On May 1, 2020
Botco.ai co-founder, Anu Shukla sat down with the Investor Connect Podcast to talk about the future of AI and machine learning. Anu is a firm believer that the time for AI and its permeation into all different types of computing has come. Read on for her thoughts on how AI and natural language is permeating everywhere and why investing in this technology is a smart move.
Mr. Martin: This is the Investor Connect Podcast program. This is Hal T. Martin. I’m the host of the show in which we interview angel investors, venture capital, private equity, family offices, and many other investor groups for startups and growth companies. I hope you enjoy this episode. Thank you for joining us.
Well, hello. This is Hal Martin with Investor Connect. Today I’m here with Anu Shukla of Botco.ai. Anu, thank you for joining us.
Ms. Shukla: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Mr. Martin: So, can you tell us about your background before joining Botco.ai? What were you doing before that and what led you to start working in the AI space?
Ms. Shukla: Sure. So, I’ve been around, mostly based in Silicon Valley for a while. I hate to date myself, but I have started about five different companies. And they were all in the marketing automation, eCommerce space. Like one of the first companies I started was a company called Rubric and that really was one of the pioneers of even defining something called enterprise marketing automation where there were no enterprise tools for marketing available before that. And that company had a successful exit. And after that, I went on to found — my latest company called MyOfferPal, which changed its name to Tapjoy, and it’s a mobile advertising network that reaches hundreds of millions of users and it’s a very successful company. I also then was in the payment space with a company called RewardsPay, which I’m still running. That’s doing all kinds of currency payments. I’m involved with investing and working with a team to get Botco.ai off the ground.
Mr. Martin: So, we have a lot of listeners that are investing in this space and in the AI space. And so, what’s your advice for those people that want to invest in AI? What would you tell them?
Ms. Shukla: Yes. I would definitely go for it, I’m a believer in the space. I have invested in this space. I just actually invested in another company, not Botco.ai, but another company in the space. Let’s just define what we mean by AI, first of all. The time for AI and its permeation into all different types of computing has really come. So, whether you talk about self-driving cars or talk about robots in factories, or in the case of software, you talk about artificial intelligence being applied to marketing and sales or customer service where it’s trying to initiate and manage conversations and natural language. I think it’s permeating everywhere, and I think it’s a big area of investment. It can seem a little confusing. So, what I look for in the space is really some kind of a vertical focus and repeatable success, in a particular area. Because trying to do everything in natural language is a disaster or a recipe for disaster. So, I look for companies with extreme focus when they’re trying to apply, say, something like natural language to the space. And so I like to have, have Botco.ai have that focus. But also, the investments I make in the space, I see that they’re going after a specific market. For example, the company that I just invested in is called Bitesize and it’s very much focused on car dealerships right now. And there are 60,000 dealerships in the US and, and I think they have a great market and then they have a plan to move to other vertical markets. So that’s what I look for, the extreme focus in AI.
Mr. Martin: Well, that’s good advice for all emerging areas. It’s great to be hyper-focused on sectors and specific areas inside them in order to be successful. And you were talking about the evolution of the AI space and maybe you can tell us a little bit more about it. How do you, where do you see AI going? How do you see the industry evolving at this point? What’s the growth rate of the sector and can you tell us more about it?
Ms. Shukla: Yeah, I mean I think AI is a discipline. It consists of — depending on the field you’re working on; it’s really trying to make machines more intelligent and software more intelligent so it can do more. And whether this is done by the development of algorithms or development of an understanding of natural language, that’s the area I really know more about or have learned more about, or whether it’s the hardware sort of stuff that I know less about, that’s where, that’s where I see this, not one thing, but really permeating everything that we do. You can make systems more intelligent and you can enable, you know, truly new use of AI technologies, the interactions to be more fruitful, I think that’s what AI can do for you. Also, you can look at vast amounts of data and try to get more insights into it. And that’s also the application of some sectors of artificial intelligence. So, I don’t think you can call it one thing. I think it’s applying to many different areas. But the area that I focus on is really applying it to conversational marketing. Because I remember I told you about the company, Rubric, that I did many years ago. It was one of the pioneers in the field of marketing automation and really, you know, enabled enterprises to use e-mail and internet and define concepts such as lead nurturing in a B2B environment. And so that’s the area that I am most familiar with. Now when we look at, you know, 20 years or 17 years later, people are still doing this one-way broadcasting. And I look at the potential of natural language, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to be applied to really turn interactions into conversations that are intelligent, and I see a lot of potential there. That’s really what I focus Botco.ai into.
Mr. Martin: Well, it seems like there are many, many companies focused on AI and they’re all taking different angles into it, and you certainly have a good one. What are the other angles you see people taking into the AI space? You mentioned being very specific and hyper-focus was a key there, but what, what can you tell us about other companies’ approaches to it?
Ms. Shukla: Well, one of the AI innovations is in voice. So. if you look at Alexa or Cortana, or any of these are Google voice assistants. You know, they’re trying to do more and more in your home for you and that’s an application of artificial intelligence. You look at eCommerce and you see things like, what used to be triggered e-mails. Now you’re looking at sort of messaging and what product are you looking for, just tell us, and you show us a picture of a sweater and then we’ll show you sweaters like it in our inventory. It’s sorting a vast number of images and information and filtering it down to something that you exactly want. And that’s an application for eCommerce that I just described. I also described the voice application that I told you we’re focused on. We’re focused on making these B2B and B2B2C interactions more conversational. So, take something like lead nurturing and, which goes on for weeks, and weeks, and weeks in an enterprise setting, and cut it down to like six days from start to finish. And giving people precisely the information, they want versus shooting out a bunch of content to them. Like, oh, you’re interested in — you know, you’re interested in red hats. Well, here’s the white paper on red hats. No, we want to ask — why are you interested in red hats. Which part of the red hat? When do you want to buy it? And you want to set up an appointment with us to talk about it, or here are the three red hats that I have. You know, do you find any of them interesting? Just trying to make things more intuitive in natural language and, and basically a two-way focus rather than a one-way broadcast.
