The Entrepreneur: Alex Young, Virti

Virti is a digital training platform that uses XR, artificial intelligence and gamification to help employees learn faster and remember training for longer.

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Founder: Alex Young
Company: Virti
Website: virti.com

Virti's digital training technology turns traditional subjectively assessed skills (such as communication, teamwork, and decision-making under pressure) into objective and measurable data to improve performance, using extended reality, artificial intelligence, and gamification.

Alex Young, founder and CEO of Virti, speaks to Startups about business challenges, aspirations, and the importance of hiring the right people.

The Business

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

At Virti, we help organisations optimise learning, training and performance using interactive video, virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) simulations, and AI-powered data analysis. Our technology turns traditionally subjectively assessed skills (such as communication, teamwork, and decision-making under pressure) into objective and measurable data to improve performance.

Organisations can purchase access to our cloud-based, no-code simulation creation suite, which enables them to build bespoke training simulations and AI virtual humans. Simulations can be accessed by employees – whether they’re in the office or remote – using mobile or desktop devices, or VR/AR headsets. The Virti platform captures data across these three mediums, applying data-science protocols to analyse, measure and feedback on performance.

As we provide a creation suite, organisations can use the system for onboarding, sales and support training, well-being and anything that helps their people perform at their best.

The subscription to our platform is tiered, so companies can either purchase access to our entire suite of features and products or select just one or two.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

We’ve been really fortunate to have a great team and have scaled up quickly. Being featured on the Nasdaq Tower in Times Square was my personal favourite moment as I love New York. Raising our Series A earlier this year was also a big achievement. We raised $10m with participation from some really exciting funds – and it has enabled us to make some crucial senior hires and expand our product offering. We were also proud to be named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2021 and one of TIME’s Best Inventions of 2020.

How did you fund your business?

We’ve raised a total of $13million across two funding rounds to fund the business. This funding has come from a combination of VCs, accelerators and clients. Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in LA – who we work closely with – have invested in both our funding rounds.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

We are a product-led company so we look at user engagement metrics like monthly and daily active users, as well as Net Revenue Retention (NRR) and the speed of onboarding new customers. Really anything that helps quantify how we are helping our customers.

To what extent does your business trade internationally?

A significant part of our business is now overseas. We have offices in both Texas and LA, as well as Bristol, and we’ve also seen a spike in interest across EMEA in the last year. The United States is a particularly big and exciting market for us.

Where would you like your business to be in five years?

I’d like to have played an important role in helping organisations close their post-pandemic skills gaps and switch to hybrid ways of working. This is the single biggest challenge for businesses right now – and our scalable training technology offers a great way for businesses to standardise their training output – from onboarding, to diversity and inclusion training, to leadership coaching – no matter where employees are in the world.

I’d also like for us to be closer to our long-term goal of being the world-leading developer and distributor of digital training technologies, and to make these world-class learning tools accessible to everyone on the planet. We believe that education is a basic human right, so our goal is to drive learning and success in every type of organisation and institution – from schools and universities, to corporates and the public sector – around the globe. We can do this by continuing on our curve of exponential international growth, researching and developing new technologies to improve human performance, and scaling our international team.

What software or technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

AI – and specifically natural language processing and computer vision – have allowed us to pull out unique data from video and text. We use this to help turn subjective data into objective, actionable insights to help our customers understand how their people will perform when it matters.


Growth Challenges

What is the biggest challenge you've faced in business?

I think one of the hardest things to get right as a startup is hiring. Hiring decisions are so important and can make or break your business in the early stages. I was lucky in that I’d had a couple of businesses prior to starting Virti, so I had some experience – although I’d never had to hire a huge team before. I overcame this challenge by speaking to people who I knew had hired fantastic teams, and diving into books and resources around how to hire in a data-driven way.

We’ve worked really hard to nail our hiring and onboarding processes at Virti, to ensure we’re hiring the right people and that once they’re with us, we can get them up to speed quickly. We’ve made a couple of poor hires along the way – there’s always an element of trial and error involved – but ultimately, we’re now at a stage where new starters are primed and ready to add value to the business after just three weeks. Building a great team – and getting the best out of them – can be a challenge, but it’s the most important aspect of any new business.

