May
20
2020
--

Directly, which taps experts to train chatbots, raises $11M, closes out Series B at $51M

Directly, a startup whose mission is to help build better customer service chatbots by using experts in specific areas to train them, has raised more funding as it opens up a new front to grow its business: APIs and a partner ecosystem that can now also tap into its expert network. Today Directly is announcing that it has added $11 million to close out its Series B at $51 million (it raised $20 million back in January of this year, and another $20 million as part of the Series B back in 2018).

The funding is coming from Triangle Peak Partners and Toba Capital, while its previous investors in the round included strategic backers Samsung NEXT and Microsoft’s M12 Ventures (who are both customers, alongside companies like Airbnb), as well as Industry Ventures, True Ventures, Costanoa Ventures and Northgate. (As we reported when covering the initial close, Directly’s valuation at that time was at $110 million post-money, and so this would likely put it at $120 million or higher, given how the business has expanded.)

While chatbots have now been around for years, a key focus in the tech world has been how to help them work better, after initial efforts saw so many disappointing results that it was fair to ask whether they were even worth the trouble.

Directly’s premise is that the most important part of getting a chatbot to work well is to make sure that it’s trained correctly, and its approach to that is very practical: find experts both to troubleshoot questions and provide answers.

As we’ve described before, its platform helps businesses identify and reach out to “experts” in the business or product in question, collect knowledge from them, and then fold that into a company’s AI to help train it and answer questions more accurately. It also looks at data input and output into those AI systems to figure out what is working, and what is not, and how to fix that, too.

The information is typically collected by way of question-and-answer sessions. Directly compensates experts both for submitting information as well as to pay out royalties when their knowledge has been put to use, “just as you would in traditional copyright licensing in music,” its co-founder Antony Brydon explained to me earlier this year.

It can take as little as 100 experts, but potentially many more, to train a system, depending on how much the information needs to be updated over time. (Directly’s work for Xbox, for example, used 1,000 experts but has to date answered millions of questions.)

Directly’s pitch to customers is that building a better chatbot can help deflect more questions from actual live agents (and subsequently cut operational costs for a business). It claims that customer contacts can be reduced by up to 80%, with customer satisfaction by up to 20%, as a result.

What’s interesting is that now Directly sees an opportunity in expanding that expert ecosystem to a wider group of partners, some of which might have previously been seen as competitors. (Not unlike Amazon’s AI powering a multitude of other businesses, some of which might also be in the market of selling the same services that Amazon does).

The partner ecosystem, as Directly calls it, use APIs to link into Directly’s platform. Meya, Percept.ai, and SmartAction — which themselves provide a range of customer service automation tools — are three of the first users.

“The team at Directly have quickly proven to be trusted and invaluable partners,” said Erik Kalviainen, CEO at Meya, in a statement. “As a result of our collaboration, Meya is now able to take advantage of a whole new set of capabilities that will enable us to deliver automated solutions both faster and with higher resolution rates, without customers needing to deploy significant internal resources. That’s a powerful advantage at a time when scale and efficiency are key to any successful customer support operation.”

The prospect of a bigger business funnel beyond even what Directly was pulling in itself is likely what attracted the most recent investment.

“Directly has established itself as a true leader in helping customers thrive during these turbulent economic times,” said Tyler Peterson, Partner at Triangle Peak Partners, in a statement. “There is little doubt that automation will play a tremendous role in the future of customer support, but Directly is realizing that potential today. Their platform enables businesses to strike just the right balance between automation and human support, helping them adopt AI-powered solutions in a way that is practical, accessible, and demonstrably effective.”

In January, Mike de la Cruz, who took over as CEO at the time of the funding announcement, said the company was gearing up for a larger Series C in 2021. It’s not clear how and if that will be impacted by the current state of the world. But in the meantime, as more organizations are looking for ways to connect with customers outside of channels that might require people to physically visit stores, or for employees to sit in call centres, it presents a huge opportunity for companies like this one.

“At its core, our business is about helping customer support leaders resolve customer issues with the right mix of automation and human support,” said de la Cruz in a statement. “It’s one thing to deliver a great product today, but we’re committed to ensuring that our customers have the solutions they need over the long term. That means constantly investing in our platform and expanding our capabilities, so that we can keep up with the rapid pace of technological change and an unpredictable economic landscape. These new partnerships and this latest expansion of our recent funding round have positioned us to do just that. We’re excited to be collaborating with our new partners, and very thankful to all of our investors for their support.”

