#10 Dev Amratia of nPlan on Rebuilding Construction with AI
By Nasos Papadopoulos, EF Head of Content
Dev Amratia is the CEO and Co-Founder of nPlan a company that uses machine learning to analyse construction schedules, determine where the biggest risks lie and then recommend improvements.
Whether it’s a new stadium or transport system, construction projects are consistently delayed and nPlan is committed to solving this problem by using all available data on these projects to optimise planning schedules.
Dev and his cofounder Alan were on EF9, and since pitching at the EF Demo day here in London, they’ve gone on to become one of the highest valued EF companies at this stage of the start up journey, receiving four term sheets and counting.
Dev has worked for the UK Government, where he led the national review on AI and was previously a project manager with Shell where he saw first hand how challenges in scheduling can make or break construction projects.
In this episode we discuss:
- Dev's experience pitching at DemoDay and tips for founders preparing to pitch their business
- How Dev has approached investor meetings, securing four term sheets and counting
- Dev’s insights into choosing his cofounder Alan and developing product market fit
This was a fascinating conversation thanks to the freshness of the experience and you’ll definitely get an understanding of the mechanics of the EF process and some great insights into everything from finding a co-founder to developing a product.
What Pitching your Startup Actually Feels Like
How I Prepared My Pitch for Demo Day
My Tip for Founders on Dealing with Investors
Why Fundraising Helped Me Understand My Business Better
Nasos: Dev, welcome to the show.
Dev: It’s good to be here.
Nasos: [00:03:00] It’s a pleasure to have you on. To kick us off, give me a 30 second intro into what you guys do at nPlan, and tell me how the world's going to look different if your mission plays out the way you want it to.
Dev: Sure - nPlan understands construction projects. The world really, really, really struggles to build construction consistently on time and on budget. nPlan solves that problem so we can have more consistent delivery of construction projects around the world.
[00:03:30] The world will look very different when nPlan serves it in that, we'll be able to build bigger and more ambitious projects. Projects which were simply too risky to have done in the past, nPlan's algorithms will now unlock them, and allow the world to move to the next frontier in construction.
Nasos: There are many famous examples of projects that have gone way over time and way over budget. Talk me through a few of the ones that you're aware of and put into context a little bit about how nPlan is going to solve those problems or reduce them.
Dev: [00:04:00] Sure. I can tell you about one of the projects that I worked on. I spent nine years at Shell as a project manager before starting nPlan. One of the long projects that I got to work on was in Qatar. The company spent several billion dollars trying to build that particular facility, and its project schedule the Gantt chart used to build had 950,000 lines on it. Even an army of us never really knew what we were actually trying to build and how best to build it. Needless to say, we were late because we had no real grasp of the complexity in front of us, we didn't know where our biggest risks were, we often would just fight the fires because, intuitively that's what we were programmed to do.
[00:05:00] We weren't proactive, we were always reacting to problems that we faced during the construction process. With nPlan, we debunk that. We debunk the 950,000 lines. It just goes to say, that is not unique. Crossrail’s schedule, here in London, had 1.1 million lines of activity on it. So this is not a thing that only I experienced at Shell.
[00:05:30] The way that all of this will change is that the nPlan algorithms will read and decipher that complexity for the human project team. It'll make the human project team smarter and more efficient. It'll show them what to focus on, what not to worry about and what to care about. That is a very fundamental change in the way we manage large capital projects. And that is fundamentally changing how the world has been building all along.
[00:06:00] The shift is before, we used to count on our limited experience to tell us what our next best action is. Now, we'll have an algorithm that has the experience of the world teaching us or guiding us to what the next best action is.
Nasos: I think everyone will look forward to a future where projects are delivered on time and on budget. This is definitely good news for a lot of the people that you're going to be serving as well.
[00:06:30] I want to go more into the mechanics of the business and the co-founding relationship between you and Alan a little bit later. But to start off with, let's rewind back to Demo Day. So, you're back stage, after six months of hard work and blood, sweat, tears and everything that went before to come to that part are resting on your shoulders. You're at a pitch to the audience full of investors. What is going through your head?
Dev: [00:07:00] The way you just described that has just made me sweat again. My palms are sweaty again and I'm slightly trembling on the chair, so thanks for taking me back to a moment that I don't exactly relish in my emotional state. But that's exactly it. It was probably one of the most emotional days of my life. I was showing the world my baby. I don't have any real kids, but this is the first and probably closest analogy I have to a real child.
