July 3, 2022

Thrive Insider

Exclusive stories of successful entrepreneurs

Cristina Imre, CEO and Co-Founder at Aecho

Who are you and what business did you start?

I’m Cristina Imre, the CEO & Co-Founder of Aecho, a multi-measure pre-employment assessment that tests human complexity through voice.

After a candidate goes through our pre-built voice-based interview process with a human voice on your behalf, we provide you in-depth data about personality, soft skills, performance, churn predictor, emotional (mental health) analysis, overall job fit with summary, and actionable insights.

Voice is so rich and unique that you can even recreate faces from it. It doesn’t work the other way around. The complexity of your voice enables us to analyze it in layers and uncover you as a person. What you say or don’t say is important, but how you say it counts more.

I have the best Co-Founder for this, a true pioneer in voice technology, Adam Hocek, our CTO. Our complementary traits make us a great match. Aecho Hire is our first product with a focus on unbiased, highly accurate insights that provide you with a very complex profile of your candidates. 

I like to say that our tool transforms you, as a recruiter, into a mind reader, a people wizard by uncovering things about someone that they weren’t aware of. It’s important to note, especially in today’s environment where several AI tools went wrong like the facial recognition scandals, that our approach doesn’t care about your gender, ethnicity, or age.

In fact, we have an anonymous version where you read the KPIs and the summary without knowing which candidate that is. It’s even fun, to reveal identity after analyzing the data without preconceived notions or opinions. You basically give the right candidate the chance to be discovered. It’s a wonderful, complex formula that continually improves. Today we use over 90 KPIs and counting.

Our vision is to disrupt the currently used inaccurate solutions and reveal the true self of a person. This year we do this with candidates, but next year we’ll do that for employees and the company as a whole. It is really innovative and exciting what we are doing.

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

So, my background is completely human-centric. As a tech entrepreneur, that is both ironic and a strength, especially in HR tech.

I’m a born entrepreneur and a doctor as a profession. Another interesting mix. It seems to make sense to me.

My obsession from an early age was to deeply understand how we function, what makes us tick, what triggers us. Biases and triggers were fascinating to me. I couldn’t understand why someone can turn from an angel into a demon in an instance just because you said something.

This is how a long journey started for me, digging deep in different areas and industries where I can uncover the multiple facets, nuances, and mindsets of people. From medical school, practicing in psychiatric hospitals each summer to forensics; from psychology to neuroscience, from sales to real estate, from NLP to behavioral science. Some as formal education, some self-taught. The list goes on and people have different reactions to that list. I got used to that. 

I even did trading and played poker in a tournament just to understand, feel and see the psychological correlation between risk-taking and entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship was always there and I even taught college students at some point. But training and coaching people at all levels started in 2004 with a big emphasis on leadership.

I took on fractional executive roles during the years and worked mostly remotely for the last 9. This came really handy with Aecho and in today’s environment because my experience in remote helped me develop and lead distributed teams (startups, SMB’s and multinationals) over the years. 

I also wrote four books but we are getting too long. 

I like to believe that I am a legacy builder doing my part to leave a better world behind. The current state of our world is concerning to me and I’m really focused on this. What kind of world will we leave our children and the next generation? We have so much right now compared to our entire history. Our ancestors would only dream about what we have. We should use it better, in the service of humanity for a long-time to come. 

That means leadership. Those who have the power over millions and billions need to show genuine quality traits and empathy to not destroy our beautiful world. Leadership is crucial because evolutionary psychology tells us that most people prefer to stay in the middle and choose to be led.

What kind of future my daughter and all the kids will have? This is a daily question for me, and so I am focused to rise and do more about it.

Now, getting to Aecho Hire. This is actually a construct of multiple ideas. Adam and I were developing a much more complex product, Aecho X, but switched gears because we are bootstrappers for the time being.

