Everything from employees upgrading to business class, or watching in-room movies in the hotels, or buying lots and lots of bottles of, say, alcohol in their dinners. But what has happened post-COVID is that the travel has virtually come to a standstill. And employees are now working from home, like you said. But this has created newer kind of problems, different problems that the technology had to learn. Things related to – starting with things like employees buying cleaning supplies, buying N95 masks to keep them safe, their workplace safe.
Anant Kale: [00:04:49] And then, as people started working from home, things needed to work from home expenses. And it could mean a whole lot of things. It could mean buying computer monitors. It could be buying a new desk or a chair that you think makes your work efficient or buying even simple things like cables. We had to come up with – or, rather, the technology had to learn a whole bunch of stuff which it had not seen before where there were no rules written before. And like the CFOs and the finance teams that here are the kind of spends that are happening. And in some cases, the abuses that were happening in that work from home expenses.
Lee Kantor: [00:05:30] And I guess this is another example of the benefit of AppZen, because you were doing that for all of your clients across all industries. Whereas, if each company had to figure this out individually, it would take a lot of time.
Anant Kale: [00:05:44] Well, absolutely. That’s the power of artificial intelligence. This is the technology which gets its edge because of the data that it can see. And our data platform is able to see billions of dollars of spend across all these companies, across different countries. So, the kind of different violations or fraud or misuse that it can see and the spends that it can see is impossible to replicate manually or even internally. So, when it saw things like N95 masks, our technology was able to bring that up, saying that, “Hey, this is not a spend that I’ve seen earlier. This is a new kind of item that companies are buying or employees are buying. Are you sure that this is allowed?” Or when it started seeing companies buying things or employees buying things like a $900, maybe, chair for their work from home, it automatically brings those things up because it knows that this is not normal. This is not what we have seen earlier.
Anant Kale: [00:06:46] So, it is important that the companies understand where this money is going. And when it sees that the companies are okay with it, then it realizes that this is okay. This is okay to be reimbursed and will not bring those kind of things up. But technology is able to do that at a much faster scale and bring those anomalies out in things which is impossible for humans to do.
Lee Kantor: [00:07:13] Now, when you’re selling this into a company, who is the target within that company? Is it, like, the chief finance officer or chief information officer?
Anant Kale: [00:07:21] Yes. It is normally the folks in the finance teams belonging to the CFO office. Somebody who looks at all of the spend, accounts payable spend, traveling expense spend, those are the people who are really, really motivated by ensuring that we are spending the least amount of human capital in monitoring those spend. Second is, we are reducing our spend, especially in times like these where every company is pressured under a cost management. How do we take off a few points on all of our spend, because that’s something which you can do. And then, finally, compliance. How do we ensure that employees are behaving the right way and there’s no workplace kind of spend abuse that is going on?
Lee Kantor: [00:08:04] Now, when you’re selling this into a company and you’re explaining the benefits and how this is going to be now monitored by artificial intelligence, is there any kind of training you have to do for those folks in order to implement it to their employees? Because it seems kind of I could see it as Big Brother is looking over my shoulder now. It’s not Bob. It’s a computer that’s kind of doing this. Is there any change management you have to kind of work through to help them explain it to their folks?
Anant Kale: [00:08:36] Yeah. The change management really is very transparent because all the things that are happening are happening behind the scenes. Employers really don’t know that instead of a person, it’s a technology that is finding all these different violations. Now, the cool part is that we want to bring the human element. And we are actually helping out the finance folks in doing their job better. So, when the technology finds that there is a problem, it brings in the finance person in so that they can help understand what is the culture that we want to bring in, what is the policy that we have, what is the business that we are in. And then, relate back to the employee. So, the change management is pretty minimal because this is working pretty transparently behind the scenes. What you do see, what employees do see, there is, probably, a very efficient finance team that I have, which is finding all these things which we were not doing before.
Lee Kantor: [00:09:33] And it’s probably making their lives easier because they don’t have to kind of parse through all of this stuff. They’re just getting kind of pinged whenever some thing is like a red flag.
Anant Kale: [00:09:42] Absolutely. I mean, in fact, the biggest benefit or one of the big benefits that we have seen is not just in finance teams, but also in employees. Because what happens is, the employees spend on their credit cards and then they have to follow their managers. He’s approved my expense and then follow up with the finance teams before they get reimbursed. And it could take three or four weeks or even months to get paid.
Anant Kale: [00:10:05] But with AI, artificial intelligence, doing all the job, our customers have been able to reimburse their employees within 24 hours. Because you’re not waiting on a manager to make that decision. You’re not waiting on a finance person to make that decision. And very confidently, you can say that for the employees who are doing the right things, who are spending money appropriately based on the company’s policy, we can reimburse you very, very quickly and not delay those payments.
Anant Kale: [00:10:35] So, things like these where you can increase employee satisfaction dramatically were just not possible earlier. Now, with AI, with artificial intelligence, you’re able to maintain the same kind of controls, even make them better than what you had before, and delight the employees by paying them so much faster.
