Afiniti aims to have 1000 staff in Bermuda
By: Scott Neil, The Royal Gazette
January 12, 2021
A billion-dollar data and software company that moved staff to Bermuda as digital nomads last year, has an ambition to increase its presence to 1,000 staff on the island within five years.
If all goes to plan, Afiniti could account for 10 per cent of Bermuda's gross domestic product by about the middle of the decade.
The company, which has a focus on artificial intelligence, has decided to make a major commitment to the island. Other destinations, including the US and Canada, were considered. But Afiniti, which has been incorporated on the island since 2011, chose Bermuda.
Founded by technology entrepreneur Zia Chishti in 2005, the Bermudian company develops AI software that is used in call centres to boost efficiency and outcomes for businesses. Afiniti's directors and advisers include David Cameron, former British prime minister; Jose Maria Aznar, former president of Spain; John Snow, former US treasury secretary; and Dame Jennifer Smith, former Bermuda premier.
Mr Chishti said incorporating Afiniti in Bermuda many years ago, and having its intellectual property and capital surplus on the island, had been a wise decision, and it was an obvious choice to also move its headquarters to the island
He said: "I've moved here full-time. We have directors' meetings here, and increasing percentages of the management team are coming here. We are now up to about 65 full-time staff in Bermuda. By early 2021 it will be well over 100. The plan is to be at circa 1,000 in Bermuda in five years.
"We are probably 1 per cent of Bermuda's GDP, and if we do our part then we should be around 10 per cent of the GDP – just our one company – within five years." Afiniti has a worldwide staff of about 1,800.
In October, Jason Hayward, the labour minister, announced that Afiniti was moving staff to the island under the Government's one-year digital nomad residential certificate scheme. Most of the staff were coming from Pakistan and would “work from home“ while the company went through the process of applying for traditional work permits.
Mr Chishti, Afiniti's chief executive officer, sat down with The Royal Gazette to talk about Afiniti and its plans.
Q: The idea of bringing digital nomads to Bermuda. How important was that to your thinking about the future of the company?
We had a number of options. We could hire in the US, we could bring our staff from Pakistan to Canada – and the Canadians were quite eager to see us come over there. But then I had a meeting with Premier David Burt and the finance minister, Curtis Dickinson, and a few other folks, and they said 'hang on, why not Bermuda. After all you are incorporated here'. They were eager to see the economic benefits locally that would create. If you just look at the tax bill that we would generate, and then all the services our people buy, the services that those people buy. They saw the economic advantage that we bring to bear. They went above and beyond to try to help us succeed. I was very impressed by the speed and the nimbleness with which the Government worked with us.
It was their idea. They said they had just established the digital nomad programme, and so right away we could get going under that.
Q: Are the digital nomads settling?
They love it. Initially there was apprehension moving to a foreign land. But it is a smash hit. They love it, and are recommending it to friends.
Q: Some people will ask why bring people here when there is a high cost of living?
From our point of view it is a moderate cost environment, it's not low cost, but then for countries that have good legal structure and ultimate recourse to the London courts, so our clients can be comfortable with their data being managed in Bermuda, it's unbeatable.
Bermuda has some very powerful advantages. I dare say we are the first to see it at scale, but we won't be the last. As we start to take root and build a presence here it will inspire others.
Q: What are 1,000 staff going to be doing?
Software engineering. Bermuda has something very favourable, which is it is perceived as a secure data location by our clients, to the extent that we working with American clients who are comfortable having their data viewed in Bermuda. It's a natural location for us, particularly as Bermuda is so open to the free-flow of labour. Why would we go anywhere else?
Q: To have such a large operation here, you are going to need some offices.
We took over 60 or 70 rooms at the Grotto Bay Hotel, and they have also provided offices for us. When we arrived, the simplest thing to do was to outsource the problem, we went around the island, they made a proposal, and we took them up on it.
The question is, as this grows, what do we do permanently? So we are going through that exercise right now. I was up by King's Wharf. They have some great spaces there. Around a corner they have two derelict buildings, glorious stone structures. One thought is to renovate those and turn them into offices, we could move our staff there. Everything is up on the air. But there are many options, the charm and beauty of the island. We will surely find something that is special and makes the workspace fun for our staff.
Q: How does Afiniti use AI?
It's pretty simple. Calls in a call centre normally flow in time order, so whichever call comes in first is handled first, the second call gets handled second and so on. Our insight is that if you break that time order and say pair on behaviour rather than time, then you can drive better performance. So, when an agent pops free, rather than peeling off that first customer who has been waiting the longest, you predict the behaviour of the agent, you predict the behaviour of each of those callers, then you pair out of sequence based on behaviour – that's the magic that we deliver.
