In the ‘Hot Seat’ with James Coombes, CEO & Co-founder of Vector AI

Q: What’s your name and where do you come from?

James Coombes. There isn’t a simple answer to where I’m from! I was born in the UK but my family is nomadic. My Mum’s French, my Dad’s Welsh/Italian, they currently live in Australia and I carried on the expat tradition by living in the US for ten years. Home is currently SW London.

Q: Give us a quick overview of your company and what it does?

We are a ‘paperwork co-pilot’, we help teams process paperwork 10x faster, using machine learning. We’re specifically focused on the paperwork-intense logistics industry for now (think bills of lading, invoices, packing lists, certificates etc.). The logistics industry in this context is a pretty broad category that includes freight forwarders, customs brokers, trade finance banks, shipping and general import/export companies, all of whom struggle with this problem on a huge scale.

Q: What’s the next big idea that nobody is thinking about yet? Why is this so important?

Our industry aside, I’m a biochemist by training and I think a future physical/digital interface between tech and the human genome and protein transcription is going to unleash something really special and really scary at the same time. Imagine the potential of being able to deliver a digital instruction to a group of your own cells to create an antibody on demand?! Game changer.

Q: Looking back to the day you founded the company, what is the one thing you wish you had known before starting off?

I think in hindsight I would have liked to have known how lucky I was to stumble on the amazing group of people that work for and how crazy it was that they came along right when we needed them. But then again maybe having that information would have changed the decisions we made, so probably best to just bet on uninformed serendipity and do the best with the information you have at the time.

Q: How do you define success for you / your company?

It depends on the timescale. Over the short-term, we focus on delivering product that we believe in and that we’re happy to put out into the world. Longer-term we/I would like to make sure we’re making things incrementally better and contributing our bit to moving society forward, I think that’s a good North Star. I’ve always felt privileged to live in a time when a small group of motivated individuals in a start-up can access a tremendous pool of resources within an ecosystem and do amazing things.

Q: What behaviour or personality trait do you most attribute to your ability to achieve what you have achieved so far?

I like to think that my upbringing has allowed me to be comfortable with the unknown and the unfamiliar, as well as the self-delusion that my opinion on what the world should be like actually matters. I enjoy questioning things and I was always the kid who asked ‘why?’ to everything. I tend to chafe more than most at accepting norms that don’t make sense to me. I’m grateful for the fact that I’ve had so much exposure to different cultures which means I could more easily break out of a lot of the cultural programming we all have.

Q: What’s your top idea to improve diversity in the workplace?

I think it is about casting a wide net and optimising for smart people who demonstrate the capacity to grow into a role rather than limiting recruitment to a narrow pool of candidates who have been fortunate enough to have exactly the right experience and opportunity. One of the things I like to see is hustle and purpose, several of our team members approached us and didn’t give us a choice not to hire them. We like to hire missionaries not mercenaries.

Q: What is the best advice you have ever been given and by whom?

Plenty but if I had to choose one it would be: ‘It’s sometimes better to ask for forgiveness than permission’. From an old boss. Within reason of course.

Q: What was the most useful resource (networks/books/websites/blogs) you used when starting out?

Mostly just general tech blogs that I used to read in my day-job as escapism. Techcrunch in the Michael Arrington era may have featured heavily. I enjoy reading books about other founders that don’t gloss over the hard stuff or romanticise how much foresight they had. Character etc. is important, but let’s not kid ourselves that luck is a factor too.

Q: What is the single most important thing you’ve done to increase the value of your business?

Easy. Convinced bright people to work with me.

Q: What has been the hardest decision you’ve had to make in your entrepreneurial journey?

So far, the FOMO of saying no to potential customers because what they wanted didn’t align with our roadmap.

Q: What will be the biggest change to how we lead our lives in 15 years? And what won’t have changed?

Lot of change happening at the moment with Covid-19. The obvious ones in our domain are remote work and an increased focus on collaboration tools, which presents a huge opportunity to layer in machine learning and process optimisation into the enterprise stack. Separately I think as a society we have a responsibility to make behavioural changes while Covid-19 is reshuffling the deck. I think large metropolises will have to go fully car-free and the collective memory of a pollution-free lockdown will encourage an acceleration in EV adoption. What won’t have changed will be a need for meaningful physical connections with each other, just maybe in a more targeted way.

Q: Tell us something we don’t know about you?

I’m a single dad with a daughter who is roughly the same age as the company. The running joke among our ml engineers is to make sure our AI can understand any kind of paperwork better than she can. She can’t read yet so they’re safe, for now!

Q: If you could be offline for 3 days – where would you go and what would you do?

Budget no object I’d go sailing in the mediterranean with good company, great food and better wine. I might push it a few extra days.

Adrian Lloyd
Half Swiss. China obsession at Oxford. Tech obsession at Stanford GSB. Strategy consulting to Venture Capital. Tennis, skiing, Cresta riding. 4 young children, a boxer. Fabulous artist wife, Print-maker.



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