2018 is an exciting year for chatbots. Computer programs that can have conversations with humans through text messages have been around for a while, but it is only now that brands and customers are starting to recognize their true value. It’s also now that a multitude of brilliant startups are making sure that this technology gets taken seriously. To get insight into the world of chatbots, we caught up with Marc Caballé, CEO and Co-Founder at Hubtype, a Barcelona startup that allows companies to easily build and host chatbots to engage with their users through messaging apps. The Hubtype team has just returned from a fruitful trip to San Francisco where they took part in the Marketing Hell Week program by 500Startups, and met with several investors and mentors. We showed up at their new offices and grilled them about their stay in the Valley and how they see the future of chatbots.
Are chatbots the future?
As a company that creates tools for developers to build chatbots, Hubtype firmly believes that chatbots are here to stay. There’s been a lot of eyebrow-raising around chatbots, with people arguing whether they should be looked at as groundbreaking technology or just a fad.
According to Marc, this is mostly due to misconceptions and false expectations. Skeptics simply don’t understand the tremendous “benefits of chatbots – if used in a way that adds value to the customer experience,” he says.
There are two main reasons why chatbots get a bad rap. One is that most people have never actually tried interacting with a chatbot and are unaware of the myriad of possible use cases. The other reason is that people who have had experiences with chatbots are very likely to have interacted with one that’s rudimentary and rather pointless, for example, chatbots that send you weather forecasts. Until recently, these types of bots have been much more common than the ones that truly carry value.
“Companies are just now starting to open up messaging apps as new channels to engage with their customers, and they’re starting with very small things, like FAQs,” Marc says.
Chatbots are here to liberate us from apps
The most significant advantage of chatbots from the user’s point of view is that they can replace applications. You don’t have to download a new app every single time you want to book a flight with a certain airline or submit gas meter readings to your supplier. With the help of chatbots, you will be able to do all of these through messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
“The mobile app market is extremely saturated. No one is downloading applications anymore, and people are deleting the ones they already have because they take up too much space on their mobile devices. But when you need to free up some space, you never delete WhatsApp. You keep all the communication apps and get rid of all the third party apps that you don’t use every day,” Marc says.
“Anything that you do right now in applications, you can do in messaging apps.”
There are several innovative use cases for chatbots that could make everyday tasks quicker and more efficient.
“Anything that you do right now in applications, you can do in messaging apps. You can ask chatbots to send you invoices. You can get push notifications from your favorite online newspapers. Chatbots can help you navigate in mobile apps and find the option or setting that you’re looking for. You can share your location with them if your car breaks down and you need to get it towed. With WeChat in China, you can do everything: book a table in a restaurant, send money to a friend, hail a taxi or buy cinema tickets,” Marc says. And these are just a few examples of how chatbots can evolve.
Another huge plus, when it comes to customer service, is that not only are chatbots available 24/7, they can also wait as long as you want them to if you’re inquiry is interrupted. You don’t have to wait around until an issue is resolved and you can finally hang up the phone. You can close the messaging app, go about your day and pick up where you left off five hours later.
“Of course, chatbots cannot solve everything right now, so what we suggest to our customers is to choose a hybrid solution. If the chatbot can no longer help you, it will hand over to a human agent,” Marc explains.
“If marketing bots are not implemented carefully, messaging could become the next email. It’ll be just another spam folder.”
It seems that the main areas where chatbots are likely to become popular are customer service and transactional services.
“I think that marketing chatbots also have a future, but some of them are too spammy for messaging apps. 15 years ago, if you received an email, you felt important. It was special. But coupon companies have ruined that, and now spam is considered normal. Today, messaging apps are running the same risk, and if marketing bots are not implemented carefully, messaging could become the next email. It’ll be just another spam folder,” Marc explains.
Fortunately, all messaging apps regulate what kind of content can be sent through them.
“We advise our clients not to send commercial content through these channels. Or if they do, then let their customers select what they want to receive,” Marc adds.
Hubtype goes to Silicon Valley
As for their trip to Silicon Valley, Marc has a few interesting observations. You often hear young startups founders from Europe dreaming of ending up in the Valley. But should it really be the ultimate goal for you and your startup?
“If you want to sell your company, it’s easier to do it in Silicon Valley. On the other hand, getting investment is a lot harder for a European startup, because investors have lots of Delaware-incorporated startups to choose from. Investors – and in fact everyone in Silicon Valley – really value their time, so you have to be very focused when you’re in a meeting with them. However, we found startup founders to be very accessible and empathetic. Even the really busy ones that just received a 20-30 million dollar investment are keen to meet with you and carve out a bit of their time. I think that there, founders help each other more than they do here,” Marc recounts.
According to Marc, there is significant interest in European startups in the Valley in the sense that if they see potential in your company, they want you to move there.
“If you are a European startup in Silicon Valley, people have a lot of respect for you because they know how much you had to fight to get there. They know that in Europe, it’s much harder to get funding rounds, and the scale of those rounds is completely different than in Silicon Valley,” says Marc.
A move overseas could be tricky though. If you take your product team to Silicon Valley, the big players like Google and Facebook are very likely to try and “steal” them.
“Barcelona has amazing talent, as good or even better than Silicon Valley.”
Marc and his team returned from Silicon Valley with lots of great memories, experiences and valuable contacts, but right now, they are perfectly fine in Barcelona.
“Barcelona has amazing talent, as good or even better than Silicon Valley, and salaries are much lower. Not to mention the rent prices,” Marc says. “I think you should go to San Francisco if it’s a strategic decision for you, for example, if your competition or your clients are in the US, or if you want to sell your company,” he adds.
So should you still go to Silicon Valley, even if just for a casual visit? Marc has some tips.
“Don’t just go there to check out the environment. One of the ways you can get something out of a trip to Silicon Valley is to set up meetings with key people. You should message them even before you buy the flight tickets, and ask them if they can meet with you. If they say yes, then you book your flight,” he advises.