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Episode 75: Will robots replace us all?

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

Where’s technology leading us?
Is there a status quo?
Will robots rule the planet?
Has the Kool-Aid finally kicked in?

Abhijeet Dwivedi, COO at Zenefits and Jason Mills, Director of Sales and Success at Expensify have their theories. On Xero Gravity #75, these two Silicon Valley tech leaders play a bit of popcorn with host Elizabeth Ü, jumping around to a variety of great entrepreneurial topics.

What follows are their stories, advice and predictions on and for small business. All of it led by an HR nightmare, incentivizing environmental compliance and how to remove the friction from work processes. Bookend that with their glimpse of what the world may look like 200 years from now, complete with gigafactories, and it’s absolutely a podcast that’ll make you ponder what business means to you. Now kick back and pop on those headphones.

Small Business Resources:

Episode transcript

Host: Elizabeth Ü [EÜ]

Guest: Abhijeet Dwivedi [AD]

Guest: Jason Mills [JM]

EÜ: Hi everyone, I’m Elizabeth Ü and this is Xero Gravity.

This week we’re going big with guests Abhijeet Dwivedi, COO at Zenefits and Jason Mills, director of sales and success at Expensify.

Get ready for a conversation that starts in HR and quickly morphs into a discussion on the future of work, how we spend our time and the role of technology in taking us there.

AD: There is a world where a lot of this pain and minutia is actually automated away. It's not just automation in the sense of robots, it's just information flowing between systems.

EÜ: Tune in as we attempt to answer some big questions: Is everyone drinking the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid? Will robots eventually replace us all? And, if technology is really helping us focus on what is most important, what does the future of the world look like?

JM: Maybe 90% of just new start-ups fail, right, so not everyone achieves that, but that is fundamentally the belief that's driving someone to take this step. There's something that we can do that's different, and we think it's better.

EÜ: Jason and Abhijeet, thanks for joining us on Xero Gravity.

AD: Thank you.

JM: Yes. Thanks. Glad to be here.

EÜ: So Abhijeet, I understand that you moved from India to San Francisco to start your job at Zenefits. And similarly I just moved from San Francisco to New Zealand, and I've had all kinds of interesting HR experiences. What were your HR experiences when you moved?

AD: Interesting you say that. I just sort of showed up and said, "Hey, where do I sit? When can I start working?" It wasn't very clear. I missed the payroll cut and couldn't get paid for a while until all of that was sorted. And I think that always amazes me when there are businesses or especially HR businesses that span many countries. One of the things that amazes me about that is how they’re able to figure all these local nuances out very well. It's just something that always boggles my mind.

EÜ: Jason, what about you, what's the worst HR disaster you've ever experienced?

JM: Well it’s funny, just quickly, I've had to set up bank accounts both in China— I lived and worked there for several years — as well as the UK. It's an interesting contrast. I felt like it was so easy there. I essentially just needed my passport and that's all I needed. Obviously I could fill out the documentation in English which helped quite a bit in China's case. I think those in contrast were easy depending on the country I was in.

EÜ: The first milestone that I think in terms of human relations and working with employees is that point in a small business owner's or an entrepreneur's journey when they're suddenly working with people other than themselves and a lot of entrepreneurs don't even realize that that's the point where they have to make some serious decisions. But the entrepreneurial process is often very haphazard and opportunistic, so here I am going along and I'm selling XYZ widget and I'm doing really well. I have my online store, and then maybe I'm forcing my brother to help me stuff the envelopes and take them to the post office for me once things get a little bit more exciting and the business is taking off. But there is that point where you're going to have to hire your neighbor or your neighbor's kid or somebody else beyond your inner circle, and what are some of the important laws that people need to keep in mind when they reach that point?

JM: I think just generally knowing who to bring next, and what they can’t do, what they can do. I know I grew up in a family business and I worked on weekends quite a bit because there wasn't anyone else, but at the same time I think we have to separate the short term from the medium and long term and understand that taking steps to meet those challenges are very different.

