Welcome to the Pennyverse.
Since 2018, Squamish residents David Abbey and Chris Noble have been at the helm of an artificial intelligence company that is growing at a staggeringly exponential rate. The co-founders had initially created Penny, a virtual assistant to support people, like Abbey's wife, who were working in sales. They knew already that their clients would be predominantly female, so they went looking for a name that would work both for the company and the virtual assistant they’d created.
“Our company is Penny AI Technologies, but when we refer to the application we refer to it as Penny. She’s the personification of a personal assistant, and adds that human element to the brilliance of the software. It humanizes the product,” said Abbey, noting that they were partially inspired by a Vancouver company named Jane.
“When we were trying to pick the name, I said jokingly, ‘I’ve never met anyone named Penny I didn’t like.’ And the other thing is we knew we wanted to be a global company — we’re in 60 countries now — and ‘penny’ is a word people recognize whatever language you’re working in.”
Noble has gone even further, giving Penny an entire personality and backstory.
“Penny is in her mid-30s, university-educated. She’s an immigrant from Ireland, she’s there to help, and she’s always one step ahead. Penny will tell you what to do everyday, give you a list of things to accomplish, and, if you do get that done, she’ll give you more tasks that will lead to more sales. Our mantra is ‘getting everybody one more sale.’”
$27-million USD investment
Penny is just over three years old now, and during that time their staff has ballooned to 100 employees. Their primary work force is split between Squamish and Vancouver, but they also have offices in cities such as Phoenix, Calgary, and Toronto — not to mention abroad. When they first launched the service on April 1, 2019, they went from one user to 15,000 by June. With momentum like that, they knew they had something special on their hands.
“At that point we gave each other a giant high five and we were like ‘let’s turn this thing up’. Chris and I are both from the tech venture space, so we knew when you find a product-market fit you go straight to the investors to pour some more gas on the fire. That’s when it really clicked for us that we have this giant dream world class tech company in Squamish. It was really happening,” said Abbey.
“You make these insane sacrifices, like, you’re literally waking up feeling like you’ve been punched in the face every day. You build this company with one of your best friends and to hit a milestone like that, that such a small percentage of tech companies make it to? You just want to raise a glass and celebrate for a moment, but then there’s also the great level of excitement to push on to the next thing.”
The latest development for the company is a $27-million cash infusion that will help streamline their operation — specifically their social commerce enablement platform. Announced on June 1, the funds are primarily coming from U.S. equity firm PSG, with participation from Acronym Venture Capital and ScaleUp Ventures. Abbey believes their company is capitalizing on social trends, and that Penny is the way of the future.
“We’re witnessing the transition from traditional channels and e-commerce to a people-powered retail revolution where the social seller and influencer now own the audience and customer relationship,” he said.
“Since Day 1, our mission has been to empower the seller with simple-to-use, intelligent and powerful solutions that help create an incredible experience for their customers.”
Penny finds her voice
Early on, Penny’s co-founders realized they had a problem.
As it became increasingly clear that their users were going to be primarily female, and their software was supposed to speak with the voice of a woman, they were also keenly aware of the fact they were men. So it only made sense to bring women on to the team. Thus began a hiring push that has since resulted in a workforce that is 54% female, with many of them working as computer engineers.
“When I went to school, there were only three females in my whole computer science class. Now over half of my product engineering team is female, and I think that’s a great accomplishment. It’s a great story because we’re enabling them to do work that directly affects hundreds of thousands of users, most of them women,” Noble said.
“To have that female voice and the diversification of our work team is really impactful. Traditionally female engineers would get weirded out by hanging with computer science guys, because we’re the nerdiest, but when you foster the right environment, it makes a huge difference.”
Abbey remembers an exchange with another industry insider who inquired about their successes attracting female talent.
“Chris got the question, ‘How did you get so many female engineers?’ and he asked them how many they had. They didn’t have any. So Chris was like, ‘Start with one.’”
A part of Squamish’s future
Squamish is where Penny lives, and she’s not planning to move anytime soon.
Throughout the growth they’ve experienced, it has remained important to Noble and Abbey to keep a home base in the Sea to Sky Corridor. Unfortunately, finding appropriate office space has been a continual challenge — their main office is in the industrial park, by Backcountry Brewing. They’re hopeful that Squamish’s renewal will continue, and that Penny can be part of that transformation.
“These are really good jobs we’re providing for how Squamish is transforming from an old logging town to this new village with remote workers and commuters and tech,” said Abbey.
“This is the next generation that will take us into the future.”
To learn more visit getpenny.com
Correction: This article previously stated incorrectly that both founders are software developers.