CEO Usama Noman lets companies automate their customer service themselves through a simple portal.
CEO Usama Noman lets companies automate their customer service themselves through a simple portal.

Don’t you hate it when you ask some brand a query over the internet and they take ages to reply, if at all? Yeah, same. Wouldn’t it be great if they could be a bit more reactive? That’s something Botsify is trying to get businesses to do, by using artificial intelligence.

It is a Karachi-based startup that lets small and medium enterprises build their own chatbots for Facebook and other platforms. A simple online portal that allows even non-coders to optimise their internet presence and actively engage users through virtual assistants.

The way it works is that businesses answer simple questions regarding their work, enter details and the right links/replies to specific queries that turn into automated responses. For example, to an inquiry about working hours of a company, it can write a structured response accordingly. The bot can be integrated on a number of platforms including website or Facebook, depending on wherever it gets queries from. Users can also see analytics on the portal’s dashboard.

The startup has hired third-party services from payment processors like Stripe for bank cards or Paddle for PayPal to cater primarily to its international clients. Meanwhile, with the local customers, balances are settled mostly through cheques.

But why would a company go for a chatbot builder for its automated assistant instead of developing something more customised from scratch, whether in-house or externally? “We are eyeing small and medium enterprises, irrespective of geography or industry, who don’t usually have the means to afford dedicated internal or external artificial expertise. It’s the bigger players, that have well established IT departments with proper infrastructure for whom an easy software-based solution isn’t too attractive,” says CEO Usama Noman. According to him, around 90 per cent of their clients are international.

Botsify was launched in April 2016 by Usama, a software engineer from National University of Science and Technology, who after his graduation had founded Hireonic — a technical jobs hiring portal. “Soon after, Facebook introduced chatbots for messengers and I happened to have studied natural language processing so we changed focus and started building Botsify instead,” he recalls.

They have a monthly subscription model with two packages, starting from $50 for self service to $300 for the fully managed one. As for funding, the venture has been financed mostly internally except for a $30,000 grant when they participated in the six-month accelerator programme of Startup Chile. Noman doesn’t plan to rely on equity-based investments from angels or venture capitals.and wants to fuel growth by reinvesting the earnings,” he says.

Competition-wise, there are hardly any direct rivals in Pakistan as most of the players here are in the business of developing chatbots on others’ behalf while Botsify lets small and medium enterprises build their own bots according to their needs.

However, internationally the build-your-own-bot service has quite a few operating in the scene, including companies as established as IBM through Watson to relatively smaller startups offering low-cost solutions such as ChatFuel or Flow XO. So how does Botsify hope to stay in the game and grab a share in such an international market? “We started out in the early days of chatbots right after Facebook introduced them for messenger so that has already helped us build a position. Other than that, we rely on SEO marketing and a good page to get the right traction. Plus from the very beginning, we got exposure through international which put our name out in the market” says Usama Noman.

Given Botsify’s presence in the international arena, the company also happens to have clients from the non English-speaking world, including countries such as Brazil or Italy. How do they cater to them in their local languages then? “Primarily it’s their own answers and continuous data feeding that refines the responses but obviously the accuracy is lower than in English — 60 per cent vs 80pc - since we basically rely on Google Translate,” Noman tells Dawn.

For a startup wanting to create a market across geographies, language is therefore a major barrier in breaking through. So are they planning to get linguistic experts in different languages or maybe at least locals in the countries where Botsify is operations in order to improve the product? “The former is very costly to get into as a young company. Given our resources, we just hope that the tech giants, who have doctorates working on advanced algorithms, will soon enough make their codes open source so we finetune ours,” he says.

The age of AI is definitely here and it’s just up to our local boy as to how much he juice he can squeeze out of this tech.

The writer is member of staff:
Twitter: @MutaherKhan

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2019