Nov
04
2019
--

Microsoft launches Power Virtual Agents, its no-code bot builder

Microsoft today announced the public preview of its Power Virtual Agents tool, a new no-code tool for building chatbots that’s part of the company’s Power Platform, which also includes the Microsoft Flow automation tool, which is being renamed to Power Automate today, and Power BI.

Built on top of Azure’s existing AI smarts and tools for building bots, Power Virtual Agents promises to make building a chatbot almost as easy as writing a Word document. With this, anybody within an organization could build a bot that walks a new employee through the onboarding experience, for example.

“Power Virtual Agent is the newest addition to the Power Platform family,” said Microsoft’s Charles Lamanna in an interview ahead of today’s announcement. “Power Virtual Agent is very much focused on the same type of low-code, accessible to anybody, no matter whether they’re a business user or business analyst or professional developer, to go build a conversational agent that’s AI-driven and can actually solve problems for your employees, for your customers, for your partners, in a very natural way.”

Power Virtual Agents handles the full lifecycle of the bot-building experience, from the creation of the dialog to making it available in chat systems that include Teams, Slack, Facebook Messenger and others. Using Microsoft’s AI smarts, users don’t have to spend a lot of time defining every possible question and answer, but can instead rely on the tool to understand intentions and trigger the right action. “We do intent understanding, as well as entity extraction, to go and find the best topic for you to go down,” explained Lamanna. Like similar AI systems, the service also learns over time, based on feedback it receives from users.

One nice feature here is that if your setup outgrows the no-code/low-code stage and you need to get to the actual code, you’ll be able to convert the bot to Azure resources as that’s what’s powering the bot anyway. Once you’ve edited the code, you obviously can’t take it back into the no-code environment. “We have an expression for Power Platform, which is ‘no cliffs.’ […] The idea of ‘no cliffs’ is that the most common problem with a low-code platform is that, at some point, you want more control, you want code. And that’s frequently where low-code platforms run out of gas and you really have issues because you can’t have the pro dev take it over, you can’t make it mission-critical.”

The service is also integrated with tools like Power Automate/Microsoft Flow to allow users to trigger actions on other services based on the information the chatbot gathers.

Lamanna stressed that the service also generates lots of advanced analytics for those who are building bots with it. With this, users can see what topics are being asked about and where the system fails to provide answers, for example. It also visualizes the different text inputs that people provide so that bot builders can react to that.

Over the course of the last two or three years, we went from a lot of hype around chatbots to deep disillusionment with the experience they actually delivered. Lamanna isn’t fazed by that. In part, those earlier efforts failed because the developers weren’t close enough to the users. They weren’t product experts or part of the HR team inside a company. By using a low-code/no-code tool, he argues, the actual topic experts can build these bots. “If you hand it over to a developer or an AI specialist, they’re geniuses when it comes to developing code, but they won’t know the details and ins and outs of, say, the shoe business — and vice versa. So it actually changes how development happens.”

Mar
07
2018
--

Begin, a new app from Ryan Block, uses natural language to generate tasks from your Slack

Over two years after leaving Aol (now known as Oath) back in September 2015 to build a new startup, serial entrepreneur Ryan Block, with co-founder Brian LeRoux, is finally taking the wraps off the new venture: Begin, an intelligent app designed to help you keep track of things that you have to do, and when you should do them, as they come up in the stream of a messaging app.

By extension, Begin is also solving one of the more persistent problems of messaging apps: losing track of things you need to remember in the wider thread of the conversation.

Begin is launching today as an integration on Slack — which also happens to be one of its backers, by way of the Slack Fund .

Taking tasking apps to task

As you might have already seen, there are a lot apps out there today to help you track tasks and larger work you have to do, from software based around project management and specific to-do lists like Asana, Todoist, Wrike and Microsoft’s Wunderlist/To-Do, through to those geared more to planning performance management, like BetterWorks.

The problem is that while some people have found these various dedicated apps useful, for a good proportion, task apps are where tasks go to die. Block — despite a pretty productive resume that includes editor of Engadget, co-founder of Gdgt, and VP of Product at Aol — was one of the latter group.

