Webio brings the art of conversation into the AI age

8 Oct 2018

From left: Paul Sweeney, Graham Brierton, Mark Oppermann and Cormac O’Neill. Image: Webio

Our Start-up of the Week is Dublin’s Webio, which is enabling businesses to provide customer service through popular messaging apps.

“We automate and streamline enterprise to consumer conversations,” explained Webio CEO and co-founder Cormac O’Neill.

“We do this through ‘conversational middleware’ that enables enterprises to bring data, systems and machine learning together so conversations with their customers over digital messaging and voice interfaces can be automated in a way that is simplistic yet both powerful and convenient.”

‘Person-to-person SMS and phone calling is collapsing as people move to WhatsApp and Messenger’

Webio is empowering companies to reach across messaging apps and voice interfaces such as Messenger, WhatsApp, SMS, Alexa and Google Home. It is using the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to automate conversations via autonomous smart chatbots or blended live-agent engagement, while applying machine learning, natural language programming (NLP) and its Propensity Indicator X to deliver optimal customer conversation outcomes.

The market

According to O’Neill, the world of enterprise-to-consumer engagement is going through a disruptive change. “Person-to-person SMS and phone calling is collapsing as people move to WhatsApp and Messenger,” he said.

“As consumers, we are no longer interested in downloading new mobile applications. Rather, we prefer to interact directly in our messaging apps, whether it be Messenger or WhatsApp. How are companies going to provide customer service over these new channels? That’s where Webio comes in.”

He explained that while the application-to-person SMS market is nearly $60bn a year and growing, it is inevitable that it too will see a significant shift to these new messaging platforms. “Gartner (January 2018) estimates that by 2021, enterprises will spend more than 50pc on chatbot development than on mobile apps. Combined with the rise of Alexa, many analysts are saying we are now in a post-app era. Clearly, the Webio opportunity is to help these enterprises on this journey.”

The founders

Rather unusually for a tech company, O’Neill is a CEO with a finance background. “I’m a qualified accountant with an MBA in finance. Having spent almost four years living and working in the US, I returned to Ireland in 1998 and got bitten by the start-up bug. Webio is my third start-up and by far the most exciting.

“The founding team at Webio have all worked together before building a SaaS communications company, so we understand what it takes to win in this space. We thought it was important to have a mix of developers, business development and sales people right from the start, and knowing each other previously is a great advantage in the early days. We all have an enterprise background, and enterprise really is a different beast.”

The technology

Webio’s platform is entirely cloud-based and self-service. “As an enterprise service, this is really quite difficult to achieve, but we have. We enable the user to design and plan their own inbound and outbound campaigns, and to design conversational flows for each campaign.

“In some environments, you need to be able to specify the exact flow and exact language for compliance purposes. In other situations, you might be happy to train and use natural language programming alternatives, where artificial intelligence learns what the best response to a question is. Uniquely, Webio enables you to add skills to conversations.

“For instance, adding a payment skill enables you to take payments within a messenger or Alexa conversation; adding a security skill enables you to stop credit card information or other sensitive information from being shared. So, over time, you get better and better at having these conversations, and more and more of the conversation can be automated.”

O’Neill said the ultimate goal is to streamline the world of enterprise to customer conversations. “We have had a rollercoaster ride for the past two years. Getting a start-up off the ground is not all high-fives and extra-strength IPAs, it’s bloody hard!

“This said, we got a great start. In 2016, Webio raised a seed round of €1.75m, which included a strategic investor out of San Francisco and Enterprise Ireland. A big shout-out to Enterprise Ireland merited here, they’ve been great supporters of Webio.”

Gift of the gab

O’Neill said that with the seed round, Webio researched, built and ultimately launched its conversational platform into the market in early 2017. “Since then, we have been focused on continuing to build a great product and bringing it to customers in the UK and Ireland.

“Along the way, some cool stuff has happened. In November 2017, we won one of only 15 places on the prestigious Google Blackbox Connect 20 programme in San Francisco. In 2017, we won the Innovation Award at the UK Credit and Collections Technology Awards. We followed that up with two additional awards at the 2018 event for Best Use of Technology in Credit and Collections, and Best Customer Engagement Solution.

“Having run the world’s first conversational interface conference, ConverCon, in 2017, we have just had a very successful ConverCon 18 hosted by Microsoft in its Dublin HQ, attracting some of the biggest names in our space including Facebook, Amazon, Intercom, Microsoft and many others.

“We are fortunate to have attracted some great brands to our platform, too – companies like Shop Direct, Anglian Water and Funding Circle. We are happy to share that our monthly recurring revenue is fast approaching €100,000. On top of this, we are currently developing a series of strategic partnerships, which will see Webio offered through other channels.”

O’Neill said that with this degree of growth, the company will be looking at more fundraising in 2018 and, so far, it is seeing strong interest. “While everything AI is getting attention, the hot space is in customer service, in retail, fintech services, travel and hospitality. The space is hot but, as a company, we are 100pc focused on delivery.”

O’Neill said that speed to market has been a critical aspect of Webio’s trajectory. “You have to get products into the hands of early users, iterate and learn. Second, things are changing so fast that it’s easy to get caught flat-footed on a particular technology; some of the technology around you can change very suddenly and we certainly found this to be the case of the year from July 2016 to July 2017. Thirdly, customer adoption patterns are difficult to anticipate, and they have a very low threshold for difficulty. You really have to get it right first time, with ease of use being critical.”

A jewel in the crown

According to O’Neill, the start-up scene in Ireland has evolved. “It’s a lot better now than when I began my first start-up, but I think we have some way to go before we reach the levels of some other geos [geographies]. There are literally no words to describe how much support we have received.

“Everyone chipped in to help us deliver ConverCon – people you wouldn’t necessarily know, and many that are household names in the Dublin technology scene. There are very active technology and special-interest groups, and a genuine desire to help others get past the sizzle and into the steak of technology.

“An often-overlooked aspect of the scene is the willingness of established companies to play with you in the early days. We’ve had banks, insurance companies, hoteliers all open their doors to us and, without their cooperation, it’s very hard to get to product market fit.

“Dublin is a jewel but we do have to figure out how to make it more economically viable for our employees to work and live here. We have technology staff working out of Dublin, Belfast, Limerick and the UK. We just make it work.”

O’Neill’s advice for fellow and would-be founders is to seize the day. “Don’t wait. Just jump in and do it. There will never be a perfect time. In general, people don’t regret what they’ve done, only what they hadn’t had the courage to do.

“A demo is worth a thousand PowerPoints. Save yourself a ton of time and get something you can demo as soon as possible.

“And, finally, always be creating and connecting dots! In short: network, network, network.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years