This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on February 11, 2019 - February 17, 2019
At 50, Peter Yoong is a well-known figure in the technology industry. Like every other young tech-savvy entrepreneur at the time, he started his first dotcom in 1996, three years before Jack Ma founded Alibaba. It crashed and burnt when the dotcom bubble burst at the turn of the millenium.
Undaunted, Yoong went straight back into the fray, kick-starting several companies, including the Yellow Brick Road, which sells online advertisements for international companies. This would morph into a marketing solutions provider that currently operates in five countries across Southeast Asia.
Yoong sees himself as a venture builder, but he is also an early-stage investor who invested in start-ups such as RinggitPlus.com which offered price comparisons for financial products.
People who know Yoong often say he tends to be ahead of his time. “The company I started in 1996 was an example. It was a real-time trading platform similar to Alibaba and was endorsed by the World Trade Organisation. But it was far too early for the market [and did not take off]. We ran out of cash in 2000,” he smiles.
Even today, after making his money with several successful ventures, he is not ready to call it a day. He teamed up with Jay Huang to set up another start-up, Pulsifi Sdn Bhd, in May last year, aimed at changing the global human resources (HR) industry.
Pulsifi is an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled platform that helps corporates find the right staff for their various positions. Backed by a team of organisational psychologists and data scientists, the platform analyses a candidate’s hard skills and personality traits in mere seconds to let the recruiter know if he would be a good fit for the organisation.
Imagine a recruiter poring over several hundred, if not thousands, of résumés, trying to figure out which candidate to hire. It would be a huge task and he would need to be careful to get it right as talent is a company’s most important asset. As author and business consultant Jim Collins puts it, “Great vision without great people is irrelevant.”
“There is quite a lot of data in one résumé. Imagine if there are 300 or 3,000 of them. How do you remember all this and judge who the best is? It is almost impossible for a human to process,” says Yoong.
“So, understanding these résumés is what we do. We digitise them, upload them on our platform and let the technology pick suitable candidates. We can map out the hard skills of these people such as their working experience, competency level, knowledge and skills they specialise in.”
However, the platform’s ability to assess and predict the personality traits of a job candidate is its main selling point, he adds. It could estimate these traits based on the candidate’s writing style or intonation during a video interview. The results could be more comprehensive if the candidate undergoes a psychometric test designed to help recruiters measure the candidate’s cognitive abilities, attitudes, personality and knowledge.
The final result is displayed on the computer screen in the form of a “word cloud”, where different personality traits, represented by different descriptions, pop up in a word cluster. The bigger the word, the more dominant the trait, giving the recruiter a high-level view of the person.
Closing the gap between hard skills and soft traits
But it is Pulsifi’s ability to gauge a candidate’s personality (also known as soft traits) that provides more value. That is because although recruiters hire based on hard skills, they should also factor in the personality traits to see if the candidate is a good fit.
“If you ask people how to make a great hire, most would say it is about understanding someone’s personality traits. Is he passionate in his work? Is he a team player or good communicator? Does he have leadership potential? These are descriptions of a good candidate,” says Yoong.
“However, if you look at the HR processes today, the recruiters look more at hard skills. They post a job vacancy online and wait for people to apply. They look at the candidates’ résumés and then maybe use LinkedIn to look at their hard skills, competencies and work experience [before calling them in for a face-to-face interview].
“There is a huge disconnect between what people are looking for and what they are looking at when it comes to their companies’ most important assets.”
Like many of the CEOs he has talked to, Yoong prioritises personality traits over hard skills when hiring. He has almost two decades of experience, running various companies or acting as a mentor, so he knows of what he speaks.
For instance, he once hired a quality control engineer as a media sales person for CtrlShift, a marketing solutions company he had founded. He would not have hired the person under normal circumstances, but he was impressed by the candidate’s passion and eagerness during the interview.
“I normally do not hire people with a background like his. He came from a completely different industry. He had zero experience in sales, media and marketing. But I hired him and it was the right decision. He became the top guy in the company,” says Yoong.
It was only a matter of time before the person took up a leadership position at Huawei Technologies Co Ltd. He is now group managing director of a media company.
Because of these and other similar experiences, Yoong wondered whether it would be possible to use AI to quickly predict a candidate’s personality traits. And that was how he came up with the idea for Pulsifi.
He talked to leaders in the business community as well as the human resources industry and they all thought it was a great idea. So, he raised US$1.2 million and kick-started the company in March last year.
In January, Pulsifi expanded its team to 17 people and roped in corporate clients, including Nestlé Malaysia. In its testimony, Nestlé said the start-up helped the company save 2,600 working hours and improved the quality of candidates hired during its management trainee programme.
“In the past, Nestlé was only able to respond to its candidates within three weeks of the programme. They could lose some of the best talents in those 21 days as the candidates were also applying for jobs at other companies. When it used our system, the response time was slashed to three days,” says Yoong.
Since then, the start-up has gone on to secure more clients and established partnerships with IBM, SAP and Amazon Web Services to improve its product quality and reach. It is going for its next round of funding and has already secured half the intended amount.
Scale fast across the globe
Yoong continues to develop Pulsifi’s platform and AI capability, which helps companies to analyse its existing employees using a multi-dimensional approach for training, promotion and succession planning purposes. This means having an in-depth and comprehensive look at the ability and growth potential of each employee by tapping into the company’s internal data pool to look at their performance ratings as well as how well they met their key performance indicators (KPIs). This data is combined with an employee’s hard skills and personality traits to produce a top-down picture of what the employees are good at or lack.
Yoong says this is a better way for a company to help its employees realise their full potential than how it is done at present. “For instance, the general perception of a good salesman is that he is outgoing, aggressive and charismatic. But in reality, he could be an introvert, good listener, consultative and have a strategic mindset.”
He points out that a good salesperson’s ability does not necessarily follow a template. “It should be tied back to many other things, including the products sold, the kind of clients, the support provided by the company, the company’s culture and other things. This is what we are looking at.”
The results can be combined with comments and feedback from peers and co-workers for an even better result.
Yoong was reticent about how much money Pulsifi has made thus far, except to say that it has been growing while the platform continues to evolve. Its clients have big budgets and could potentially spend more money on the platform.
Yoong plans to scale quickly and for the short term, is willing to sacrifice profitability for growth. Accordingly, the proceeds from its second round of funding will be used for expansion purposes. He is eyeing the US, European Union and Australian markets.
It has not been plain sailing but by now, Yoong is a veteran of the start-up game and used to the knocks most entrepreneurs face when they start companies. His biggest challenge so far has been the huge delay in delivering Pulsifi’s first product. He was supposed to release it in December 2017, but only launched it in March last year. He felt bad for the investors because the delay meant that the company could run out of money even before it kicked off.
The delay was mainly due to the complexity of the product as there were no other examples around the world for the company to look at. “We were building a hardcore and deep AI engine and doing everything from scratch. We estimated the amount of time we would need, but the product was just too complex,” says Yoong.
Being new, there were other challenges. Some companies were resistant to using AI for recruitment as their HR departments were more focused on things such as payroll management. Also, because there wasn’t a similar platform anywhere else in the world, they had nothing to compare it with.
“However, the overall feedback is very encouraging. It is a unique product with big potential,” says Yoong, who aims to grow it into a US$1 billion company in five years.
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