“Every time I’ve ever tried using a task management app I found it sad and discouraging to use,” he said. “You just end up getting a massive backlog of tasks and you lose sight of what’s really important.” (I’m guessing he is not the only one: the proliferation of these dozens of apps, without any single, clear market leader, you could argue is one indication of how none of them have achieved a critical enough mass of users.)

So Block and LeRoux started to think about how you could fix task apps and make them a more natural part of how work gets done.

They thought of messaging apps and their role in communications today. And more specifically, they turned to Slack. With its rapid-fire conversations and ability to draw in data from other apps, Slack has not only been one of the fastest-growing services in the enterprise world, but it has changed the conversation around business communications (literally and figuratively) .

“Slack to us is more than just enterprise productivity,” Block said. “We see Slack as a primary tentpole in the future of work.”

Synchronicity

But, if you are one of the tens of millions of people that uses a messaging app like Slack at work, you’ll know that it can be wonderful and frustrating in equal parts. Wonderful because messaging can spur conversations or get answers quickly from people who might not be directly next to you; but frustrating because messaging can be — especially in group chat rooms — noisy, distracting and hard to track if you’re not paying attention all the time.

Begin has honed in on the third of these challenges of messaging platforms, and specifically in how it pertains to being in the working world.

Sometimes in the course of a conversation an item might come up that you or a coworker needs to follow up. Sometimes you might not even be a part of the conversation when that item comes up. In the course of a chat, the conversation might abruptly turn to another subject before you’ve had a chance to address an item. Begin is for all those moments.

Or, as Block described it to me, “It’s the difference between synchronous versus asynchronous work. Slack is good for certain things but for tracking things, it can be very hard.”

With Begin, the idea is that, when something arises that you need to follow up, you set yourself — or someone else — a reminder by essentially calling Begin (@begin) into the conversation and making a note of that task using normal language. (Example: “@begin Check in with @katie and @lynley about the earnings schedule tomorrow”.)

The two people I’ve tagged in my example don’t have to be there when I’m mentioning this, and they won’t have to look through Slack mentions to find what I said, nor do I need to leave the conversation to write the reminder. For all of us, we can turn to Begin itself to check out the tasks when we have time, and on Begin those tasks get ordered by their timing.

It’s a simple solution that is surprisingly not a part of the Slack experience today.

Aside from Slack, other investors in Begin’s seed round (of an undisclosed amount) include SV Angel, 415, SV Angel and General Catalyst, which took a stake in Begin as its first “bot” investment nearly two years ago.

Fast forward to today, with bot hype subsiding, Block is happy to say that while Begin has a degree of intelligence, particularly around reading natural language and turning that into an action of sorts (an action for you to do), he plays down the bot aspect. “We think of this as a Slack app, not as a bot,” he said.

Begin is, in fact, beginning small when it comes to features.

It’s only on Slack, you can’t draw in other apps or data into your tasks, it doesn’t give you a lot of short gradation when it comes to timing (days are currently the shortest increment for setting a task), and it doesn’t synchronise with any calendars.

Those are all areas that Block says that the company is working on for future iterations, either by being baked directly into the app by Begin itself, or there for others to integrate by way of an API.

Does Begin have a way of setting a task to look at your tasks? It’s one question that underscores the fact that ultimately you will still have to, at some point, look at a list. That may be something that the Begin team might try to address over time, too, but for now, it’s the simple creation that is the focus.

Aug
18
2016
--

Atlassian’s HipChat gets group video chats

HipChat_Group_Video In Atlassian‘s view, video is the next battlefield in the enterprise chat wars (a war it is mostly fighting with Slack, it seems). Its HipChat group messaging app launched one-on-one video chats back in 2014, but today, it is pushing this further by launching group video chats, as well.
To enable this, Atlassian built a new video platform based on its acquisition of BlueJimp and that… Read More

Apr
01
2016
--

Can Slack transform enterprise communication once and for all?

slackdroid_2x Those of us who have been around the block a few times have seen multiple attempts to kill email and change the way people communicate in the enterprise. Slack is just the latest, but one that has captured market share and money along the way. Consider that just today, Slack got $200 million in funding on a whopping $3.8 billion valuation. It launched just three years ago and has raised… Read More

Powered by WordPress | Theme: Aeros 2.0 by TheBuckmaker.com