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Eoghan McCabe chats about bots

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August 15, 2018 06:59

00:00 / 44:42

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 is needed in the
background to organize a company’s communications. “What the world will need
is one platform to band these multiple channels together,” he says. “They’ll
need someone to build workflows for the people inside these companies to help
them collaborate and be efficient. They’ll need someone to build the
automation that works on these channels.” McCabe lays out his thoughts on the
future of bots on the season finale of Converge, an interview game show where
tech’s biggest personalities tell us about their wildest dreams. It’s a show
that’s easy to win, but not impossible to lose — because, in the final round,
I finally get a chance to play and score a few points of my own. Read more
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