I was honored to have been invited to attend Botness Enterprise in Austin, TX on Monday, artfully timed to coincide with SXSW, when and where much of the tech industry gathers. Austin is also home to Tom Hadfield of Message.io and Ben Brown of Howdy, CEOs of those respective bot startups and organizers of the event, which “brings together representatives from the top enterprise messaging platforms with the top enterprise bot developers to discuss building better bots for the workplace”. Botness Enterprise also enjoyed support from Atlassian Hipchat, Microsoft Teams, Slack Enterprise Grid, Cisco Spark, RingCentral Glip and CA Flowdock, all of whom sent their heads of platform to participate. This intimate, half-day event packed in a ton of great information specific to what is sometimes considered the less sexy part of the Bot World, but arguably the most profitable (at least early on) and dependable sector for bot companies in these precarious times for our industry. What with 2017 being billed as the ‘Year of Voice Assistants’ like Alexa or Google Home, aren’t regular ole chatbots yesterday’s news?

The obvious answer is of course, no, and that use cases for voice in the workplace are hyper-specific, yet to be determined, nonexistent or awaiting a major paradigm shift, but there has been quite a predictable hype cycle with bots, at least in the consumer space, and surely there is some anxiousness in predicting when and how awareness will grow along with general adoption. All of this reinforces a major point that Andy Mauro, CEO of Automat, echoed during the event, and which the bot community as a whole can really benefit from embracing: build products that people need. Or, as he more aptly put, “build where the money is”. And that place is in Enterprise.

BBQ, Bots and Breaking Down Bottlenecks

With the recent launches of Slack’s Enterprise Grid, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco Spark 2.0, all within a month or two of each other, and with bots as a major feature and service offering in all of them, things are looking bright. And I could feel that at the BBQ Party at the Brown’s family home the night before, where the conference unofficially began with some great Austin eats and the unique art and ambiance you would expect from a family who builds bots for a living! Which was to say – incredibly charming, friendly, and inviting – of both people and conversations. And of which, there were many.

The eclectic decor and beautiful architecture was very reminiscent of the bot community and of the Botness participants I met that night: diverse, regional and international, excited about what seems to be just the beginning of a new communication/automation interface/experience, but also extremely cognizant of the fact that there are still bot discovery, over-expectation, and/or retention problems, that we in the community are tasked to solve, and that our future is dependent on doing so. So much so, that we as a community, including the vendors and platforms themselves, regularly come together to speak about standards, capabilities, trends, upcoming features, etc., and share data as well as successes and failures so that we can understand what works and what doesn’t. In a sense, Botness Enterprise could be considered the bot industry’s quarterly “Come to Jesus Moment”. So you can imagine the types of interesting conversations about conversational interfaces, conversational commerce, and human communication in general, that occurred in this comfy arena.

That evening, I heard differing perspectives on all of the major topics in our space: the role Natural Language Processing, Artificial Intelligence including Deep Learning, Machine Learning, and Neural Networks, play in chat interactions between bots and humans. How bot discovery is and isn’t a problem. How brands have tried and failed to jump into this space. How there are still tremendous challenges to overcome vs the large amount of table stakes waiting to be claimed. Or how according to the very candid Mauro, “intent and entity detection is complete bullshit and an outdated misunderstanding of human communication we cling onto” or something to that extent.

Discussions ranged from the strategic and hypothetical to tactical and deliberate, and with representatives from each major platform gathered so closely with those building on them, undoubtedly business decisions and strategies were being finalized and/or adjusted. Heck, I may have even overheard a pitch or two, if I wasn’t unknowingly going into one myself. But the overall mood and spirit of the night and following day was about collaboration, learning, embracing feedback and sharing knowledge, lessons and assistance.

Event Recap (in Tweets!)

Welcome to Botness Enterprise

Tom Hadfield and Ben Brown kicked off Botness Enterprise with a quick intro of the short but exciting history of Botness itself, explaining how it was apparent early on at another event, how beneficial it would be if parties and platforms in the space, could get together for frank discussions on the issues and technologies of the day. This, of course, led to the first and second Botness events in April and June of last year. Now we were gathered for a more specific focus on Enterprise and the workplace and welcoming several new platforms into the community and marketplace. In the background of all this, and not mentioned by the humble Brown, is that #Botkit, the open-source framework developed by his company, and that we use for our very own platform, helped enable much of this growth virtually overnight.

“A vision for conversational apps in the workplace over the next decade”

Tom presented a vision for the future based on today’s data, trends and successful models so far, which paints a picture of unbridled opportunity for companies, employees, developers, etc., especially with respect to the architecture, or “plumbing”, that still has to be built. Naturally, Tom and his team have a great write-up of the event and more of his slides on their blog. Also, Message.io’s approach to cross platform bots is interesting in and of itself.

Case studies: Best practices for enterprise bot design

Next, the CEOs of several successful startups whose companies are focused on the Enterprise space spoke about what they learned since launching and scaling. This type of transparency is a lifeline for many other entrepreneurs looking to launch or grow in the same market, so naturally I tried to capture as many insights and best practices as possible, to take back to integrate into our product, EveryBot CMS.

