SEDNA Systems Improves How Teams All Over The World Work

Note: A version of this article was first published on December 19, 2020 at FreightWaves

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Author’s Disclosure: SEDNA Systems issued me a small number of stock options in October 2019 for my role advising the team while they navigated the fundraising process leading up to the company successfully closing its seed round in 2019.

In this installment of the AI in Supply Chain series (#AIinSupplyChain) we explore how SEDNA Systems, an early stage startup based in London is helping large teams in companies all around the world manage their work-related email more effectively so that individual employees can focus more of their time on actually getting substantive work done in the limited time that each employee has.

SEDNA Systems was founded in May 2017. It has 58 employees distributed across offices in London, Singapore, and Vancouver.

Intelligent Team Communication Software — Born Out of Years Building Software For Shipping

I first met Bill Dobie, Founder & CEO of SEDNA Systems, in February 2017. We initially connected on Twitter. Then during one of his visits to New York City, we met for coffee. Bill had read my blog post, “Industry Study: Ocean Freight Shipping (#Startups) which I published early that month and we met to chat about the sorts of things early-stage venture capitalists and technology startup founders discuss when they meet for coffee.

Bill described the idea for SEDNA to me, at the time he was still Founder and Chairman of Stage 3 Systems, a boutique software development company that specialized in developing software solutions mainly for non-container shipping companies around the world.

Over the course of a long career in the shipping industry, Bill had noticed that the way freight shipping companies and companies in the commodities industry use email created severe bottlenecks in the ability of teams to get work done. This reduced productivity and increased compliance risk.

We discussed why email is an imperfect communications medium for large teams working on big, complex transactions or projects in which several people need to be aware of what’s happening, but in which various aspects of the project or transaction has a different person-in-charge. This problem is made worse when the transaction or project is of the sort that spans several different organizations that are responsible for providing professional services related to each transaction.

At that time Slack had started a push into the enterprise, and there were many conversations taking place amongst professionals in supply chain logistics about the potential for them to incorporate Slack into their daily workflow. We spent some time talking about why Slack might work some of the time, in situations where complexity and the burden of compliance are relatively low, respectively, and in situations where teams are relatively small in size. This is not representative of the scenarios Bill had encountered.

So what does SEDNA Systems do for its customers?

Mike Chalfen, is a venture capitalist based in London. He co-led SEDNA Systems’ recently closed Series A round of financing. In “Why I invested in SEDNA Systems, he says “It is smart team communication software that classifies, time-stamps, and unifies messages, data, and documentation in one system. Team collaboration and actions become searchable, auditable, and aligned. Contexts for decisions made in complex business processes become scrutable.”

SEDNA Systems’ Secret Sauce

I asked,What is the secret sauce that makes SEDNA Systems successful? What is unique about your approach? Deep Learning seems to be all the rage these days. Does SEDNA use a form of Deep Learning? Reinforcement Learning? Supervised Learning? Unsupervised Learning? Federated Learning? Natural Language Processing? How do you handle the lack of high quality data for AI and Machine Learning applied to legacy industries? Is this an issue that SEDNA has encountered?”

Lakshmi Baskaran, VP of Engineering at SEDNA Systems explained that, “At the core of what we’re doing is breaking teams free from the constraints — and endless cycles — of traditional email. We’re creating a modern, agile, and programmable solution to optimize team communication and workflows.”

She added that, “SEDNA’s secret sauce is our smart algorithms, APIs and search built around this new modern flow. Our software automatically tags an incoming email into specific transactions. This feature ensures that messages that are tagged by our smart algorithm lands in the inbox of the right individuals so that they can take action on it immediately.”

She emphasized that, “SEDNA’s search allows faster turnaround of search results in a fraction of second.”

Baskaran went on to explain that, “SEDNA is built to unify with any enterprise application that has an API exposed for integration. This enables our users to interact with multiple applications and navigate end to end business workflows, all from within SEDNA. Our customers can build their internal application using our low code toolkit into their message stream unlocking huge value.”

She added that, “We are currently working on elevating SEDNA’s ability to analyze and summarize team behaviour through customer dashboards. The objective is that through these dashboards, we can give our users actionable, digestible insights into the way their teams operate, collaborate and execute. Our goal is to significantly increase organisational performance and efficiency, not monitoring of employees.”