That product will be launched next year and it’s so complex and amazing that your company’s true voice will be revealed by the voices of your people. It was designed to be an employee engagement tool but only for KPI purposes because what you’ll get is way more than that. It’s hard to find a name for it, that’s why it’s called Aecho X. At least, for now. Imagine that the assessment includes elements starting from evolutionary psychology. It gives you everything you need to be fully productive, driven, and engaged as a whole, and not just at the employee level.

You’ll find out through their voices things about your company you didn’t even know are there, like maybe the true culture or subcultures. Many times the branded culture is different from the actual one.

If you are a company, stay tuned because once it is available, you’ll want to try it.

As you can imagine, such innovation is not an easy cookie, and so a lot of development is needed; a much bigger team, and a different budget for that product.

Therefore, we said let’s start with something that addresses the first stage, before becoming an employee. Luckily, we could use a lot of the features created for Aecho X and start all over the Aecho Hire development. 

Eventually, our goal is to create a line of products to serve people in the workplace enabling collective organizational well-being from matching the right people and understanding what can be done when things go wrong. This includes mental health.

We are spending a third of our lifetime at work, and another third we sleep. Work is essential to our existence, and it should not be taken for granted. Not even a temp job should be seen lightly because you can get trapped forever and the effects of that can be witnessed all over. Huge turnovers, disengaged employees, the current mental health crisis, and unfulfilled generations to follow.

So, we want to bring the right data to enlighten not only the person but also the company for the best decisions that enable the true potential in each employee. Or, in the case of Aecho Hire, matching the right person with the right job position.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We are bootstrapping for now and we are also a remote company. These things give us advantages and disadvantages at the same time. Luckily, having the experience I described we took the time to balance all pros and cons, be able to say “No” to wrong opportunities/directions and “Yes” to the right ones.

Aecho started before the actual registration of the company. A lot of consideration was put in deciding all the elements we need to handle because we are both seasoned entrepreneurs and we do know how failure looks like.

We needed to consider how much time our money will allow us to go without raising money or bring in customers. Where and when to open the company, what type of infrastructure we need, what type of team. And of course, what type of company we are, what do we stand for, what is our vision, where we want to go, and how much we are willing to sacrifice. Are we all in or not. I would say we tackled typical entrepreneur thoughts and actions.

Still, we also took a lot of risks as well, betting everything on Aecho, another typical trait for entrepreneurs. Then we blended everything into a cauldron and when we considered that all ingredients are in place with each of us 100% in, not 99,99% in, we launched the company.

There are many obstacles to be conquered, but when you have the determination, expertise, and drive, magic happens.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

We are currently filling our spots for the initial pilot and early adopters. Recruiting professionals and recruiting agencies, our main current target, represent a special niche with many sub facets. Understanding them and developing relationships is key.

When you have a new product it’s crucial to have open communication with your customers, build trust and illustrate the benefits that align with their needs. Trust must be earned. Lots of trials and errors at first. You just never know enough.

As I began to understand the different types of their recruiting pains, what they value, I could adjust the messaging about Aecho Hire and the benefits they can gain.

I’m obsessed with understanding each customer during our meetings and I’m not going with the intention to sell. I’m there to see if we are the right fit and this is something that people can feel. It’s harder through cold outreach but once we meet things change.

Each meeting brought me closer to understand how to approach my next meeting and how to change my message to be clearer and concise. Our product is complex so getting to a simple message isn’t easy. Still working on it but we are getting closer with the help of our customers. One told me, “You’ve solved a problem I did not even realize I had.” Such feedbacks are gold because I realize where to focus my message.

Moving further, when it comes to retaining customers, I will utilize my experience from the past.

At Aecho, there is not much of a difference between us as founders, team, and customers. We are an extended family. I cannot imagine neglecting a customer or not addressing something when I realize I was wrong. I dream about not losing any, but I’m not sure if a 100% retention exists so I will only say as closer to 100% as possible. I’m smiling, of course, but you must aim high from day one, otherwise, you have no chance in the long run. Like we aim for that 100% accuracy with our products.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

The future looks very bright. 

