People analytics start-up Mercurics' chief executive officer Kai Reuber has always been fascinated by the study of the mind and human behaviour. This interest led him to pursue a psychology degree at the Singapore campus of James Cook University in 2008.
"Back then, I came to a realisation that if you understand human beings, it can be applicable to everything you do. I wanted to dive deeper into the social sciences and explore the scientific as well as research approach to psychology," the 36-year-old recalls.
After graduating from JCU in 2011, Mr Reuber worked in the human resource industry for close to a decade, honing his understanding of the field by taking on roles ranging from Learning & Development, Talent Acquisition, to being a HR business partner. During this time, he observed that many employers lacked understanding about their employees and were unable to bring out the best in them - a gap he realised could be closed using data.
This led Mr Reuber to develop an interest in analytics. He started taking online courses to better understand the field.
Convinced that people analytics could be harnessed to improve work processes and glean valuable insights, he tried to persuade his bosses to adopt a data-driven approach in talent management and development- but to no avail.
"It was difficult at the time for me to push such ideas through to management. Although it was frustrating, I guess that eventually gave me the idea of running my own people analytics start-up," he says.
Developing the know-how
To delve into the world of data science, Mr Reuber got a job at a recruitment agency in early 2018 as a technology recruiter, focusing on jobs that require analytics skills. This gave him the opportunity to speak to and interview hundreds of candidates in the data science field and tap into their knowledge.
During one of the interview sessions, he met his eventual co-founder, a PhD computer scientist with an interest in utilising artificial intelligence (AI) and psychology for HR.
Says Mr Reuber: "The first time we met, it was like a perfect match; we felt that with my foundation in psychology and background in HR, we could build something great together."
In late 2018, the duo started Mercurics, utilising AI technology and capabilities; and bringing them to market. In its first two years, the start-up built its capabilities and operated mainly as a consultancy and project business. Initial clients included government organisations that use its computational AI engine for surveying and profiling. Mercurics then gained clients from Japan as well, developing customised tools and behavioural assessments that measure employee flight risk to employee engagement.
In 2021 Mercurics developed one of its star products selfi.ai, a behavioural assessment platform for organisations. Its objective is to give HR and team leaders easy access to a library of tools such as pre-employment assessments to determine candidate fit, employee job satisfaction surveys, leadership measures, and mental well-being assessments. The data can easily be viewed and analysed on an intuitive dashboard and re-purposed for different use-cases. The platform is now being used by both multinational corporations as well as small and medium-sized enterprises.
Weathering hard times
Two years into the top job, Mr Reuber admits that nothing really prepares one for the challenges he faced as the CEO of a start-up.
He elaborates: "I was thrown into the deep end without knowing how to swim. Failure is the greatest lesson here. Things will go wrong, it's inevitable; but what's important is learning from wrong decisions made.
"Behind all those glorified success stories of start-ups, the grim reality is that more than 90 per cent fail; so you can't be scared to fail."
The Covid-19 pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the company's expansion plans. Mercurics lost a major client that was about to close a seven-digit contract. An investment deal fell through and expansion plans were halted. "Luckily, the beauty of a start-up lies in its ability to pivot and adapt to changes; I believe we came out stronger," Mr Reuber adds.
Despite the challenges, he and his team at Mercurics are driven by a shared goal: developing good solutions that are significant and impactful.
"That's when you know the work you've put in together as a team has amounted to something significant and impactful. That's the beauty of working in a start-up; you work in a closely-knit team of hard-working like-minded individuals. They make an effort, not because they are paid to do so, but because they believe in what they are working on," he adds.
Mr Reuber advises current and future psychology students at JCU to build up their technical skills. They should pick up a coding language for analysis such as R, or a higher-level programming language such as Python. Students should also learn to understand databases and how to access them.
Mercurics is finalising its first round of funding since incorporation. After it bootstrapped its product development of selfi.ai, Mercurics now plans to use the funds to grow its team to further enhance its product offerings and bring them to a wider audience.
"There is still a long road ahead," Mr Reuber says.
Find out more about JCU's psychology programmes at JCU’s Accessible 24/7 Open House.