What was your biggest business mistake and what did you learn from it?

We probably could have been more aggressive with hiring when we saw we were growing extremely quickly – and brought on some better people sooner to help scale myself as a solo-founder doing lots of things. We now have a system in place where we can see any early bottlenecks in the business and bring great people in more quickly with our data-driven hiring process.

What one thing do you wish someone had told you when you started on your business journey?

I think you should take time to reflect and share your progress with others. People (including myself) can be guilty of jumping from project to project and always working towards the next goal, without taking the time to reflect on what you’ve achieved. As a startup founder I think it’s particularly important to stop and look at what you’ve done – often very quickly over a very short period of time – and to give yourself the space to be grateful for what you’ve got and the opportunities that have come your way. Now that I have more time, I’ve started a blog to share some of the key things I’ve learned to try and help others on their journey.

How has the pandemic affected the market you operate in?

During the pandemic, we saw a huge acceleration in the shift towards remote working, remote employee recruitment, virtual training, and even virtual conferencing. The need for effective remote training and collaboration tools has never been higher, so our market has grown rapidly in just a few months. Virti grew almost 1000% last year alone, as demand for effective digital training solutions skyrocketed.

There are now lots of opportunities for data-driven AR/VR and AI technologies to be brought into hybrid workplaces to scale training and optimise performance. Skills shortages and ‘the great resignation’ are making the jobs market extra competitive, so it’s all the more essential that employers engage and upskill their teams using the very best technology. It’s an exciting time to be working in this space.


Personal Growth

Did you study business or learn on the job?

I’m a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon by training, so everything I’ve learnt has been on the job, however I did build and sell my first company whilst still at medical school. Although surgery was my occupation for many years, I’ve always worked on lots of different side projects and have had one hand in the business world throughout my career. My early ventures definitely helped me to understand what was needed and expected in order to make Virti a success.

What would make you a better leader?

There is a great book called ‘Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders’ by L. David Marquet which focuses on empowering your people to think like mini-CEOs. As we bring more amazing people into the business, surrounding myself with people I can directly learn from is really important, whereas previously I figured things out by myself.

One business app and one personal app you can’t do without?

A business app I’m a huge fan of is Slack. It helps our team (which is fully remote) communicate across time zones and catch-up socially and on key projects. Personally, I use the Kindle app on my phone to read and sync it with my Evernote app to store information. This is hugely helpful when used as a second brain to organise and remember key information.

A business book or podcast that you think is great:

‘Show Your Work’ by Austin Kleon really inspired me to share quite a few of the processes we’ve created at Virti with other startup founders. I think one of the best things founders can do is share their company journeys – warts and all – via blogs, podcasts and videos, in order to help other budding entrepreneurs as much as possible. Sometimes standing up and self-promoting can be hard.

Some founders can be reluctant to share too much for fear of having someone steal ideas or intellectual property. But this book inspired me to put myself out there, without fear, share what I've learned, and leave my comfort zone behind. Sharing in this way has been pivotal in helping me build my network and credibility amongst different audiences and stakeholders, which all feeds back into the success of Virti.

Finally, what’s the most important piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur starting a business?

When your business starts to grow at pace, ethics and integrity can be harder to hold onto. Rather than rushing ahead all guns blazing, you should plan for this and put processes in place to protect the culture and retain a moral compass as you scale.

The success of your business will ultimately be defined by your human capital. So, while cutting corners and working people hard might serve you in the short term, failing to prioritise your people, ethics and culture will ultimately have long-term implications for your business.

As soon as your people start to lose faith in the vision they signed up for – or reach burnout points – morale and that sense of community can start to slip, with noticeable consequences. When you reflect back on the journey, it is the people you were on the journey with and their growth and development which is (in my opinion) the most rewarding aspect of my job as a founder. So, keep this in mind as you start and grow your business.

Ross has been writing for Startups since May 2021, specialising in sustainable business and telephone systems. He also runs the successful entrepreneur's section of the website.

He's previously written for Conde Nast Traveller and the NME and is passionate about music, sustainability, and travelling. Follow him on his Twitter - @startupsross for helpful business tips.

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