“How do you move the flow of context faster and smarter so that the goods can be delivered more quickly? That’s a team effort,” she said.

“Rain or shine, SEDNA has always kept us on our toes with a lot of product and tech excitement coming our way; we keep an eye on the horizon. We are not rebuilding email clients, but rather redefining how organizations communicate internally and externally, thus improving their efficiency. Balancing that vision against product demands to match legacy email habits takes strong leadership.” Baskaran said.

Returning to my question about SEDNA’s secret sauce, Bill Dobie pointed out that while they describe SEDNA as ‘smart’ because of the context it can act on by being connected to a customers transaction system, the system does not currently itself employ any of the AI or machine learning approaches I described earlier; however several of their customers have applied these approaches by using the SEDNA message stream API as a clean and compliant data source of their own content.

This is a point worth emphasizing. Throughout the 6 months during which I have been researching and writing this #AIinSupplyChain series, the issue of data quality has come up repeatedly. The lack of data of sufficient quality to feed sophisticated AI and Machine Learning initiatives is the single issue that is most responsible for ensuring that such initiatives are dead-on-arrival within companies in legacy industries.

Although it sounds mundane, what SEDNA has built now makes it possible for its customers to create data of sufficient quality for the AI and Machine Learning initiatives they may wish to implement. That’s a very big deal, and it may go a long way to explain why SEDNA’s customers seem so effusive about the product.

In a conversation on Twitter, Ethan Mollick, a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania highlighted the findings from “Workplace Knowledge Flows” a January paper by; Jason Sandvik of Tulane University, Richard Saouma of Michigan State University, Nathan Seegert of the University of Utah, and Christopher Stanton of Harvard Business School and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

In the paper the authors state, “Our findings show that individuals stand to gain significantly from talking about workplace problems with coworkers, but they often fail to do so because of frictions that prevent them from seeking help. Similar frictions are likely important in many settings, and the gains from understanding and addressing them have the potential to be quite large.”

They add that, “For organizations, these results may help explain the relatively limited takeup of remote hiring or other forms of alternative work arrangements, as spillovers from coworkers are important, even for individual work. We conclude that management practices within firms are important for unlocking the benefits of individual interactions that have been documented in cities and other contexts.”

In response to Ethan’s comments, Bill observed that “One of the upticks that occurred at scale for our customers @sednanetwork during Covid has been massive use of commenting on incoming messages across teams. It wasn’t just action items or acknowledgement but colleagues sharing background, ideas & serendipity — water cooler talk.” (STET)

The phenomenon Bill is describing enriches the data that SEDNA’s customers have about the business processes that surround the complex transactions their employees are collaborating on internally and with outside partners. Enriched data makes it easier to determine context and intent, and to reduce uncertainty around decision-making.

Customers and Competition

Bill Dobie tells me that SEDNA Systems has 70 customers using its product to enable the work done by more than 2000 teams distributed across 80 countries. Glencore Agriculture, NORDEN, Bunge, and Western Bulk are some of the companies that are using SEDNA Systems’ platform to facilitate team collaboration.

The team’s initial customer development centered around the freight logistics and commodities industries because of Bill’s prior familiarity with those markets. However, the team has begun to find interest from companies in other industries characterised by similar needs for team-based or shared work communication and collaboration related to complex transaction- and project-based work.

This does not surprise me.

Bill was one of two showcase presenters during The New York Supply Chain Meetup’s #TNYSCM11: Supply Chain Logistics Technology in February 2019, where he gave an extensive and very in-depth demo of SEDNA’s platform.

At the end of the event, when attendees were engaged in conversations with one another, an executive from the commercial real estate industry asked for his business card, and explained to him that the problems SEDNA Systems has set out to solve is a perennial and chronic problem in her industry. She urged him to start investing in customer development among companies in commercial real estate, and even said she would make some personal introductions whenever SEDNA is ready.

