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Samsara CTO and co-founder - ‘We’re going through a transition and expanding the platform’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 9, 2024
John Bicket founded Samsara with CEO Sanjit Biswas and is responsible for the company’s product development. He tells diginomica how the connected operations vendor is thinking about broadening its platform.

An image of John Bicket, Samsara CTO
(Image sourced via Samsara)

Connected Operations Cloud vendor Samsara finds itself at an interesting point in time for its product strategy. The company is one of the few Internet-of-Things (IoT) vendors that has found success in the market, achieving this by initially focusing on buyers that manage large fleets of vehicles. Samsara sensors and cameras connect vehicles to its cloud platform, which then provides analytics to operations managers, as well as drivers, who can implement workflows and tools to improve driver safety and fleet efficiency. 

It was a narrow use case that spurred mass adoption and scale for the vendor. Other IoT providers, arguably, had failed to find similar success because the application of their platforms and technology was too broad. However, now that Samsara has millions of sensors and access points out in the wild, as well as it processing trillions of data points, new opportunities are emerging for the vendor - its platform is expanding. 

We saw this with the introduction of Asset Tags at Samsara’s user conference in Chicago recently, where the company launched lightweight tags that are aimed at buyers that may want to track and manage smaller, but high value assets. The new device has a battery life of four years and, crucially, connects to the Samsara Network (an industrial network that is enabled by Samsara’s existing connected devices already on the ground - picking up signal from other Samsara gateway devices nearby). 

The Asset Tags are interesting because they are a much cheaper, lightweight technology that will allow companies to track and manage almost anything they deem valuable across their physical operations. But arguably the more interesting point is that the Samsara Network, which is essentially a vendor-owned network, will allow Samsara to connect up and monitor assets without relying on infrastructure from other providers. 

All of this points to a much broader platform approach from Samsara. Whilst it has expanded its use cases beyond fleets in recent years, stating that it is now the system of record for any organization that has to manage physical assets or environments, the opportunity is there for it to build out a more diverse set of applications with this platform approach. 

With this in mind we sat down with Samsara co-founder and CTO John Bicket to discuss how he sees the future of product development at the vendor and how the application of the platform amongst buyers will complement and impact their other systems of record. 

Speaking to why Samsara has seen success in the market of IoT where others have failed, Bicket agreed that the use case was the key: 

I think the approach we took from very early on was that we wanted to be really customer focused. Instead of building a big horizontal platform, which can be really technical and really interesting, it’s better to make a few people really, really happy, rather than make something that’s kind of useful for a tonne of people. 

In some sense, IoT platforms are really interesting, but in order to get them broadly adopted, you have to build applications on top of it to make them useful. 

That was our strategy: focus on where this would be really important and very useful for some people. So we started from there, an application that was really useful, before then trying something really broad. 

And now with the Samsara Network, Bicket sees a much broader set of applications emerging: 

Without those use cases, without a customer base at scale, without access to the network, we couldn’t have gotten Asset Tags off the ground. We can add it to our system now and benefit from some of the other platform stuff and really start to expand the use cases. 

With the platform we have now, there’s a bunch more ideas that we couldn’t even really fathom or consider in the early stages of the company. Without the big network it wouldn’t really be that realistic. 

The interplay with ERP

With the introduction of forms and workflows to the platform, Samsara has positioned itself as the system of record for organizations with large physical operations. It’s worth noting that these workflows and forms interact very closely with the sensors and IoT devices. For example, if a sensor/camera picks up that a driver has an accident, the driver could then automatically be issued with an incident report form in-app, which they could use to capture images and detail the incident, as well as fill out forms for the insurance claim. Or a field service worker could be locating assets on an operational site and logging the details of the assets in a form, which is then logged into the ‘system of record’. 

What’s been interesting to understand is how much reach Samsara’s operational system of record has with other back-end systems - ERPs, for instance. Samsara doesn’t see its platform replacing these systems, but Bicket does see them having a complementary purpose. 

For instance, Bicket argued, the Samsara system of record could work as an auditing tool to feedback information into ERP systems: 

It’s been really interesting for us. Larger companies almost always have some kind of ERP system that’s separate from the operations data, where they keep records of what’s going on with customers. 

I think the fascinating thing, what forms does, and one use case that I didn’t really anticipate, is that it allows folks on the frontline to update information if it’s incorrect. 

Some interesting use cases that we’ve been seeing are: ‘here are the notes for what you would expect for when you turn up to a customer site, here’s what they’ve ordered and the services they’re getting from us’. If that’s incorrect, they can have a form that lets you fill that back out and send that to a manager to review it, who can then press a button where they have some kind of integration on the back end, which fixes it in the ERP system. 

And that way, if another technician is showing up to the same site, or if it’s a different driver, they can carry over that mental state to the new person and they don’t have to have a gap in service because someone didn’t know where something was. I didn’t anticipate how this could be used as a tool for consistency. 

Equally, operations environments have historically - and still currently - often rely on pen and paper and manual workarounds, which are not only ripe for inaccuracies, but also aren’t suited to providing an up to date or realistic picture of the ‘state’ of someone’s operational environment. There is inevitably a lag between capturing the information in the field and having it present in a back-end system. Bicket said that he is finding customers using the platform to capture documents in real time for legal reasons and then pushing this information back into the ERP systems for accuracy. 

Broadening the scope

Bicket outlined that Samsara’s product development is guided by two key approaches. Firstly, the company works very closely with customers to understand how they are using the platform, to identify use cases. We at diginomica have spoken to customers who have verified this to be true, having used the technology in new ways and fed it back into the vendor’s product development team. Secondly, Bicket noted that Samsara thinks about its product development expanding in ‘concentric circles’ - in other words, slowly broadening out into areas that are closely related, adjacent and expanding out from there. 

But Bicket added that Samsara is now in a position to expand more broadly: 

I think we are going through a transition now where we are starting to expand the platform. We are going to get to the spot where we will have many new products. If we look out a couple of years we will start to accelerate a number of things that we are working on. 

Now we’re able to pull across products and you’ll start to see us do more integrations and then pull more data into our platform from other systems. We do have some stuff in the ERP system, and understanding more context from there. Whether it’s who the customer is for them, or grouping by customers rather than just physical assets - making that information available to operational folks will be really valuable. 

My take

It certainly feels like Samsara is at a pivotal moment when considering its product development. I hope that this time next year we will be hearing about new applications and use cases as a result of the introduction of Asset Tags - and I’m keen to see its customer base expand into new areas. 

One thing worth adding is that when Samsara says it is a system of record vendor, I think we need to think about this slightly differently compared to other back-end systems. Yes, it’s collecting information for operational environments and creating a system of record of that data, but it is also providing more of a feedback loop than one might expect. 

The common theme I notice amongst Samsara customers is that they use the platform to nudge behavior - whether that be for safety or efficiency. The platform provides insights that then allows managers to deliver training or workflows to improve operational environments in real time - it’s constantly nudging organizations towards a more desirable end-state. To me this feels different from some of the more traditional systems of record and it will be interesting to see how this too guides Samsara’s future product development. 

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