July 13, 2020

Start-up uses emerging tech and empathy to disrupt an industry

A photo of Symend's CEO Hanif Joshaghani and chief strategy officer Tiffany Kaminsky
Symend’s CEO Hanif Joshaghani and chief strategy officer Tiffany Kaminsky

Story by Jon Hagan

Debt collection is an industry that generates billions of dollars in annual revenue, with collection standards set by the agencies that corporations hire to recoup their money. The approach to the problem of unpaid accounts has always been to look at it through a financial lens: how does a company go about managing its risk and collecting the money owed by delinquent customers?

When they founded Symend Inc. in 2016, Tiffany Kaminsky and Hanif Joshaghani thought there had to be a better way—in fact, they knew there was a better way. “I’ve been on the other side of this,” said Joshaghani, Symend’s chief executive officer. “I experienced it in a very dramatic manner to the point where years later I still get 1-800 calls and I get a bad emotional reaction to it.”

Empathy is at the heart of Symend’s approach to business, and along the way this inventive Calgary company is disrupting convention and attracting some people with deep pockets.

Business that creates a positive and meaningful experience

“Symend is not collections. We’re in the business of helping consumers,” says Kaminsky, the company’s chief strategy officer. “Not only are we developing a world-class platform, but I’m proud to say that we are applying the sciences to support our mission of creating positive social change.”

Symend brings together emerging technologies like workflow automation, data analysis, artificial intelligence, machine learning and proprietary algorithms to identify trends and behaviours that help their clients recover a higher percentage of the outstanding debt owed to them more quickly. Businesses can now do so in a respectful manner that’s personalized to each of their customer’s individual circumstances.

Creating a more positive and meaningful experience allows businesses with at-risk customers to focus on the individual and on long-term customer engagement.

Platform attracts capital investment

Symend not only has industry partners that believe in its product, the company also recently caught the attention of some big players in venture capital. Led by Inovia Capital, Symend Inc. raised USD $52-million in funding in the spring of 2020.

As the company grows economically there’s also a commensurate growth in the number of jobs they’re creating. “We were 14 employees in May 2019. We’re closer to 110 now, and on pace for 200 or more by the end of the year, and a bulk of that is going to be Calgary,” said Kaminsky.

“Alberta Innovates played a role in all of it, especially in the early days where we needed to stretch every dollar as far as we can. We gained a lot of cushion from Alberta Innovates,” said Joshaghani. “I like to think that we are an example of where helping entrepreneurs early in their incubation of their ideas really does pay off. We’ve grown the value of this company probably more now, but as of this past May, the valuation of this company in three years had grown 2,400 per cent.

Shifting the business-customer relationship

Symend has shifted perspective on the problem of debt collection to one that considers both sides of the relationship between a business and its customers.

“Everybody who’s ever tried to innovate in this area has come from a collections or finance or risk management background,” said Joshaghani. “They’ve never come at it from a consumer background, with a focus on empathy and empowerment and engagement for the consumer. That’s the lens that we came at it from.”

Emerging tech intersects with science and business

The Symend platform is the intersection of data, computing and behavioural science, with constant improvement as the mantra.

“We’re synthesizing these three sciences in a manner that allows us to treat this as a continuous circle of execute, measure, optimize, execute, measure, optimize,” says Joshaghani. “The measurement happens in the lens of human sciences, the horsepower of data science and the platform built on computing science.”

With their shifted perspective on debt collection in mind, the next step was to tackle a host of business fundamentals: market research, planning, prototyping and more.

“We looked at everything,” said Joshaghani. “What does the business flow and data flow look like? What is the buying cadence of the people? What are the different components of buying? In addition, we had hundreds of field interviews.”

Building a model

The Symend team spent a huge amount of time building a granular model of the business field they were entering. “We really were believers that you iterate with ideas and not with product,” added Kaminsky. “Once we finally had a thesis for what we were getting into and how we were going to solve it, we went back to those interviews and asked ourselves, ‘who have we spoken with who has the profile of a sophisticated early adopter?’ “

Startups need an early adopter to validate

An early adopter is like a partner. If they see the value of your business and technology, they can be a huge asset. For the Symend team, this was an Alberta telecommunications giant.

“Their business is representative of the industry and is sophisticated enough that solving for them will enable us to scale to others,” said Joshaghani. “And the opportunity to put the product into market for them with a live customer showed positive results, which was outstanding.”

“They are well known in industry as one of the leaders in the way they approach recoveries and collections and delinquency. They’ve been certainly huge advocates,” added Kaminsky.

Alberta Innovates invests in Calgary company’s unique, cutting-edge platform and customer approach

“Alberta Innovates was effectively a partner of ours in getting this thing up and running. It was really, really helpful,” said Joshaghani. “Part of what makes this amazing for us is that Alberta is where both of us staked our claim to the future. Our vision for this company is that it doesn’t just create a great business, but it accelerates the maturity rate of our ecosystem and tech in Alberta.”

We provide support to Alberta companies in the form of coaching, community and capital programs that help them move forward and grow. Programs that Symend accessed were the following: