Marcus Cooksey, CEO and Founder at DUKE.ai., has 25 years of software development experience, along with a broad range of expertise related to embedded systems design and software development of real-time applications. Previous roles included, Applications Engineer for TI’s VoCable, IPPhone, ThinClient and Automotive Infotainment product lines and Business Development Manager (China/Taiwan) for Texas Instruments’ ADAS product lines.
His entrance into the technology world was built upon years of working as a UPS loader and sorter to subsidize my college tuition. He returned to his trucking roots in 2015 and founded LUI Transport, LLC. LUI Transport grew from a single truck to five trucks in 2019.
The inspiration of DUKE.AI occurred while attempting to manage financial bookkeeping and accounting using software tools available at the time.
What You’ll Learn in This Episode
- Tech background
- Problems in transportation workflows today
- Challenges to overcome in starting/running DUKE.ai
This transcript is machine transcribed by Sonix
Intro: [00:00:04] Welcome back to the Start Up Showdown podcast where we discuss pitching, funding and scaling startups. Join us as we interview winners, mentors and judges of the monthly $120,000 pitch competition powered by Panoramic Ventures. We also discuss the latest updates in software Web3, Healthcare, Tech, FinTech, and more. Now sit tight as we interview this week’s guest and their journey through entrepreneurship.
Lee Kantor: [00:00:39] Lee Kantor here another episode of Startup Showdown podcast. And this is going to be a good one. But before we get started, it’s important to recognize our sponsor Panoramic Ventures. Without them, we couldn’t be sharing these important stories. Today on Startup Showdown, we have Marcus Cooksey and he is with Duke.ai. Welcome Marcus.
Marcus Cooksey: [00:00:59] Hello, Lee, how are you?
Lee Kantor: [00:01:00] I am doing well. I’m so excited to learn what you’re up to. Tell us a little bit about Duke AI. How are you serving folks?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:01:07] So we’ve created a virtual bot and that virtual bot is responsible for processing documents specifically in the kind of legacy mundane kind of world of transportation and logistics for applications such as payments, load order, entry bookkeeping and accounting and invoicing.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:25] So how did you get into this line of work? What’s your backstory?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:01:29] Backstory is my background is in computer science engineering. I was part of our automated driving, self driving solution at a Fortune 500 company. I was building solutions for business in China and Taiwan, kind of growing that business there. But I also had a fleet of trucks, so I had five trucks that I was running at the same time. And I was fascinated with how archaic documents processing payments was done at that time using humans before Duke was invented. And so I took kind of the vision based learning that’s needed for self-driving cars to apply that vision types of machine learning for reading documents and processing them like a human would do it.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:10] Is this the first time you’ve led a startup, or were you always working kind of in a corporate setting or a technology startup setting, but not as the leader?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:02:20] Absolutely. So even within working in the corporate setting, I’ve always were on kind of skunkworks projects and so forth. So I led a project that involved natural language processing. So it was one of the first what they call digital assistants, voice activated digital assistants. But yeah, this was my first time with my own personal tech startup. Now my trucking business could be considered a startup and as well. But in terms of technology, this is the first time.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:48] Oh, so your trucking business was kind of a side hustle for you?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:02:51] Yes, indeed.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:53] And that’s where you kind of combine kind of your technology background with what you were doing, boots on the ground with the trucking.
Marcus Cooksey: [00:03:00] Yes, absolutely. So I saw the inefficiencies in transportation and I became more fascinated with applying kind of what I knew around self-driving cars to creating kind of this virtual bot that processes documents.
Lee Kantor: [00:03:13] Now, when you had the idea, did you like how did you kind of get some traction or at least some clues that maybe this was a solution that could scale?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:03:23] Yeah, I needed to know that it was practical because I knew, unlike, you know, self-driving cars, the, you know, the rules in vision based applications with cars are kind of well known. You know what a human looks like a vehicle lane markers. But in transportation, you could have thousands of different documents, formats, the orientations, all of those different things that makes processing and document difficult. I need to prove that it works. So I did some little experimentation at home on my own, did some prototyping, tested with a variety of different documents to see if I could actually lease, extract the data data and then do some contextualized learning and then pull out the key data. When I was able to do that on a across a few documents, I got confident that I could actually implement this and make this do it on a broader scale.