From the perspective of a current customer, Sture Freudenreich, Director and Head of IT at NORDEN is quoted in collateral from SEDNA as saying that, “Switching to SEDNA gave us the chance to re-examine our workflows and potentially save hours every day in team collaboration. Automatic tagging removes the need to manually tag up to 2,000 emails per day, which was becoming a real time sink. It enables individual users to distill thousands of messages down to only the critical ones they need to address.”

Jacob Koch Blicher, Operations Lead at NORDEN is what one might describe as a super-user of SEDNA; In addition to using SEDNA he has helped to develop some of the key features that are used daily by employees and teams in the operations department at NORDEN.

I asked him to help me understand how SEDNA has changed how he gets work done and how it has improved the daily productivity of employees at NORDEN.

He said, “SEDNA takes our old-fashioned reading of email to a completely new level, which I have never seen before. Using SEDNA, reading emails has become much less time consuming and the app gives us instant access even when we are on the phone talking to customers.”

He explained further that, “Communication via email is still the most common tool in our industry and that’s why SEDNA is needed. The system makes it very fast to navigate and organize the thousands of emails we receive every day within NORDEN. It is all about being more efficient and saving time, but most importantly we now have a system which meaningfully helps employees make the work day as optimal as possible and frees up time for direct service internally and externally.”

NORDEN is based in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was founded in 1871, and provides global dry cargo and product tankers and related professional services to the world’s trading community. It is listed on the Nasdaq Copenhagen stock exchange as a part of the OMX Nordic Mid Cap index.

Bill tells me that SEDNA now has customers in logistics, legal services, procurement, financial services, sales, human resources, management consulting, engineering, project management, and technology. He says some customers report that each user is saving 90 minutes or more each day, and that other customers compare SEDNA very favorably against the alternative offerings from other workplace productivity and collaboration software vendors. He says that the average SEDNA Systems user spends more than three hours a day on the platform, and that the top quartile of users spend their entire day on the platform.

Team Communications, Collaboration, and Workplace Productivity — Recent Market Background

To give me a sense of investor interest in team communications, collaboration, and workplace productivity, I asked John Paul Hampstead, Director, Passport Research and Head of Communities at FreightWaves about the recent news and funding announcements relevant to SEDNA’s market.

It has been busy.

John tells me that the most noteworthy announcements are: Front raised a $59M Series C at a $859M post-money valuation (post) in January. Notion raised a $50M round at a $2B post in April. Lucid raised a $52M Series D at an $852M post in April. India-based Postman raised a $150M Series C at a $2B post in June. UiPath raised $225M at a $10.2B post in July. MURAL raised $118M at a $574M post in August. Airtable raised a $185M Series D at a $2.85B post in September. Dialpad raised a $100M Series E at a $1.2B post in October. Asana sold shares to the public through a direct listing in September and now trades on the NYSE.

Finally, in early December, Salesforce announced that it would buy Slack in a $27.7 billion transaction.

Generally when a startup raises capital from venture capitalists, the post-money valuation is equal to the sum of the pre-money valuation and the amount of capital raised.

Workplace productivity, team communications and collaboration software is currently very popular amongst investors. It’s part of a future of work trend that some venture capitalists have been focused on for a few years.

Interest in the category has increased given that COVID19 has forced office workers all over the world to switch to working from home, compelling employers everywhere to acquire technology to facilitate teamwork and collaboration even when people cannot be in physical proximity with one another in traditional offices.

The upshot is that many large employers are reporting an increase in productivity. This is unexpected, and counterintuitive. However, it is a phenomenon that is unfolding in more than one industry, and across national borders.

Regular readers of this column may remember that I discussed the issue of companies needing new technology to help them navigate operating during the pandemic in Commentary: Can supply chain tech startups survive COVID-19? (April 9) and Commentary: How supply chain startups are surviving COVID-19 (April 23).

The team at SEDNA says that Front is SEDNA’s closest competitor. However, Bill Dobie is quick to point out that the two products are quite different from one another.

According to a report published by Grand View Research in August, the global market for workplace productivity, collaboration and team communications software should be worth $102.98 billion by 2027, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 13.4%.

What’s Next For SEDNA Systems?

