Omer Abdullah, co-founder of The Smart Cube, a research and analytics firm helping businesses make smarter decisions, accelerate value and gain a competitive edge.
During the conversation, Omer shared his thoughts on procurement evolving, working with value creators, ambitious and focused customers, AI + HI, and Mars bars.
1. What’s The Smart Cube’s mission? What is your USP / point of differentiation (or greatest source of value)?
We’ve been crystal clear about developing a defined mission for procurement folks. The Smart Cube’s mission is to enable procurement to become the number one value creator in the organisation.
It’s a pretty lofty mission, but it’s interesting because when we speak to C-level executives, there’s a sizeable, growing chunk of them that get super excited by that and there’s a few that aren’t quite there yet. Procurement has evolved in a material way over the last 30 years and it’s way different from when I started in the space in the 90s.
We want to work with people who are excited by that idea, and I think procurement can do that. We’re well past the point of simple cost reduction. When we talk about sustainability, ESG, innovation and all of these sorts of different things, I think there’s a real potential, given where the market is and where professionals are, and what executives and customers are demanding of their CEOs.
“There’s a real opportunity for procurement to become the number one value creator and we believe the foundation is to help procurement professionals become much more insight-led.”
The more insight-led they are (from a host of different sources, extra empirical research, analytics), and the more coherent and customised this insight is, the more they can make better decisions and partner with the business effectively. They can understand where the organisation is going, and where category, marketing, legal, MRO, chemicals, packaging – everything – fits in. So we’re shaping our goal, which is to enable procurement practitioners to become these value creators by being far more insight-led. Our solutions (category, commodity and risk intelligence) are designed to provide that insight so procurement is much more able to make those decisions and support the business and internal customers.
2. What have been the most significant decisions in the The Smart Cube journey so far?
3 specific things have happened over the last 20 years.
The first one was when we founded The Smart Cube (co-founded with Gautam Singh). I’d worked as a consultant for 10 years and when I worked with organisations, they would say, “when I work with you, I get advice, research and analytics. I love it all, but I don’t always need them. What I don’t have is the time, resources and bandwidth to make all of this research and analytics work to make better decisions. Is there a way for me to do that in a different way?”
And that was our idea. At the time, places like India were BPO hubs where you’d go through a transactional process. Our view was we could raise the level of work that was being done. It’s not just transactional work: it’s insight and knowledge work. Then we took the leap where we thought ‘we can decouple the consulting value chain into the appropriate value elements and separate research and analytics from the advisory aspect’.
“I still think there’s a tonne of value in the advisory component that management consultants provide but it’s a different business when delivering research and analytics – and our experience over the last 20 years and where the market has evolved has proven that.”
Secondly, we started out as very much a research company using external intelligence. We conducted interviews, looked at databases and public sources.
“We quickly realised that in order to provide better insights to clients, you need to embed analytics and work with data.”
We started not just on spend and analytics work, but cost models and cost to serve, TCO and all of these other aspects, which we then baked into the kind of work that we’re doing now.
Lastly is what’s happened over the last five or six years, which is this rapidly increasing embedding of technology. We have our AI (artificial intelligence) capabilities which help clients make better decisions when it comes to category intelligence, commodity intelligence, and supply risk intelligence. When you look at category intelligence, we have Amplifi PRO as the foundational on-demand, self-serve intelligence platform. Then there is custom work that’s done over and above that which contextualises, and asks and answers specific questions to drive value for sophisticated procurement organisations.
So our three big shifts: rethinking the consulting value chain; embedding analytics; and technology to drive our AI vision.
3. What do you look for in the perfect customer ?
When we started The Smart Cube, we bootstrapped the business. We had zero funding for the first seven years, so the perfect customer was anybody who would pay us!
“Today, the perfect customer is a practitioner who is ambitious, value focused and understands that it is more than simply cost reduction.”
I appreciate that there are temporal elements to this as well in that cost will become much more significant than it is today, but to me, the perfect customer looks at broader aspects like innovation, sustainability and driving greater value creation and embedding that in different ways. What that does is it actually separates us. I like to tell the team, if you think the market is a particular size, the reality is our customer base is not that entire market – it’s a part of that. They are the folks who are more valuable. They’re more ambitious, want to do something with your organisation and want to rally procurement around a broader vision of value creation and delivery to the overall enterprise.
