Welcome back to our Founder Spotlight Series interviews, where we share insights, experiences, and advice from some of our client founders. We recently caught up with Anik Seth, co-founder, and CEO of HUEX Labs, to learn more about how they're using AI to improve customer experience in the drive-thru.
Almost every startup idea has its roots in the old proverb "necessity is the mother of invention." For HUEX Labs co-founder Anik Seth, the idea for what would become for Automated Intelligent Drive-Thru Assistant (AiDA) came from his experience working at his family’s businesses. After graduating from the University of Waterloo with a degree in accounting, Seth said he wanted to pursue entrepreneurship, leading to owning and operating franchises of a famous Canadian coffee brand.
"I worked every position fathomable, from cleaning the washrooms to managing multiple locations and training and developing employees. It was a great experience which helped lead to the birth of HUEX Labs," Seth said.
While stories on labour shortages are making headlines today, staffing has always been a challenge for service industry businesses. With his background in owning and operating franchises, Seth and his co-founders, Jim Sun and Kiran Kadekoppa, set out to develop an AI solution that could solve staffing problems and deliver a better customer service experience.
"I think I was kind of born and bred into this fast food world and just passionate about it as a starting point. One of the first use cases we came up with was automating customer service in the drive-thru. A business owner could have a digital employee that can work 24/7 and help address this labour deficit they're facing," Seth said.
Consumers have become more accepting of digital assistants like Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa over the last decade. But bringing that same experience to a noisy and high-traffic environment like a drive-thru needs to include both the consumer and the store staff who will be preparing orders based on the interaction with AiDA. Seth uses his experience as a franchise operator on-site to install and configure their pilot test sites.
"Drive-thru orders account for almost 80% of total sales volume, but it can be a frustrating experience. There's a lot of back and forth communication. There's sometimes a language barrier. Plus, the audio quality can be really bad. But when we speak to customers, they say that this is something that should have been done yesterday," Seth said.
While automation and AI are often associated with replacing human workers, Seth said that HUEX Labs sees AI as a way to augment existing employees to improve working conditions and productivity.
"Franchises typically staff five to six people in a drive-thru. The goal with AiDA is to help them—especially in non-peak times—so they can focus on high-value functions like expediting orders to get more vehicles through the line faster," Seth said.
The HUEX Labs team has the technical skills to create the AI version of "would you like fries with that," but bringing AiDA to market meant looking for business and marketing expertise. For Seth and his co-founders, The Accelerator Centre was the logical choice.
"I felt the Accelerator Centre was a great fit because it brings that pedigree of mentors and programs that help startups scale—including the AC:Studio program which we're excited to be a part of," Seth said.
A great product doesn't have a chance of gaining traction without a defined and repeatable sales process. Seth said that finance mentor Kevin Hood helped them develop their sales playbook and processes—critical tasks as HEUX Labs moves from pilot projects to selling to their first customers.
"Kevin's shown great interest in our sales pipeline and playbook. We're still working on that sales playbook because this is a deep tech solution and it has more challenges—it's not something like a SaaS subscription that you can sell right away. But we feel we're at that inflection point where once we get this process down, that sales playbook will make the difference," Seth said.
Deploying a mission-critical conversational AI in stores means relying on edge computing technologies rather than cloud computing. Edge computing is a model where data is processed on location rather than being transmitted to a cloud-based system and returned to the remote site. AiDA needs to understand the order, ask follow-up questions, and move the order to the in-store queue in real-time.
AiDA also provides analytics to help franchise owners understand what products customers are ordering and when each product is in demand. HUEX Labs found assistance with the development of AiDA's analytics interface from UX, UI, and Product Design mentor Steve Fyke. Seth said analytics are imperative to improving the guest experience and providing critical insights into interactions happening in the drive-thru.
"If you pulled up to the drive-thru at 4 p.m. and the doughnut you wanted was unavailable, there was no way to document that information. AiDA is able to show that between 4 and 6 p.m., you might have 15 requests for maple dip doughnuts that weren't being fulfilled. It becomes valuable data for franchises so managers and business owners can make better business decisions." Seth said.
As Seth and the HUEX Labs team learn and adapt from their pilot projects, they are planning how to scale to hundreds and hopefully thousands of installations with the help of the Accelerator Centre mentors.
"It's a fun challenge to say the least. How do we manage that scaling? How do we bring the right team on board and build on the existing infrastructure that we've created right now" Seth said.