Lee Kantor: [00:04:15] Now, was it difficult when you attack a problem like this and you have kind of legacy businesses that have been doing things the way we’ve always been doing it? There are a lot of times hesitant to change. Was it difficult to open their mind to the possibility that you were offering?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:04:31] Absolutely. I remember being in a meeting and I told them that our virtual bot could process documents accurately nearly 99% of the time. And he was very skeptical and pretty much walked me out of the door because he recognized how difficult the problem was and he was a little skeptical. I think most people, you know, in this industry, maybe it’s just because of just their their backgrounds or understanding how hard the problem was. They were very skeptical. And so when you you know, in this case, you actually have to do the proof in the pudding to really bring people on your side and make the believers.
Lee Kantor: [00:05:09] Now when they’re processing it kind of in a human way. Isn’t kind of the errors and mistakes way more prevalent than your way?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:05:17] Absolutely, yeah. I mean, the attention span of a human to do some repetitive, mundane task is very short. We don’t realize it, and we’re prone to do errors on a regular basis. But I think it’s like self-driving cars. You know, when I was doing that, people are hesitant of even given that control. All of a vehicle to a to a to a robot. Even though we know humans are prone, 90% of the errors or accidents are caused by humans. And the same would apply for processing documents, the introduction of human error into the process.
Lee Kantor: [00:05:54] Now, how were you able to get kind of those first companies online to beta test and to even, you know, explore the possibilities of your solution?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:06:05] Now. Fortunately, we even though the the platform can scale to other applications on the enterprise size. Fortunately we had a an app and so I think the app gives you a quicker way to connect with customers by having them to download it and experiment with it and then eventually become paid customers. So by having that app, it gave us the feedback loop that we needed that customers were interested or certain things were not working right and improvements we had to make versus having to go to a larger company and convince them to integrate this. So we were able to get some test learning through the mobile app we have.
Lee Kantor: [00:06:44] And then once they did that, they were getting more and more confident with your solution.
Marcus Cooksey: [00:06:48] Absolutely right. So the mobile app does what you would say, the bookkeeping part, right? So now think about a trucker who’s an owner operator. He’s on the road. He doesn’t know anything about accounting. And so now he just connects to his bank account and uploads receipts or invoices or send them via email to a virtual bot. And it handles it like a human would. So it automatically categorizes, it generates charts of accounts, generates reports, profit and loss statements without the driver even changing and modifying anything. And so we had to refine that. But that learning taught us that we could have further applications beyond just the bookkeeping part, right?
Lee Kantor: [00:07:26] And once they feel comfortable there, then it’s easy to kind of nudge them into more and more adjacent services.
Marcus Cooksey: [00:07:33] Absolutely. So now we’re offering other products such as invoicing. So now they see it on the bookkeeping side and they’re like, okay, now you’re doing something more serious, like payments. Can this virtual bot now handle my payments in invoicing on my behalf and doing all of the checks and aging and so forth? And so now they’re gaining more confidence around its ability to handle payments as well.
Lee Kantor: [00:08:00] So now has this started to evolve beyond kind of the side hustle and now this is your main gig? Or did you are you still kind of in two camps here?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:08:10] Oh, absolutely not. No. It’s impossible for me to go to two camps. I am fully in I’ve been fully in now for three years. And now we have employees that work at the company. And so, yeah, I spend all of my time on for the most part.
Lee Kantor: [00:08:26] So now as leading a tech company that you are any kind of surprises or is it how you imagined.
Marcus Cooksey: [00:08:35] It, didn’t it? Oh, so many surprises. You know, I tell people there’s not a straight line in a startup. You envision it being a straight line, but it comes with a lot of curves. I wouldn’t have known that Covert would have occurred. I couldn’t have known that retaining employees, no matter how smart they were, we’re going to be an easy thing to do. So we had to come up with clever ways to survive through all of these different situations competition for top talent, creating our own apprenticeship program to offset that, it’s just been I won’t say it’s been easy, but I have developed all types of survival skills that I didn’t have before.
Lee Kantor: [00:09:19] Now, for a lot of founders, they have advisors and their mentors. Were you able to kind of benefit from that? Did you have advisors or mentors along the way?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:09:31] I’ve been very fortunate. That has been the difference maker. My co-founder, Vishwanath Gupta, came on with me. We were colleagues at T.I. He came to help me on the technical side and then we brought in some other individuals that were friends of mine on the CFO side. And then along the way, as we participated in different events, networking events, I brought on an who knew the industry, who could coach me well and help me identify key talent to help make our product even more robust and complete. And that has been significant, more so than sometimes the sales or even money. You raised that advisor. Committee board as is very pivotal, very important.
