CEO Sanjit Biswas on Samsara’s evolution - ‘we are there, we are the system of record for physical operations’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez June 22, 2023
Summary:
From a technological standpoint, Biswas believes Samsara is in a position to be the system of record for complex physical operations. The focus is now on adoption and growth.

Logistics, supply chain and delivery service concept : Fork-lift truck moves a pallet with box carton. Van on a laptop computer, depicts wide spread of products around globe © William Potter - Shutterstock
(© William Potter - Shutterstock)

What started as a business focused on fleet management solutions for trucking, connecting sensors in vehicles to management software in the cloud, Samsara has expanded to become a workflow and data company that aims to tackle the full scope of connected physical operations. CEO Sanjit Biswas says that the companies it sells to, which often have a complex network of physical assets and people managing them, are now using Samsara as their system of record - essentially running the core of their operations across all functions. 

That’s not to say that that’s how all customers are using Samsara’s platform - the Connected Operations Cloud - but Biswas is seeing buyers expand from singular use cases, often replacing pen and paper processes, to become fully digitized. The focus now for the vendor is uptake along these lines, bringing the success stories to the fore and helping buyers carry out the necessary change management to help shift ways of working. 

And that in itself is no small task. During Samsara’s annual user event in Austin this week, diginomica heard from dozens of customers that were still using systems that were over 20 years old, often which are point solutions that rely on manual processes. These companies are hoping to get better visibility into their physical operations, as well as better understand their asset utilization - but have frequently been neglected by technology vendors, and as a result, are further behind in their journey to digitalization (both from a technology perspective, and in terms of ways of working). Speaking with diginomica, Biswas says: 

I think it's a journey, and we've seen some of our customers are very far along that journey where we are that central system they run their entire operations on. You see it when you go to visit them, we're on the screens. 

Many customers are still in that first application phase, but they're newer. It's a question of time, is what we're noticing. But we're becoming that nexus or hub for data. And that to us means that we have that central spot, in the same way that Salesforce is in that spot, or ServiceNow is, or even Workday on the HR side - becoming that platform that everyone can build on.

When asked if Samsara’s technically ready to be the system of record for connected operations, Biswas says:

We believe we're there, yes, absolutely. You hear it from our customers. We are their system of record. They rely on the data from the Samsara system to run their business.

And we saw this week that the development of the platform continues to expand. Samsara made a number of product announcements that continue to focus on bringing more data into the center of the business, allowing it to identify new ways of working or efficiency savings, whilst making the job easier for people on the frontline. These include: 

  • Mobile Experience Management (MEM) - a software solution that aims to simplify mobile management at scale. With MEM, employees can get customized support - such as remote training and live troubleshooting - through their mobile devices, while reducing unnecessary digital distractions.

  • Virtual Coach - instead of drivers having to wait for in-person feedback, Virtual Coach offers the ability to self-coach directly from the Samsara Driver App, wherever drivers are. The aim is to make it easy for managers to personalize coaching experiences at scale, improving road safety as well as driver engagement and retention.

  • Smart Trailer and Asset Tracking solutions - Samsara is bringing new insights from trailers and assets – such as utilization, temperature, and location – which are often hard to act upon when they live in siloed systems. With new Asset Gateways, users can now connect and extend this visibility. The new Find My Asset feature, for instance, allows managers to find lost or stolen high-value unpowered assets. 

  • Data Connectors - new data connectors including Fivetran, Kafka, and Power BI, will allow Samsara data to be streamed to business applications and workflows. It hopes that this holistic visibility will allow more people within an organization to make data-driven decisions and improve the bottom line.

Biswas explains that the thinking behind these product announcements speaks to the broader strategy of how Samsara is seeking to become the backbone of these companies with huge and complex physical operations. He says: 

Really, what we're trying to highlight is that this is about all of your operations, not just your vehicles, not just your equipment - but it's about the people too, because they're such a vital part of the operations. If you think about MEM, we're bringing a lot of technology into the frontline. And in many cases, you have employees that get stuck in an app or they're getting distracted. The idea that you can now have a platform that you can use to run your operations, but then also go troubleshoot that person's tablet in the field, it changes the game. 

What we're trying to do is fill in some of these gaps and streamline technology adoption, so they're no more barriers in the way and you can truly digitize. 

A question of ‘how?’

Biswas acknowledges that a lot of companies in these industries start with Samsara with a single project in mind - whether that be because they have had a fatal accident and are looking to improve safety, or they are looking to get an understanding of what assets they have because they have acquired a new company. However, he adds, that as the customer relationship evolves, so do the scopes of these projects. He says: 

Some of the customers who are here with us at the conference, we've been working with them for five years, and now they're deploying all the products. And all their subsidiary companies are going international with it. It's fun to see Samsara at full operational scale. So it's not just a single project. But really their entire operations are on Samsara’s platform.

