In this new series from CloudAdvisors, we explore culture and strategy from the point of view of small business leaders in Canada.
Today we sat down with Iman Moazzen, the founder and CEO of Castofly Technologies, a software company that empowers educators to create digital video content in a quick and intuitive way. Driven by artificial intelligence and advanced video processing techniques, Castofly aims to redefine learning by helping educators create board-centric videos that caters to different learning styles. You can learn more about Castofly Technologies at their website here.
Listen to Iman speak on the story behind Castofly, diverse team cultures, and the stigma surrounding Artificial Intelligence:
Could you give us a brief synopsis of where the idea for your company came from and what castofly technologies represents?
Castofly Technologies is a software platform that enables educators to create and collaborate on videos. I don’t know if you have ever created content before but video creation is really painful especially for educators. We are good at teaching but we are not good at video creation. Castofly tries to address that pain point.
Where did the idea come from? It’s kind of an interesting story. Five years ago, I broke my leg and I ended up home with a cast and crutches. So the “cast” from castofly comes from an actual cast. It was in the beginning of summer and it was a very long fracture on my leg; the doctor told me if I put small pressure on it, I needed a complicated surgery. Long story short, my mobility was very limited and because I was bored at home, I decided to become a youtuber. Funny enough, I didn’t know anything about how to create content so I looked at other youtubers, learned the style, and searched up different equipment I needed. I started creating content and after finishing my first video, wasn’t sure if I should upload it perhaps because of my accent, I just wasn’t sure if people would like it. I uploaded the first video and people loved it, they asked for more videos and gave me very positive feedback. It became a habit just for entertaining myself. I started creating content out of this passion.
After three years, I realized that I was really good at it and was really fast. At some point, there was a bottleneck in the whole process. I was passing data from one application to another. From photoshop, to audacity, to adobe premier. I was good at all of them, but the combination wasn’t meant for educators. I realized that I had a solution for this and it was another coincidence. My PhD is in electrical engineering and my domain knowledge is in image, audio, and video processing. Combining my passion for content creation and teaching with my domain knowledge is basically how the whole idea started.
Rahul: That’s a really cool origin story. Although you had us in the beginning with the broken leg, it was a bit of a dark start. I’m glad that it actually led to something so beautiful that’s being created like a company. Education is such a space that needs innovation and obviously being a teacher and having that experience yourself, that’s where you’d be able to leverage that as a strength.
The education system as it exists today is really geared towards one learning style, how do you think Castofly could change the future communication in education?
The most common style I’ve seen is the “Khan Academy” style at least for STEM courses and board-centric videos, where there’s a teacher who writes on a board. For board-centric videos, the most common style is to capture your screen and talk or basically have a blackboard or whiteboard to help capture your ideas. There’s one fundamental problem with this approach. The videos can be very informative but they are extremely boring to watch. The reason for that is because the way we write is usually five times slower than the way we talk. As you write on the board, the process is very slow, that’s why you end up with one hour lectures which is very boring to watch.
A few years ago, I came across this very special teacher that many other educators mimic. His name is Bryan Douglas and he has the Khan Academy style (a screen recording with someone talking) and he modified it a little to make it more concise. He recorded his screen to make content, then edited it a lot to remove mistakes, which could be erasing the board or trying a new solution. He then recorded his audio separately and synced his audio to his video recording that’s been edited. You end up with a video that’s very concise that students love, I personally use this style. You can explain 5 examples within 10 minutes, which is beautiful on the student’s side, but is very complicated on the teachers’ side. You spend a lot of time on editing, syncing, and other complicated and boring tasks, keep in mind that most teachers are not software savvy in the sense that they don’t know video editing.
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The whole idea behind Castofly is what if we can have a new style? I call this style "fast-paced Khan Academy". What if we can provide this style for all educators out there. You don't need to know video editing or audio editing but you can have high quality videos with minimal amount of time spent on editing so you can focus your time on content. That's our vision for Castofly and what I see for the future of how our tool can help educators out there create content. They can create content fast and students can enjoy watching concise material. One thing to add is that most videos and learnings happens asynchronously, though the pandemic has changed the landscape a little bit to become more real-time interaction. We call this asynchronous communication. You watch the video at your own time and because the video is concise and fast, students have the ability to stop the video to digest it. In real time communication, if you present 5 examples in 10 minutes, students may be lost but because this is asynchronous communication, having concise content is really appealing.