Lee Kantor: [00:10:17] Now, when you when you have the idea for a service like this, did you know you were going to get a co founder or was there something was a part of you saying, hey, I think I can do this on my own? Or were you always saying, okay, I need a co founder? And if so, how did you kind of go about choosing the co founder you have?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:10:39] It is funny. We chose each other. My co-founder and I and we didn’t start the company until we both found it. We both kind of chose each other, so to speak. We were at a launch in 2017. He was talking about what he was doing for his wife’s medical practice, and I was talking about what I was attempting to do with my trucking company and both of them were very similar. Im trying to automate documents around medical back office and me for transportation. And so once we agreed that we both had the same goals and objectives, we formed the customer, the company do guy. So I don’t think I would have formed the company without a co founder.
Lee Kantor: [00:11:22] And so when you were negotiating with the co founder and getting kind of aligned on values and vision, can you share some advice on how to have those kind of those conversations? Could be difficult and you have to kind of address things good and bad and ugly moving forward in a future that you’re not aware of how it’s going to play out.
Marcus Cooksey: [00:11:42] Absolutely. Fortunately, we had the same corporate values because we came from the same company. So we had similar work values in terms of our, you would say, social values, even though we’re from different nationalities. He’s from India and from the United States. Our core values of believing in people and cultivating people, we share that in common. And then the desire to do something in AI that we shared in common in terms of passion and technology. So for for me, I was fortunate that I didn’t have to go shop with someone because I had a person within my network that I continued to talk with, even though we were in divergent types of. Applications of AI and data science. We were able to come together and settle on what we thought was which was a trucking problem to be solved more so than the medical problem. And then I think that that has paid off. It’s been a good bit.
Lee Kantor: [00:12:46] Now, you mentioned the challenge of attracting and acquiring talent. Was that difficult to kind of transfer your vision, dream and the you know, the the monument you’re trying to build to other people?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:13:00] Absolutely. I mean, you’re talking about a very, very difficult. Solution. The answers don’t exist. There aren’t any boxes that you can open up that tells you how to process documents, how to create workflows, how to do it across a cloud, and how to do sales and marketing. And there’s no books. And so it’s a first time founder. In terms of tech, there are things I didn’t know. Right? And I’m learning on the fly and the team doesn’t know. Right. And so they have to believe that. And that’s some of the challenges that that they had. Some of my team members couldn’t trust the decisions that we’re making, and we ended up losing some some talent. And so we ended up doing that. Lee is is coming up with another way because we always think about jobs being taken from AI. And one of the things my co-founder and I challenged is challenged ourselves is is that, you know, why don’t we go out and find people who are just hungry? And let’s train them around data science and AI. And we found that to be a better pipeline than trying to go find someone who works at Facebook or Google as like we were doing before and cultivating those individuals.
Lee Kantor: [00:14:13] So you’re kind of growing your own talent.
Marcus Cooksey: [00:14:15] Yes. And that comes with challenges as well, because now it’s the same thing they don’t quite understand. They’ve never been on projects. Certain projects that my co-founder and I have had. But we could we’ve learned that it’s possible to cultivate individuals and grow them, you know, kind of within both in the culture as well as the technical skills they need.
Lee Kantor: [00:14:38] Right. And in a lot of industries, they, you know, they hire for attitude and trained for skills.
Marcus Cooksey: [00:14:45] Yes, absolutely.
Lee Kantor: [00:14:47] So how did you hear about startup shutdown and panoramic ventures?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:14:53] You can call me a fan of Paul George. I have been been watching his activities both on LinkedIn, on Instagram. And I was part of the Tech Square Lab Pitch event some years ago, back in 2019, when he was I don’t know if he was if he’s still managing it, but at that time he was director or he was involved there. And so I continue to observe him. So when the opportunity came, I applied for the startup showdown that they had in Austin.