AD: I feel that's very important — people don't want to think about HR. You just start with a dream and you want to realize that dream, and that dream is about a small bakery or a coffee shop, and I think people... you want to exist in the world so that you can actually just allow people to pursue that as opposed to thinking about these things, and I think that's why these applications and companies have come into existence.

If you go all the way back to the beginning of what you can call as entrepreneurship maybe two hundred years ago, I think at the start of the industrial revolution you could literally just keep a notebook, which used to be called a general ledger, which is a chronological statement of every transaction that a company does. And it all starts from that. And the first person that this company would start talking to would be an accountant, and that accountant was also the business advisor, and would also be the strategy guy for a bicycle repair shop, and I think that that's what if you draw a line, most of those activities today are actually the same. They're just made probably a thousand times easier with the existence of these other applications and businesses.

EÜ: I'm actually not sure that I agree that it's easier because on the compliance side the regulations have gotten more and more and more complicated, so suddenly, like you were saying, you got into business to start a bakery or a coffee shop, and now you're mired in all of this regulation, that to be totally honest, even if you do this professionally you can't keep track of the latest regulations.

You were running your own small business in India, so how did that work and did you bump up against this regulatory nightmare?

AD: Absolutely. I mean I was in the world of atoms, not bits, so I had a physical manufacturing location that I'd set up to develop new materials, especially new battery materials. We had to deal with probably 10 to 12 departments in the government from pollution control to sales taxes.

EÜ: Well you probably had an entire team of people who were working solely on environmental compliance as well.

AD: We actually said that whatever we built would always be net positive environment friendly, and that was the foundational basis of this business, so we had to work pretty hard to try and achieve that.

EÜ: Let's talk about these regulations and why they even exist in the first place. They're so many regulations out there that exist to protect everyday consumers and investors from losing their shirts because they've invested in some really sketchy business operation, but at the same time if we fast forward dozens of years, these same regulations that were really important maybe in the US during the Depression, are now preventing small businesses from raising money from their neighbors and their friends and the people that even if they aren't very, very wealthy might still be their biggest supporters.

Do you think that those environmental regulations are ultimately a hindrance in terms of supporting innovation in business, particularly small business, or are those regulations helpful in terms of actually preventing some of this environmental degradation that many large businesses, if left to their own devices ,might just run amok with and create a lot of damage?

AD: Imagine yourself being in the room when somebody is coming up with an idea to regulate a section of the industry, those discussions aren't malicious. They aren't thinking about how to actually kill creativity or innovation. They're probably trying to do good.

People, when they're setting up a new business, they don't necessarily want to violate environmental laws. They don't necessarily think about proactively destroying the environment.

EÜ: Yeah. I totally agree. I mean there's obviously an important role for regulations, and I'd love to see them scaled. For instance, a lot of regulations that we have around the world are designed to regulate large businesses and they're the ones that are having maybe the greatest impact and therefore need to be most regulated. And yet small businesses are creating jobs left and right, and they have a much smaller impact per business, and yet they're held to the same standards as large businesses.

Jason, would love to hear your thoughts on either inherent goodness in people or in business, or on the regulator side for that matter.

JM: Yes. There is, I'll call it maybe inherent goodness, and to me what that means is just an inherent degree of rationalism, and there is a degree though at the same time — and maybe small business is a good example of which the platform that that particular business, even a small one — is affecting something much bigger than itself, is unknown, out of sight out of mind, whatever it happens to be, and that ultimately is the place of regulation. To take that broader view of the entire ecosystem such that parts that are affected down the line, are affected in a positive way. I think we can all agree that regulation doesn't move at the speed of business. Business moves much faster than that, and thus by definition regulation will be behind even if it's meant to be good.

EÜ: Do you have a vision for how those different stakeholders or those different elements that you described before can be brought into a business in a way that makes it seem less of a burden and more of part of their license for existing in the first place?