With all the hardship we faced each day, we are hitting our milestones while having the main things in place. Our solutions solve crucial problems for people in the workplace. HR Tech is booming and there is a real need for recruiting software solutions that are better than what we have when it comes to hiring the right fits. 

It’s innovation but also a beautiful blend between humans and AI. The core team is in place, and I must say I cannot be happier with our dev team, the most crucial people for a SaaS company.

We are all like a family, fully dedicated, and each of us is excited by what we are building. Ambition, hard work, and care with good values and morals.

That being said I just love my team.

Having our first customers on the horizon, with the list increasing constantly, we are ready for our pilot where we’ll work together with them to release their much-needed full version.

We are also focusing on the candidate’s experience. All the feedbacks till now are very positive, especially from candidates who don’t feel understood during usual interviews, saying they cannot be themselves. This is very typical for technical roles actually. Our approach relaxes them. Of course, we also serve other segments. 

And we have a very clear roadmap with milestones. Aecho Screening, Aecho X, and the rest I cannot reveal right now because I want to be surprised at the right moment.

But we’ll shake some things in the future, in a good way. I am fully confident that Aecho will land where it belongs. For me, it feels like a dream come true. Adding my experience in the trenches to my passion and the right tech team enables Aecho to create amazing products for people as well as transform workplaces.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

There is no day without learning at least one thing, but that’s a modest number. Getting to understand how machine learning works, how you can transform human traits into a code, and getting daily insights about this domain it feels like I am able to close a big circle. My knowledge can now be applied to something that was previously out of reach.

For me, it’s like taming the shrew and understating this new world of artificial intelligence from the inside, including from an investor perspective. It’s beyond fascinating.

Besides learning, allow me to mention something that might be useful for other entrepreneurs. We are living in a strange world where strange things happen and we may have many preconceptions about what’s possible or not.

From a business perspective, some things you cannot obtain without a lot of money, and you can overextend this notion to everything. I’ve fallen into this trap many times. I was afraid that we won’t make it long enough.

But then again, when you are focusing on the human traits, you can find amazing people, talent, partners, you name it, who are willing to help you because they are believing in your dream because they like you because they are like you, a dreamer who believes in the humankind. And we had that through the entire journey with Aecho. Even though it wasn’t easy, we managed to attract people, companies, and situations that we could not be more grateful for. If you have a clear dream, never give up, no matter how hard it is.  

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

After using and testing so many platforms for each business I worked with, I drew the line in the opposite directions. 

When it comes to platforms and tools, especially as a startup, you need to focus only on those that can help you the most and make you more effective without distracting you and your team too much.

Even if I have a list of future favorite tools to be used, I restrain my compulsive behavior and give the team that breathing space because we have enough on our plates.

When it comes to the dev/product tools those are decided by Adam. When it comes to the rest we go as clean as possible. Even when it comes to communication, we have clear expectations about where we can reach each other and in what situations. Like we have Slack and email on a daily basis, Zoom for our team meetings and requested 1:1’s and phone apps for casual stuff or calls in an emergency.

Not to mention that each tool you use needs to be considered from a security stand of view. We are working with sensitive data and so we code everything or have enabled systems for our private networks.

You should consider security breaches every time you introduce a new tool. And so, using everything just because it’s cool or available it’s not a good decision-making factor.

You can test them out and discuss them with the team. But never implement something just because one of the team members, including yourself, discovered a new “toy” that’s awesome for a week, maybe, but you went through all the hustle with implementation. Using a tool is a business decision so it needs to be addressed as such.   

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Oh wow! Where should I begin? I mean, for me, books and the smell of books are magical. I literally grew up and slept between books. My room and bed were framed between bookshelves up to the ceiling.   

And the answer changes every time you ask me because new books are coming into play. For example, I read a lot of scientific papers and research lately to improve our product, and I find a lot of them fascinating, but I’m not sure how many of your readers will. 

Let’s say that the first business books that hooked me were from Jim Rohn, who I also consider my first mentor. Any young brain would benefit from his philosophies about life. He taught me something I didn’t have much. Discipline. I also had the privilege to meet him live. It is a memory I cherish. 

