Jody Houton

Behavox Founder and CEO, Erkin Adylov joined the latest webinar in the Tech Forum series, co-hosted by the Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce and Montreal International, on September 17 to discuss what motivated him to set up a base in Montreal, how Behavox is weathering COVID, upcoming technological trends, and much more.

Below are excerpts from the Tech Without Borders: Erkin Adylov Discusses the Strategic Investment in Montreal — and Beyond’ webinar, moderated by Alan Bakli, Director FDI at Montreal International, and the Q+A session with the audience, moderated by Pierre Gabriel Côté, Délégué Général du Québec in London.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? What was the trigger to make the leap of faith into entrepreneurship and what were the early days of Behavox like?

I come from a small country called Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. So I grew up in a fairly small place. You have to understand that when I was growing up, the whole country collapsed. And there weren’t any jobs. So the unemployment rate was close to 100%. It was as high as it gets!

There was no electricity, there was no water. My mom was a doctor and she didn’t get paid for probably a couple of years, but she still kept going into work. And when you grow up in that type of environment, it actually gets drilled into your core that the government is not going to take care of you.

You have to be able to stand on your own two feet and you have to figure out how to build your own business. I think since those early days, I kept it at the back of my mind that I was always destined to go and open a business. I just didn’t know what it was going to be at the time.

I consider my background in finance to be an education. When you look at businesses, you actually analyze them. You apply different tool sets. And that’s what actually set me up nicely to then think about what kind of business I wanted to really go into. 

As the workplace becomes more and more digital, as we use emails, Slack, Zoom, as the data keeps increasing, it’s only natural that people are going to start asking the question, “What can we do with all this data?”

So in 2014, we set up a company with the mission that we wanted to organize and make useful all the internal data on the planet. And we believe that organizing all of the private data and making it useful, could boost productivity across multiple different departments in a particular company.

So, our business is a B2B. We sell all around the world and if you would’ve asked me six years ago, “Would you imagine that you would be in Montreal and you would have clients in Japan?” I would say, “Yeah, definitely not.” But, here we are!

What problems are you addressing with Behavox? Who are your clients? 

Every company in the world has employees and there is going to be one or two “bad actors” amongst them. It’s impossible to assume that 100% of your employees are good people. There is always going to be one or two “tail events” and employees that are going to do something that would damage the organization. What our software allows us to do is to find those bad actors with a precision and speed that wasn’t available to companies before.

If you’re thinking of banking and why that is relevant. Well, you probably heard about all the fines that the banks had to pay during the 2008-2009 crisis. The taxpayers had to go in and bail out the banks because they lost a lot of money. Now, the reason they lost a lot of money was often linked to bad employees and bad actors in their companies.

The risk departments or the financial compliance departments of these companies just didn’t have the right tools to be able to identify those bad actors early enough to prevent those bad things from happening. 

So, our software helps our clients prevent those damaging, almost company-ending events. What I would like to add is that the coronavirus crisis has actually highlighted to a lot of management teams that the surface area of this specific risk, that actor risk, is decentralized because people are working from home.

Some of them are working from the office and as a result, their management teams have no idea how to protect the organization anymore. 

Now, what is the definition of a bad actor? What is Behavox really trying to catch? Well, how about racism? If we are truly saying that we care about racism and we want to do something about it, well, why isn’t the HR department proactively using some kind of software, and I will say Behavox, to identify racism in the company and to really start addressing the issue head on, rather than just shouting from the rooftops that you care about racism, but not doing anything underneath.

Another example is sexual harassment and another example is bullying. And by the way, all of this is manifesting itself in Slack, in email, in Zoom calls. Why? It’s because nobody’s watching, nobody’s looking because if I ended up saying the same thing in the kitchen, in the office, that would be deeply inappropriate.

There is nothing in the world at the moment that exists, except Behavox, that would ensure that civil liberties and civil rights are actually protected; that the laws and regulations that the government has passed to protect society, to protect the system that we have, are actually followed and implemented. 

It’s actually not just financial services. We are now starting to get customers who are [from the] telecommunications [sector]. We’re also starting to get mining companies. We have oil companies, technology companies, and, as a result, we are now expanding to multiple industries because I think the problem that the world is facing with bad actors and bad events that could end a company’s life is universal.

In 2018, you decided to open an office in Montreal. Why did it become necessary to expand? Couldn’t you serve your clients globally, from London? 

What was the main reason for choosing Montreal? We are a very analytical company, as you can probably imagine. So, there’s a lot of data that goes into our decision making. Our business has always been expanding and growing by more than 100% year on year.

We think that we can sustain those kinds of high growth rates going forward, and if you’re growing very fast, one of the key things that fuels that growth is the people that you have. We are a software company, so everything revolves around our people. We are an engineering company, so everything revolves around engineers that you have.

