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Durban tech gets sunlight

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When you think of Durban, you think of sandy beaches, surfers and good curry. But there is much more as LIRON SEGEV finds out when chatting to ADAM SHAPIRO, CEO of Autopilot Workflow Solution.

Adam Shapiro CEO of Autopilot Workflow solutions, a Durban based tech company says that “It’s actually a lot more active – and relevant – than some people think. Consultants are generally surprised when they come to Durban and see the level of tech that is produced in Durban.”

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Recognising that Small and Medium businesses are the future of the SA economy, Adam and his business partner Hannes Bantjes founded Autopilot Workflow Solutions  to help business owners manage staff and their time  “running a small business is a tough gig, business’s need to “do what they do” but also handle the admin of running their business. As business owners we know that time is such a precious commodity for entrepreneurs, that’s when things fall through the cracks”.

So what is the Durban tech scene like and what problems does Autopilot solve? Adam shares his views in CliffCentral.com:

What are the challenges in the Durban market?

  • Budget: When I say budget I refer to budget for companies to purchase software products and services, but there is also a serious lack of venture capital companies or Angel Funders.
  • Staff: There is a critical shortage of GOOD software developers in SA and even more so in Durban. Finding great staff is hard and the competition to keep them is fierce. We can’t always compete on price, but we sure can compete on lifestyle, Durban must have one of the most incredible climates in the world, that along with the lack of traffic and the Indian Ocean makes up for a lot of its shortcomings.
  • Trends: Keeping up with the trends. Tech is always changing and we need to be ahead of the game all the time.

Can you give a few examples of Durban based companies?

For a start there are plenty of significant HQs in Durban Mr Price, Toyota, Unilever, Derivco (with globally used tech), SA Home Loans, and Tongaat Hulett.

But to me its super exciting to see the number of hubs, co-work locations and industry talks being adopted here. This is drawing the tech community together, and spawning a number of Durban based tech companies.

Some examples of great tech companies are:

  • UX Foundry Is another company with a similar history to Autopilot. They started their lives as a user experience consultancy that also built custom solutions for clients. They soon realised that the real opportunity is in owned platforms and products and saw instant messaging for business as a big opportunity. The developed X&Go which has has become a platform for creating custom instant messaging apps for businesses.
  • Sage Alchemex Alchemex started in a garage in Durban in 2001 with 3 employees/founders. Alchemex provides affordable, innovative and powerful business reporting software. In 2011 Alchemex was acquired by the Sage Group. They now have over 60 employees and delivering reporting solutions globally.
  • No logo Studios That product is called MyBonsela , Influencing the path-to-purchase from the manufacturer to incentivise sales people with direct, cash based rewards for sales and other soft rewards, like follow ups, presentation, professionalism.
  • ShipScene is a real-time vessel tracking system with 9 UHF receivers along the coast of South African and up to Ghana, with agreements with other providers to swap data internationally. The system processes about 23 million records a day and is built 100% from the ground up by Durban tech companies over the last few years and is hosted within the city of Durban. It’s mostly used by Lawyers (for ships who owe money internationally) and logistics / chandelling companies who use it to be alerted when a vessel has arrived in a harbour or zone or even a custom GPS point. The system sends out daily reports to hundreds of users with a detailed breakdown of every vessel movement in every port in our country in the last 24 hours.

Does the Durban dev community get together and share ideas etc?

Yes, there are are many initiatives happening in Durban to share and collaborate such as:

  • Code Retreat – Code retreat is a day-long, intensive practice event, focusing on the fundamentals of software development and design.  Instruct is a series of lectures and presentations hosted by Chris Tite an entrepreneur and software architect from Kalidecode.
  • Lean Coffee – Durban software developers love to attend events but are hesitant to present or contribute at these events. This means you end up having a few people driving the events and the rest of the community casually tagging along. We’ve started to introduce new event formats, such as Lean Coffee, that are more informal and involve group discussions rather than one person giving a presentation.
  • Dev2  Developer evenings are held every quarter, they have 4 presenters who cover technically interesting topics. There is generally a good turnout of about 100-150 developers . Participants range from entrepreneurs to hard core geeks.
  • DUT Symposium on Web, Mobile & Software Development Technologies September 2015

You provide workflow and automation how did you come up with that?

Back in 2001, just off the back of the .com bubble (and bust), myself and my Autopilot co-founder Hannes Bantjes started our first venture, pilotfish. Back then we were a small software development company that found ourselves building more and more bespoke / custom workflow solutions to solve business automation needs.