JM: Sure. I think I'm certainly no policy or otherwise expert, but I think the basic economic answer to most of these issues is to incentivize compliance in the form of some form of taxation. Right? Like just environment. This is a very, very common example: a carbon tax. A way for someone to understand that what they're doing at the micro level does have effects at the macro level. They can't see it, or maybe they can, but even if they don't, right, that there's some form of monetary charge, if you will, for the actions that you're taking and the effect they have on the greater whole, the greater ecosystem. I think that would be the classic example.

EÜ: You're ultimately talking about accounting for things beyond just the financial bottom line.

AD: I think start-ups and small businesses in general are obsessed with their customers and their users, and they are fundamentally trying to do better at removing friction and making life easier, and making things better for their users every day, and that very, very simple framework provides a good ground on how to even actually think about regulations and processes or in government processes.

EÜ: Jason, I'm curious to hear a little bit from you about the role of empathy in driving success. I mean part of your entire job description is that you are director of sales and success, so you've probably given a lot of thought to what success means.

JM: It's really understanding what someone does not have to do, and, frankly, doing it for them. The less you have to do that, the better.

I think we live and breathe expense reports and receipts, and I guess we
aspire to — actually people not using our product, and so I think what we're
thinking about every day is the traditional process of what people do with a

product like ours — is they have to do things like take a picture of a receipt,

enter that information from the receipt manually, so we're like, "Why do that?

Why can't we automate that process away?"

 

EÜ: If we could totally automate away all of the things that a small business person does not want to do in their day-to-day existence, what would the world be like?

AD: It would be awesome.

JM: It sounds like a Utopian paradise. Yeah.

EÜ: What would that mean? That you could focus on as a small business owner? What does this look like? Are there robots sitting in your HR department or in your accounting department? What does it look like?

AD: There is a world where a lot of this pain and minutia is actually automated away. It's not just automation in the sense of robots, it's just information flowing between systems. There is no reason why a bunch of applications or data between government and the private sector can't just move seamlessly, and I think that in itself is pretty big.

In fact, a lot of time goes in just keeping different systems of record up to date, so what would that look like? That would just mean that somebody who just wants to serve awesome coffee would just focus on that. You'd see more businesses come up. You'd see existing businesses thrive. You'd see more effort being put into making the product and service great. It will be net positive for everyone.

EÜ: What does that future economy look like 200 years from now? We've automated a whole bunch of sectors out of a job.

JM: I think I would just come back to what was said earlier. No. It means that the product or service that ultimately needs to be provided or is being provided is provided with a higher quality at a higher volume, a scale, a production, whatever the business happens to be. So I think it is very much we get more of what we want and all the things that, frankly, no one wants to do, we just are doing much, much less of, and hopefully one day automating it entirely away.

AD: The one way to answer your question would be to ask what happens when you take friction away from something? Do you stop doing that thing or do you just do more of that thing, and I think that's where Jason is also going with it, is that what you are describing is amounting to removing friction away from delivering an awesome product and service which would probably mean people would do more of it.

EÜ: I'm still having this funny image of all of these robots rolling around in our offices that are doing those things that nobody wants to do.

I mean I have several competing dystopian images in my head, so one is that there are entire swathes of land that used to be productive farmland in the Central Valley of California that are now taken over by servers. And the other are these super helpful robots rolling around in maid outfits that are delivering me the very fizzy beverage that I had imagined, and that they already knew because it's implanted in my brain in a Black Mirror kind of way.

Jason, what are your images of the future in terms of what it looks like in physical space? Because I mean all of this stuff does take up space somewhere, or the automation is happening somewhere.

JM: Well sure, I think you certainly make a point, it's kind of like, yes, we have to have space for servers, but consider another alternative which is let's take the Gigafactory, right. Very large battery producing factory that when combined with, as an example — solar energy and harnessing that energy at key points and then storing it in a battery — ultimately that means, and I think the statistic was it would take four or eight of these things in the world to supply all of the world's energy needs. Now compare and contrast that with the resources, the land just being used for fossil fuels or whatever it happens to be. This is just the example that's coming to my mind, but I think ultimately it is very realistic that we can get more while taking up less.

EÜ: So you two are both working as I am in software companies, but there's something bigger than just the mission of that company that inspires you to get up every day and bring your full self to work. So what's that?