[00:07:30] There are so many marriage analogies going on now, but, Alan and I have been nurturing our baby for six months with Entrepreneur First's help. And for the very first time, I have to show the baby off like, “Hey look how beautiful this is, you should all love it just as much as I do.” That's hard, because you don't know what people in the audience will receive, you don't know how they'll listen to you. I didn't even know how well I'd do on a stage.
[00:08:00] The emotion play is one that, you go into all sorts of rabbit holes of scenarios like, “If I don't say that right, then they might think this, and this might happen, and then this might happen, and, oh no.” It's just emotional turmoil. What ended up happening of course is, it all worked out. It's quite hard to see that when you're in the moment. Backstage there was lots of practice, practice, practice. Never have I said the same words more often. I can still say my entire Demo Day pitch in my sleep. It's ingrained, I don't think it'll leave me for many years.
Coming out of Demo Day, everything worked out. It worked out for everyone, there was 100% success, no one got it wrong. I wish I was more emotionally mature to know that everything would have been okay. But, at the same time, if I had that complacency in my mind, I may not have performed to the level that I did on the day.
Nasos: [00:09:30] It's definitely understandable. Talk me through the preparation process. How many weeks beforehand were you starting to draft the pitch, how many times did you refine it and who were you seeking feedback from? Just give me a little run down of what happened before.
Dev: EF suggests we start a month before, and most of us do, I did at least. Starting off with bullet points about the key things you want to say, and then it morphs into the first script you write, roughly three weeks before.
[00:10:00] The first feedback we got was, “This is rubbish, do it all over again.” We thought it was a strong attempt at getting this right. But they said, “No, it's rubbish.” Okay, back to the drawing board. That repetitive process probably happened for well over 10 versions of the script. I know jokingly, Rafie from Gini AI was in version 72 when I last checked with him how he was doing in the process. We didn't really count how often we changed it, but the EF team were incredibly helpful at guiding us through the maze of how your words resonate into another person's mind, which is not something we think about very often.
[00:11:00] To really try and dissect how you speak, what you say and what it means, is quite an art that frankly I didn't have any of the skills for before I came to EF. As harsh as it was to constantly redo the script and I wish I didn't have to redo it as often as I did, It's the learning process that counts. In theory, I should be much better at this from now onwards.
Nasos: [00:11:30] Let's talk about the consequences of that when they pitch which obviously went well, which was you went away on holiday for a few days, and a couple of days after coming back, you had a term sheet on your desk, and then very soon afterwards, you had another one. You're sitting in a place right now where you've got four on the table, which is pretty unprecedented for most start-ups at this stage of your journey.
[00:12:00] Talk to me about what that experience has been like, and how you're now thinking about choosing investors. Again, many start-ups don't have the benefit of doing that. But, how did your perspective change after that first time sheet, and then, what's been happening since then?
Dev: I think we came at this fairly naively. Yes, I went on holiday right after Demo Day, that's a very naive thing to do. To all the founders out there, please don't go on holiday right after you pitch, that's a bad idea. Anyway, it worked out okay for us. But yes, you're right, four days after coming back from holiday, I got the first term sheet. Which is substantially faster than any company would ever achieve in any environment.
[00:12:30] What happened then was, we realized overnight that this is a lot more interesting than we initially thought. Of course, the founders have a vested interest in the company. But, you only get confirmation of how interesting it really is when someone else says it's interesting and is willing to put a substantial amount of money behind it.
[00:13:00] Four days was probably too soon, but it worked in our favour because fundraising is a momentum building process. You build at seed hype for your company. Its hype based on what you do, a problem you solve, the market you're in, the team you come with, which are all very important factors. But it's also your ability to sell. Just like you sell to customers, you sell to investors.
From the first term sheet to the fourth, the cycle moves insanely quickly once you have number one. When you have number one, the thought process that needs to go through your mind is, is this right for the company? Just because someone wants to give you money, doesn't mean it's the best thing for the business.
[00:14:00] In our case, we saw our first term sheet, we were flattered, we celebrated it, but then we started to think. What do we need and what's the best possible outcome we can have for our business? Entrepreneur First teaches us to bake ambition in early, those are Clifford's exact words.
