Atlanta-based Pindrop is drastically shrinking its headquarters footprint even as it succeeds in landing world-class talent and growing its global reach in a topsy-turvy pandemic era.
The Atlanta-grown tech company, which has raised about $220 million since it launched 10 years ago, will move in January from 85,000 square feet at the Biltmore in Midtown to a space less than a third as large (25,000 square feet) on the seventh floor of a new West Midtown mixed-use development called The Interlock.
It’s part of a shift to a remote-first work posture that the company introduced immediately after the pandemic hit and refined with lessons learned as the COVID-19 era wore on over the last 18 months.
Pindrop Co-founder and CEO Vijay Balasubramaniyan, a Ph.D. from Georgia Tech, did some “quick math” in March 2020 and knew statistically it was only a matter of time before the company would see its first COVID case among its 300-plus employees. Pindrop, which helps customers like banks and insurance companies fight fraud by authenticating users with their voice, went remote almost immediately.
“People’s productivity actually jumped, and that was super surprising, but it’s not all a happy story,” he told Global Atlanta in an interview.
After six months, Pindrop’s executives started seeing trends in the data that showed some things were actually being lost in the shuffle. Being physically together, it turned out, was vital when a new project was getting off the ground.
“When you’re creating something afresh, you need people to meet together, to brainstorm, to whiteboard — it’s the crucible of innovation,” Dr. Balasubramaniyan said.
Cross-team collaboration also suffered amid back-to-back virtual meetings that precluded natural breaks where people could pop in to another department and solve an emerging problem quickly.
And finally, that sense of place in Atlanta’s bubbling tech ecosystem was hard to mimic over an Internet connection, making the playing field extremely competitive for the top tech talent locally, nationally and even globally, though the trend has ended up working in Pindrop’s — and Atlanta’s — favor.
Pindrop has created a company culture where its employees take pride in protecting clients from losses that can easily reach into the millions of dollars when accounts are compromised, Dr. Balasubramaniyan said.
“We’re very proud of our mission. We shut out people’s bank accounts from going to zero; we have a very strong sense of purpose and mission,” he said.
Top Talent — From Anywhere
Atlanta has a huge talent pool, but to recruit “leaders at scale,” local companies often had to look to the West Coast or other tech hubs. Amid the pandemic, a “great unlock” occurred where top tech executives were unmoored from their corporate HQs and were more open to exploring places like Atlanta, Dr. Balasubramaniyan said.
A remote-first option gives them the choice to benefit from the city’s charms while retaining their home bases elsewhere, a sense of flexibility that has helped Pindrop land two key executive hires: Collin Davis, who launched Amazon’s Alexa for Business and ran productivity apps for Amazon Web Services, came over as CTO in June, while Ed Tang, a veteran of Salesforce and Box, joined as CFO in July.
“It’s not just that we are attracting the best talent in Atlanta,” he said, pointing to the upper-echelon tech pedigrees of the new hires. “Atlanta is super attractive, and the pandemic has made people look for gold anywhere. When people went originally to California for the Gold Rush, it wasn’t like California was very well known at that point.”
These executives, meanwhile, discover in Atlanta a “phenomenal place” when they do spend time here. In that way, the pandemic could end up being a great “leveler” when it comes to C-suite hires, augmenting the already massive and growing engineering talent pool that Pindrop and others are pulling from locally.
“When you want a particular kind of talent, you can go outside. In San Francisco there is a big not-in-my-backyard culture that used to exist until the pandemic, but I think that’s gone away. I think people are like, ‘OK, let’s just go to create companies everywhere.’”
That may not cause people to move physically to metro Atlanta, but it could, and indeed anecdotally it already has, he said.
Pindrop’s new space at the Interlock will reflect these trends. It won’t have as many offices or cubicles, but instead will feature more open spaces for collaboration, focus rooms, an outdoor-balcony and a 24-person community table for working lunches.
It will also be decked out in the latest collaboration technologies befitting a tech company embracing a hybrid culture, and the West Midtown location of the $450 million complex keeps the company rooted near Georgia Tech, where it plans to continue recruiting and helping grow the technology community that helped brith the innovative company.
Pindrop is taking more than a tenth of the 200,000-square-feet of tech-focused office space at The Interlock, which features a Publix grocery store, 349 luxury apartments, 70 single-family homes and the 161-room Bellyard Hotel. Workers are putting final touches on the building, and the company is shooting to move in starting in January.
Trends Driving Global Growth
Its internal COVID-19 transformation notwithstanding, Pindrop has also seen a shift in the way the pandemic has affected its customers, leading to rapid adoption of its voice-based fraud prevention technologies — as well as the device-based authentication it expanded with the help of a service it acquired earlier this year: Next Caller.
At one in 2020, Pindrop noted that call centers were seeing a 150 percent increase in the number of fraud attempts on their already-stressed phone lines as call volumes surged during the pandemic. Fraudsters can pair information they find from Dark Web sources or other breaches with what they learn from companies’ interactive voice response (IVR) environments, building a profile that helps them crack an identity.
Already in 2019, Dr. Balasubramaniyan said Gartner estimated 61 percent of account takeover attempts started with a phone call. That number was projected to grow to 75 percent by 2020. Chat takes some of this load, but it’s limited.
Dr. Balasubramaniyan landed in Atlanta in 2005 to complete a Ph.D. in computer science after having worked on voice and telephony systems for companies like Intel and Siemens (later joining IBM and Google). He found that unwanted calls were a huge and costly problem for enterprises, which received 47 billion calls annually.
In a 2019 Global Atlanta interview, he estimated that every second a customer spends on the phone with a company costs 2.5 cents. All those security questions used to prevent fraud were racking up a cumulative $8 billion in losses — and they were only effective at stopping takeover calls about 9 percent of the time.
“The numbers are just mind-boggling. It’s amazing,” he said.
The “Aha!” moment for Pindrop came when Dr. Balasubramanyian’s bank called and asked him to provide his social security number over the phone after he had used a credit card to purchase a suit in his native India.
“We played this cat-and-mouse game,” he said, and ultimately canceled the transaction because he was unwilling to give up his personal information.
Solving this issue and related problems led to three initial patents on “phone printing” — proving a device was not spoofed — and identifying each person’s voice signature in less than five seconds of speech based on their unique anatomy. Pindrop in 2019 raised $90 million in a Series D round led by Vitruvian, a London-based fund, in part to expand into Europe.
So far, markets like the United Kingdom, where Pindrop has an office, have performed well, along with Canada and France, but more substantive expansion in the EU and in Asia has been derailed by pandemic-related travel restrictions.
Still, some big deals have arisen in markets like South Korea and Italy, where the company has no sales force, providing an indicator of potential fertile markets for future growth once the world opens up, especially in Asia.
“Between Korea, Japan and Singapore, we are trying to figure out where to go.”