Tim Warren, CEO and Co-founder of Ambit
From aspiring rock star to Goldman Sachs and now tech founder, Tim shares the story of his career journey which ultimately led him to starting Ambit. The twist and turns of his career demonstrate a natural curiosity and a hunger to learn, which undoubtedly informs the type of talent he is looking to attract to help Ambit take on the world. Thanks for sharing Tim.
How would you explain to a five year old what it is that you do?
I run a really cool company called Ambit. We make stuff that lets people talk to computers, just the way they want to! We help them get stuff done, really easily.
“We make stuff that lets people talk to computers, just the way they want to!”
And for the adults, what does that translate to in regards to your day-to-day?
We provide customer service and lead gen automation through chatbots for Retail, Telco, Utilities and Financial Services. Our system lets companies automate up to 80% of their day-to-day customer queries.
Was building a tech company something you dreamed about doing as a kid? If not, what was?
Not until I was in my twenties. When I was really young I wanted to be an archaeologist; then a drummer in a rock band (I was for a while!), then I fell into coding. Before I knew it I was building a tech company and loving it.
Tell us a little bit more about your career journey and what inspired you to start Ambit?
My first career was as a drummer, but I worked out that in New Zealand that you need a backup career that could pay some money until the music took off... Wimbledon, you know, the big stage. I applied for engineering and didn't get in, so I took computer science because it sounded fun.
In my last year I was talking to a friend at a party at my house, this was 1996. He said “You know what, this internet thing might take off, I've created something and I think people are going to like it, do you want to come give me a hand?” That was Wingate, it was a massive success story. I had an amazing time but I never had any equity, so I ended up losing interest.
In fact, what I ended up doing was learning what equity was through reading books and doing some study. After three finance papers, I figured that might be enough and I put my CV out to a recruiter who put me forward for a job with Goldman Sachs.
I had a variety of roles at Goldmans and loved it. I was in my element, high performance people, lots of opportunity, and I had autonomy to do whatever I thought was the right thing to do.
Three years in, the global financial crisis struck and the part of the company I worked in was sold. Everyone was worried about losing their jobs, so I put my hand up and I said “Hey, how about I run this new company?”. No one else wanted the risk so I got the job Chief Operating Officer of JBWere. I was in my early thirties and compressed about a decade of learning into two years.
Once I had created the strategy for the company and hired all the people we needed to execute, I started getting a little bit bored. So I went looking for new opportunities and worked for a year with an amazing entrepreneur called Paul Cameron.
I was then recruited back into Financial Services as the CEO of an investment bank for a year, while they were undergoing buyout. Our values did not align, so I left and spent a year consulting, which I really enjoyed.
Around that time I talked to a group of my connections about making something happen in technology, which led me to creating Ambit.
Ambit was born from a desire to fix the human computer interaction. Natural language understanding was just becoming good enough to do at scale, so we decided to try and do it better than anyone else.
“I don't idolize people. I understand that people have good sides and challenging sides. I learn from a lot of people yet I avoid putting anyone on a pedestal.”
Who have been your greatest role models and what have you learnt from them?
This is a hard one for me. I don't idolize people. I understand that people have good sides and challenging sides. I learn from a lot of people yet I avoid putting anyone on a pedestal.
If I was forced to choose, I would list Warren Buffett as my guidance from an investment standpoint, Winston Churchill for his ability to see the future, his incredible fortitude and unrivalled ability to mobilize the English language and the English people at the darkest of times and Nelson Mandela for his extraordinary vision and patience.
I'm also fascinated by the great physicists and mathematicians, Newton, Einstein, Hawking. Cleopatra and Eleanor Roosevelt always intrigued me for their ability to cut through and in New Zealand I would list Kate Sheppard, Joe Savage and John Britten.
You will have noticed I haven't listed anyone particularly contemporary. It's far too easy to label the latest batch of high visibility people (Musk, Jobs et al) as the greatest of all time. It takes history to teach us who deserves a place at the pantheon.
Where do you hope Ambit will be in five years from now?
Ambit is a very powerful platform, in conversation design it's a generation ahead of anything else that's available. That said, we are a logical addition to the ecosystem of a much bigger player. I think in five years Ambit will be heavily integrated or acquired into a platform such as Servicenow, Zendesk, Salesforce etc.
Alternatively, a very large services company who wants to provide exceptional customer service may decide that we are at the right strategy for them. That is the corporate strategy, at least.
From a technology and product standpoint, I think we will have exceptional voice capability, products dedicated to industry verticals, supported by a very powerful database that let's us pull out customer insights that drive value.
How does Ambit build and develop talent and elevate people to be at their very best?
The first step in the process is hiring people with potential, amazing attitude and values that align with ours. That is absolutely critical. If there is one skill a CEO needs to be good at it is finding talent.
The second step is giving people a good understanding of the scope they have to work within and ask for ownership. Ambit is the Latin word for scope, so it gives you a sense of how I think! Scope is like a bell curve. There are a few things I need you to do but I'm happy for you to do anything you can do well. I want to enable people to get stuff done in an effective manner. Speed is critical, quality is essential and we're allowed to get things wrong.
It's the build, measure, learn approach. I like people who see opportunity, put their hand up to own it and then get it done. 95% of the time when people bring me ideas I just say yes. I don't have all the ideas; I love when people run their ideas past me.
The third step is to constantly challenge people to up their game. I usually find that average performers are happy with their work, and the top performers are not happy with their work.
The person that comes to me and tells me they haven't made enough progress or they know that they can do better, that's the person I want on my team. They will rate themselves 65-70% on a good day. They then ask themselves how they can do better.
Whatever people deliver, I will always ask a question to help people understand how they can do even better next time. I always tell people when I'm hiring them to “not work for me if you want a comfortable easy job; I will extend you, push you, question you and drive you to deliver the best in your career.” Lots of people pull out at that stage and the really good people get excited.
“don't work for me if you want a comfortable easy job; I will extend you, push you, question you and drive you to deliver the best in your career”
What does culture mean to you and how do you ensure this culture is maintained with everyone at the Ambit?
Culture is particularly challenging in 2020. There is so much change and so many challenges we face on a daily basis. Companies that have a strong culture have gone into this challenging time much better placed, yet even they have found this extended period a real challenge.
At Ambit, we ensure that we are doubling down on connection...weekly all hands, one-on-ones, casual phone calls, the whole lot.
Regular cultural activities we have include celebrating our values on a daily basis, with a Slack channel where we regularly award or recognise people for living our values.
We build the language of our values into our daily conversation, we do the same with our strategy principles; the language becomes a rallying call for the wider team.
We celebrate customer success, company success, anniversaries and birthdays and anything we can really.
Lastly, as Ambit continues to evolve, what kind of talent do you want to hear from in the coming months? And what creative licence do they have to get your attention over and above CVs?
I would love to hear from people who want to do something for the genuine challenge. People who want exceptional freedom to excel and deliver something that can really make a difference to people.
In this phase of our growth, so much is about sales. Domestic and international sales networks are super important.
Anyone who can bring something different from an engineering standpoint is always great to meet. In the next few years, we will increase our presence in Australia and the wider English speaking world, so someone who has fabulous networks in those areas would always be welcome.
People are welcome to get my attention anyway they want, as long as it is productive. I have hired people who have approached me on LinkedIn, they had the right attitude so they found a place at Ambit!