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Episode Info: The hype cycle for bots exploded in 2016 as developers poured time and money into the dream of personal digital assistants. Facebook and Microsoft announced major investments into conversational user interfaces, and Slack launched a fund to capitalize on the bots hoping to build on its platform. But when bots became available the public, the public largely shrugged. The advantages of conversational interfaces paled next to their drawbacks. It turned out that typing into text boxes — often while trying to guess the appropriate commands — felt frustrating compared to the visual interfaces people were used to. And so bots largely receded into the background as another Silicon Valley innovation that arrived before its time. Eoghan (pronounced “Owen”) McCabe, co-founder and CEO of the fast-growing marketing startup Intercom, says the collapse was predictable. “Have there ever been any super destructive, sexy technology innovations that haven’t actually worked that way?” he says. “You’re just never going to be able to perpetuate that excitement for the amount of time it actually takes for actual innovation to actually take hold in a market.” In other words, the bots never really went away; they just became invisible. More automated messaging can be found on companies’ websites and apps than ever before. The work continues. And as Intercom’s own story has shown, businesses’ appetites for the automation they enable is only increasing. (Intercom released a tool to let businesses build custom chat bots earlier this month.) Founded in 2011, Intercom’s first product was a (human-powered) chat box that popped up when you visited a company’s website. The idea was that a website should say hello to customers the same way a barista might when you enter a coffee shop — and then sell you on something available for purchase. Since then, Intercom has added machine learning to automate more of those conversations, along with various other tools for generating and managing sales leads. (In these ways, it’s a direct competitor to Salesforce.) While public interest in bots waned, Intercom has continued to invest in the technology. In March, the company announced that it had 25,000 customers and was powering 500 million conversations a month. As part of the announcement, Intercom — which is based in McCabe’s native Dublin, with additional headquarters in San Francisco and London — said it had raised another $125 million from Kleiner Perkins and Google Ventures. The company is valued at nearly $1.3 billion. McCabe says the company has grown because businesses are looking for a single platform to help them organize their communication tools across every platform. That’s an approach that’s different than a company like Facebook’s, which similarly hopes to offer a popular front end for business conversations through its Messenger and WhatsApp services. But those are just endpoints, McCabe says. Another service...
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