[00:14:30] That means you start ambitious, you stay ambitious and you just stay heavy, never drop. Which means, no matter how good you think it is today, it might get better. I could have ended fundraising in four days, but we continued the journey, we found higher quality investors giving us more term sheets at higher valuations on better terms, and we took our time to allow conviction to build. That's a really important part about fundraising.
[00:15:00] Conviction means you, the founders and the investors, strongly feel that this is the right marriage to enter. The first is the founder marriage, the second is your investor marriage. Rushing it means that you haven’t spent enough time building that conviction.
[00:15:30] I'm actually saying conflicting things now, because I've just said that it's really important to get your first term sheet to build momentum in the system. But then I've also said to take your time and do things with conviction. If you can do both, you'll end up in a very powerful position with your investors.
Nasos: [00:16:00] When you've been going into meetings with investors, you said the first term sheet came in so quickly. Did that naturally have a very different kind of psychological influence in terms of, going into the meetings with a bit of a swagger and knowing that you've got something in the bag already, and you've got something to play with? Did that change the tone, and did you feel that as well in the meetings?
Dev: [00:16:30] Yes. Knowing you have a backstop is insanely valuable. In my experience, investors have the sixth sense of knowing when the founder does and doesn’t need them. When you don't need an investor, they know it.
[00:17:00] Should you tell an investor at the start of the meeting that you have a term sheet at the end, or should you not tell them? The answer is remarkable. They will know no matter what. Which is an interesting way because, the only way they'll be able to tell that, assuming they don't have networks to find out that kind of information, is the way you come across. Coming across in a position of confidence is always more powerful and will take you to a better place in the end.
[00:17:30] My tip for whether or not a fellow entrepreneur has a term sheet is to always remember, you are the one in power. Never think that an investor is superior to you. The reason being, the investor probably needs you more than you need them. Capital is not a scarce resource. Valuable companies are an extremely scarce resource.
Nasos: [00:18:00] Tell me a little bit about how your perception of the value of the business has changed. How has your perspective transformed over the course of this fundraising process of the Demo Day?
Dev: [00:18:30] As you talk to investors, your business will be scrutinized to the nth degree. In that scrutiny, you can prepare for some bits of it, but the truth is, you can't prepare for everything. What I found was that fundraising added incredible amounts of value to my understanding of nPlan. Surely, I'm the one who knew nPlan the best. Which is true, I do.
But the best investors are able to challenge your thinking. As a result of fundraising, we have now identified new markets we can start to approach, from insurance to financing. We've identified strategies in which we monetize our data assets, which frankly we just didn't have before we started fundraising.
[00:19:00] So, fundraising is more than just trying to bring capital into the business, fundraising is your way of learning about your business with an incredibly powerful magnifying lens. Investors are paid and are trained experts at honing into what matters, at least the best ones are.
Nasos: [00:19:30] With nPlan, you've now received one of the highest valuations of any EF company today. How has that changed your perspective on what you're doing and your ambition for the future?
Dev: To have the investor community or the external community strongly believe that we are valued where we are, is a testament to our ambition, and our investors’ ambition as to where this company will go.
[00:20:00] What that changes is our mental state as to where we need to take the company over the next 5 years, 10 years. Everything has notched up. When your valuation increases at seed, the curve gets steeper further on. We've had to mentally gear ourselves for a steeper, harder, faster journey in front of us.
[00:20:30] I think the only thing that we would say out of that is, we are very excited. We're ambitious about what we're doing, we know why it matters and why it'll change the world, we're excited by what we do, and we're thrilled that we're going to be backed to be able to achieve our ambitions.
Nasos: [00:21:00] You've gone from Demo Day to fundraising, and this success that you've enjoyed so far in those. But let's go all the way back to the beginning and your decision to start this entrepreneurial path and join EF. What was going through your mind when you decided to apply to EF and why did you end up making that decision?
Dev: [00:21:30] To put it simply, one of the EF partners, Nadav Rosenberg, convinced me. The truth is, I didn’t have entrepreneurship as a longstanding dream of mine. I was actually trying to learn about how EF's model works as I was working in the government, and in that process, EF managed to convince me that entrepreneurship is the best possible thing I can do with the rest of my life.
