The Vision for Software That’s Putting Profitability into Truckers’ Hands – Interview with Scott Roller
We’re closing out the year talking trucking profits from a new perspective. Like any highly successful new business, DUKE.ai is supported by dedicated talent who really believe in its mission. In our case, DUKE.ai is powered by an experienced team that includes accounting, trucking and software pros, all collaborating to push through hurdles – it’s that labor of love creating successful outcomes for hundreds of owner operators, carrier companies and even accounting firms who’ve made DUKE.ai their accounting and bookkeeping software of choice.
We’re joined by DUKE.ai investor Scott Roller who shares how he’s seeing the DUKE-AI software team succeed in making truckers their #1 fans.
DUKE.AI: So, Scott, set the scene for us. How did you first become involved with DUKE.ai?
Scott Roller: Back in April, I got excited seeing how this Dallas-based team was combining its expertise in software development and machine learning, then applying it to an industry they also had experience in. It made quite an impression that DUKE.ai CEO (Marcus Cooksey) had run his own trucking company. When I started talking with Marcus and his team, they were able to show us early prototypes of what the mobile app could do. I could immediately see how DUKE.ai was going to revolutionize bookkeeping and accounting, and so I decided to invest in a matter of weeks.
DUKE.AI: What kind of growth have you seen since you became an investor this July?
SR: One of the major milestones for the year was growth in the DUKE.ai engineering staff—also an important factor in deciding to invest. Growth here speaks to the momentum in product development and ultimately getting it into production.
Reaching this milestone also speaks to the quality of team Marcus was putting around him in order to execute well to that point. Honestly, it built up my confidence in Marcus himself to lead a team to develop a product that’s ripe for disruption – one that could be successfully built and brought to market.
DUKE-AI: From the point you and one other investor joined the Board of Directors in July, can you share a bit about why you made the choice to join DUKE.ai?
SR: Applying new technology to a market Marcus was personally familiar with was my top reason for investing in DUKE.ai. As a former Texas Instruments executive, I knew firsthand what Marcus was able to accomplish at T.I. That alone lent greater credibility to what he wanted to get done. I liked the idea too of investing in DUKE.ai as an early stage startup in order to play a more active role in the operation, as opposed to coming on as a purely passive investor.
DUKE.AI: With all of the components of the software developed and built in-house, the team was seeking to create competitive advantages in the marketplace. What did that look like?
SR: No third party intellectual property was used. Instead, everything from the OCR, autotator (ML enginer) and annotator functions to the Dukebase (financial record repository), AI classifier and beyond were developed by the DUKE.ai team. By developing it all ourselves and fully integrating it, means we have full control of quality and all AI – whether we’re talking about OCR or the machine learning engine.
For example, with DUKE we can actually customize our OCR based on how the documents are formatted when we receive them from users. Because we developed the software completely on our own, we also have full ownership — we're not competing with internal priorities of third parties, or other conflicting priorities with other companies that they may be working with. So our release schedule can be determined by our own internal policies. The third advantage is cost. We have the ability to scale on cost and compete on cost because we're not at the mercy of the other company to set pricing or pay their licensing fees. We own all of the intellectual property (IP), so we can ultimately create, maintain and sell a really affordable product.
DUKE.AI: Since the pilot launch of the DUKE.ai app April 15th, what growth have you experienced?
SR: In the summer through fall we spent a lot of time with early adopters of the product. That really helped us refine the product to a large degree; whenever we added IFTA tax, Proof of Delivery, federal and self-employment tax features, we made these a priority and added them based on direct feedback from those early users.
The next quarter, we hosted our public launch at the Great American Truck Show (GATS) on August 22. I think GATS was our coming out party — it gave us chance to meet lots of people in the trucking industry. GATS became a place where we validated the market’s need for our product. Our next important milestone in that area is the Mid-America Truck Show (MATS) and GATS again in 2020.
DUKE.AI: What kind of customer feedback have you received about launching a mobile tool for bookkeeping and accounting?
SR: I think it’s interesting – when we originally built the product, we thought the value we were creating was for the truck driver. It’s true and it does ultimately bring tremendous value to the Owner Operator. What we didn’t realize upfront was all the value we were creating for bookkeeping, tax and accounting services out there supporting Owner Operators and trucking companies. So often even in the modern day of software, Owner Operators deliver a shoebox to their bookkeeper once a month or every quarter. Some in trucking are advanced enough to manually organize and enter them into a tool like QuickBooks–a very time-intensive process for anyone to tackle. In even the best case scenario, entering expenses gets done but it sucks up lots of resources. And in the worst case, it gets done inefficiently and perhaps some mistakes happen and you might find yourself in hot water like an IRS audit situation. That’s what we aim to prevent for individuals who might use the app to eliminate manual data entry altogether.