Then I would name Zig Ziglar for sales, Wayne Dyer for spirituality, Maxwell Maltz for Psycho-Cybernetics, Robin Sharma and Simon Sinek for Leadership, Dan Ariely for our irrationality, Seth Godin for writing and marketing, Yuval Noah Harari for humanity, Joe Dispenza for our healing power, Dank Pink for motivation, Malcolm Gladwell for amazing data and case studies, Kendal Haven for storytelling, Nassim Taleb for his Black Swan, Robert Collier for the Secret of the ages, Ogilvy for advertising, the Heath brothers for creativity, even Paulo Coelho with the Alchemist that opened up horizons and dreams to explore. I’m sure I forgot tons from the list. I’m sorry for that.

When it comes to podcasts, I’m a fan too, in both formats (audio and YouTube). In the past I watched GaryVee for entrepreneurship and when I needed hustle boosting. It worked every time. People don’t understand him the right way.

Now I am watching/listening Valuetainment with Patrick Bet-David, Andrew Huberman, Jordan Peterson, Lex Fridman, Y Combinator, Impact Theory with Tom Bilyeu, Gad Saad, Inside, MIT OpenCourseWare, FRONTLINE PBS, The Behavior Panel, Sam Harris, TedX, and so on.

It’s so amazing what we have today. You can learn everything in audio or visual form, something I didn’t have in college. I wish today’s generation to comprehend and use this advantage when it comes to learning. My head hurts when I think of how I learned anatomy and how I could learn it today. 

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

One piece of advice would be not just to start a business because it seems lucrative or trendy but you lack expertise and/or passion in that domain. If you cannot see yourself fully dedicated five years from now, forget about it. An exception might be if you want to experience failure first-hand and can afford to do so for a while. Then, OK. Your business should be a combination of skills, excitement for that domain, and a big enough market to serve in order to sustain yourself in the long run.

Another timely warning would be to start a business with the illusion of raising tons of money and then selling that business. I believe we are in a big bubble of inflated companies who are not profitable, don’t look like they will be anytime soon, lack a real product that solves a big enough problem that others want but raised millions instead.  

For an outsider, this is very compelling and you could be trapped in such a dream. Everyone can spend money if the funnel is constantly open and they are living from a raising round to another. At some point, such card castles fall and we’ll see that soon enough.

It’s way better and healthier to focus on building a real business. This means be cautious about temptations, not get too high on your supply, and raise only what you need for a specific period of time.

When it comes to focusing, a real business means the right team (not necessarily the priciest as you can afford if backed by venture money), the right product or service that solves a real problem that helps your customers, and happy active customers that can sustain your growth and make you profitable.

All the rest need to be second-guessed and used carefully to complete the points above.  

And a third one is the right mindset. Get used to failures, rejections, and hearing ‘no’. Befriend them because you cannot escape any as a startup. That’s why choosing something that you truly believe in while winning reasonable arguments about why that thing will work is crucial. Because you need this to focus on each day when you’ll deal with issues.

Keep in mind, you are not alone. If you feel it’s too much, ask for help in groups, forums, watch YouTube, listen to podcasts, get mentors, coaches who know what they are doing, and keep the energy going. You’ll need it. But if you are a true entrepreneur it is worth it and eventually, you’ll get where you want to go. With the condition to not give up just before you’ve made it as long as you don’t quit before making it. 

My best mindset takeaways that come to mind from my experience are:

1) Don’t let anyone take your dreams away or tell you what you can do or cannot do but still be realistic with yourself between the 4 walls; 

2) Become your best friend as soon as possible because this way you will never be alone;

3) Grow thick skin;

4) Never stop loving or believing in people.

You’ll be fine.

Where can we go to learn more?

Our website: https://www.aecho.ai

LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/company/aecho-ai

Our blog: https://medium.com/aecho-ai

You can also reach me through my LinkedIn profile:https://www.linkedin.com/in/cristinaimre/