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  • 1. ARI: Now I’m speaking to Dan, who is the founder of Robotaton. Hi, Dan. DAN: Nice to see you. ARI: You too. Thank you for talking to me. I love talking to people who are into automation, so why don’t you tell everybody, first of all, what Robotaton does? DAN: Sure. What Robatoton does is we focus on end-to-end business process automation. What that means is that we look at companies and figure out how we take everything from their first customer interactions and their CRM all the way through production, all the way through invoicing, until their income coming in on the other side. The idea is to hook up as many of those systems as possible with our cloud-based platform that lays over the top of all of that and automate everything in the middle. Take as many human hands out of it as possible. ARI: Okay, so have you created a custom solution? You sort of mix and match, or how does that work? DAN: Our system is proprietary. It sits, like I said, it sits on top of either the current infrastructure, depending on what they’re using software-wise – and hardware, for that matter – or we build specific custom modules. Usually it ends up being a combination of both, depending on what area and what they’re using. Sometime they’re using stuff that’s really antiquated; a lot of times they’re using Excel spreadsheets or something like that, which is just not where they need to be, and so we’ll build something completely new from that. So it just depends. ARI: I’m a huge fan of IFTTT and Zapier and stuff for automation stuff, but it sounds like you’re really taking this to the next level. DAN: Yeah. It’s our assumption that in the future, most companies will have to be, if not fully automated, as automated as possible in order to stay competitive. There really should be no people – there should be nothing being done in a repetitive fashion by a person. We’re kind of past that. That’s what we’re preaching. ARI: It’s funny to have you say it that way, because a lot of times when people are asking me – and I recommend virtual assistance to people a lot, and most often, someone is like “I don’t even know what I would have them do,” and I’m like, “What’d you do today? Okay, well there’s six things that you could probably have done.” Because people don’t seem to realize that, that the repetitive things, you can optimize and automate them. But also, they don’t even realize what is required to do them a lot of times, I feel like. DAN: I think the thing that’s interesting is because people don’t think in terms of automation, they just think in terms of doing, that it’s almost a habit to just do. Especially then when you start getting up into these – we’re working with a lot of midmarket companies, so you’re looking at companies that are $10 million in revenue and up, up into about $100 million in revenue. So these are sometimes getting to be fairly substantial companies. They’re just so focused on the day-to- day what needs to be done in a way it’s always been done, “This is the way we do it,” that they don’t see
  • 2. the tons of opportunity to utilize system computers to actually do a majority of the work that they’re doing. And then a computer, a system like ours or other systems, they do it better than people because it’s just faster, it’s more accurate, it doesn’t screw up, it doesn’t take a vacation. All that sort of stuff. ARI: Right, of course. So you don’t do much outsourcing, right? You’re really focused on the automation. DAN: Yeah. That’s our focus. I actually met a guy who kind of summed it up pretty well, which basically he said that when we go into a new company to do something, the first thing we look at is can we automate it, then can we outsource it, and then worst case scenario, we’ll hire somebody locally. ARI: You know what, I love that, because my Less Doing process is to optimize first, then automate, and then if there’s anything leftover, then we outsource. So that’s great. Actually, I think it was on my last episode or the one before that, I was talking about my version of spring cleaning, which is where I go through all the things that I have people doing and try to see if I can automate them. DAN: That’s actually a really good point, and that’s something that we do as well, because we found this to be the case. Even companies that are a little bit proactive on the front end, to actually automate some of their processes, or all of them if we can get them to do it, there also has to be a regular maintenance effort that goes into it. Because businesses change. Things change on a yearly basis, let’s say. We go in and do an audit to make sure that there hasn’t been little things that have crept up and tacked onto the side of the automated system that somebody’s doing manually and feeding in. You’ve just got to keep your eye out for that stuff, because you’ve always got to be – like you said, spring cleaning, basically. Make