For example, one of our biggest clients is a well-known life sciences organisation where we work as an extension of the CPO’s team (including their Procurement Centre of Excellence). What does that mean? It means the way we’re organised is that we’re not just simply selling them a solution, service or product, we’re actually organised around the team there. They have a direct group, indirect group and then a COE and we’re actually aligned around supporting not only custom intelligence, but dashboards with SLA and KPI monitors with platforms that support each of those different areas in specific ways. Amplifi PRO provides the foundation. We have a number of customers who are organised in a similar fashion with their own customers and their own organisation nuance. The point of that is, how do we embed ourselves in the organisation? How do we act as an extension of their team this way?
“It’s not about us selling x units of a particular solution. It’s asking how do we solve their problems by leveraging our capabilities?”
It’s about using these skills to perform not only data analytics, quant modelling for patent research and more, but building a platform that enables them to disseminate those insights on a global basis to elevate their stakeholders. How do you bring all those skills together to deliver value? It means bringing internal and external intelligence together and using it to accelerate how we deploy.
“We resonate most with folks in procurement organisations who are progressively minded in that they want to continuously improve. It’s a journey and we appreciate that, but those are the kinds of people who really make a lot of sense for us to work with.”
4. What are the foundations of a great team?
There are a few elements and they’re mainly qualitative. Looking at their technical skills is a big one, but also looking at if they buy into the vision. We’re not looking for ‘pure product sales folks’.
““We’re looking for people who want to drive greater value with a procurement team. Related to that is honesty, integrity and trust. You have people who can be open about things you don’t have to agree with. In fact, you shouldn’t, but we can debate that in a way that is open and honest without agenda.”
Work ethic as well as being customer focused are big ones too. To use Jeff Bezos’ term of being customer obsessed: ‘we’re driven by the customer’.
If you put all of those elements together, I think that encapsulates what we’re really looking for in a team.
5. As we emerge from COVID what will you be doing differently?
Without question, COVID has fundamentally changed the way we work. Before the pandemic, I never worked from home – I personally couldn’t do it.
I’ve memories of when we started the business in what was just an attic space in my house! I’m not a working from home guy, but COVID sort of forced us to rethink all of those things and showed us that the hybrid model makes sense, and I think people want that. I know there are folks who are either extreme: wanting either 100% remote working, or 100% back in the office. I don’t think either of those personally make sense for what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to build.
“I don’t think being in the office is 100% necessary; people need that flexibility for a host of reasons beyond work. I think 100% remote doesn’t make sense because it makes it very difficult to build a long-term culture.”
The other aspect, interestingly enough, is while we’ve been successfully navigating COVID, from a business perspective in sales and revenue, we grew 40% as a business last year, so clearly it worked with a hybrid approach. I had about 3 or 4 physical client meetings towards the end of the year when things began loosening up. Going forward, I think there is going to be more client interaction, closer relationships, more face to face.
“I don’t think anything ever replaces personal interaction.”
When sitting across from one another at a desk, over coffee, whatever, it’s a whole different relationship building exercise. Virtual is okay, but it’s not enough. You get richer conversations in person. It seems like a lot of this year is sort of like relief, that we’re actually together again and there’s a lot of excitement around that.
6. What is the vision for The Smart Cube in the future and what will be most important to achieve it?
We’re on a good path right now. Our AI plus HI (human intelligence) approach and strategy is resonating.
“Our future goal is to look at, how do we invest more in technology? How do we embed more AI and ML? How do we develop our core solutions?”
I don’t mean tactical activities, or knowledge based activities, but how do we embed greater automation and greater analytics, so that the humans involved can be ratcheted up in value in terms of what they’re doing? Also, how can we continue investing in those people to do more of that? Going back to the AI + HI approach, how do we drive more depth in each of those areas?
During the first decade of the firm, it was all very DIY, we thought we had to do it all ourselves: we’ll build that software; we’ll build that platform. Then what we realised is that partnerships matter. We have an ecosystem of partners who do things better than us. Our strategy is more partnerships, greater integration, technology, and ratcheting up the human element.
“Partnerships and a deeper investment in technology is just a must.”
