Hi Neil, could you start us off with an intro to yourself and Ravin.AI?
Sure. My name’s Neil Alliston, and I am the VP of Product, and the European General Manager at a computer vision startup called Ravin AI. Prior to Ravin, I was a Product Lead within Shell’s digital ventures team, and while working there was seconded into BCG digital ventures, who are a consultancy that supports corporates in launching and growing tech products and services.
At Ravin, we’re using computer vision to automate the inspection of vehicles for damage. The easiest way to think about it is to think of the last time you rented a car. There would probably have been someone there who would take a look at the car and walk around looking for scratches, dents, and issues with the vehicle. With our technology, the car can just drive seamlessly through a camera system, which uses standard off-the-shelf CCTV security cameras, and we automatically produce that condition report so you don’t need to manually inspect the vehicle anymore.
So continuing on with regular, off-the-shelf products rather than specialist equipment is an important part of your roadmap?
Yeah, there are companies out there producing systems where there’s a big tunnel that the car drives through, and specialist lighting where the car stops in the middle, and the whole thing is done with very advanced camera systems. We saw that, and we realised that these systems wouldn’t work in many use cases, they’re just not a feasible or scalable solution. Instead, we said, ‘Can we do this through standard cameras, or even through a smartphone.’
If you think about the process of renting, sharing a vehicle, or Zipcar, etc., right now, the way [they] manage the condition of that vehicle is very, very primitive and typically involves a book in the glove box, in which someone is asked to record if anything happens. There’s no accountability, and often means vehicles aren’t in the state customers expect them to be in.
With a smartphone, though, you could manage the condition of a whole fleet of vehicles, just by walking around the cars, taking a 360 scan, and then processing it through our AI system to produce a condition report. It’s the basis of our entire product, and we’re keen to see where else that can take us.
You’ve mentioned scalability; do you currently work on a b-2-c or b-2-b setup?
Right now we’re focused on the business side. Our customers are people like Avis, and we also work in the car sales space, working with some large OEMs, dealerships, and online auction platforms. But looking forward, we definitely see a path to putting this in the hands of the end user, renter, or car buyer, for them to be able to use our technology.
How are your roles as VP of Product and European GM split?
It’s really the reality of small companies where people do need to wear multiple hats. The company was actually founded in London, but with our R&D all being done in Israel. Shortly after the original founder, our CEO, who is Israeli himself, moved with his family back to Israel. So since he was leading the entire business out of London previously, we then needed the overseeing of our commercial relationships based in Europe, to be managed out of London.
So I took on my second hat when he went to Israel. It’s been interesting because I think it’s challenging not just to be involved in the product side of the business, but a full spectrum of pitching to customers, negotiating commercial contracts, dealing with legal and HR etc… it definitely adds variety and interest to the role.
I think as we scale it will be natural for my role to become two different roles. But in the meantime, I do think it you can add a lot to your product vision and product development, having that commercial focus, and by interacting with not just the users, but also the managers and the customers — the people who actually pay for it. I think brings something additional and important to the way you go about managing your products.
How different does that product look now, compared to when you started?
Very different! I was the first product hire and at that point, we didn’t have a product roadmap. The software team was probably about five people when I joined, and the software was being built on the fly by the engineering team without a clear direction of where we were going. So we’ve really gone from nothing to now having all the typical processes and artefacts in place, and everything is updated regularly now all the foundations are in place.
As a startup, how far ahead do you plan?
Our roadmap is a 12-month roadmap, and we have aspirations which are longer than that, but we don’t feel that it’s worth putting an awful lot of effort into planning them out,
just because of the unpredictability. Ravin’s been going around 18 months now, and as we expand we will definitely see things evolve and change. 12 months is the planning horizon we figure makes the most sense; we review every 8 weeks, across tech, business development, operations, customer service so we can support our future as a business.
You were at some large companies, before Ravin; what prompted that change of scene, and how has it been so far?
I originally started as a mechanical engineer, and within the first few years made the transition from, I guess, a more traditional engineering career into the tech space. It was
a new and developing area and I moved into what was called at the time Shell’s Digital Businesses Team, and took on a commercial-slash-product role. That was great and very interesting, and I think a fantastic training ground to test lots of different things and to explore different ways of working and different technologies. And of course, there was always a lot of support from the business, but for me, there was always something that felt a bit too safe about it.
As much as we’re trying to implement this ‘startup’ environment, at the end of the day, it was still a ‘corporate’ career path that most of us were on, which I think makes you just slightly less engaged with what you do. I felt it was about the time in my career to jump into something much smaller, and really feel that sense of ownership and feel that sense that what I was doing was providing a big contribution to the company I was working in.
What does the future hold for Ravin?
There’s a lot of uncertainty right now in the mobility space. We’re seeing some of our customers struggle, but there are also opportunities for us to support other use cases. With Ravin we can provide customers with the ability to remotely manage the condition of their vehicle, which is something that is likely to become increasingly important over the coming months.
In general over the next couple of years we will build off the fantastic foundations we’ve set up. We will scale up our fixed camera system operations globally and will be investing in developing our mobile product, allowing non-experts to quickly and easily carry out a vehicle inspection using just their smartphone.
We will have to manage the changing business environment and for me, that’s where good product management is so important. Being able to adapt the vision and strategy and keep an external view while making sure internally everything is set up to support world class product delivery.