X.ai’s Dennis R. Mortensen on Why Every Employee Should Have a Personal Assistant
“X.ai is not out to get the job of the personal assistant,” says Dennis R. Mortensen, the company’s CEO. “We’re out to democratize the idea of an assistant. At my last company, post acquisition, we had 450 people and two assistants. Why didn’t we have 450 assistants? We should have. The fact is that if you’re paying an engineer a six-figure salary, why the hell do you ask him to set up his own meetings?”
87 million knowledge workers in the US set over 10 billion meetings every year. And, the vast majority of those meetings are set by the same people attending them. Far less than 1% of all knowledge workers are afforded the luxury of a personal assistant. But, Dennis R. Mortensen is hoping to change all of that.
You’ve probably encountered a company called x.ai without even knowing it. Have you received an email from Amy or Andrew Ingram only to later find out you were in fact emailing back and forth with a robot? That’s right, Amy and Andrew Ingram are automated assistants that help their users schedule meetings and ultimately remove a lot of the friction that occurs with scheduling.
We’re all familiar with the process. You send an email to offer up a few times that might work for a meeting. Your contact writes back saying none of those times work and offers a few times of their own. It goes on like this until you finally find an agreeable time, send the calendar invite and set the meeting. Then invariably, a day or two before the meeting is to take place, your contact needs to reschedule and thus the process begins again.
This scenario became all too familiar for x.ai’s founder and CEO, Dennis R. Mortensen, while running his startup, Visual Revenue. In one year, Dennis counted that he had set 1,019 meetings with 670 reschedules. Despite the amount of time Dennis lost to scheduling, it never occurred to him to hire a personal assistant. “What entrepreneurs usually do is they hire an office manager, which is a personal assistant in disguise. They just can’t get themselves to say the words ‘personal assistant.’”
Despite his reluctance — “personal assistant just doesn’t sound right in a 30-man band” — Dennis is certain his investors, colleagues and company would have all been much better off had he made the hire. Instead though, Dennis created his own system. “I’d get home at 10:00 PM, grab a bowl of cereal, watch an episode of Seinfeld and go through my inbox and try to set all my meetings for the day or week coming. That wasn’t optimal.”
Fast forward and Dennis’s company, Visual Revenue, gets acquired, leaving him time to work on his next project. He sets out to solve the root cause of so much wasted time — scheduling.
The People Who Came Before x.ai All Walked Down the Same Avenue
“Certainly this problem of scheduling can’t be so obvious that other people haven’t worked on it,” Dennis assumed. “And the first thing I saw when I did a little bit of research was that there were plenty of people who tried to alleviate this pain over the last two decades, but the funny thing was that almost all of them walked down the same avenue — creating some extension, some plug in, some web service, you doddle me, you tungle me, you do whatever. But had they worked out, you and I would have set up this meeting differently.”
These solutions simply didn’t go far enough for Dennis. “The funny thing is that everybody, given the opportunity and a $50,000 check, would take that human personal assistant in an instant. But, without that check, it’s cost prohibitive for most people to put that person in place. The interesting thing is that this behavior suggests that there already is a product-market fit. There’s something out there that people want, it’s just too expensive. That, to a large degree, was my catalyst.”
Dennis thought, “If we could take it from $50K down to $5, we would have something really big. In many industries or many verticals, this just can’t happen, but we had a real opportunity.”
This led Dennis to the idea of ‘verticalized AI,’ where not everything a human assistant could do would be replaced, but just one thing — in this case scheduling. And that is precisely how x.ai and Amy Ingram came to be.
Using Data to Support Entrepreneurial Intuition
The idea for x.ai grew out of frustration — frustration with wasted time, needless back and forth and solutions that just didn’t fit the bill. Dennis took his frustration and backed it up with real data, which enabled him to build a business that’s solving a simple problem with a simple solution.
And Dennis carries this idea of simplicity throughout his entire business. In fact, the entire team at x.ai measures their success on just one KPI. We’ll dive into this idea deeper with Dennis next month.