I found the DUKE.ai app idea really was really engaging for accounting and bookkeeping firms. The amount of value DUKE.ai brings to both firms and clients together allows firms focusing on Owner Operators to really scale their businesses. The tools itself allows them to multiply their existing client base three to four times without adding new headcount. There’s not any new or additional manual data entry for scaling their businesses four times.
We’re in a unique time where tech has evolved enough, where it can be applied to this kind of problem. That’s why the interest level in DUKE.ai is so high. The value for potential clients is that they now have an accounting firm that can give them value-added insights into their business because their accountant is no longer spending most of their time doing the manual tasks associated with bookkeeping and accounting.
Our mobile app is what gives business owners real time feedback on the business operation; the app is connected to the accountant portal that allows accountants to facilitate the whole bookkeeping, tax preparation and tax filing on business owners’ behalf, seamlessly for the first time ever.
DUKE.AI: What are you seeing about how DUKE stands apart from other accounting software options?
SR: The biggest difference is the ability to simply take a photo of a receipt or email a settlement statement … Do either one and the app automatically creates a digital record that’s securely stored – that’s something that is more valuable than we initially thought. The ability to get everything scanned and stored and organized for tax purposes with very little human involvement is a big deal for our clientele.
DUKE.AI: How has feedback like that helped the company grow?
SR: It’s definitely helped to draw new opportunities, like partnerships with other likeminded companies.
Offering digital data storage of the receipts is one factor. Probably the biggest factor though is the level of automation of not only reading receipts but then auto-classifying revenue and expenses, then automating how it gets mapped to schedule C categories for federal tax filing.
Not only the data entry and manual classification of those entries goes away, we can also easily see from an accounting perspective how well individual businesses are performing. So, accounting firms can really capitalize on that by adding value-add services, rather than just making mundane bookkeeping work the basis of their engagements. Using DUKE.ai to automate those tasks, they can now also add value by recommending ways their clients might maximize their businesses’ own revenue and profit.
DUKE.AI: What growth plans do you have as we move into 2020?
SR: We’re positioned to ramp up several new accounting firms in 2020. We’re working on a two-pronged approach to scaling. First, we are engaging accounting firms and factoring companies that already have Owner Operators as clients. With a single accounting firm or factoring company, DUKE.ai can help tens or thousands of Owner Operators through a single firm.
Our second prong of attack is directly marketing to Owner Operators themselves. We have new commercials and paid advertising emerging to leverage digital advertising and social media channels.
DUKE.AI: What can you share about your outreach to accountants and factoring companies?
SR: It’s been pretty exciting for me to talk with some accounting and factoring companies who want to work with DUKE-AI. Every conversation I had was encouraging and the need is loud and clear. We started with early adopters to get ramped up – those relationships allowed us to work out any bugs early on, before we scaled to even more customers. It’s really exciting to take DUKE.ai to a broader set of companies. We continue seeing similar reactions from nearly every firm we engage with.
DUKE.AI: With the upcoming advertising and media blitz, what incentives are you introducing to move customers from existing solutions to DUKE.ai?
SR: We’re introducing volume pricing to get more users on the platform. We’re converting QuickBooks, Trucking Office and Profit Gauges customers in particular, where the incentive to switch is really the simplicity of our offering, as opposed to the manual data entry you get with any of the others. Our software solution is significantly more cost effective than all other solutions on the market.
DUKE.AI: What plans do you have to offer full-service tax filing through DUKE.ai?
SR: Right now, the app does federal tax estimation, self-employment tax estimation, and soon we will release state tax estimation. We also have an accountants’ portal in beta right now that allows an accountant to manage multiple clients’ tax files. By using the DUKE Accountant Portal, it’s making it easier for accounting firms to integrate into different tax filing services, like Drake. We are also working on ways for DUKE.ai to easily integrate with similar services as a Q1 rollout.
DUKE.AI: What else are you excited about launching in the coming year?
SR: For me, 2020 is a year where we anticipate scaling users as well as revenue. By year’s end, we’re really going to prove DUKE.ai is a viable, ongoing product. I’ve been very happy with the early product as well as our user engagement. It’s strong validation of the market need.