[00:22:00] Essentially there was one thing that got me - which is a question - How do you think you can make the most impact in the world? The answer is never going to be by continuing to work in the corporate environment I'm currently in. So then, how will you make the most amount of the biggest impact in the world? Well, it's to do the things that I know best and make the biggest impact from the powers that I can collect, which means, start your own company.
[00:22:30] Now, for those who don't really know, I had no idea how to start a company. I didn't know where to find co-founders, which is of course the genesis behind EF.
Nasos: Tell me about the co-founding relationship. From what I understand, it was more or less love at first sight, it's a return to the marriage analogies. You walked into the room at the start of kickoff week, what happened next?
Dev: [00:23:00] That was before all that. Alan and I met through the EF dashboard which is like a Facebook page for all the EF participants. I saw his profile, and I sent him an email saying, “Hey, let's have coffee.” This was a month, maybe a month and a half before the cohort kicked off. We met, we got along and things were nice. I did meet other people, I didn't just meet Alan. But by the time it came to kick off week, I had spent a couple of hours with Alan and started to build a trusting relationship with him.
[00:23:30] I think for me the biggest thing that made me say Alan is the right co-founder, and not just the right, by far the best co-founder, wasn't any analysis. It was what my gut told me to do. It turned out that my gut was pretty good. Especially for technical people like me, to try not to analyze this part of the journey is really important. I tried to analyze the life out of it, and very quickly realized that it was not the right thing to do. Just follow your gut and you'll be right.
Nasos: [00:24:00] From the early stages of working together, what was the process by which you started to assess the scale of what you wanted to do? Of course, like you were saying before, EF is all about baking ambition early at the start. How did you start to get a sense of the idea that what you were doing was going to be a huge company that could have a massive impact on a very large market? What were the little things you were doing to test that in the customer development process, or starting to feel that out?
Dev: I think it was the pace at which we attracted traction. In month three, we had a verbal commit from high speed 2, the 56-billion-pound train line project in the UK, the largest project that this country has done since the Victorian era.
[00:25:00] In month three, we had a verbal commit that they would pay us over 100,000 pounds for our services. We thought, “We don't even have services, this is mad.” The only reason that contract was offered to us was indicative of the value we created. When we made that business case which got approved, the consensus around the table is that for a single project, we could save them between one and four billion pounds. That's one client.
Then we said, “Yes, this might mean a lot for many more people now.” And it did. Our traction speaks for itself, in which the market that is generally perceived to not be open for innovation, or very backward in innovation, is suddenly taking on a very deep and complex technology stack that we at nPlan have developed.
Nasos: [00:26:00] Go back to the process of jumping off a cliff. I know you mentioned that entrepreneurship hadn't really crossed your radar until you started to look into the EF model, and the thing that ultimately clinched it for you was, thinking about what the best way to maximize your input was. I also imagine there were certain things that were holding you back and that you're going back and forth. What were the doubts in your mind, and what would you say more broadly to people listening who are also on the fence about starting a company, not necessarily with EF, but making that leap and trying to scale their ambition effectively?
Dev: I'll be very transparent. My biggest concern was leaving my six-figure salary. Six figures gives you a very comfortable life anywhere in the world. To put it simply, entrepreneurship does not give you that. I don’t make anywhere close to six figures anymore.
[00:27:00] But that means more. Or, there is more to the sacrifice than just money. In my case, there was a significant monetary sacrifice that I made. The other sacrifices to think about are, what it'll mean for your personal life. My personal life had to be well aligned to making the jump. What I mean by that is, I'm not saying you can't do entrepreneurship if you have a family - there are plenty of successful founders that have done it. But your family and your personal life have to be well geared to support you on the journey. The thing that got me over the line to overcome those two parts, was ensuring I had the right support network around me. In a bowling alley there are girders in case you throw one into the gutter. You need those lines to be thrown up for you because you probably don't know how to bowl, or you're learning how to bowl.
[00:28:00] As soon as you think you have some of those coming up, depending on how high you need to take them, go. Don't look back, don't hesitate, because that's the whole point of the girder system. In my case, I spent my time making sure that was ready for me, then I made the jump.
Nasos: [00:28:30] I think that's some sage advice to end on. Dev, thank you so much for coming on the show, it was a pleasure talking to you.
Dev: Thank you.