HR Tech Interview with Rob Smith, Founder at Team Huddle

Journey into Tech

Hi, Rob. Please tell us about your role and the team / technology you handle at Team Huddle.

I am a founder at Team Huddle and charged with laying out the strategy for the company, product and eventual world domination… In addition, I am primarily responsible for fundraising and our business model, which follows a bottom-up SaaS approach (consumer SaaS).

At Team Huddle, we follow a lean startup approach and have two primary teams: Development and Marketing, each led by my co-founders. Eric Schlueter, a systems architect and tech guru, leads our Development team and is responsible for building out our products, feature sets, as well as QA/testing. Our Marketing & Product team is led by Mary Lara, a marketing expert and UX designer, who oversees product design, communications and everything customer-facing. We’re slowly transitioning into a more traditional consumer marketing workflow as the initial product nears completion.

What is Team Huddle and what does your product / service offering look like?

We’re building the first end-to-end AI-powered meeting platform. That includes everything from scheduling to planning to hosting and meeting notes. Why? Because we truly believe that meetings in their current form suck. I don’t mean that to be controversial, but we asked dozens of people across a number of industries and company sizes, and there’s a universal consensus: Meetings really suck.

The worst part is that people spend most of their workdays in one meeting or another, and we know most meetings are wasting our time and eroding what little productivity and work/life balance we’re clinging to. Essentially, the status quo has people working for meetings, and Team Huddle is ensuring meetings work better for people.

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Could you tell us more about ScheduleIQ and how it works for remote workplaces?

Our first product, ScheduleIQ, is the world’s first human-centric meeting scheduler, helping people find the right time for any meeting or conversation. Unlike current solutions that focus on the meeting, we instead focus on the people. Connecting to attendee calendars, ScheduleIQ understands how you work best, your preferences and your industry. It not only tells you when you can meet, but also what the absolute best time for that 45-minute department meeting is. We’re not about finding an available time, but the best possible time.

ScheduleIQ also focuses on work-life balance and burnout. It generates a ScheduleScore, which is like a credit score for your schedule based on adherence to best practices and benchmarking with industry and job averages. It also generates more specific burnout and work-life balance scores. We plan on adding resources for individuals on our platform that help address these issues before mental meltdown. With less real face time in remote teams, it’s more important than ever to have automated platforms help people identify stressors leading to burnout which otherwise may have been picked up earlier in office.

This is an especially poignant problem for partial or fully remote workforces since they spend more time in meetings thanin office counterparts. Teleconferencing solutions like Zoom or WebEx mean meetings are easier than ever to get on the calendar. The issue is that as meeting workload has rapidly increased, we’ve failed to address the meeting participants. ScheduleIQ and our upcoming other solutions are here to address meeting quality and work-life balance which affects remote teams to a higher extent.

Tell us how the current Meeting SaaS industry has changed during the pandemic and how it can improve.

 The industry has clearly exploded with dozens of solutions launching in a relatively short time span. While this may seem crowded with a number of clone-like solutions and a ton of copy-paste implementations, it’s still an interesting time in this space. There is a general consensus that meetings are a large, lucrative problem in search of a solution that has yet to take hold. That translates to an opportunity for entrepreneurs with a fresh take on meetings and how to approach them.

While meetings have been an active space for years now, the pandemic has put fuel on the fire. Likewise, working from home has been growing in recent years, but with the majority of the workforce moving to WFH all of a sudden in 2021 and onwards, the need for change in this space has increased exponentially.

During our most recent fundraising round, we saw firsthand just how active this space is, with a variety of investors looking to enter the space. While this was tempered by the risk aversion brought on by the pandemic, we did see a lot of money distributed, including Team Huddle.

While other industry players have focused on making it easier to create meetings, Team Huddle’s goal is to make meetings better for the people joining them. We believe that much of the industry has lost sight of the real purpose of meetings, so Team Huddle is here to prioritize people’s productivity and work-life balance by enabling the right amount of meetings at the best times, rather than filling up calendars to the brim.

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How has your role evolved through the pandemic crisis? How did you stay on top of your game?

 There’s no doubt that the stress of the pandemic and lockdowns have taken a toll on myself and the whole team for that matter. I’m a naturally social person and the problem-solving/creative process, which is essential to an early startup like Team Huddle, works best when you can collaborate with others. It’s been tough to dream up and then build a product from the ground up without ever seeing one another in person.

During the pandemic, my role has constantly shifted between usual duties and a chief motivator. Everyone on my team has suffered through some form of mental stress over the past 18 months. Helping them through these challenges while staying on track through inevitable early startup ups and downs has become a growing part of my responsibilities. That’s not to say I haven’t struggled personally with mental health and stress during this period. I’ve struggled a number of times to stay clear headed when being locked in quarantine or unable to collaborate fully with my team members, but we’ve worked through it together.

