INSIGHTS with Oliver Keel
Oliver Keel, young entrepreneur and engineer, has achieved what many young founders dream of. Together with his team, the CEO and Co-founder, developed the startup: Amplo. They offer a smart maintenance platform which connects industrial equipment and enables remote asset management and monitoring. The platform’s intelligence derives from the connections it makes between machine data and technical expertise in an organized and centralised intelligent system. So, it speeds up your maintenance procedure, eliminates waste, and minimises downtime for your machines. In this interview, Oliver shares his experience and story behind Amplo.
Briefly explain your startup in simple terms:
Basically, we are creating a platform for facilitating the work of service and maintenance personnel. That way people will save time managing their day-to-day workflow. This is the most simple way I could put it because I believe that as soon as I dive into the field of artificial intelligence, some people will not quite understand what we are doing.
How did you come up with the idea to build a startup?
I think, for me, the main driver was my father. I was always around him and his own company when I was a child, which is what I think motivated me to get into that field as well. My co-founder Niels Uitterdijk and I were extremely fortunate that we were able to work on an MVP with a company from Australia. Because of this, we were able to test it out, meet my other co-founder Tanja Koch, found a startup, and grow.
When starting a company, risks and opportunity costs are very important. What are your thoughts on these and did they affect your thought process when founding Amplo?
The consideration of these factors was particularly relevant for us at the beginning because we were coming straight from studies and had very limited working experience. However, since we were young and didn’t have high responsibilities like others, such as a family or children, the risks for us were lower than most. So, the chances for us to say: “Ok, let’s try this for a year or two”, were higher.
In addition, if you find a viable product that grows rapidly, the opportunities could be huge. You could then scale it. You must, however, take into consideration that you’re not as experienced as the others. So you must iterate more, meaning you have to learn and invest more time to understand the problem.
As you know, there is a lot of stuff to do in a startup. How do you allocate your scarce resources and set priorities?
In a way, it’s like putting out fires by starting with the one that’s burning the most and putting that one out first. Which I think varies from week to week. Setting a mission for the startup and then setting milestones on how to get there and then dividing these up into smaller pieces, is key.
My biggest recommendation is to just try! Don’t overthink it. It is not worthwhile to just ponder about the market or the product. Just iterate. That’s the most effective way to set priorities. It’s imperative to remember that it won’t always be perfect but the least you can do is try it out. You won’t get ahead if you simply stand around doing nothing.
Staying on the topic of milestones: many startups rate funding as their highest priority. What do you think about this?
Well for us, it wasn’t the highest priority in the beginning. I think the highest priority for a startup should be, to find product market fit. Funding usually then follows. An early-stage investor cares mostly about the team. If you have a very talented team, you can find funding without product market fit. Then funding helps substantially to iterate toward product market fit.
Amplo managed to raise its first funding round this year, congratulations! How much of a challenge was it to achieve this?
Yeah, to be honest in the early days of Amplo it was difficult for me and Niels to manage a funding round. In the beginning, we mostly tried raising money from angel investors. But because Niels and I were more focused on tech and business, we did not have the capacity to secure a proper funding round. Tanja’s selfless commitment to raising a funding round made such a huge difference in the end. She really invested much of her effort to make a convincing pitch, talking to many investors, and network all around. It really is a full-time job.
During your startup journey, how did you evaluate if you are on the right path or if you need to pivot?
I feel like in the beginning, you have to pivot constantly. I think a good indicator is the users of your product. An example would be, when, people come to you and say you have an interesting solution for which they are willing to pay you money. I would say if you have then reached four to five clients and you would tell them “we are discontinuing our products tomorrow” and they would respond with “you’ll make my life miserable”, then you’re doing the right thing. If you are not at that stage, you should continue to iterate.
Trying to better understand what the actual problem is, can lead you to decide whether you should change your direction or not. As long as you don’t have something that is actively making someone’s life better or easier, you should think about how your product or company can change to make exactly that happen.
For us, the last two to three years have been about rethinking, positioning, messaging, and finding effective solutions. You might be closer to having a perfect product-market fit if you have around ten to twenty clients. Nevertheless, it will always be a challenging process to maintain a valuable solution. If I think of my father, who even today, after running a company for 30 years and still has to think about the possible changes to his offering, just shows how it’s a natural continuous process.
How are you connected to Bluelion? Were there any programs you took part in?
When we started out, funnily enough, a friend of mine was Miro Mayer’s cousin and he knew that I was working on a startup idea. He suggested that we go to Bluelion, but we were a bit intimidated by their professionalism. We thought our idea was interesting, but far from a proper startup idea. Like I said before, one has to act rather than overthink, so I talked to Miro and he suggested that we become tenants at Bluelion and explore the Acceleration Program. We applied and got in, which was an amazing experience. I enjoyed meeting all the different startups and the atmosphere was great. We learned so much through the network, from investors, and from former entrepreneurs, and even met Tanja this way.
What is your opinion on the Swiss Startup Ecosystem and where do you see its strengths? Further, do you see any potential for improving it?
There have been huge advances in the startup network system nowadays, particularly in the support community, like Bluelion, or programs like the Acceleration Program. This is very prominent in Zürich. I don’t know about the rest of Switzerland but I would say we have a thriving community here.
I would definitely say that there is room for improvement. But this should come more from the governmental side because the problem is; most people don’t try, due to their high fixed costs. You need about a year to let’s say, evaluate and validate an idea, and I think the government should just offer spaces where you can just work on your idea or at least collaborate with other like-minded people, for free. Moreover offer supportive schemes for founders, to make ends meet.
At the end of the day, you have to invest time into everything. Every investor will tell you, that if you don’t work full-time on your startup, product, and idea, you won’t get funding. And this kind of bites itself, right? You cannot work full-time while having large expenses to validate an idea. Therefore, I think if there would be an opportunity to validate ideas in a financially more secure space, it would help immensely.
Aside from Switzerland, how important are other markets for you?
We are especially looking at the DACH market because I think the culture is very similar to ours. Language is also particularly significant to our sales process. Currently, we have one team member from the French part of Switzerland who is assisting us in getting closer to the Romandie and France. Switzerland itself is already interesting since it accommodates very innovative companies. There are many machine manufacturers here making it already a profitable market for us.
If you could start all over again, anything, in particular, you would change, and why?
You know, in the beginning, you lie to yourself a little bit. You think “oh look, I talked to this guy and he’s super interested in our idea”, but in reality, this doesn’t mean anything. Looking back, I would definitely put 100% of my effort from the start, and I would be much harder on myself or the team when it comes to positioning and messaging. Basically, we need to identify what we are selling and how it changes something, and then iterate more quickly. In the beginning, you are not being strict enough with yourself. If you come from the tech industry, you mostly just hope that you’re an amazing engineer who builds an amazing product. However, that’s not how the world works.
Are there any latest news considering Amplo, you, or your team?
We started out with the main goal to make AI accessible to service and maintenance but with time, we realised that there’s a much wider problem in the industry: knowledge retention. We are in a world that moves and develops at a fast pace. People are changing their positions rather frequently, and our parents are retiring. There is a great deal of knowledge in that generation, which can be very difficult for companies to maintain or keep within themselves. Especially in service and operations. During the SPS fair in November 2022, we launched a new product that we think would hit the nail on the head in this criteria.