In May, SEDNA recruited Avishalom Shalit (Vish) as its new Head of Data Science and Analytics. I asked him to give me a sense of what he and his team will be building, now that SEDNA has proved that its system can handle the practical and mundane communications and collaboration problems that impair team productivity, and that it can also handle the enormous daily volume of email that teams all over the world wrestle with.

He reminded me that “Email is universal, it is the open standard for communicating in business which makes it central to how people across the world get their work done. So much of how organisations operate is buried in these emails, and there is a wealth of knowledge and experience that could be translated to value.”

“However, email was not built to manage the kinds of complex information that organisations use it for — it breaks down when multiple parties communicate around a transaction, losing context and breaking the flow of the conversation, which leads to uncertainty,” he said.

Explaining further, Vish added that “Organisations want the right levels of context and intelligence to help them arrive at the right outcomes — particularly as complex communication evolves. They want to know what has happened and the reasons why. They want to know how things are connected, which enables their people to work smarter as a result.”

“The team at SEDNA believes that by elevating this to SEDNA’s users, each user can act effortlessly and with trust in the provenance of the information they are sharing with one another as they go about accomplishing their work,” he said.

His goal for 2021 is for SEDNA to go beyond the automatic organisation and routing of email. The platform will go a step further by connecting the dots more holistically by extracting the valuable business and operational information that is encoded and trapped within the email communications flowing in and out of the companies that are SEDNA’s customers.

In his own words, “In 2021 SEDNA’s platform will gain the ability to integrate the knowledge that is contained in the emails into a coherent picture of actionable insights.”

To accomplish this Vish says the team at SEDNA will start by implementing and applying already existing Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques.

NLP is the subfield of computer science that is focused on the use of software to automatically manipulate natural language such that machines can process and analyze the content of human communication from speech, documents, and other communication mediums. The goal of NLP is to enable the combination of people and computer systems to become more efficient and effective at making decisions and solving problems.

NLP is difficult because of the nature of human communication. Vish explained that while SEDNA will avoid reinventing the wheel, he anticipates that for certain critical and unique problems their customers encounter, he and his colleagues will have to create new solutions to problems that have not already been solved by other NLP practitioners.

A February 2019 analysis by Tractica found that the “utilization of NLP is expanding quickly across 17 different industries, encompassing a total of 44 discrete use cases” and “artificial intelligence (AI) technologies such as machine learning and deep learning are dazzling in and of themselves, but leveraged in isolation, they are limited in their potential” unless they are used in combination with NLP.

As Aïda Bejgane, Head of Marketing at SEDNA put it to me during our conversation, the team at SEDNA is proud of what they have built and the problems that they are helping SEDNA’s customers solve when it comes to team collaboration and productivity through better internal and external communications. The most exciting goal the team is now pursuing is for SEDNA to become central to how customers’ interact with other systems inside their organisation and link that work to other companies in their network.

Conclusion

If you are a team working on innovations that you believe have the potential to significantly refashion global supply chains we’d love to tell your story in FreightWaves. I am easy to reach on LinkedIn and Twitter. Alternatively, you can reach out to any member of the editorial team at FreightWaves at media@freightwaves.com.

The reference archive — dig deeper into the #AIinSupplyChain Series with FreightWaves

About The Author:

Brian Laung Aoaeh writes about the reinvention of global supply chains, from the perspective of an early-stage technology venture capitalist. He is the co-founder of REFASHIOND Ventures, an early stage venture capital fund that is being built to invest in startups creating innovations to refashion global supply chain networks. He is also the co-founder of The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation (The New York Supply Chain Meetup). His background covers the gamut from scientific research, data and statistical analysis, corporate development and investing for a single-family office, and then building an early stage venture fund from scratch — immediately prior to REFASHIOND. Brian holds an MBA in Financial Instruments and Markets, General Management from NYU’s Stern School of Business. He also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics & Physics from Connecticut College. Brian is a charter holding member of the CFA Institute. He is also an adjunct professor of operations and supply chain management in the Department of Technology Management and Innovation at the New York University School of Engineering.

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Brian Laung Aoaeh, CFA

Early-stage VC — Supply Chain Tech. REFASHIOND. #TWSCF. NYUTandon. FreightWaves. | I’m not afraid to be different. Blog @ www.innovationfootprints.com.