When speaking to John, you quickly learn that his eyes are fixed firmly on the future. He’s conversant on a wide range of emerging technologies and their potential. If there’s one thing he knows, it’s that we have no idea what the future will look like, but we need to be ready for it.
John and Squirrel may have been the ideal first customer for Ambit, back in 2017. John clearly has an appetite for risk, and his approach to everything about his business is agility – act fast, fail fast, learn fast. He’s basing his approach on the speed with which he sees the world changing, and the uncertainty around how things will look in the future.
“Today’s fringe is tomorrow’s normal,” he says. “If you look at the way the world is going, AI is going to have a role. We all need to get on the AI bus.”
His take is that you can’t always know if something will be important or have value, but, just like an actual squirrel, the sooner you get in the game and start preparing for what’s coming next, the further ahead you’ll be.
“In technology, change comes fast,” he points out. “The way I look at it, a Digital Employee is a low cost, low risk way to start getting ready for what’s coming next. Agile is a state of mind – you can’t be held back by a fear of failure. Especially for the bigger players, which are often the least agile, a Digital Employee is actually a very small investment.”
Looking back on his partnership with Ambit so far, John’s confident he’s backing the right horse.
“I didn’t want to invest in developing this capability in-house, so I looked for a partner who will stay on the cutting edge of technology and take us on the journey,” he says.
“The Ambit team is really focused on their purpose,” he says. “They’re very good at what they do, and are always aiming higher. You can see that they’re prepared to invest to stay on top of their game.”
Having spent a lot of time overseas, John also believes that being NZ-based has been a huge advantage as Ambit has established itself in the market. Because we don’t have the population or the finance, the Kiwi way of approaching problems is different, he says.
Ambit is “a million miles ahead in dealing with the NZ market,” he says. “Because we don’t have big data sets to work with, Kiwis are more intuitive. They take a bigger picture view to solve specific problems.” It’s an approach that will help Ambit stand out from the crowd as it expands operations offshore, starting this year in Australia.
John could talk for hours about where he sees tech going next, and how it could change the way we do business. He doesn’t have all the answers, but he does know this:
“Unless you’re focused on the future, then perhaps now is not the right time for you [to invest in new technology]. All I know is that a step-change is coming – incredibly fast – and if you haven’t been on the journey you won’t be prepared. As for us at Squirrel, we’ll be ready.”
Squirrel’s brand is quirky and aims to make home lending and related financial services more engaging. Its target audience is predominantly young, first home buyers, who are undaunted by tech and are willing to try new things. It seems totally appropriate that Squirrel’s Digital Employee is named Alan, after a BBC video of an animal mis-labelled as a squirrel when it went viral. Alan also has a Tinder profile. Even in a serious business like this, John believes having fun is important.
“We’ve basically started to gamify an otherwise boring process,” says John. “People don’t like filling in forms – we’re working towards being able to pull information from a range of sources to make the mortgage application process easier.” People are also moving away from the keyboard – when speech recognition technology is up to the task, John will be ready.