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Q&A with Simon Robinson, Founder and Managing Director of Level, a cognitive AI cloud platform which automates decisions and business tasks.  Level solves complex and time-consuming business problems by capitalising on the knowledge of an organisation’s people and its data.  Delivery and ROI on pre-packaged and new applications can be realised in weeks. Cognitive Artificial Intelligence is a disruptive technology - it sits between RPA which is a technology that automates simple repetitive business processes and machine learning which is a technology that learns.  Cognitive technology uses algorithms that ‘think’.  It’s one of the new advanced automation technologies that are at the heart of what is being described as the fourth industrial revolution.   On May 1st Robinson’s company, ERPaaS, renamed to Level, with a fresh corporate identity reflecting its ambition, energy and focus.

Why did you set the company up and what was the catalyst?

In 2010, I recognised that cloud-based services and Artificial Intelligence (AI) were about to change the world but, despite three years of trying, I could not persuade my employer, a global systems integrator, to grasp the nettle. I saw an enormous opportunity, but it was too big and inflexible to respond. So, with an absolute belief in cloud-based AI, I founded Level.

Where did the idea originate?

In 1996, I proposed we put AI, or a neural computer as it was then called, into the marketing and sales function of a major retail bank. The goal was to automate the decisions behind delivering the right customer the right product through the right channel at the right time, but it was too big a leap for them. This is what Level delivers today.  We put a real-time cognitive decision platform into an organisation that enables it to automate decisions. 

What were you seeking to change?

Everything. The way customers do business, buy solutions, the way and speed in which solutions are deployed and the rate at which clients can realise return on investment.  I wanted to completely disrupt how the IT industry delivers solutions to clients and how clients consume those solutions and what they pay for them, because technology should always be a utility, a commodity, and should be priced as such.

What problems were you seeking to solve?

To enable clients to automate decisions and business tasks to make them more efficient and productive.  To allow organisations to get the best out of their people because they are at their most efficient when they’re doing things they enjoy and are interested in. We want clients and partners to access an artificial intelligence capability that just sits there humming away in the cloud and to do it quickly, easily and cost efficiently with any data source.

How have you financed the business?

Originally, it was financed with £500k from a friends and family fundraiser so we could start to build things. For the past five years it has been funded by client revenues and private investors who are as excited about the opportunity as we are.  AI is the fastest growing area in global IT – it’s the new  The next five years will see the same level of change we saw in the late 90s, and there will be some big winners and losers in the industry.

What have been the main hurdles?

Cash, clients and people. They must arrive in the right order in the right amounts at the right time.  It’s all about managing ‘the mix’.  Get it wrong and you are one of the losers.

How did you solve those problems?

Drive, determination and getting out there.  Being passionate about your business and believing in what you are doing attracts people.  Self-belief is so important, but you have to have the right idea.  I always say you can cut my arms and legs off and I’ll bite my way to the top of Snowdon, but you must take people with you, and OK, with no arms and legs, you move slowly sometimes so it’s easy for them to keep up!

Describe the business model:  

We are a product company which delivers cognitive applications to the market as SaaS cloud services.  The operating model is designed for SaaS.  Product development, our pricing, and the way in which we get clients live are all interdependent - it is like an eco-system.  The design of the products enables us to deploy them quickly, and that means we deliver at a price point that is completely disruptive. AI completely changes the game.  We are providing our products as services, and they are priced to deliver ROI in weeks and months.  When a client understands the proposition, we should leave them saying “why on earth wouldn’t I do that?”

 What will Level look like next year and in five years’ time?

If we achieve our objectives, we will go global in late 2019 and I expect that partners will be accessing the platform and building applications on the Level cognitive cloud in early 2019.  In five years, I would expect us to be bigger with channel partners playing a huge role in how we go to market, but our culture, our values and how we engage with our people will not change.

Who is your ideal client?

Now?  People that know they have to change.  Everyone is waking up to AI, but not many companies are embracing it.  We target clients with between 4,000 to 150,000 employees.  Our market is enormous. 

What do you wish you had known when you started this venture?

How hard it was going to be. Someone recently said to me that everything lands on my desk and it absolutely does. The amount of responsibility that you carry for people and private investors is huge. I also wish I’d known it would take longer -  I’d hoped to be where we are today in three years, and it’s taken us five.

What is the most important thing you have learnt?

I am a completely different person. I am far stronger and more adaptable than I thought I could ever be.  When you are building a business like this, you must be versatile in order to succeed.  You develop a plan based on what you believe to be true using your best guesses based on experience and drawing on the best advisors you can afford but at the end of the day these things can, and do, change.  The environment is in a constant state of flux and you must adapt to keep the vision alive.  As the founder you are responsible for everyone and everything – you must be resilient and focussed - but there’s not a morning I don’t get out of bed excited about what the day will bring.

What will success look like?

Level will be a business that everyone wants to work with, or work for. Clients will come to us because they know we are going to do what we say we are going to do: in other words, we deliver applications, products and services at the price we say we are going to and we will never let them down. Clients will be desperate to talk to us because they know our reputation is so good. We will have people working for us who never want to leave because this is the best place to work. Those in the industry will be so keen to get a job here because of Level’s reputation, with a happy workforce who are enjoying themselves, who can be creative, and who know the organisation will support them.

If you were on the front page of the Financial Times what would you say to inspire readers?

The only constraints that exist in life are the ones which you choose to impose on yourself.  You can do anything you want in this world if you have the drive.  The phrase I used when I started the company, and which I still use, is “It doesn’t have to be like that”.