Zero secures $12M to automate email tasks in the background

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Most employees waste time on administrative work. According to Capgemini, more than half of all bosses spend over three hours per day on reporting or administration — tasks that only serve managerial needs. A 2019 survey by Webexpenses, meanwhile, found that workers typically spend 142 minutes a day — more than two hours — doing admin, paperwork, and attending meetings when they could be getting on with more important jobs.

Automation technologies promise to “give back” this time by handling particularly repetitive, monotonous tasks. Zappier — which, it should be noted, sells automation software — reports that knowledge workers use automation to save upwards of 25 hours each work, depending on their role.

A growing segment of vendors offer automation technologies tailored to enterprise applications, including Daylight, Leapwork, Workato, and In fact, the global business process automation market could be worth $19.6 billion by 2026 if the current trend holds, according to Markets and Markets. One of the entrants is Zero, which initially focused on law firms with its automation software before expanding its reach to broader business categories. Underlining the sector’s growth, Zero today announced that it raised $12 million in a series A venture funding led by Streamlined Ventures with participation from 468 Capital, AltaIR Capital, PBJ Capital, Gutbrain Ventures, s16vc, AiSprouts VC, Paul Grewal, and others.

Automating tasks

Zero, which is based in Los Gatos, California, was founded in 2014 by CEO Alex Babin, Alex Volkov, and Gevorg Karapetyan. Babin was formerly the CEO of Clickberry, a platform that let users tag objects in videos and share them on social networks. Volkov was the director of business development at image hosting website ImageShack. As for Karapetyan, he’s held various software engineering roles, including at digital noise reduction vendor Imagenomic.

“The increasing volumes and complexity of incoming data, as well as costs associated with its processing, are preventing many organizations from realizing their full potential. Most organizations currently deal with data classification when data is on the way out. When there is a request for specific information, it must be dug out from a data swamp, cleaned up, and delivered,” Babin told VentureBeat via email. “With a lot more attention to the automation of business-critical processes since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen a very significant increase in interest for both data classification engines and pre-built automation modules.”

The core of the Zero platform is an iOS mobile device-based AI assistant that integrates with email inboxes and document management systems to turn collected data into productivity recommendations. For example, for law firm clients, Babin claims that Zero can “passively” capture billable interactions with client email, automatically logging and creating timesheets. The software can also file emails into document management system folders automatically, making it ostensibly easier to maintain compliance for employers’ data retention policies.

Zero’s software automatically sorts emails based on customizable parameters.

In addition to the mobile assistant, Zero offers a Microsoft Outlook add-on that aims to automate the email filing process by predicting filing destinations in various document management systems. Filters enable sorting emails by fields like “importance” or “sender,” and Zero warns of potentially erroneous recipients before an email is sent.

Some of Zero’s email-sorting capabilities are akin to Gmail’s Priority Inbox and Outlook’s Focused Inbox, which use AI to identify emails most likely to be important. Several other email providers, like Superhuman, also tap AI to intelligently sort out inboxes and filter those that were written by a bot.

“At the center of Zero’s architecture is a hybrid distributed processing model. [A knowledge ‘hub’ is] connected to the systems of record that are serving data and destination systems — which may be on-premises or in the cloud. The [hub] is also connected to the organization’s edge devices (laptops, mobile devices, etc.) and leverages their idle processing power to perform automated classification services, serving as the centralized controller for the entire process,” Babin explained. “Zero [learns to] classify data from a source based on predefined criteria and then add records or datasets to a target system, typically in the form of structured data. Data classification happens as part of this process and establishes mandatory attributes as part of the learning process.”

The sensitive nature of the data Zero analyzes might give some would-be customers pause, but the company claims its mobile assistant processes data on-device and doesn’t require whitelisting or firewall exemptions. (The Outlook add-on uses Microsoft’s ActiveSync protocol.) Zero’s software can be deployed in the cloud or on-premises and its optional notification server, which enables real-time notifications for new emails via Apple’s push notification service, only stores device tokens as opposed to logins and passwords, according to Babin.

Challenges in automation

Automation technologies might hold promise, but not every enterprise has been successful at adopting them. According to a 2019 McKinsey survey, only 55% of organizations believe their automation program has been fruitful to date. That’s partly because the total cost of automation can swell to include not only implementation but expenses stemming from maintenance, training, and roles to monitor the performance of the automation technology.

Home - Zero

As the coauthors of a Deloitte analysis write, before any company starts its automation journey, impacted stakeholders should — but don’t always — clearly understand the “what, why, and how” of automation. “One difficult consequence may be redundant roles, however the organization may choose to repoint the newly created capacity somewhere else. Associated with this, new roles, and capabilities may also need to be sourced to operate new capabilities,” the coauthors continue.

The roadblocks don’t appear to be standing in the way of interest, however. McKinsey reports that 31% of businesses had fully automated at least one function as of 2020.

“Zero currently has 12 large enterprise clients across the legal, accounting, and financial services markets live and eight more clients on different stages of rollout or pilots. At the moment the company is 80 people strong. We expect to have 150 employees by the end of 2022,” Babin said. “The money [from the series A] will be used to expand Zero’s market presence beyond the legal industry to other market verticals like financial services and management consulting. It will also be used to launch a new AI-as-a-service platform providing intelligent data classification for large enterprises.”

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