Lee Kantor: [00:10:53] Now, what was the genesis of this idea? How did this come about?
Anant Kale: [00:10:58] Yes. So, I founded the company, about, seven years ago. Data science and artificial intelligence was fairly new in terms of what it could do. And what we saw was, in every company, you relied on a series of workflows where people were making decisions. And we thought that the reason why people are making those decisions, it could be finance teams or it could be any kind of sales guys, is because you required people to look through documents, read through documents, and use their experience and judgment and expertise in that domain to make a decision. And this was not possible to automate that with with applications earlier.
Anant Kale: [00:11:40] But with AI, we saw the possibility that we could use things like computer vision, national language processing, which allows things which you normally see associated with consumer apps, things like Facebook where it recognizes pictures, or Siri or Alexa where it understands language. We thought that we could use these technologies to equip machines with taking those decisions better and faster and cheaper. And that was the genesis around using our own hypotheses around building this company that we can build those applications. Which, today, rely on human decision making and altered them to a very large extent so that people are just getting involved when there’s a real need or the real exception with the machine has flagged for you. So, that’s what we are after. We are building a set of applications that automate the human decision-making process, essentially, where finance is involved.
Lee Kantor: [00:12:40] Now, how did you go about building your team?
Anant Kale: [00:12:44] Yes. So, the key thing is that you got to get people who are equally passionate about the mission that you are on. So, early stages, it was working with friends, colleagues. My co-founder is somebody I knew for a long time, is a friend. And we all shared the same passion. So, that was the initial team. And then, people whom I could trust that they were great in their specific professions. It could be in product development and engineering or in marketing. Talking to those folks, talking to them about the mission, and see they’re equally passionate about it, and they are here for the long journey. And once you kind of see that we shared the same set of goals and values, then you know you have the right people in your team.
Lee Kantor: [00:13:36] Now, as the team grows and you go beyond, you know, people you know personally and and you have a team of people that all believe in the mission, how do you kind of create and maintain that culture and, especially, maintain that culture when there is something – a crisis comes into play like COVID has?
Anant Kale: [00:13:58] Yeah. I think that’s a great question. And we kind of [inaudible] about it a couple of years ago when we were growing at such a rapid pace. Today, we are close to about 300 employees. And we started off saying that we need to have a core set of values on how do we figure out who’s the right team member at AppZen. So, we actually have what we call as iZen, which is our set of core values. And we have five things in it.
Anant Kale: [00:14:25] We obsess about our customers. That means we put customers first. We walk in their shoes. And we focus on value and we are relentless about it. Then, we earn trust. We want to be consistent. We want to be trustworthy. We want to be transparent with our employees, with our customers. And that’s kind of a very important thing for us. And we want to have a culture where everyone wants to do their best and there are not fears around feeling. So, we want to be innovative and be fearless. That’s one of the key values we have that we want to use employees to use creative attempts to solve problems and not stay with the status quo, but rather challenge it. And then, we want to act with urgency. That’s our fourth value. Which is, we want to go out there with energy. We want to pursue it. We want to be not sitting out there waiting for things to happen. And, finally, we want to be caring and compassionate about each other. So, we need to have empathy for each other in our team, our customers, the community that we are in. And we need to have employees and partners who share those same set of values.
Anant Kale: [00:15:37] So, we set up these five core values for ourselves. And, essentially, when we are hiring new employees, we are measuring them on whether these will be a good fit for our team. We care about the same things. And if they do, that automatically becomes a good employee that you want to hire. So, that has worked pretty well for us. And it’s just a question of reinforcing and reiterating what you care about. And things do fall in place and you get the right kind of talent in the company.
Lee Kantor: [00:16:09] Now, when you’re working in this kind of leading edge technology where you’re figuring out stuff way ahead of your clients are, how do you kind of keep all the employees with that kind of learning mentality and always pushing and learning? Do you have any formal kind of training or learning in place to help them kind of be the leaders that they have to be in order to help the company?
Anant Kale: [00:16:40] Yes. So, there’s a lot of the stuff with the structure. It is around ensuring what are we really working for? What are the customers that we are trying to service? And what are their problems? So, educating our employees on customer problems in that domain is important. So, we set up, not just formal avenues for learning, but things like customer [inaudible] where we talk to our customers on why they selected us, what did they like, what did they dislike, what we could improve. And to bring the entire company in. So, any employee in the company – we call those cross-functional check-ins – every employee in the company is allowed to sit in those calls and can ask any kind of question.
Anant Kale: [00:17:22] What we find is, building the customer empathy and knowing what to build are the kind of key takeaways employees come up with when they have these kind of interactions with the customers that that’s what we exist for. So, along with having formal avenues where they have an accounting one-on-one, they have a learning around that, or skills in how to manage teams. We find that the other avenues are more practical ways of getting that kind of practical experiences from customers helps us a lot in keeping the focus, keeping an eye on what is to be build, what is in the future, what are the areas that we want to solve for, and that really puts the team together and focus on the right things.
