Incubation experience - 10 Lessons from Staple

May 20, 2021

Since participating in F10 Singapore’s first incubator program, Staple has delivered proof-of-concepts to some of the region’s biggest financial institutions, government agencies and engineering firms. Their product? A “template-agnostic” AI tool to scan documents for data and extract it - saving hours of human labour. They’ve even developed a version of their product that requires no coding experience to deploy. 

Enter, a chartered accountant with a decade of project finance experience and a quantum computing PhD: when Ben Stein and Josh Kettlewell first met at pre-idea incubator Entrepreneur First, they weren’t sure what they wanted to do. But they knew it had to be useful:

“We surveyed 150 companies to make sure there was a need for what we were going to build.”

As Ben put it succinctly:“Whenever you hear the word manual, there’s typically an opportunity for some kind of automation.”

So what are the 10 greatest lessons in entrepreneurship that he’s learned along this automation journey?

Lesson 1 - Put your people first

“One of our challenges has been finding people, particularly with COVID-19 making it difficult to meet,” Ben reflected. Perhaps even more so in Singapore, where some of the world’s biggest technology companies and startups are competing for the same talent. When the F10 incubation program had to pivot online, “we all had to learn and adapt".

This lesson in flexibility certainly helped Staple to adjust to recruiting and onboarding colleagues remotely from India and Vietnam. “I try to touch base with everyone on my team at least once a week,” Ben shared, indicating how it has kept the team feeling close, even miles apart.

Lesson 2 - Find your tribe

Whether it's colleagues, mentors, or fellow entrepreneurs, surrounding yourself with people in a similar boat will never fail to teach you something new, or inspire you to learn. “We have been very fortunate to have some great mentors help us,” Ben reflected, listing off the AI expertise, business development advice, and academic research that has helped Staple to finesse their product and pitch.

Lesson 3 - Immerse yourself in an environment of innovation

For any entrepreneur, your ecosystem plays a huge factor in your success. In Ben’s opinion, Singapore is an obvious choice: “it really is a financial hub, with a lot of investment in the fintech sector.” He was quick to point out that it isn’t just financial investment: “there’s the market, the government, and the technology platforms - not to mention the academic support, the talent, and the knowledge gained from bringing fintechs and financial institutions together… There are a lot of incentives for the ecosystem to collaborate.”

Lesson 4 - Regulation is a structure to work with, not against

Startups often focus on disrupting the market. However, if you want to cater to customers in highly regulated industries, it’s far more productive to work within their framework and collaborate with them than work against it. The introductions to major banks and insurers, Ben highlighted, was one of their highlights of the F10 program.

While working with personal data can create privacy issues, collaborating with institutional actors “gives [Staple’s] AI access to data and documents so it can learn how to extract it … all while in the controlled environment of the customer.”

Lesson 5 - Build flexible products

When asked about how Staple’s technology could be used, Ben shared that “the most exciting application for us is the unknown!” He elaborated: “Potential customers are coming to us with very novel use cases - not just invoices or receipts, but even oil refinery schematics.” By focusing on creating a resilient artificial intelligence  tool that learns and can be adapted to the unexpected, the Staple team are building themselves a reputation as “people who can do nearly anything.”

Lesson 6 - Flexible companies can bend under pressure.

In Ben’s opinion, some of F10’s startup incubator lessons in flexibility and futureproofing are still benefiting the startup.

F10 helped us to improve our sales pitch for the virtual world… and to speed up our sales cycle and accelerate decisions.

By reducing uncertainty, Staple can focus on doing what they do best: building intelligent solutions to extract data and save customers costs and time. With a toolkit of resilience, they’ll be able to keep doing this no matter what may come.

Lesson 7- BAMFAM is your best friend

“Sales hasn’t always been part of my job description, but it’s becoming an important part of it now.” Ben reflected. What has helped him keep these customer conversations moving?

BAMFAM. “Book a meeting from a meeting. Whenever we have a customer conversation, we try to set the next meeting before we hang up the phone.” This keeps the follow-up flowing, and the discussion moving.

Lesson 8 - A demonstration is worth a thousand words

To help potential customers visualize how their product works, Staple asks them for some documents, to show just how quickly data can be extracted. Showing the product in action helps it to “speak for itself. We can easily illustrate the time and cost savings.”

Lesson 9 - Create programs for the non-programmers

We asked Ben about what he thinks is the most exciting opportunity for startups in the tech space. His response was simple: “it’s the no-code applications that let anybody build technological solutions.” No-code applications are easy-to-use programs that allow any user to develop a software solution.

It means that any person who has identified a problem or an opportunity to simplify a task can easily do so. “It’s exciting to see how anyone can build something to make their job easier, without needing to know how to code,” he revealed.

Lesson 10 - Build software for people, not enterprises

Another huge opportunity, Ben thinks, is to create human-centric applications for all software users - regardless of what they’re using it for, highlighting that: “traditional enterprise software was built for the enterprise, not for the humans who work for those enterprises.” In Ben’s opinion “good design doesn’t have to be reserved for consumers,” and as more startups start to answer this need, it’s the easiest-to-use technology that will win out overall.

While Staple is building a behind-the-scenes product that saves businesses countless hours of employee time, it’s their focus on the human touch that has benefitted the most. From connecting with their ecosystem and collaborating with customers, to streamlining sales processes and making technology solutions easier to use, Staple is building success on the foundations of human happiness. When you put people first, they notice and they’ll keep your startup front of mind for that next big opportunity.

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