We looked all around the world to see what kind of a place we could really plant our flag and start building our technology hub. When I founded the company, there wasn’t really a lot of thought to geography cause we were fairly small, but when you start hiring hundreds of people, it becomes a logistical challenge, it becomes a growth challenge, so you just won’t be able to scale very fast. So we looked at a bunch of different cities all around the world, and one of the things that attracted us to Montreal was the fact that it’s the number one AI community in the world.

It’s a great place to live. It has an awesome AI community and has very strong universities. It has a deep engineering talent, and a deep engineering bench. So if you marry the best AI community, together with the best AI company, that specifically focuses on how to organize and make useful all the internal data in the world, you actually can come up with a great value proposition for talent.

Has anything surprised you about Montreal? Any lessons learned you want to share? 

It turns out my French is much worse than I thought. So that was a big surprise to me. It’s terrible. In fact, I’ve got to learn [more]. The second surprise for me was that my hockey skills needed improvement. 

But, on a serious note, I think one of the biggest surprises for me is how welcoming the Montreal community is. I think it is not only a great accolade for Canada, but Montreal as well. It’s a very international city. I was also surprised at how efficient the public services are. And I cannot stress this point enough, for the companies that are thinking about opening up operations here in Montreal, the public services are actually great. 

In terms of the quality of life here, my wife and I really enjoy living here. We lived in London for 14 years, we lived in New York for two years. We have traveled quite extensively, but, here in Montreal we feel very, very happy.

Behavox is now planning to massively scale in Montreal. Can you tell us a bit more about the kind of talent you find here and how they meet your needs?

So the kind of talent that we’re looking for is experienced backend engineers, and we’re looking for front end engineers. The reason we call our platform end-to-end is because we aggregate the data, which requires us integrating with all sorts of communication channels today. We support about 40 applications that can stream data into our platform. Think about it, applications as email, Slack, Teams, Zoom, etc. So that’s applications that can feed data into our files and those applications can feed not just the communications data, it’s also HR data, CRM data. So if you think about data streams, we support about 150+ different data streams from those 40 applications. So, we need strong engineering, background engineering skills.

The second piece that our platform does is the analytical layer. So, in order to be able to organize all these vast streams of data that are coming into our platform, you need to use machine learning, artificial intelligence to organize all this data and to make it useful. Think about it like a library. If you have a library with a lot of books that are disorganized, it’s not helpful to anybody. You need a librarian who’s going to put those books on shelves and prepares those books for consumption. Artificial intelligence can be that librarian when it comes to organizing streams of data. So that’s the analytical piece. And for that, we need depths of AI talent.

The final piece is the action piece. So, we’ve aggregated all the data, we’ve organized all the data and done so using machine learning. So can we now drive value for the business? Can we help the business act on that insight? And the action point is where the rubber meets the road. That’s where the users get to interact with our software. That’s where it becomes relevant. It’s all about visualization of data. It’s about flagging and showing the right alerts.

We talked about the identification of bad actors. That’s when the system would identify the bad actor and then we’ll escalate it to the compliance team. We are the only software company in the world that is able to grab the data from the moment it originated, aggregate it, analyze it, catalog it, index it, and then if it’s a problematic piece of content, give the opportunity for you to act on it. 

How did the COVID situation impact your plans? What kind of adjustments did you have to make? 

Behavox is an all weather solution and we haven’t actually been impacted by COVID as much. I think the biggest impact was that we’ve all been sent home. So the entire company is working remotely at the moment and we don’t like it. We actually like working with each other in close quarters in the office. It’s that sense of camaraderie. It’s that sense of mission that you just don’t get when you work remotely.

So, we’re really looking forward to when the governments will allow the companies to reopen and people can go back to the offices. But, from a business impact perspective, we have operated without skipping a beat. All of our customers are actually positively surprised by how well we handled business continuity processes in our company. In addition to that, demand for our software couldn’t be higher right now because in the COVID environment, when you’re facing a decentralized risk map and the compliance teams are overwhelmed by the number of alerts that are generated by a legacy system, they need to buy solutions like Behavox, and we are the only company that can provide those solutions.

What economic and technology trends do you predict for the next 6-12 months? 

I’m obviously drinking my own Kool-Aid. So I will tell you that the biggest trend that is happening at the moment is the explosion of data because everybody is working from home. Coronavirus has actually accelerated the acceptance from the world that the workplace has become 100% digital. So, as a result of that, there is a huge demand now for making sure that that workplace is safe and making sure that the workplace is productive. 

There’s very few things that I’m excited about in the world outside of my business, but I will tell you that education technology is going to be one of the biggest areas of focus for everybody in the world. In fact, a lot of investment is going into education technology at the moment. I think we have to invest in education technology because schools being shut down is not going to be good for society because we need to be able to educate the next generation that is going to come in and innovate and push humanity forward. And if the schools are shut, how the hell are we going to do that? So we need to be thinking smarter about education technology.

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