Mohannad El-Barachi, Co-Founder of Wrk Technologies Inc., speaks about disrupting the workspace by changing the value chain and leveraging human talent alongside AI to achieve greater output as well as global socioeconomic benefits.
Avenue Code: Tell us about your career journey. How did you get to where you are today?
Mohannad El-Barachi: I’m 37 years old, and I feel like I’ve already lived two lifetimes! I was born in Egypt and moved to Canada at the age of 7. It was a typical immigrant success story, where I gradually worked my way up, graduating from Concordia University with a degree in Computer Science and Political Science. I tell everyone that the two things I love most are coding and arguing.
After working as an IT Consultant at Concordia for a few years, I began consulting for several companies on my own. I was fortunate to take on an EVP role for a company that built technology solutions for the transportation industry. It soon became clear to me, however, that the owners of the company didn’t have the same level of ambition I did, so I transitioned into a few different roles and ended up moving to Dubai, where I built technology, sold commodities, and worked on financing deals.
After the financial crisis of 2008, I moved back to Canada and worked for an HR startup before being recruited to New York City to work for a telecom provider called Via One that was disrupting the international roaming business. Tired of travelling constantly, I returned to Montréal and co-founded SweetIQ, a local digital marketing platform. We raised venture capital funding from VCs in Canada and the US, and in the span of 4 years of commercialization, we quickly achieved rapid international growth, taking the company to $10M in annual revenue.
In 2017, we were approached by a multi-billion dollar publicly traded company that wanted to gain an edge in the digital-marketing space. They made us an offer we couldn’t say no to, so we decided to sell SweetIQ. I stayed on for a couple of years to turn it into a profit center for the new owners, then took a year off to spend time with my family. Now it’s time to start something new!
AC: You recently announced the launch of your new company, Wrk.com. Tell us about the concept behind it.
ME: The current buzzwords are AI and ML, but the reality is that their potential hasn't been realized, because we’re not at the point where humans fully trust machines yet. For example, Tesla’s autopilot function still requires drivers to have their hands on the wheel.
The language we’re using today is that of a self-fulfilling prophecy where the machine will make the value of human talent obsolete. Quite frankly, this is a very bleak future that no one wants! But at the same time, we need machines to perform tasks for us. There are several companies that want to one day implement AI, but they don’t know how to get there.
The idea behind Wrk.com is to help mid-market organizations automate their medium-complex, multi-process tasks by helping them describe tasks from beginning to end, break each step into microtasks, and then delegate the output of each microtask to a machine or a human aided by a machine.
To start with, we will delegate that output to humans so that we have an Uber model of desktop jobs, creating a marketplace for individuals to complete medium-complex tasks from home while simultaneously generating data to train machines in the future. So while tasks traditionally performed by humans will eventually be performed by machines, we’re taking into account the fact that humans will also continuously evolve to perform increasingly higher-level tasks. What we’re trying to do is reinvent how people are thinking about work and the interplay between humans and machines.
AC: Can you give us an example of these medium-complex tasks and explain how it’s possible for midmarket organizations to afford the customized solutions you’re describing?
ME: A typical medium-complex task involves about five steps. For example, many organizations need to receive input from their clients, process the information, translate it, transcribe it, and generate a report. Each of these steps can be broken into a multitude of microsteps. What we do is help clients identify each microstep within a process and then delegate these steps to several people so that the output happens at a faster pace.
Beyond the education aspect of Wrk.com - teaching people how to think about projects in terms of microtasks - we help companies convert their fixed cost to variable cost. If you have 100 full-time employees who are copywriting and you transition to delegating this output via microtask process to hundreds if not thousands of other individuals who are compensated for the successful delivery of each individual output, you’re improving your monetary investment.
We are trying to change the value chain equation so that salary is predicated on deliverables, not number of hours. We’re developing an economic index to understand how to compensate someone based on the delivery of the output, taking into account the living conditions of their location. Work needs to be disrupted, and that starts by changing the value chain.
AC: Do you have any competitors?
ME: It’s difficult to describe because we could be considered as competitors to companies that have a point solution for scaling a process, especially in the AI space. But whereas our competitors take weeks and months to launch, our time to launch is a few hours. I don’t want to be limited by the time it takes to train machines; I want to address my clients’ needs immediately. From there, we can take our time to automate.