Rahul: To kind of put in my own words, you're solving two separate types of problems. For the teachers, you're taking away the pain of creating content. They want to create content yet they're not experts in video, or photo editing. However, they do have a lot of wisdom to share. You're reducing the amount of time it takes to produce that content and making it better for that.
For students, there's a different problem. Content is boring and the current format they were receiving it in was boring. By making it more engaging and more succinct and to the point, you're making it more palatable and increasing the odds they'll retain that knowledge which is interesting.
Exactly. Just to give you a rough estimate, before Castofly, for 10 minutes of my videos which are made in the "fast-paced Khan Academy style" I had to spend 10 hours. 6 of those hours goes to editing, removing mistakes, syncing and more. With Castofly, we've reduced it to 3 hours so we've saved almost 70%. I believe we can push that further and I'm talking about our beta version. I believe we can leverage a lot of machine learning and video processing techniques to speed up the process further.
Rahul: Really with what you're doing, you don't have to be perfect with your robotic process automation on day one but iteratively, as long as its better by a significant amount, people will use it. Saving 7 hours per video is significant when it comes to producing a lot of videos.
How do you think the pandemic has created more space in the tech world for start-ups?
Good question, the pandemic was actually really bad for the whole world. One thing I observed before the pandemic when I was talking to educators about the pain of content creation, there were two categories of people. Some of them have created content in the past and immediately get it. But, some people have never created content before the pandemic and when I talked about Castofly before the pandemic, they didn’t feel the pain. The pandemic changed that landscape and now, everyone and all educators understand that all content creation is very painful. Even in my pitch for investors, most of them are not video creators but they have heard and have seen the pain themselves. People understand that there is a problem to solve and I think that’s how the pandemic has changed the business at least from my perspective.
Rahul: People would never have had to confront the problem before if they never had to create content. But being at home and having to deliver that education through a different medium forces educators to learn these new technologies and experience that pain. Sounds like the pandemic was favourable in some of the change management for you.
I don’t want to call it favourable because it was a bad thing for the whole world but in terms of awareness it was good for us, but it causes some issues in the beginning when we were trying to raise. When the pandemic happened, for early stage start-ups, investors wanted to protect their own portfolio rather than investing in new technology so it was challenging as well in that sense.
Rahul: Did you find that when you were talking to investors that they had clearly outlined that they wanted to focus on existing portfolio companies or they weren’t necessarily looking to expand and add different companies like yours.
At the beginning of the pandemic I had talked to a couple investors and they clearly mentioned that it is very uncertain, they don’t know how things are going to evolve and they prefer not to do new investments. To be fair, I did that for a month and decided to go back and create a product first and then comeback to fundraise.
AI still has a slight stigma attached to it related to taking jobs away, stealing data, etc. What would you say to business leaders that are concerned about incorporating AI into their own value offering, or into the systems they use internally?
I honestly say that I have a little bit of guard against AI. I talk about AI and machine learning and have used it in the past. Unforunately, I see many businesses talking about AI and investors love it. But, deep down, it might be some mathematical model or linear regression or something simple that people call AI. A lot of repetitive tasks are going to be replaced by machine learning or automation in general. In even Castofly, we used a lot of advanced video processing techniques based on mathematical models that is automation in general. Automation will replace many things but I’m not worried about it in the sense that it will also create new jobs.
For example, 50 years, ago, if you wanted to design a logo for your company, there were people actually sketching logos on paper and iterated on logo. These logos weren’t scalable or were too expensive. Around 10-20 years ago, we have photoshop which is amazing. You can design vectors that are scalable and the process was simplified. Those designers became people who were good at photoshop, they needed to learn and update their skills in order to use photoshop. Now, there are some companies that use machine learning to design logos for you based on keywords, content, what business you are working on, and match everything up to give you designs. At the end of the day, it needs that human touch and it is not something you can use immediately out of the system. You need humans to look at it and customize it.
I got this question from a lot of my friends asking if we need to learn data science these days and I would say yes and no. I think the first thing machine learning will replace is machine learning itself. Auto-ML is when you feed data, try different algorithms, and based on some KPI, it adjusts and gives you the best algorithm for the model. I believe that five years from now, machine learning is an amazing skill to have if it’s combined with another knowledge. For example, if you know physics, or math. If you have domain expertise, you can combine that with machine learning to get something amazing. For machine learning itself, you need that domain expertise and knowledge to combine it together.
