Creating “Deafening Silence” in SPM: The Forma.ai Founding Story
Sales Incentive Compensation Management (ICM) is a bit like oral healthcare. A strange comparison, yes, but bear with us.
The difference is that flossing is cheap, while ICM is a bottomless pit.
And when something in your ICM software goes wrong? That’s more like a root canal without the drugs: painful, noisy, and expensive.When something in your ICM software goes wrong, it's like a root canal without the drugs: painful, noisy, and expensive. Click To Tweet
Forma.ai came about as a result of one such ‘root canal.’
Teething Pains at Stryker
Things began relatively smoothly. It wasn’t an easy setup by any means, requiring a team of people from ZS, but once in place the software was operational, and after a couple of weeks Nabeil was teaching their new sales comp manager how to keep things running.
But the pain had just begun.
Every time leadership rolled out a new comp plan or pricing structure, Nabeil had to reset the whole system and reprogram the ‘automation’ — a process that could take weeks.
Yes, the software was automating many of the processes, but setting up the automation took up just as much time.
Plus, the system was always at risk of collapse. Every time a member of the sales comp team moved on, they took the tacit knowledge of the system with them and Nabeil had to come back and reset the automation.
Nabeil decided to find a solution. Something that would fully automate this work, freeing him to do something else.
“Being a sales compensation manager is a ton of work, and it’s a pretty thankless role. I knew there was a way to do this that didn’t cause Stryker as much pain. Something that could help any comp manager, so they didn’t have to do it all.”Nabeil Alazzam
Democratizing ICM Knowledge
Sales Performance Management has come a long way from manual calculations and excel spreadsheets, but most of the ‘automated’ software out there only automates some of the processes. Programming and reprogramming that ‘automation’ still takes a lot of time and money.
Nabeil decided to tackle the problem from a different angle.
What was missing was a database of these solutions that everyone could use; a curated, intelligent ‘Wikipedia’ of Sales Performance Management solutions.
With a powerful enough AI behind it, Nabeil thought, it would be possible to develop a collective view or database of sales compensation plans and changes. This knowledge could be shared to roll out novel, complex changes in a fraction of the time — with much greater accuracy.
“Call it a ‘democratization’ of Sales Performance Management.”Nabeil Alazzam
That’s the true power of AI: bringing together the collective problem-solving of humanity into something that benefits everyone.
A grand vision, yes. But how else do you build the world’s first Artificial Sales Compensation Manager?
‘Forma’ Big Idea to Implementation
Stryker’s management had been reluctant to pivot to another ICM solution so soon after installation but eventually agreed to it if Nabeil could build it and go-live within eight months.
The clock was ticking.
Nabeil left his job, withdrew his life savings to hire some help and — like any conscientious tech founder — set up shop at his kitchen table.
Evenings and weekends went out the kitchen window. The small team spent long weeks coding models and messing them up to test if the engine could handle the constant adjustment it would need.
“Thinking about it now, it is a little crazy. Stryker had no idea how flat-out we were working at the time. We tried to play it cool but it really was a pressure cooker.”Nabeil Alazzam
With just three days to go, the team was flat out. But even a car crash in downtown Toronto two days before launch couldn’t stop them from making that deadline.
The Silence is Deafening
One of our biggest supporters in the early days was Suzanne Shadgett, CFO of Stryker Canada. In her words: “Sales ops is the noisiest department. There’s always some fire starting or a major change coming down the line that causes issues or takes weeks to implement.”
A few days after Forma.ai went live at Stryker, Nabeil got a call from Suzanne:
“It’s hard to believe this thing is working; the silence from sales ops is deafening.”Suzanne Shadgett, CFO of Stryker Canada
Just the way Forma.ai likes it.
The Forma.ai office downtown is beautiful: glistening pine floors and chrome fittings, with glass walls against an exposed brick backdrop. But it’s eerily quiet. And most of the employees will never see it.
The company rapidly outgrew Nabeil’s kitchen after the early successes of Stryker, taking on several enterprise customers and institutional investors. Headcount doubled. Then it doubled again. And again.
The coronavirus pandemic was the first real test of the Forma.ai engine, which it passed with flying colors.
The team moved into that office on Toronto’s trendy westside about a week before lockdown in March 2020 but it’s already too small for their return.
Quietly, the Forma.ai engine grows smarter and more powerful.
The evolution of Sales Compensation Automation has begun.