RPA for Startups?

I’ve now worked at Blue Prism for ~1.5 years, taking part in one of the fastest growing trends in technology and business transformation: Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Thinking back on my career for 2020, I’ve developed a clear idea of how I would have used RPA to automate operations at a startup that I co-founded in 2015, and how other Small to Medium sized Business could as well.

What is RPA?

When someone asks me what I do, I say that I’m a Robotic Process Automation consultant. This leads to the question, “What is RPA?”. As a simple first explanation, I describe RPA as:

Replacing white collar, computer-based work tasks with robots.

Just as factories have replaced repetitive, manual human labor with physical robots or machines, so will office work be replaced with software robots working at our computers. RPA is the technology that enables this to happen.

RPA is a software system that can control a computer exactly how a human would. An RPA “robot” can do things like:

  • Open your email and download an attachment
  • Open a browser, type in an address into the address bar and visit a webpage
  • Login to a webpage, fill in forms and submit the page

Everything that we do at a computer can be done by an RPA robot. We’ve all heard the stories: that robots will eventually take all our jobs with all of the benefits being claimed by the robot owners. It’s probably better to think of robots as taking away specific tasks, as opposed to our jobs. However, the general trend towards automation is underway, it’s just that small business owners and startup founders haven’t caught on yet.

Large companies have already caught on to RPA. Take a look at the statistics:

More than 40% of enterprises will create state-of-the-art digital workers by combining AI with Robotic Process Automation

https://www.forbes.com/sites/gilpress/2018/11/06/ai-and-automation-2019-predictions-from-forrester/#25afe5b54cb5

RPA will achieve “near universal adoption” in the next 5 years

https://www2.deloitte.com/bg/en/pages/technology/articles/deloitte-global-rpa-survey-2018.html

Can Small Businesses Benefit from RPA?

The benefits of RPA are real and well-documented for large companies and multinationals. But it’s not just for large companies anymore. There are many reasons why RPA can be beneficial to companies of smaller scale.

  • You likely do not have an internal IT team that can help automate or optimize internal operations. RPA can absolutely be implemented for you by outsourcing as you may already do with lawyers, or accountants. There’s a lot of education material out there if you want to learn RPA today as well
  • Lots of SMBs falsely believe that they can only expand or grow by hiring more people. Instead of hiring staff to help you do computer work, use an RPA robot to bring hours back to your business. Focus on developing new areas of your company or choose to simply do less work
  • Implementing RPA will force you to optimize, rethink and systematize your business. A lot of small companies that I’ve seen are exceptionally weak in having consistent business success, due to a lack of repeatable processes. Embarking on RPA will force you to figure out these areas, turning your business into a series of well defined, automate-able processes
  • Unlike large companies, SMBs and startups are essentially not thinking about RPA at all. Being among the first batch of RPA adopters at the SMB level will simply give you a two to three year competitive advantage over your peers
  • RPA is now more accessible. Cloud based RPA offerings are reducing the infrastructure overhead of deploying a robotic workforce. Startups lean towards using lots of cloud services, which have APIs that can be connected to RPA tools

How I would have used RPA at my Startup

From 2015-2017, I was the technical co-founder of a startup named Flexibill. The idea behind the company was to allow any retail shop or store to receive online payments, instead of just cash or credit cards. AKA allowing for flexible billing for retailers who didn’t have the means to sign up and manage multiple payment systems like Apple Pay, Wechat Pay, Samsung Pay etc.

Three years of hard work…

Even though we were a small company, there are definitely occasions where we would have benefited from using RPA:

  • Each time we signed up a new restaurant or shop to our service, there was a lot of information that needed to be processed, such as business name, address, bank account information, contact person etc. This was collected in a word form and then entered by our admin staff into our ERP system. I would have built an RPA process to do this instead
  • Each shop needed its own unique machine learning model to process their paper receipts. Every time we on-boarded a new customer, we had a “data collection” period where all payment functions were disabled, and we would collect tgeur receipt data for two days, in order to “learn” their receipt. This data was used to build a model using various pieces of AI software and once ready, we would set a flag in our database to actually allow the customer to receive payments through our system. It was a standardized process, manual, error prone and integral to the operation of our business; a perfect candidate for automation
  • Every month we would hand employees a printed check with their salary, and a paper invoice for their records. The entire process of printing the checks, creating a word document invoice, saving that invoice into our file-server and printing the invoice could have been automated and set to run on a monthly schedule
  • Our company was part of a government sponsored incubator, which required us to fill in forms about our financials, head count, customer numbers, etc. It took us, the founders, about a half day per month to log in to all of the bank accounts, pull all the related customer data from the database, etc. to fill in the spreadsheet required by the incubator. This is an prime example of a time consuming, low business value, process required by a regulatory body, that is a common target for automation

Sadly, RPA was a complete unknown to me at the time. But if I had a time machine, I would have definitely used RPA, even at a start-up, as it really only improves your competitiveness in the market.

Now, with the current cloud-based offerings, adoption would be even easier and the cost of learning RPA would not have been prohibitive, considering that we were technology-focused.