AD: I mean I fell in love with the idea and the concept of what Zenefits was trying to do, and that is what sort of attracted me to the company. There was an element of me just understanding having been a small business owner— who didn't do very well, by the way — as to how just, how these other things take you away from the main job, and achieving truly what you actually set out to do. I was very attuned to that problem.

JM: I agree and I think this is a core commonality, really, not just software companies but entrepreneurs, is the refusal to believe that this is just how things are done, the status quo. It's no. There's something that we can do that's different, and I think it's better. Maybe 90% of just new start-ups fail, right, so not everyone achieves that, but that is fundamentally the belief that's driving someone to take this step, this leap of faith if you want to say. It's that, "No. What we're doing right now is not the best, and I'm somebody who can effect that change."

EÜ: It's funny for me to think about how many people come to this kind of work because they've had some sort of a failed small business experience themselves. I mean I'm also on that list, but Jason, did you ever have a small business yourself?

JM: I had the family business, and then I spent some time in corporate America and very quickly realized that that is the status quo, and that I'm not okay with that, and that's what's driven me to where I'm at today.

AD: I was trying to look for things that would be force multipliers in the world where you'll do something and that has an impact on a large number of other people, a positive impact hopefully, and just the nature of this being helpful for other businesses was an attractive one.

EÜ: I want to ask you more about this status quo. So you're saying that you spent time in corporate America and that was the status quo, and you were like, "No way." Do you think there really is a status quo, or are we just seeing walls of cubicles, but it's full of people like you two who are actually talking about empathy and inherent goodness?

AD: I think the Valley tends to do that to you.

JM: Yeah.

AD: There is certain kind of Kool-Aid that is...

JM: Yeah. That's very true.

AD: ...available here, which you want to believe in the things that could be good for the world, and so on, and so forth, so I think you take our comments with a little bit grain of salt.

JM: We are drinking the Kool-Aid. Absolutely.

EÜ: I mean don't you think that people around the world all want these things that we're talking about today? I mean we're talking about being able to make a living doing what you're passionate about, reducing that friction, living in a world where we're able to take advantage of technology to automate those things that we don't want to do. We want to serve our fellow human beings. Is that universal or is that just Silicon Valley Kool-Aid?

JM: I think it's very real. The proof is already in the pudding. These products are already being used in just vast parts of the world already.

AD: This is just one version or one manifestation of just doing good or meaningful work, or living a meaningful life, but there are 100 different variations of this, and everybody finds their own meaning and something to do.

EÜ: Absolutely. It begs the question, and I think this is a good type of question to end on as well: How do you stay connected to what's meaningful to you in a world that is so bent upon telling you what's valuable?

JM: I think, what it comes back to is some of the core qualities of an entrepreneur. It's the ability to say no, the ability to filter, and by association the religious focus on prioritization and what matters to you. That's a very, very individual thing. But we all face infinite set of choices, and many of our companies are very deliberate about things we will and will not do, and in turn the things that we'll do before others.

EÜ: Abhijeet, what about you?

AD: I feel there is a risk in abstracting yourself too much from customers, and you could find yourself in a meeting where we make decisions which has very little to do with customers, so you’re always in professional life making sure that every week I talk to somebody either face to face or on the phone and never losing touch with that has kept me informed, and very connected to the problem we are solving. And the same in personal life.

EÜ: You call yourself on the phone once a week. I'm kidding.

AD: No, I mean just having a set of people and set of friends who keep you honest and in check is pretty good for me. That's working well.

EÜ: Thank you so much you two for joining us today on Xero Gravity. This has been a really interesting conversation. We've covered a lot of fascinating territory, so I'm so glad that you were game, and I can't wait to share this conversation with our listeners.

AD: Thank you Elizabeth.

JM: Yes. Thank you, Elizabeth.

EÜ: You’ve been listening to Abhijeet Dwivedi, COO at Zenefits and Jason Mills, director of sales and success at Expensify.

Thanks for joining us on Xero Gravity.

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