sure that everything stays optimized. ARI: It’s also cool – in addition to offering this as a consulting service, you actually go in and buy companies and automate them and sell them, right? DAN: Yeah. That’s really how the company started. That was our history. We looked for companies – it’s funny; a lot of times, people are specific industry-focused or whatever their niche is, and we’d always say that our niche was companies that have the most screwed up processes. So the more screwed up they were, the more antiquated they were, the more potential value we can extract from that inefficiency. So yeah, we buy them, fix them, and then sell them again. ARI: What kind of industry – I mean, do you have a focus? What kind of companies are you working with? DAN: Certain industries work better. It’s not necessarily particularly focused on any industry, but there are certain ones that are better. For example, ones that are not good a lot of times are professional services like CPA firms, law firms, those sorts of guys, because they’re actually essentially a creative business, if you really think about it. They really do only one – they work in one area. To make a billable hour, they don’t have a lot of process involved. They work in their one little area. As opposed to, for example, ground transportation. Ground transportation has a lot of moving parts. It’s got a lot of employees, it’s got a lot of equipment, it’s got a lot of GPS-enabled things that you can tie into, all the way through down to keeping track of your customers and the customer feedback. So those
  • 3. types of companies that have a lot of elements to producing that dollar are the ones that are usually the best fit for what we do. ARI: Gotcha. One of the resistances that I get sometimes about this stuff is “What about the jobs that you’re giving up?” I have a feeling on that, but I’m curious what your thoughts are about that when people say that. DAN: I get that question a lot. I do a future of automation talk that I’ll do for business groups and different community groups and stuff like that, and that question comes up a lot. I think the thing that’s tricky about it is that in the past, technology has always created new and better jobs for the people that it displaces – although I think in this particular instance right now, I think technology is at an exponential curve where the process at which it’s creating new jobs is probably more on a linear line. So I think that’s where the disconnect is going to come in the short term, because technology is moving faster than it can create new jobs for people. So I think in the short term, I think there’s going to be some bumps in the road, and I think we’re already seeing those bumps in the road – basically the downturn we saw a few years ago in the global economy, and the fact that now the economy has rebounded, but we haven’t seen any new jobs. I think the reason we haven’t seen any new jobs, or very many new jobs, is due to the fact that when those companies got squeezed, they automated and they increased their efficiency so much that then when revenue and everything started going back up again, they didn’t need to hire anybody back. So I think we’re starting to see these effects already, and I don’t know what the solution is going to be, but I do think there’s going to be some bumps along the way. ARI: That’s actually pretty similar. What I usually say is that if an automation that I helped create, or that someone does, puts somebody out of a job, then they probably weren’t efficiently allocated as a resource anyway – which is not only about the business; that person was probably bored in what they were doing. So it’s not like, “Oh, now they have to go” – I mean, yes, it’s not the best economy to look for a job, but maybe it gives that person the opportunity to look for a job that they’re actually better suited for and hopefully can make more money at. DAN: Absolutely. The thing that’s interesting about that is if you redeploy people into things that can’t be done by computers, you’re actually making much better use of them as people, because if a computer can do it, it’s probably pretty boring. It’s probably pretty terrible. ARI: Right. That’s why even if you look at industrial processes where there’s robots now doing welding and stuff like that, it’s like, well, you’re safer because you’re not doing it; the machine does it faster. And you do have a skill; maybe you can do something – you know. It’s about efficiently allocating resources, and I don’t mean to refer to people as resources, but it is kind of how you have to look at it when you’re looking at a business process. DAN: Yeah. That’s how the economy looks at people, too. I mean, if it’s called Human Resources in business and the economy. Yeah, you really have to look at how to best utilize people, and usually if you’re utilizing people well, then hopefully they’ll be better off for it as well.