Mr. Martin: So, what are the challenges in this space? When you put that application together at Botco.ai, what were the main challenges you encountered in putting an AI system together?
Ms. Shukla: Well, I mean I think we had an experience in building sort of a system for marketing conversations that interpreted the database, the workflow, and all of those other aspects. We knew all those pretty well. But the artificial intelligence and the natural language piece of it we really had to focus on and work on that one. We needed to really figure out how we’re going to acquire knowledge fast. And so that was an innovation that we did, which is to take your normal — ’cause if you look at things like IBM Watson, etcetera, they have a conversational service. It’s powered by natural language. It’s very famous. It’s a lot of work actually to work with it- you need developers and what we wanted is we wanted marketers to be able to use our system in a very simple fashion.
So, what we had to do was to say, look, you have frequently asked questions. You have white papers. You have any type of content. You just upload it right here. You know, just an upload button, and then we will create the knowledge base and we will create the understanding out of it to create what’s called triples, knowledge triples so that you can now push out — it’ll generate a list of questions and answers that are typical and populate your conversational application with it already. And so, we needed to make sure that nontechnical people could actually work with our system. And so we had to really innovate on this knowledge acquisition piece and also in the tuning piece or the learning piece so that when the chatbot is confronted with different questions and start answering them correctly, we can auto-tune or somebody else can, can look at it and say, no, no, no. That was a better way to answer it and sort of enhance it. And it grows, as the bot is in use. As it’s facing more questions, it increases its knowledge base. So that whole sector when we focused on what we are doing, we had to invent. And I think that was, for us to create that, that was a piece that, it’s really not time-bound ’cause it keeps improving as we go on doing more deployments of our platform.
Mr. Martin: Well, so is it safe to say in the AI space that the critical path to success is the acquisition of knowledge, low cost, or readily available datasets that you can onboard. And is, is that the one and only thing, or are there other major challenges that they have to go through? Because it seems like the theme is you either have the data to access or you don’t. You have the knowledge sets, or you don’t. And if you do, it sounds like you move forward, build the systems, customize it to the user, and it’s going to be successful, it sounds like. Is that the case?
Ms. Shukla: No. I think it’s really — yes, in artificial intelligence systems having a lot of data is very, very important. But what we, understanding the practicality of this, how we innovated was really to work with less data and grow the intelligence of our system over time as we did more. So, it was kind of an incremental approach so you could get value now and you could get more value as you continue. And I think overall if you talk in generalities, yes, if you try to do something like a neural network, you need a lot of data. And so, it wasn’t very practical for us to use neural nets. And so, we had to innovate on fast knowledge acquisition and incremental growth. So similarly, in AI, everybody faces different challenges in terms of the data and the models and how fast you can create them, and how accurate and reliable they are.
Mr. Martin: Oh, great. Can you tell us where, where do you plan to take Botco.ai? What direction do you see it going?
Ms. Shukla: Well, I mean hopefully the direction that I see it going is being very focused on our vertical and then moving on to other verticals. I expect Botco.ai to be a leader in the area that we have chosen, the AI-based conversational marketing for B2B or B2B2C applications. And we have a narrow vertical focus within that to service-based enterprises and franchises, is what we’re first addressing. And so, I expect us to — well, we are very comfortable with the state of our technology and its predictability to really set up a sales and marketing machine to go after that vertical. Then make plans to go onto other verticals. As I said, you can’t be narrowly focused by going after too many -from day one, and so we’re trying to stick to our own credo.
Mr. Martin: Well, in the last few minutes that we have here, what else should we cover that we haven’t?
Ms. Shukla: I think it’s important for people to look at the space and understand – for investors. And also, for potential consumers, they should understand that there’s a lot of things going on in this space that aren’t necessarily apples-to-apples comparisons. For example, when you have platforms where you can build these kinds of interactions, you have applications that are vertically focused and you have analytics for this market, or you have NLP engines that anybody can use, you have GUI-based tools and everybody lumps them all into AI and it’s so crowded. You just have plain old service companies that are just developers. They’ll come in and use some platform to develop you something. So, I think it’s important to understand where is the value by seeing repeatability and, and a focus, and that’s really what I think we may not have got concisely, but I just wanted to bring it up.
Mr. Martin: That’s a good point. So how best for listeners to get back in touch with you?
Ms. Shukla: My LinkedIn profile. So that’s always a great way. The website is Botco.ai. And also, my e-mail is email@example.com. So, anyone of those ways is a great way to get in touch with us and we’d love to hear from you.
Mr. Martin: Great. We’ll put that in the show notes and make that available to people. And looking forward to having you back for a follow-up soon. It sounds like you have a great opportunity there and the market continues to grow well for AI and has a lot of promise. So, we’ll see how it goes, and thank you for your time.
Ms. Shukla: Thank you so much, Hal.
Mr. Martin: Investor Connect helps investors interested in startup funding. In this podcast series, experienced investors share their experience and advice. You can learn more at Investor Connect.org.
Moderator: Hal T. Martin is the Director of Investor Connect, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to the education of investors for early-stage funding. All opinions expressed by Hal and podcast guests are solely their own opinions and do not reflect the opinion of Investor Connect. This podcast is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a basis for investment decisions.
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