As more and more businesses took their admin and production related tasks online, they started having to deal with a greater amount of digital systems, which all need to ‘talk’ to each other and traffic information between the programs and the people involved. This become our niche for the decade up to 2013. With our specialist experience in the workflow solutions market we began to identify a need for a leaner, self-setup product that was accessible to more types of businesses.

We searched high and low for workflow products that catered for small businesses, but could not find anything amazing. The products in the market were either too basic, and that ranged from email, Excel and pieces of paper to the complex (i.e expensive system that takes technical and analysis consultants ages to implement and costs a fortune).

In 2013 we took the leap to make that a reality, and started formulating both Autopilot the business and Autopilot the product to bring the big value of process automation to more types and sizes of businesses. It’s particularly appropriate in SA’s initiative to grow the economy via SME successes. Workflow automation can fundamentally help businesses operate more effectively which gives them a greater chance of growing and succeeding.

What problem does Autopilot solve?

  • HIGH-LEVEL – helping SME’s to succeed (tackling an aspect in that goal)
  • We realise that it’s tough to start up a business finance, market, sales
  • But we can’t help once they have started we can help, Scheduling, debtors, birds eye view

We have seen so many small business owners chasing down indecipherable email trails to get to the root of problems or sorting through piles of paper or different computer files and folders to track down invoices, orders or delivery notes. If business practices are erratic and inefficient, you spend too much time, which is money, fighting the chaos in front of your nose instead of spending the time looking at strategic things – planning ahead and improving the way you operate. Important issues can fall through the through the cracks, this can be overcome with the use of a good system.

We provide a number of common templates that can be customised for your particular business. The solution has complex intelligence under the hood, but is user friendly for the small business owner who might not be a computer whizz.

Being cloud based means no more expensive on-site software, custom hardware requirements or costly user licenses, no hassling with software maintenance and upgrades and no need to be on the office network to access business data. Autopilot works across internet-connected devices, so you can analyse and act on your business activities wherever you are. Rapidly review what’s happening and what needs attention, and have peace of mind that things are going according to plan without hand-holding and nothing is slipping through the cracks.It’s not just about task management as you will find with many other online tools.

· Effective collaboration around business data, regardless of location

· Reducing typical workforce and task management problems, which affords less hand-holding, micro-managing, and the need to be in-office ‘checking and chasing’.

· Reducing wasted time and effort in business functions, so that owners and managers can get back time to focus on strategic matters, so, if they need to go up to Jhb (or anywhere) for face to face business meetings, they actually have the time to do that.

What technology have you used to build Autopilot?

We built Autopilot on the Microsoft stack, HTML5, SQL database and hosed on the Azure platform. We are on the Microsoft Bizspark program which has been an incredible opportunity for us. Microsoft are really making a huge difference to start-ups like Autopilot not only for a software point of view, but also for mentoring and the provision of business skills.

How much does Autopilot cost?

We have taken the fact that SMME’ can’t afford the sophisticated and expensive high-end solutions that many larger companies use to streamline the flow of data through the business, and have charged accordingly, our pricing model is either R180 per user per month for unlimited workflows or R90 per user per month and R2 per workflow. There are no set up costs if you use our existing templates. There are also no long term contract, so if you are not happy with our product, you are free to leave at the end of the month, fortunately that has never happened.

What is your ideal customer?

Our ideal customer is a business with between 10 and 50 employees which is often a challenge because many small businesses think workflows – and workflow solutions – are only appropriate for larger companies and enterprises. Changing this perception is core to our mission.

We are talking to business owners and managers about solving their headaches. We are giving managers and business owners a bird’s eye view of what’s going on – a dashboard and operational overview rather than having to go from desk to desk.”

Any other target markets?

Yes, we also have a “Corporate Supplier pack” allows corporates to buy Autopilot licences for their suppliers or other SMME’s that they are mentoring or developing.

We see this as a big part of our business growth as it allows Corporates to obtain valuable Enterprise Development and Supplier points that count towards their BEE scorecard.

But also make a real measurable difference to emerging businesses in South Africa. The third “bonus” would be that interaction between the supplier and Corporate would improve, this would hopefully improve interaction between the corporate and the supplier.

How do you market your product?

So far, Autopilot has been marketed online via blogs and search engine optimisation. Word-of-mouth has also helped as has working closely with existing clients.

Our plan is to solidify things in Durban and then move out nationally before taking Autopilot overseas. Our vision is that, by the end of the year, we will have reached markets in the rest of Africa and begun to sell in the United States

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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