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Bots at Startups

Messaging bots offer startups an affordable, adaptable, and direct communication tool.

3 min read
Bots at Startups
owls, magical, letters, flying, exchanging information, sky
Before Growth is a weekly column about startups and their builders prior to product–market fit.
Originally published in Plane.

Do you work at an early-stage startup, especially a service startup? Cool. Let me tell you why you should be interested in messaging bots—a huge, huge trend—even if you haven’t considered it because you wanted to build a web or mobile app.

Messaging is cheap

For startups on a shoestring budget apps cost a lot. Full-blown delivery teams need designers, engineers—both front-end and back-end—and testers… That’s a lot of man-hours even for a small project.

Messaging bots only need a bit of back-end tech to get started. In the beginning, you don’t even have to worry about all that AI-related stuff such as machine learning or natural language processing.

In a typical Wizard of Oz scenario, an unaware user believes that a fully functional application system exists. There’s no harm done if the user still gets a meaningful result from the fake prototype. You, on the other hand, don’t have to hire any front-end developers yet, because the front-end is already handled for you by messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter or SMS. You just need a good copywriter.

If you’re a technical co-founder, or you’ve got one on your team, you’ll probably do fine without additional back-end engineers as well since you only need to set up some kind of interface to talk to your users as the wizard. That’s a huge advantage over your competition.

Easy cross-platform support

You often have to cover at least two or three platforms—web, iOS and Android—to reach a meaningful number of your potential customers. Every single platform adds some management and development overhead as a cost of supporting it.

It’s actually quite easy to make your messaging bot cross-platform. After all, it’s just text most of the time. As long as you don’t need to get fancy with custom integrations, you only need to build a universal text recognition service that acts as an adapter and connect it to any messaging platform you want to support.

Fast development

Consider the following scenario. You’ve built an app that recommends the best burger recipes sent by your users. If one of them wanted to add a recipe for, say, pizza, you’d have to add new ingredients to your system and present the pictures of pizza a little bit differently than pictures of burgers—all that would be included in the new release next week.

If you had built a messaging service, you’d only need to receiver a recipe for good pizza from the user and sent it to others via text. That’s 5 minutes of work tops. And if the community didn’t like this whole pizza thing, you wouldn’t have to abandon an entire week’s worth of work in order to serve just burger recipes again.

They value authenticity and utility over polished details. And thanks to the aforementioned Wizard of Oz technique, you can roll out new features much faster, working on a better version behind the scenes.

Need proof? At Ada, my team and I are building an AI-powered concierge bot who can help you rent your next apartment. Day by day, we have to face a constant stream of new requests from people looking for their perfect flat. Slowly but steadily, we’re automating the most popular ones and respond to the unusual ones by hand to keep our customers delighted.

A direct two-way communication channel

There are two reasons for why this matters. The first reason is that customers value experiences that feel personal—and what’s more personal than your own concierge bot available on your mobile phone?

The second reason—and one that’s much more important in my opinion—is feedback. Messaging bot teach your users to respond to them frequently. That’s an enormous advantage for early stage startups who often can’t figure out why they face customers’ indifference. For example, if they stopped using your SMS bot, you’d be always able to send them a quick text to ask why. In fact, you can ask them anything and they’ll consider it a normal part of the experience, not a boring questionnaire. And you’ll be able to adjust to their feedback much better.

It’s been known for a while that messaging and bots have become trendy, but they also offer certain advantages as a temporary measure to entrepreneurs who don’t want to invest in messaging in the long term. They can simply treat it as a faster way to build a prototype to confirm their hypotheses—and then use what they’ve learned to build a full-blown app. That’s the additional value of that new bot-driven paradigm.

Thanks for being a part of Before Growth! The newsletter has grown mainly through word of mouth. Would you mind sharing it with a couple of friends who might like it too?

Kamil Nicieja

I guess you can call me an optimist. I build products for fun—I’m a startup founder, author, and software engineer who’s worked with tech companies around the world.

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