Gil Makleff of Sembly AI
Want to know what it is really like to start a company? In our Founder Spotlight series we have candid conversations with real founders about the good, bad and ugly of getting your hands dirty and building a business.
Meet Gil Makleff of Sembly AI. Sembly AI is a SaaS platform that helps make meetings more effective for you and your team. We had the opportunity to speak with their founder, Gil Makleff, to learn more about his journey, passion, how it is to be a serial entrepreneur, the ultimate people person and the owner of an incredible 14 year old golden lab. Learn more about Sembly AI, their team and how their products can make your life easier.
What’s your story and how did you get here?
My story is an interesting story in the sense that it’s not so linear. I was brought up by an American mother and an Israeli father. I was in Israel until I finished my mandatory military service. I was in the US before as a child, and then I moved back later in life. I then went to Columbia University and I got my undergraduate degree in computer science. After college I started working for Chase Manhattan Bank. I was in an operations group, and then started my MBA at NYU. After that, I founded a company with someone I met at Chase. We spent many years building the company and then sold it. It turns out the Project Portfolio Management software was then sold to Microsoft and then many years later, Ernst and Young.
Over the years, the one thing that has always been and continues to be important to me is people. The people in the organizations I’ve led and lead mean a lot to me. I think some people treat organizations as a machine. I believe in the merit based approach. I also believe you need to create a team environment that is synergistic. People need to help each other in the organization in order to resolve problems and that is not an easy thing.
What was your inspiration for your current company?
We are part of an industry with large transformations. As a result, we have always spent a lot of time in meetings. It was interesting to observe how well meetings were run, the conversations and whether action items could be accurately tracked.
In 2019 a past coworker and I decided to make a real impact on corporate business meetings. That is why we created Sembly AI. We knew we could apply machine learning to working teams, leaders and managers. We thought it would remove a lot of the mundane activities required (e.g. taking notes, gathering feedback, etc.) so people could focus on the real problems that needed to be solved in the meeting. And when you are in 6-7 meetings a day and then need to reference something that happened in a meeting months ago it can be both difficult and complicated.
For Sembly AI, it was important to design the product from the corporate point of view so we could really make an impact and help working teams. We wanted to help teams from all industries and organizations of all sizes.
Did you get funding or did you self fund?
We initially received funding from angel investors and we also self-funded. I think it is important to be personally invested. We then took on a strategic investor which is a whole different story but a familiar story for startups.
What keeps you up at night?
That’s an interesting question. I tend to be overly aware of everything around me, not just my company, but everything. When I start to focus on the rapid change in our world today it becomes consuming and it keeps me up at night. There is change everywhere, literally.
Take our industry, a few months ago Chat GPT was introduced to the world, now the AI industry has been transformed thanks to that introduction. The public’s sudden acceptance and interest in our industry is very interesting. There are so many dimensions – communication, technical, legal, use cases, etc.
The impact of technology on human behavior is really interesting. Chat GPT reminds me of when Alexa/Siri came out and people were blown away by what it could do. Then there was Google Maps. Wait – you can tell me there is traffic on the way to my meeting?
Change is always happening but it is exciting to see it happen so fast. I have this image of waves in the sea rolling in. The waves are innovation. My company is like a surfboard riding the waves, however some are too big, like Chat GPT. Did you know Microsoft invested close to half a billion dollars to build that technology?
Back to the question. What keeps me up at night is change. What is going to be the next big change or wave?
Are you a risk taker?
I don’t categorize myself as a risk taker. I take calculated risks. I believe if you take all the variables into a decision and you choose to move forward with a reasonable set of assumptions, then it isn’t high risk, it is an educated decision.
Did you have to pivot?
Yes, we made a lot of mistakes along the way, we even changed the name due to enterprise adoption. We pivoted to a bottom up play in addition to an enterprise play. It ended up being very successful. Along the way we also did a lot of rethinking, redesigning, etc. There is no such thing as a simple path. There are a lot of challenges still, we are still growing and developing. The ability to continuously change is the key to success.
Do you have any pets?
Yes, I actually had a golden retriever that lived to be 19 years, I still get emotional about that pup. I now have a yellow lab that just turned 14.
What are some of your other passions outside of work?
My secret passion is writing. I’d like to write a fictional book of any genre in my lifetime.
As a founder, have you made any mistakes?
Yes, I have made many mistakes. One particular one was trying to monetize too early. We tried to build it quickly and then sell it. It didn’t initially work so we had to think about it a little differently and rebuild it. It took us longer to get to our goals but luckily our investors believed in us. That was a big lesson.
What does it take to be a founder?
That is a good question with a long answer. I think having a very clear vision of what you want to achieve is important. However, you also have to have a lot of empathy, sympathy and patience. You have to be willing to wear a lot of hats. Sometimes you are a doer, not a manager or leader, you need to just get things done. That might be paying bills, making coffee, building the product – it is not always about delegation, it is about doing and then shifts over time but you will always be doing something.
I always thought the product was 95% of the startup but it is really only 15%. The rest of the time it’s fundraising, operations, human resources, administration, marketing, sales – you get the idea.
Anything else you would like to add?
I’d like to share a quote that I use a lot, it is from Albert Einstein, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid.” We all have our own strengths. It is important not to judge a person based on their lack of abilities or weaknesses in one area, as this can lead to the person believing they aren’t capable. As a leader, it is your job to identify their strengths and help them develop confidence and further develop these skills.
The Founder Spotlight Series focuses on the entrepreneurial journey. At Buzzy Rocket we are passionate about helping entrepreneurs share their vision. Interested in participating in the Founder Spotlight Series? Contact the Buzzy Rocket team.
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