Including broader capabilities is key, from an analytics and quant point of view, and bringing those capabilities together.
It might sound cliché, but we will continue investing in our people. There’s a lot of diligence in our hiring processes, screening, training and developing. A lot of investment goes into that because our people drive real value.
“We can invest all the money in technology we want, but if the people aren’t motivated and aligned with the vision, it’s not going to work.”
7. How are you doing good for the planet?
I look at it in two ways. From an internal perspective, we have things in place, globally, across the organisation, like the classic 3R’s – reduce, reuse, and recycle. Even though we are a smaller organisation and don’t have the same carbon footprint as a large-scale organisation, we are being thoughtful about the impact of our actions.
I think the other aspect is that we drive value with our customers: how do we help them gain greater visibility into what’s going on? How do we help them understand how other organisations are driving that sort of value? How can we do better for the planet? People like Thomas Udesen and initiatives like the Sustainable Procurement Pledge are great avenues, so we try to do what we can from an insight and intelligence perspective, to help people get better informed overall and in certain categories. Looking at how companies are changing and the steps they’re taking can make a big impact in the way we all socialise and communicate to bring that together.
We want to work with people who are excited by that idea, and I think procurement can do that. We’re well past the point of simply cost reduction. When we talk about sustainability, ESG, innovation and all of these sorts of different things, I see a real potential, given where the market is and where professionals are, and what executives and customers are demanding of their CEOs.
INSTANT OMER INSPIRATION
1. What is your favourite book or blog?
The Watchmen, the same as the movie. Time Magazine named it as one of the 100 best novels of all time.
It’s a superhero graphic novel which emphasises the superheroes’ insecurities. They have confidence issues and behavioural problems. It’s an ambitious book which provides a nuanced view of characters as not being black and white, that we have grey areas and there is no sole good or bad.
2. Who is your favourite inspirational leader?
Bono from U2.
One may argue he has an ego, but from a leader perspective, he has followed his intuition and leveraged his position to do good in the world. He has probably saved a few million people through his philanthropy. Also, he is very business focused and mission driven – he makes things happen.
3. What is your favourite app?
I like photography and use Lightroom from a video and photo editing perspective. I also like Instagram (follow me – @theomzproject and @omerisms) and think it’s great. It’s so interesting and goes just beyond photos.
4. What’s your favourite way to celebrate a success?
That’s pretty simple: grabbing lunch with my team.
I think the simple things are the best, like celebrating the wins together and there’s no better way to do that than over a meal.
5. What is your favourite guilty pleasure?
I don’t drink alcohol, so my alternative drink of choice would be ginger ale. I also like a Mars bar, which isn’t as readily available in the US. I’m travelling in Europe next week, so I’ll stock up then!
1. Procurement has evolved and is now more insight led. Value creation is key
2. Embrace the journey.
3. Reflect and adapt. Let analytics and data work together. Let AI and HI work together.
4. Working with customers goes beyond cost reduction, through to being ambitious and value focused.
5. Partnerships matter – you can’t do everything.
6. Hybrid is the way, that way you get a good balance of culture.
7. Your team needs to be aligned for your vision to be successful.
About The Smart Cube
For leading businesses around the world, The Smart Cube is a trusted partner for high performing intelligence that answers critical business questions. And we work with our clients to figure out how to implement the answers, faster. Through custom research, advanced analytics and best of breed technology, we transform data into insights – enabling smart decision-making to improve business performance at the top and bottom line. We call it: Intelligence. Accelerated.
Our clients include a third of the companies in the FTSE and Fortune 100, primarily in the CPG, Life Sciences, Energy, Chemicals, Industrials, Financial Services, Professional Services and Retail sectors. We serve our global client base from our offices in the UK, the USA, Switzerland, Romania and India.
Our industry is moving forward faster and faster, empowered by innovative, progressive digital procurement solutions created and led by inspiring teams. ProcureTechSTARS are the digital procurement company CEOs and Founders that are leading the change, they are entrepreneurs, engineers and architects collaborating to transform procurement and the enterprise. In an open conversation with these leaders Lance Younger will be discussing the highs and lows of building the future now, the challenges they’ve faced, their perspective on accelerators and hot topics, and what keeps getting them up in the morning (and keeps them up at night).