When a client comes to me, I don’t actually give them any price reduction: they tell me a project costs $500, so I’ll use that $500 and give them the net benefit of moving from fixed to variable cost. Then, over the course of the first 12 months, we’ll achieve a cost reduction of 5-20%. We’re focused on delivering high-quality output at scale, not providing cheap labour.
AC: Every company concept arises out of a real need or challenge that demands a solution. What challenges inspired the creation of Wrk.com?
ME: When I worked at SweetIQ, we were trying to scale some of our internal operations and found it very challenging. I was certain we could accomplish our processes purely through machines, and I burned through several developers because I was very uncompromising about the quality of the output.
After selling SweetIQ, I could have done a million things, but I want to do something that has a big socioeconomic impact. If we are successful in our mission of enabling people to earn a good living by creating a state of flow and job consistency, we’ll also allow them the opportunity to advance their careers by figuring out the next levels of tasks that can be paid out. The ambition of the platform is not to do menial tasks. It may start there, but why can’t we have doctors offering medical expertise or lawyers offering legal reviews? Why can’t we unite the collective human capability and put it somewhere that everyone can access it?
AC: What is your target market?
ME: The majority of companies trying to help clients transition to automation are only focused on the big players who have money and time to train machines, leaving the midmarket underserved. So midmarket is our current focus, but this will evolve. Our main differentiation from competitors is that we’re focusing not on menial tasks but on medium-complex tasks. Organizations’ needs are always unique and nuanced, so instead of providing one standard solution that customers adapt, we’ve created a flexible system that can accommodate their customized needs without having to build custom solutions every time.
We want to build the most horizontal set of capabilities so that we’re not entrenched in a specific position. We’ve identified 25 key functionalities like data acquisition, data manipulation, data transitioning, etc., and we’re offering these in a customizable format where clients can connect them to accomplish any process. Our first five clients couldn’t be more diverse, but they’ve all been able to leverage our technology to accomplish their needs.
Right now we’re working with a company in the AI space that’s doing computer vision for the sports industry to track movements in a game. While this is an easy concept to understand, the microsteps are highly complex. The output of one video is 350 megs of pure, raw JSON, so the amount of data and insight we can glean from multiple videos is incredible. Each individual micro-task is performed directly inside our platform which allows us to track anomalies in work performance and, in the future, use the accumulated data to train machines.
AC: How do you personally stay abreast of innovations in tools and technologies?
ME: I network constantly, and I have learned to be completely unashamed in asking for access to events and introductions, so I’ve ended up slowly meeting the movers and shakers of the industry. I’m out on the road traveling and meeting people everywhere. I attend and speak at multiple tech events, which means I see trends in innovation. For me, it’s all about connecting with people and being curious. I also have a subscription to Crunchbase to see what people are investing in and which new companies are in the field.
AC: What is your creative process for utilizing these innovations effectively?
ME: My favorite app is Turo, a car sharing network. I love going for long drives and spending a lot of time thinking. Then, I write my ideas down, which helps me crystallize my point of view.
I’m also very blessed to work with teammates in UX and design who are now creative directors. We spend hours arguing about the most minute details with vigorous passion. When you have something like our platform that has a potentially massive socioeconomic impact, every minor decision is monumental, so ideas need to be challenged and refined.
Any creative process starts by being curious, then deciding where you want to go down the rabbit hole, going as far as you possibly can, and surrounding yourself with people who are willing to argue with you.
AC: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as an entrepreneur, and what advice would you give to emerging entrepreneurs?
ME: My advice is to take everyone’s advice with a grain of salt, because everyone’s journey is different. Beyond that, create a defined purpose behind why you’re doing what you’re doing so that you can make clear decisions predicated on your north star. Finally, be aggressive when the occasion calls for it.
AC: What would you say is your purpose for Wrk.com?
ML: I’m a great admirer of Elon Musk, and a lot of his ideas resonate with me: the world can be pretty bleak and depressing, but if I have an opportunity to do something to contribute and make the world slightly better than it was, I’ll be satisfied. I’m fortunate enough to have made money in my last company, to have a family, and to have traveled a lot. Now, I need to do something that has a material impact for others. This is the purpose behind Wrk.com.
AC: Thanks for your time today, Mohannad. It’s been a fascinating conversation, and we can’t wait to check in with you as Wrk.com grows and changes the global workspace!
Anna Vander Wall
Anna Vander Wall is a freelance senior editor and writer in the tech industry and beyond. She particularly enjoys collaborating with Avenue Code’s talented Snippets contributors and whitepaper authors.