Start-up: Automating Sisyphean tasks | The Edge Markets

There is a Greek legend about Sisyphus who was punished by Zeus by asking him to roll a heavy rock to the summit of a hill, only to have it roll back down every time. Since then, everyone doomed to repeat a difficult, dull and mundane task has identified themselves with that hapless king of Corinth.

This is what Otomate Me Sdn Bhd wants to address with its software, which automates some of the more boring tasks, helping businesses communicate with customers in a personalised way, but at scale.

A lot of local businesses still rely on pen-and-paper to-do lists or manual processes such as looking through files and calendars to identify when reminders should be sent out or when a follow-up should be done. Far from being effective, such processes are cumbersome, time-consuming and make it easy for mistakes to happen, says Kimberly Wan, co-founder of Otomate Me.

“Otomate Me, as the name suggests, has always been about making life easier with automation technology. All the problems my co-founder Azlan Alam Malik and I have tried to solve in the past — and which we actively solve today — are tied to how we can help people leverage technology to reach their self-actualisation stage.

“When technology is able to help simplify and do the mundane and repetitive tasks in our day-to-day operations, it frees up our time to do more meaningful work and lead more meaningful lives,” says Wan.

This was not its initial business model. When Wan, a former figure skater and ice hockey player, and Azlan started the company in 2016, it was a platform that integrated behavioural science and predictive analysis to simplify users’ shopping experiences in the e-commerce space. The duo sought to automate the purchase and delivery of personal care goods to child care centres, senior citizen homes and busy people with dependents.

But the enterprise has since evolved into a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business, says Wan, as the duo realised that their technology could do more.

“Otomate Me started off as a business-to-consumer solution that could predict when it was necessary to replenish fast-moving consumer goods for busy working professionals, specifically in the baby and elder care space.

“Due to our limited resources, we got creative and partnered with child care centres and senior care homes to service the customers who had dependents at those centres. Over the years and countless experiments later, we experienced a unique business-to-business (B2B) problem when we signed up for our co-working space and we sought to solve it,” relates Wan.

The co-working space had made an error when onboarding Otomate Me because, Wan says, its processes were very manual. “We didn’t receive our first bill for three months because their finance team got my email address wrong as a result of manually generating and attaching and sending out the invoices.”

But this was not all. The co­-­work­ing space sent the company’s onboarding email to someone else. And the email did not cover the offering it had purchased. “There are three types of offerings — hot desk, fixed desk and private office. Each type has different information that needs to be sent. But instead, they sent a blanket email that covered everything and addressed the wrong person as well.”

Wan and her partner realised that this was the kind of problem Otomate Me could help solve easily. “In this instance, we sought the buy-in of the customer prior to building the tool, now known as Otomailer, and kicked off [the project] with a paid proof of concept.

“From there, we found that our tool solved specific task-based problems and, therefore, was able to help solve a similar problem faced by a diverse range of customers in the B2B space. Our business is now fully SaaS-based and we are serving people in three countries — Malaysia, Singapore and Norway,” she says.

Recently, Otomate Me received a conditional grant of RM500,000 from Cradle Fund Sdn Bhd under the Cradle Investment Programme (CIP) Ignite (II). According to Wan, the funds will be used to expand its team, consolidate its site and improve the interconnectedness of its tools to make them more robust. A portion of the funds will be used for marketing purposes.

Otomate Me’s technology is aimed at reducing the number of Sisyphean tasks businesses and their employees have to undertake.

Doing repetitive work is extremely boring, says Wan. “I would go so far as to say that it sucks the life out of you and at the end of the day, you don’t feel like you have accomplished much or made any difference.”

With Otomate Me’s productivity and automation tools, the necessary but mundane tasks are automated, resulting in more time to focus on essential tasks such as strategies and looking for opportunities.

“For example, one of our clients is a company secretary and the onus is on it to notify its customers on the deadlines for financial year submissions and annual returns. Typically, these reminders are sent out one, two and three months before the financial year-end date and it has to follow up and make sure the customer complies and submits the relevant documentation.

“Otherwise, the customer could be penalised and when that happens, the reputation of the company secretary is also affected,” she points out.

Wan, who is a diligent planner herself, understands the stress of things not going as planned. Which is why Otomate Me’s tool is designed in such a way that it can dynamically send out reminders based on a company’s specific financial year-end date and it is completely customisable.

She adds that the company also has clients in the intellectual property sector, which have to send reminders and notices on patent renewals and other such things on a weekly basis.

“Previously, a team would spend two to four days just sending out reminders to its clients because every client has a different deadline to submit their documentation. Now, all [that is needed] is one to two hours of management and that’s it. The tool will take care of the rest,” she says.

Wan says the tool has saved customers between RM42,000 and RM48,000 annually. For starters, it takes care of tasks that were previously done manually, saving up to 90% of the time taken to craft and send personalised messages and attachments via email, WhatsApp and SMS.

Mandated restrictions following the Covid-19 pandemic have also had a positive impact on Otomate Me. Wan says many business owners are now willing to make quicker decisions to adopt their technology and go digital.

However, the same is not true for many small and medium enterprises in Malaysia, she says. So, she took it upon herself to do something about it.

“When the Movement Control Order (MCO) first came into effect on March 18, we noticed that many people were frantically trying to sell online. They would post their products and contact number on Facebook groups to try and capture a sale. The trouble with this approach is how manual the whole process is,” she says.

Wan’s sister, who operates a surplus vegetable business called Graze Market, was among the many who went down this tedious route. “So, Otomate Me developed a nifty solution that helped sellers like her sell their goods more easily online, receive payments, and collate orders directly via WhatsApp and email without having to pay the sky-high commissions of 30% to 35% per order,” says Wan.

Otomate Me managed to develop and launch the tool within days and integrated the tool with Google Sheets to make it easier to adopt.

“Anyone who had Excel proficiency was able to near-instantly create a live online storefront powered by Otomate Me. This quick action helped many businesses weather the first Covid wave and continues to help them today. Our technology is currently being utilised by shopping malls as well,” she says.

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