The consequence of this is that Samsara is now delivering systems to a number of different personas. These could include drivers, fleet managers, and dispatch managers, but also back-office personnel, such as safety, compliance, finance and HR. And that’s where the platform gets really interesting, as the back-office functions at these companies often haven’t had reliable access to the data being derived from their physical operations - ever. We’ve seen examples of how companies have been able to use the data in HR to improve retention rates, or have been able to better analyze which geographies their assets are in, in order to reduce tax obligations. Biswas adds: 

They need data to drive those programmes, and they need operational data. So we have that and they can connect it into their Workday or SAP system. We have those connections behind the scenes.

So the question isn’t about the technology’s capabilities, according to Biswas, but rather ‘how’ these companies operationalize the use of this data across their organizations to unlock these new use cases and change their ways of working. And this is the harder challenge. As noted above, these companies have often been working in a similar way for decades, relying on institutionalized knowledge, as well as pen and paper. Sometimes ignorance is bliss - on the surface, at least - and knowing what you didn’t know previously can be challenging. 

However, Biswas is focused on using storytelling to drive this change management agenda, where he sees the key to success being showcasing how the changes are useful to the users involved. He explains: 

I think they all see the power of technology at this point. It's very rare that we come across a laggard, who says I'm just not interested in digitizing. So the question becomes ‘how?’. 

The biggest challenge is actually the change management of thousands of employees. If you think about physical operations, it involves a lot of people - and bringing people along that journey, and not changing too much at once - but getting to that goal of ‘we're going to digitize’.

And this use of storytelling often needs to be adopted by the customer themselves. Biswas adds: 

It actually comes from the customer, it comes from within. It's internal change management, more than technical implementation. A lot of what we do is we have a customer success team who will sit down with you as part of this journey and say: what are your goals and how can we share best practices from across our customer base? 

For example, safety cameras and dash cameras can often be perceived as intrusive or invasive. Well, it turns out more often than not, they're used to exonerate the driver. To prove the driver did not cause the accident and that they did everything right. Once you have that story to tell internally and it comes to light that the driver did a great job and the company's backing the driver here, it becomes easier. 

Have you helped save the life of somebody on your team? Those stories are so powerful internally and it gets people to say ‘this is a safety issue, it's not about privacy invasion’. There's no interest in that. It's simply about improving workplace safety. Once you have that it just cascades through very quickly. 

Samsara’s AI plans

It would have been remiss to not question Biswas about the company’s AI plans, considering that most of the B2B technology industry is accelerating its release of new generative AI capabilities, based on large language models (LLMs). However, it’s also worth noting that AI has been core to Samsara’s value proposition for a number of years, where it uses machine learning to analyze driver behavior or advise on optimized routes for fleets. On the advancement of LLMs, Biswas says: 

Our investments in AI are platform level investments, so it’s not unique to an application, it's across the board. And generative AI is a new tool in that toolkit. We use computer vision for video analytics. We use anomaly detection for those data streams, like maintenance. 

And then LLMs let us actually create or generate AI models in a way that will change our user interfaces and help us train models at the next level, which just wasn't possible a couple of years ago. 

Some of the best examples of generative AI we’ve seen in recent months have been from vendors that have unique data insights (where the data is very specific), whilst also utilizing a combination of process optimization and predictive workflow tools. One example I put to Biswas is how generative AI could be used by a Samsara customer to ‘ask’ the platform: where are my core inefficiencies in X location and how could I improve? Biswas says this is something that Samsara is working on, but he wants it to be reliable and accurate. He says: 

That's exactly the kind of use case that we're excited about, because it's so customer facing and so practical. Now the key is how do we make it as useful as possible for the customer, not just a shiny demo, like from a hackathon - but rather something that's truly useful day to day and it's consistent in its responses. 

These LLM technologies can almost give you a response that’s not really rooted in reality. So we can't have hallucinations, when it comes to operational data. It’s a little nuanced and we want to get all those details right. 

My take

What’s clear to me from attending Samsara’s conference this week is that the buyers at the event have seen significant savings and changes in their businesses as a result of adopting the Samsara platform. They are honest about the difficulties in changing the way people work and getting them used to the technology, as well as the huge shift required to move away from paper-based or manual systems, but almost all of them are expanding the use of the platform. But this is still very early days for Samsara, and whilst the technical capabilities may be there, we are still only just learning about how the operational data being collected is being distributed to other back-office functions - enabling this ‘system of record’ approach the vendor is pursuing. That takes time and there will be learnings along the way, as Samsara scales. In the meantime its focus is right, getting those stories out into the open to drive change will be key. 

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