Lee Kantor: [00:15:24] And then what part of that experience was most beneficial?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:15:30] It was the mentor session that was really good. I had one particular mentor. She really broke down and asked some good questions on my pitch deck and I revised it. She didn’t quite know who who were my customers. It wasn’t a parent. And really we had two customer bases, both the small businesses and enterprise banks. But it wasn’t clear. And it was a simple change into on one slide that actually identified both. And I think that story was able to resonate with even with the judges, because they could see that we’re we basically have a symbiotic growth between two customers. It’s not limited to one. And so that feedback she gave me, I think, really set the stage for really defining who our customers were and how we were targeting.
Lee Kantor: [00:16:22] So what’s next? What can we do to help?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:16:28] Yeah. I mean, at this moment, I always tell people we built the engine. Right now we are building the assembly line. We want to get document processing into the hands of big carriers, banks in the transportation industry. Software platforms. We are a platform that plugs in and integrates into any solution. And so we just now need the assembly line, which is the cells we model ourselves. After that, they have this quick, easy way to be able to download their SD cards, their apps and so forth, and quickly develop. And that’s kind of the vision that we have too, is because in transportation there’s a lot of costs associated with operational costs. Of course, fuel is one of them today. And so what we offer is the ability to reduce operational costs, create cash flow, while also giving business insight. And that’s an, I think, a new, compelling solution or vision. I wouldn’t even say vision. It’s just a new way, a new paradigm that we’re introducing into transportation and transportation. So we just want to get this disseminated to everyone in the industry.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:39] And any advice for a founder of a startup that’s like you that’s trying to kind of go into a world that has a legacy way of doing things and you’re really kind of trying to disrupt it. Any advice for that person on how to frame their offering in a way that allows people to open their mind to it?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:18:00] Yeah. Trucking is tribal, and I didn’t understand that at first. So you must understand the tribal nature of whatever industry you’re going through. So there’s, there’s I wouldn’t use the word gatekeepers, but understand the culture. Right. And it’s not even just your product, what concerns the customer and it’s not even the product that you’re offering. It could be the fact that the restrooms that they go to or the gas stations that they go to or they can’t find parking are issues. Understand everything about the industry and not just the small part you’re solving. And now that makes you more credible and able to empathize with all aspects of the business. So understand that’s the first thing I would say is really respect the tribal nature of the industry you’re going into and then to be ready to pivot, right? You will pivot in some kind of way and unless you’re just fortunately fortunate. And so in order to pivot, you will need to have good advisors to help you to understand the other applications. So you need great advisors, you’ll think you need money and you do. But advisors are really pivotal and critical.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:15] Yeah. And to be able to discern who has the better connections and advice within that money is an important consideration.
Marcus Cooksey: [00:19:27] Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:29] Now, Marcus, who is the ideal prospect for your service? Who do you want to meet more of?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:19:38] We’d like to meet more banks that pay carrier’s truckers, but we also like to work with other software services or software companies that service the carries the truckers to integrate the technology into their platforms.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:59] So if somebody wants to learn more about Duke, what is the website? What’s the best way to get a hold of you or somebody on your team?
Marcus Cooksey: [00:20:06] If you want to learn more about the product, you just go to the website. Duke I we’re on Instagram. Duke I Facebook. Duke Guy And I’m on LinkedIn. Marcus Cooksey And, and in fact, on our website, we have a direct if you ever want to schedule a meeting with someone from my team, we actually have a direct free scheduling so somebody could reach out to me if they have a question about starting a business or anything other than the app, they can find me for those resources.
Lee Kantor: [00:20:36] Well, Marcus, thank you so much for sharing your story today and congratulations on all the momentum you’ve got going on right now.
Marcus Cooksey: [00:20:44] Yeah, and thanks for the startup showdown and Panoramic Ventures for believing in the vision that we have. We’re like I said, I’m a fan of Paul Judge and everything that he’s doing in the tech scene. And so, you know, I’m kind of. Sometimes you just need visionaries and you just watch them and model them. And so some of that is what I do is kind of watch what he does. And so I’m thankful for the opportunity and their belief in what we’re doing here at Duke. So thanks for having me, all.
Lee Kantor: [00:21:12] Well, Marcus, thank you again for sharing your story. You’re doing important work and we appreciate you.
Marcus Cooksey: [00:21:17] Thank you, sir.
Lee Kantor: [00:21:17] All right. This is Lee Kantor. We’ll see you next time on Startup Showdown.
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