Lee Kantor: [00:18:11] Now, what, for you, is the most rewarding part of the job? Is it getting new customers? Is it getting that employee that has taken their, maybe, career to the next level? Or new ways to serve your customers? What stuff gets you fired up nowadays?
Anant Kale: [00:18:27] I think the key thing is that I’ll be able to earn the trust of the customers and I’ll be delivering to that. So, a company like ours, which is showing the promise to customers on what technology can do and really pushing the envelope in terms of what AI can do, how it can transform their workplace. In many cases we are taking chances on what technology can do and we need customers who are taking chances on us as well, because these are new applications which people haven’t thought of today. And we are the one thinking about it. And having partners who, not only engage with us, but put their trust in us. And then, us being able to deliver on that and exceed their expectation and delight them, that probably brings me the most satisfaction.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:18] Now, any advice for companies that are, maybe, not in your same space, but that have a new technology and they’re looking for the right client/partner that is willing to be kind of a forward thinker and put their neck on the line? Because a lot of folks, you know, they worry about keeping their job. And you’re not going to lose your job if you go with being incumbent or do things the way it’s always been done. But in today’s world, you always have to be pushing and testing, I would think, in order to be successful and to be ready for the next big thing. So, any advice for that leader out there that has a new product that has to kind of recruit, also, kind of some risk takers to come onboard?
Anant Kale: [00:20:01] Absolutely. I mean, the one thing which I would advise is that technology is not sole for technology alone. Always put yourself in customer’s shoes and figure out what problem are you solving for them. How critical is that problem and why should they work with you? So, if you put yourself in their role and figure out, “Am I solving the problem? Is this problem hard enough or important enough to solve? And why should they be solving or putting their trust in me to solve it?” And if you can answer those and you can recruit somebody to believe and, obviously, not just words, but with actions as well that you can deliver on it and you will try your best to get that done is kind of number one.
Anant Kale: [00:20:47] So, if you are able to solve that and then you are talking to prospects on who should be working with you, you’ve also got to find a person on the other side who’s willing to take chances on you. Because not every customer around every business is in the same kind of leading edge forward thinking scenarios or will work with every company out there. So, once you find somebody who shares those same values with you, is willing to take that risk on you, and is willing to bet on you, those are the initial ones that you need before you can then say that, “Yeah. I proved it out, out here. I proved it with a couple of companies. I can go and talk to every other customer, every other company out there, because they see that this is a valid technology, it is involving right business problem, and I have referenced customers.”
Lee Kantor: [00:21:39] Now, what is the pain perspective AppZen customer is having right before they say, “You know what? Maybe we should take a shot with these Appzen folks?”
Anant Kale: [00:21:48] Yeah. I mean, right now, we, obviously, went through that when we started the company and we didn’t have any customers many years ago. Now, when customers talk to us, they already know that my goal is to save money. My goal is to increase the efficiency. And my goal is to be compliant. So, these are common values that every customer has and that’s what they’re focusing on. Today, we are seeing more and more with the pandemic things like digital transformation. Companies want to make sure that they are doing the work in their office in a digital way with the least number of people that are involved in the process.
Anant Kale: [00:22:32] So, companies are coming to us with these problems very well stated and looking at AppZen to help them, not just in T&E, but also our accounts payable, doing the same thing in accounts payable around all the spend. So, that’s what we are adding value, reducing the spend that the company has by a couple of points which adds to the cashflow of a company, reducing the human capital required, the work that is required to go in and improving the efficiency and productivity of their employees. Those are areas that companies are very concerned about which AppZen is solving for.
Lee Kantor: [00:23:10] Now, is this industry agnostic? Does this work in all industries? Or do you find you’re getting clients in certain industries?
Anant Kale: [00:23:18] We very much have companies across all industries. Like I mentioned, right from manufacturing, to high tech, to pharmaceutical, life sciences companies, which are close to a thousand employees all the way to a company that have 150,000 employees. We have applicability across industries and verticals and across countries as well. So, really a broad use case for AppZen.
Lee Kantor: [00:23:46] And if somebody wanted to learn more, have a more substantive conversation about you, with you, or somebody on your team, what’s the website and best coordinates to get a hold of you?
Anant Kale: [00:23:55] The best way is to go to our website, www.appzen.com. That’s A-P-P-Z-E-N.com. And on the website, there’s a Contact Us button. You can connect with any of our folks who would be happy to walk you through with applicability and see if AppZen is the right fit for you.
Lee Kantor: [00:24:15] Good stuff. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story. You’re doing important work and we appreciate you.
Anant Kale: [00:24:19] Thank you so much.
Lee Kantor: [00:24:21] All right. This is Lee Kantor. We’ll see you all next time on Learning Insights. And remember, we could not be doing this work and sharing these stories without our good friends at TrainingPros. See you next time on Learning Insights.
Outro: [00:24:35] Thank you for listening. For more information about TrainingPros, visit their website at training-pros.com.
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