Up until his last term at the Faculty of Information, Faisal Ahmed worked part-time developing software for a financial analytics company. His current business partners were in men’s bespoke tailoring. Then, the three unabashed serial entrepreneurs did what serial entrepreneurs do. They spotted an opportunity in the booming video interview business and pivoted.
Ahmed describes their new start-up company, Knockri, as an A.I. job recruiter. Using artificial intelligence and videos, instead of humans, Knockri quantifies soft-skills and qualities like empathy and confidence in the early stages of the hiring process. It promises to cut talent recruiting time significantly and come up with a shortlist of “best-fit” candidates. As an added bonus, the process promotes diversity by eliminating unconscious bias, says Ahmed.
He and his two co-founders chose the video recruiting business because they saw it as a hot sector projected to grow into a $4.4 billion market by 2020. In fact, anyone who’s recently been active on the job market has probably had at least one automated pre-screening video interview.
What those candidates probably don’t know, unless they read the fine print, is what prospective employers do with the videos once the job hunters log off. The answer is that they’re almost always analyzed with machines and algorithms.
As the Chief Technological Officer at Knockri, Ahmed’s role has been to try to create an A.I. model that not only hires better than humans – who have been proven to make biased decisions – but can also beat out competitors in the video recruitment space. Those include the UK-based Human and HireVue, which is headquartered in Utah.
Instead of seeing these other companies as a threat, Ahmed prefers to view them as confirmation that his startup is onto a good thing. “For us, seeing other similar companies validates that employers are really looking for this kind of solution,” he says. “And no one is dominating yet.”
The different companies all have their own secret sauce. Knockri screens the videos using a combination of different technologies including a proprietary one that analyzes interviewees’ facial muscular contractions and “micro-expressions.” This is done based on what’s known as the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which identifies some 200 landmark positions on a face including eyebrow raises, cheek raises and nose movements. Knockri’s algorithm looks for FACS based facial landmarks and then correlates them to a range of emotions. Another proprietary program is used to deduce emotions from audio signals.
Knockri uses IBM Watson to help convert speech to text and then analyze the text for personality insights and relevance of response.
“At the end of the day our technology sees things you should be seeing in a candidate,” Ahmed says. “It’s not at all as complicated as it sounds. You don’t need a team of 100 people to put this together.”
With a Bachelor’s in software engineering earned in his native India and two years of work experience as a software developer at Sony’s Bangalore office, Ahmed decided to continue his schooling after he immigrated to Canada. He eventually settled on a Masters in Information Systems and Design at the Faculty of Information, which he earned in the spring of 2017. “The knowledge I gained from the iSchool enabled me to be an entrepreneur,” he said.
Ahmed is impressed by Toronto’s vibrant start-up scene and the resources available to innovators, the likes of which did not exist back in India. Knockri’s office, for example, are located at 185 Spadina in IBM’s innovation space. The space houses startups who show high growth potential and leverage IBM technologies. Knockri, whose name is the Urdu word for job as well as an allusion to the idea that opportunity knocks, also succeeded in getting a grant from Ontario’s SmartStart Seed Fund and has attracted angel investment.
The company’s first clients were in the retail and fast food sectors, where high employee turnover is a perennial problem and the Knockri team had contacts that got them in the door. They quickly learned, however that those businesses weren’t the best potential customers for Knockri’s offer because they tended to be seeking employee longevity rather than overall fit.
“Our value really comes in when there are hundreds of applicants for one position,” says Ahmed. As a result, Knockri did another pivot, this time a mini-one, and is now focusing on attracting what they call large enterprise clients or “whales,” as they’re known in the current sales lingo. For these types of companies, which often have strict diversity targets, hiring can be both an expensive and time-consuming process.
Knockri’s message is that it will cut the time required to fill a position by 75%, reduce costs by 88%, and increase diversity by 38%. Its first major customer will be IBM in the U.S. And three more customers are in the later stages of coming on board. “We’re well placed for the coming year,” says Ahmed.
Beyond that, he’s frank that the team might consider a potential exit, selling out to a bigger player in the hiring and human resources field. “In the last decade, tech companies have gotten so big they acquire everything new,” he says.
Besides, if Knockri succeeds, everyone there will be ready for another pivot.