We’ve found that making time for regular virtual happy hours, lunches and game nights is a great way to feel connected even when we’re apart. Only recently have we been able to travel to some extent and see one another, which has given me new appreciation for in-person interactions which are irreplaceable in certain situations.

One lesson you learned by working with technology and people during the pandemic?

 Technology makes meeting with people easier, but potentially less effective. I know that might seem odd from a company that’s building technology for meetings, but it’s true. By using technologies like Zoom and Calendly, people are meeting more than ever since they’re so easy to set up. The questions we’ve failed to answer is do we need to meet more? Are we meeting too much already? Are we considering people’s work-life balance?

We noticed at the start of the pandemic a significant uptick in meetings as we went into 100% remote workplaces. After several deep discussions with my co-founders we decided that for our team we needed to minimize the number of meetings and group them together to leave big schedule gaps open for other work. This is how designers and developers work best, and we needed their calendars to work for them, rather than against them.

We took a lot of those internal learnings, and what we feel are best practices, and put them into our first product, ScheduleIQ. So not only have we learned from early lessons during the pandemic, but we’ve built those lessons into our technology that we hope to share with the rest of the world for free.

How do you think AI and Data Analytics could completely transform the whole meeting experience in the coming months?

Our platform is built on extensive year-long research that forms the cornerstone belief that meetings are broken and can be fixed by optimizations via AI + Data as well as more widespread application of best practices. While some changes will happen on the timescale of months, more significant improvements will come 1-2 years from now.

The reason for this projected timeline is that optimizing and using AI effectively is impossible without sufficient datasets. For Team Huddle, that boils down to users. And while we’re on track to have enough data to fully power our AI optimizations by Q4/2021, we’re being extraordinarily diligent around security and anonymization. We believe it’s necessary to take this time to build a secure product that our customers can trust. We will explain to customers explicitly what information we’re looking at, why we think we need it, and how we’re going to anonymize it to make sure we’re doing everything we can to provide a great user experience while keeping your data safe.

So we believe a complete transformation of the meeting space based on AI is not only coming, but inevitable. The timeline, however, is more likely in the order of years rather than months. The good news is, once ready, imagine harnessing the power of millions of meetings, data and agendas to power your product planning meeting, VC-Pitch or 1-on-1. We will never be able to go back to a world of too big, too frequent, poorly planned meetings that we’re suffering through today.

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How would you define ‘responsible AI’ in the pandemic era through the lens of a general customer?

Team Huddle is part of a new wave of AI companies that focuses less on optimizations in deep technology and ML algorithms, and more on using Artificial Intelligence to power end-user experience in a real and tangible way. Up until recently, most AI solutions used learnings from large databases to drive quicker and better results and insights for users. It’s powerful, but limited in that the user experience is unaffected and the AI component is hidden in the backend. An example is Google. You type something in and, highly relevant results pop up, but the AI is implied rather than obvious. This masks a process where biases and other skewed calculations can have deep ethical implications.

The next wave will use big data and AI techniques, such as machine learning, to power vastly different user experiences in an explicit way. For example, our ScheduleIQ platform helps people find the best time for any meeting.

During our onboarding we learn a lot about the individual including job title and work habits. Based on that information we’re not only able to recommend the best times that are unique to you, but also adapt the user experience and UI to how you meet. A project manager, and likely meeting host, might be presented with a slightly different flow than a sales associate when going through our smart scheduler.

This means the line between optimized and biased is blurring. Where one person might see a highly optimized and personalized workflow, another may see features locked off or made less easily accessible based on their demographics or job descriptions. The solution, in our opinion, is through transparency and control. Transparency in explaining why each piece of information is being collected and how it will be used. Control in allowing users to opt-in or out of these optimizations as they see fit. Without transparency and control, customer confidence in AI solutions will inevitably erode and lead to eventual AI distrust.

Thank you, Rob! That was fun and hope to see you back on  HR Tech Series soon.

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Rob Smith is founder at Team Huddle, a new end-to-end AI-powered meeting platform designed to address the universal business problem of ineffective meetings. With 15 years of leadership experience in AI, technology and marketing firms, Rob understands that people work — and meet — differently across roles and industries. With his team, Rob is on a mission to put people at the center of meetings by leveraging AI and machine learning to set people up to do their best work and achieve positive work/life balance. Previously, he founded three other startups and served as interim CxO and advisory roles at a half dozen VC-backed Bay Area startups over the past three years.

Huddle logo

For years, people have been facing a longstanding problem: meetings suck. Team Huddle’s mission is simple: make meetings better. Team Huddle is an end-to-end AI-powered meeting solution designed to address the universal business problem of ineffective meetings. Using machine learning in combination with data and best practices to optimize meetings, Team Huddle puts people at the center of meetings to achieve positive work-life balance and improve productivity