It turns out that we raise revenues by 4 or 5 per cent for our clients, which is a very big number if you are a large client. We can deliver on the low end $100 million a year, and for some of our bigger clients we create over $1 billion a year.
Q: How do you pair a customer with a call centre agent?
On the caller side you examine hundreds of psycho-demographic variables – when did they last call, what happened when they last called, what products are they buying from our client, where do they live, what is there income level, what car do they drive, do they travel a lot, what magazines do they read? You pull in all the information you can that you have available to you on each of those callers that are queued, and it all goes into a blender. In the blender you also throw in all you know about an agent. So that agent that just came free, you examine the last 1,000 interactions they had and you use that to predict how they are likely to interact in the future.
You throw all you know about the agent in the blender, you throw all you know about the callers into the blender, you run the blender and you find a pairing between the two that is effective.
Mr Chishti explained that the data comes from the clients and from third party data vendors.
Q: Do you try to get some empathy between the caller and the agent?
Yes. But empathy itself is a quantifiable outcome. One of the things that we optimise is customer satisfaction, which you can think of as an index of empathy. You can monitor from call to call what the created level of customer satisfaction is, and our technology can optimise for that number. We are creating a higher level of empathy by pairing behaviours.
We increase the rate at which our clients' customers buy stuff, and we increase the rate at which our clients' customers stay with our clients. We are optimising for the lifetime value that our clients' customers deliver.
Q: And you don't ask companies to pay for this up front?
Yes, we go further, we guarantee them results. Our typical commercial relationship with clients is pay us nothing. We don't charge for hardware or software, or professional services. We say, we'll drop in our kit on our dollar. We deliver a measurable improvement in performance, and that's very precisely measured – we do it by running our systems on for 20 minutes, off for five minutes, on for 20 minutes off, for five minutes. We do this in perpetuity, and then at the end of each month we look at the difference between the testing control samples, which are very statistically clear month-on-month, and then that increment in revenue is what our clients pay us a commission against. That's the economic relationship.
From a client's point of view they never put down any money or invest in anything, and the impact is very large. So it is a very persuasive economic pitch. These days we have gone past that, so for some of our clients we say 'look, we think we are going to give you a billion a year, but if we don't give you at least $200 million a year then we'll make up the difference in cash'.
So we are frequently going beyond ’free with infinite upside’, to we will guarantee you a strong return and if we can't do it we will make it up on our balance sheet. As we get more and more confident in our own story, we can be more and more generous in our relationships with our clients.
Q: Is this technology getting better?
Yes. If you look at our technology from 10 years ago, it is totally different now. There is so much happening in the data space that you have to continually stay ahead of it. There's an explosion of data availability and everyone is trying to figure out how to use it efficiently. Of our 1,800 staff worldwide, 1,300 are in engineering and two-thirds are in data and AI.
Q: You're not going to have call centres here, you're going to have the engineers that create the software that is used by call centres?
Yes. Call centres would not be economically efficient in Bermuda. Bermuda is good for high end engineering applications and data applications.
Q: There are some big names on your board and advisory board, high profile people. How does that help you from a company point of view?
Dame Jennifer is on our board. We have Bermudian representation, which we are very proud of. Dame Jennifer has been a real source of inspiration because of her own story and with her networking relationships within Bermuda.
On the advisory board David Cameron is the chairman. We have former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullens. It is a very, very accomplished, extraordinarily talented group of people that are the ultimate advisory input into the company. We have to navigate very tricky geopolitical waters, our counterparts are typically boards and board chairmen, principal shareholders, CEOs, because of the value impact that we deliver. In my opinion, there is no better group in the whole world to help us get through all of that.
We just had our board and advisory board meetings here. So all those people were either here in person or on video, and as soon as this Covid thing lifts they are all going to be here in person.
Q: How important would it be for Afiniti to be part of a larger ecosystem of technology people in Bermuda?
On a personal level there would be camaraderie with tech engineers and tech staff here. I dare say that we will field the best cricket team of any of our erstwhile competitors that may have journeyed to the island. And it's just more fun – you have other entrepreneurs and engineers here, to the extent there is an ecosystem around it, it just makes it more enjoyable.
If we do it right, and we show a tech company can survive here and flourish and really make a positive contribution to the island, it will further incline other people and give them a bit of a road map as to how they can be successful corporate citizens in their own right.
This article originally appeared in The Royal Gazette.