  • 4. ARI: Yes, of course. What does a process look like? Actually, we probably have some war stories we can share, because I’ve seen some unbelievably ridiculous processes with people, including one – actually, I’d like to share this first, just to give you some context: I was looking at a company that a client wanted to buy, and they sold a product, and they were taking “online orders.” Basically, someone would send an email with the order, and the guy would print out the order and place it on his desk with a piece of tape. And then they would prepare the order, he’d charge the card; then he would wait 5 days to let the card charge clear. Then that piece of paper would come off of his desk on one place and get handed to someone else and then process the order. So, needless to say… So how do you approach it? Is it like a shotgun effect? What do you look at first? DAN: Usually what we do is we look at that manual process that you jus described there. We would actually have somebody, or usually multiple people in the bigger companies, we’d walk through the entire process piece by piece. A lot of times what ends up happening, too, is these companies grow in and out of manual processes. Maybe you’ll come in over on the CRM side, here’s how we made our initial contacts with the customer; now we’ve got them as a customer, and now the paper goes up on the guy’s desk. It goes from a software thing into something that’s on the desk. Okay, now we’re waiting for so-and-so to enter them into the accounting system so we can keep track of how we’re going to build them. Oh, she was on vacation, so a week later it gets entered in. Whatever the situation is. So we just track and order a customer through the entire system of the company. Some of these companies are – for example, one of the companies that we purchased was a legal video production company, a company that did video for lawyers. So there was a lot of scheduling and planning out in the future, like “Hey, this is when all this stuff is going to go down.” The scheduling system that was in place was completely manual. They were managing 30 different videographers on this big giant manual calendar where they’re scratching stuff out and writing it back in, because things are always changing. And then they’d have to send updated information to both sides of the attorneys, so you’d have attorneys on two sides of the case. And then, of course, you’d have the videographer and the court reporter. We’d manage the videographer. But everybody had to get all this information and get it all on the same page, and they were managing all of that between basically – one set of forms was in a Word doc which they’d keep changing all of the items manually, and then they’d change a PDF manually, and then they’d fax it to this guy, email it – all manual. So if something had to be changed, they’d do it in six different places. Because you had to do it in six different places, but they’d do it manually. Walking through and seeing all of that, we just basically did the exact same thing. We just copied the manual system and then just let the computer do all of it. Honestly, the system they had in place, for what it was, was as efficient as it could be; it was just slow and error-prone basically, and very easy to make the computer do it. So that’s what we did. ARI: Gotcha. Do you get shocked anymore, ever? DAN: No. Usually where I get shocked the most is the size of the companies. A lot of times you think, “Oh, okay, a little family million dollar company or whatever.” You can pretty much accept whatever.
  • 5. But then you get into a $30 million or a $50 million or a $100 million company – there’s a company that I saw was $120 million something in revenue; big company, 300+ employees – that basically had a whole accounting department dedicated to have all of their guys out in the field, physically calling them and telling them what they’re doing, and then these people would enter it into the computer. So they had this big call center, basically, of bookkeepers that were just calling. It was a big company, a decent sized company, and it was a very profitable company, too, and that’s the way they did it. It goes back to “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” A company was 50 years old, and that’s how they did it originally and they never changed. ARI: For a company that’s just starting out now – and this is another thing I see all the time, is they’re like “We’ll put the processes in place once we start to grow or once we get bigger” or whatever. How do you start now so that you can become scalable? DAN: Yeah, that’s a really good point. The key there is what you said, it’s how you can become scalable. We have people that come to us at the point that they realize they’re not scalable, and then they’re freaking out because they want to grow. But the answer to that is it’s never too early to start putting these processes in place. It doesn’t matter if you’re a one-man show. If you’re a one-man show, you should be looking at what you do on a daily basis, and again, automating and automating and automating as much of it as possible. Because if you get into that thought process early, then as your company does grow – well, for one, you’re going to be more profitable right from the beginning because you don’t have to keep hiring people to incrementally grow. You might be able to exponentially grow and still just be one person, or a few people. But then, yeah, the key to it is to get into that frame of mind as early as possible and then just look at it, and look at every little detail. There’s a thing called – I can’t remember. It’s one of the lean things from Japan. All the auto-plants use it – kaizen, something like this? ARI: Yeah, kaizen. DAN: Yeah, that’s the idea. Just constant improvement, constantly looking for each little step. “Why did I take six steps to go over there? Maybe I should take five steps.” It seems crazy, but if you really get into it, you can really accomplish a lot. ARI: What’s one of your favorite projects, like one of the coolest, weirdest, maybe, businesses that you’ve been able to help automate? DAN: I like to use that video one as the example, because we did the most – it wasn’t the biggest company that we’ve done, but it was the one that you saw the biggest example of change. That one in particular, because what we did was – again, we’ve got this manual system in place where they’re sending all this information around, so obviously we got rid of all that so that the computer was just sending everybody information. But that wasn’t that big of a deal. What really was cool was all of the video guys had equipment supplied by the company. All of the video guys were 1099 independent contractors; the company supplied the equipment that they needed. So we had control of their equipment, basically. And so with that control, we inserted GPS tracking units to each of the boxes of equipment that they had.
  • 6. What that allowed us to do is it allowed the server to keep track of where these guys are at any given time. That means that now the server can forecast if somebody’s en route when they’re supposed to be en route, or if they’re moving to where they’re supposed to be, or if it looks like they’re going to be late based on looking, “Hey, here you are now. It’s a half hour to where you’re supposed to be, but you’re 50 miles away still. What’s going on?” It really allowed the server to take full control of everyone in the system, so that that way then, it wasn’t just managing information; it was actually managing the people that were operating in it. The people became ancillary to whatever the system was requiring at that time. Basically it would say – it’s watching constantly. It knows that the guy is supposed to be over here in an hour and it knows that it takes an hour to get there: “Why isn’t that batch of equipment moving yet? Hey, it should be moving.” And then it sends out a text and it sends out an email, and it says to the guy “Why aren’t you moving?” If it doesn’t get a response – just a click to respond, kind of “Oh, I’m on my way, blah blah blah,” like four or five stock responses – but if it doesn’t get a response, it bumps it up to the manager, the person who can physically call and be like, “Where are you? What’s going on?” That way, there’s always this constant real-time perspective of what’s happening in the company. When we did this, we ended up eliminating – there were eight people to begin with in a 1500 square foot office, and we took that down to one person in a single room office. And then that one person wasn’t even that busy anymore, because that person just handled anything that was out of the ordinary. All of the regular stuff, once that deposition or video, whatever they were videoing, was scheduled, that’s it. The server took over, and unless there was some sort of issue, the person never had to do anything with it again until the server says “Here, print out this invoice and put it in the mail on the other side.” So that’s a pretty cool one. ARI: That’s awesome. All right, the last question I always love to ask people – and I’m particularly interested to hear your response – is what are your top 3 personal tips for being more effective? It can be from anything you’ve ever learned or done, but what are the 3 things that make you more effective? DAN: Top 3, that’s a tough question. ARI: Take your time. DAN: Well, the first thing that I would say is don’t get bogged down in all the things that you can do easily. I have a tendency, and I know that it’s human nature, to do all the stuff that you can do easily first. Like, “Oh, I’ve got a bunch of emails I should respond to,” so you do those first, and then you spend your whole day just doing all the little baloney business that is really not that hard to do. And then you say, “Oh boy, I had a busy day. I worked all day today and I got all this stuff done,” but you really didn’t accomplish anything. You just did stuff that was easy to do. So switch that around, basically. Instead of just doing the easy stuff first, do the stuff that you have to put some thought into. Do that stuff that you can do. Don’t let the easy stuff bog you down. That’s #1. Probably the second thing I would say, kind of along those same lines, is don’t do everything yourself. Get a computer to help you, get something to help you. If it’s not a computer, get a person. Get an outsource, like a VA or something like that. Get people to help you so, again, that you don’t get bogged
  • 7. down in miscellaneous stuff that distracts you, basically. Like if you’re running a company or you’re starting a company, you should always be looking in a forward-moving sense. You should always be thinking that “I’m working on the business, not in the business.” If you’re working in the business, you’re going to run out of time real fast. ARI: I like that. DAN: And then third one: make sure you’re doing something that you have fun with, that you really like. ARI: Great. DAN: If you don’t like it, then it’s not going to be doing you any good. ARI: And you’re going to be automated out of what you’re doing. DAN: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Yeah, if you’re having fun with it, you can’t teach your computer to have fun. So you’ve got to make sure having fun is part of your job description. ARI: Cannot teach a computer to have fun, absolutely. Dan, we’re going to put this all in the show notes, but give us your URL and Twitter, wherever people should follow you and find you. DAN: Check out our website. It’s Robotaton.com. We’ve got our blog on there and everything else is linked on there as well. We’ve got some cool videos and stuff coming up, too, that should be posted in about the next week. So yeah, check it out. ARI: Okay, great. Dan, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time. DAN: Sure, thanks a lot.