Rahul: Yeah, there’s certainly a lot of points to take out of that. One is that technology, whether its photoshop or machine learning still ultimately requires the human operator and the human element. The second point on machine learning replacing itself, to your earlier point, you talked about robotic process automation, automating workflows. Ultimately, there’s a lot of work people don’t want to do and it frees them up to do the work they do want to do and I believe in the same direction as you. The question was more around the stigma, and for the marketing perspective, like you mentioned, investors do like hearing about innovative technology. How do you balance telling them about this ambitious technology without being disingenous towards what it really is.
For my scenario, I’m honest and very specific when I talk about AI. I never use AI in a general sense and it’s a buzzword. If an investor is going to trust me, he needs to know. I’m super proud of all the algorithms we have at Castofly and they’re not machine learning, I don’t need to exaggerate to say what we’re doing is cool. For sure we have machine learning elements and I try to be very specific.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced in the past year as a sall business owner in Canada?
There’s a lot of challenges actually but I think the biggest one is that Castofly has been bootstrapped so far. We recently did some funding a month ago but previously, the whole thing was bootstrapped. The limited funding was very challenging from time to time because at the beginning of the start-up life, you have to do so many different things and have to wear multiple hats. Sometimes, it’s very frustrating because you need to catchup and understand business, marketing, customers while also working on your product because at the end of the day, that’s what matters.
How to prioritize what to work on based on the limited budget was the biggest challenge. I’m lucky to be surrounded by some amazing people, and some of them are really young. They understand that this is a start-up and the scope may change from one week to another. I’ve been lucky in that sense and all my teammates have been amazing folks that understand they need to wear multiple hats. Our UX designer sometimes helps out with marketing while our software developer does UX usability tests and customer discovery. We all wear different hats and that’s been our biggest challenge. I think we’ve made a lot of mistakes but because we use AGILE, we’re able to find our way very fast.
How do you think culture contributes to the success of an organization, and what advice would you give others for creating a successful culture in the tech space?
I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice but I can tell you more about my own experience. One thing that I’m really proud of at Castofly is that we have a very open culture. I love to describe Castofly as a flat organization, there’s no boss. All of us report to all of us everyday in every meeting. There’s no sense that we have a boss we need to report to as a specific person. It gives you a feeling of belonging when it comes to your own project and I think I’ve learnt in my past experiences that I’ve been lucky to have some great bosses and mentors. It’s funny, when I think back towards the best work experiences I’ve had in the past, some of them were my lowest salary but I was so happy because I learned a lot from my boss and saw him and her as a friend while being more productive. At the same time, I’ve been fortunate or unfortunate to have worked with bad bosses so people who look at me like an ATM machine who didn’t really care about my personal life or own feelings. They just wanted me to work on an algorithm and din’t care about anything else. When I thought about those situations, they might have been a high salary but I wasn’t happy, I quit my job.
People work with you on the same mission in the same boat if they realize you respect them more than you respect them more than your own project. I really believe that if they understand that you put more value in their personal life than your own project and own company, they really work hard and see you as a friend. That’s the culture I would love to have. I’m not saying we’re perfect in that sense and we make mistakes, I’m not an HR person. I’m learning and I try to implement that culture.
Beyond that, diversity is another thing I always want. to have at Castofly, not necessarily gender diversity but nationality, technical and background diversity. People bring different perspectives. For example, our UX designer isn’t a coder and before she joined, I couldn’t look at our design because it was ugly, even though it was my baby. She brought a different perspective and she changed the user experience so much that I love it and use it personally. To wrap it up, I’d say the no boss culture is the best, as well as diversity.
Rahul: That’s very interesting, it sounds like you brought it some talent, that talent had a vision for how to improve a key area of your business, and that took it from the state of the founder being unhappy with the visual field to the founder actively using it because they believe it in. That’s a huge leap and it happened because you allowed someone else to lead that design and innovation. So, from that perspective, allowing others to come in and help their business sounds like one of the ways you’ll be able to grow.
Also, I want to talk about adding young people. Almost 16 months ago, I started hiring students for Castofly and relied on government grants to hire students. What I realized, was that students are entrepreneurs. Though I didn’t think it was a good idea because most students are junior, students are passionate about a project, don’t care about the money, and want to push the boundaries. Soon enough, they become an entrepreneur and I call him my co-founder because he brainstorms and thinks about the concepts, bringing a new perspective to the table. Bringing new people to the culture helps a lot.
If You’d Like To Get In Touch With Iman Moazzen Or Castofly Technologies, You Can Contact Them at castofly.net/contact