Dan Reich, CEO of Troops

Rob May, CEO of Talla

Paolo Perazzo, CEO of Kyber

Justin Vandehey, Co-founder of Growbot

Luis Borges Quina, CEO of Ottspott

Fireside chat: The venture capital landscape for enterprise bot startups in 2017

Phil Libin, Managing Director at General Catalyst &
Matt Hartman, Partner at Betaworks Ventures

Next, Phil Libin, founder of Evernote and early bot innovator and investor, was interviewed by Matt Hartman, of Botcamp and Voicecamp fame. Phil is always a pleasure to hear speak and like usual, he brought humor, realism, hope and guarded skepticism into the room, while also explaining the keys and metrics bot companies have to aim for to get funding, operate and succeed in the Enterprise game.

Case studies: Building profitable enterprise bot businesses

Next, another group of CEOs of successful Enterprise bot companies and products each spoke specifically about achieving profitability, obviously both a factor spurring growth and further opportunity in the workplace. Again, I tried to absorb as much as possible from my new crop of mentors.

Dan Manian, CEO of Donut

Elias Torres, CTO of Drift

Chris Buttenham, CEO of Obie

Roy Pereira, CEO of Zoom.ai

Rabi Gupta, CEO of Evabot

Group Q&A: Building developer-friendly enterprise bots platforms

After a break with snacks and more mingling, one of the more useful but rare technology events took place: the platform heads all gathered to discuss their products’ unique offerings, developer communities, upcoming features (such as Slack’s unfurling feature announced the following day), and opportunities for bot companies on their respective platforms. More importantly, they all did their best to candidly answer any questions from attendees, and challenged some of the assumptions in the room. There were different perspectives on issues like Webviews, guide rails vs NLP/AI, security, collaboration and partnership opportunities, among other things, and it was great to hear the reasons why platforms chose to be more or less strict regarding certain functionality or user experience.

Amir Shevat, Director of Developer Relations at Slack

For possibly the first time related to anything with “bots” in it, I failed to capture one of Amir’s many great and comically delivered nuggets of info in a tweet, photo or video. Suffice it to say, like usual, he made everyone laugh, while explaining for instance how Slack is dependent on the bot community and why their vigorous submission process for the bot directory is there to guarantee the best possible experience for Slack’s end users. Having gone through it ourselves with DraftBot, I agree it was extremely beneficial for our product’s usefulness and a huge learning lesson regarding conversational UX.

Steven Goldsmith, General Manager of HipChat at Atlassian

Jose de Castro, CTO of APIs and Integrations at Cisco

Bill Bliss, Program Manager at Microsoft Teams

John Wang, Director of Platform Products at RingCentral

Tania McCormack, Director of Product for CA Flowdock

Fireside chat: Lessons learned from building HubSpot’s GrowthBot

Dharmesh Shah, CTO of HubSpot &
Peter Skomoroch, CEO of SkipFlag

Having followed both of these gentlemen on Twitter and in various bot channels and communities, it was a pleasure to watch them talk shop and riff on the uniqueness of what we are involved with. Dharmesh shared his history in tech and what led him to make GrowthBot a major interface into the hugely successful HubSpot.

Panel discussion: Building better bots for the workplace

Chris Messina (moderator)
Amir Shevat, Director of Developer Relations at Slack
Lili Cheng, General Manager at Microsoft FUSE Labs
Ben Brown, CEO of Howdy
Andy Mauro, CEO of Automat

Finally, we got to hear from some of the Godfathers and Godmother of the Bot Community and originators of Botness, including from Chris Messina, author of much required reading regarding bots, inventor of the Hashtag, former Uber Guy and current Ubermensch, and one of the internet’s largest proponents and contributors to standardization and best practices, which our industry badly needs in order to be a transcendent force in the future. Having now been to a second event with the Amir, Ben and Andy, I can honestly say, they’re a different breed of professional in every way. I’d like to have met Lili – and I think as Tom commented on at the end and promised to do better on as an organizer in the future – we’d all like to see more diversity in our community, whether it be more women, minorities, or anyone else with a passion and excitement for these technologies.

Open mic: Lightning Talks

Lastly, we got to hear from a few other botrepreneurs including Dennis Yang, Co-Founder of DashBotBeerud Sheth, CEO/Co-Founder of Gupshup, Ilker Koksal, CEO/Co-Founder of Bot Analytics, Peter Buchroithner, CEO/Co-Founder of Swell, and possibly one or two more that I may have missed. If so, sorry! A much more in-depth recap, with videos is up at the Botness Enterprise site as well as at Message.io’s blog.

A unique highlight for me was having Beerud approach me after I had asked a question to the platform heads about the future of bot to bot communications and what they were planning for and/or towards enabling the technology, to tell me to stick around for his Lighting Talk and that I would like it. Indeed I did, as he went on to present a demo on just this topic! It was great to further discuss the opportunities and trade visions with in many ways, the competition. But that’s how this community operates, and one I’m proud and honored to be a member of.

In Conclusion

This was supposed to be a short post about a short event, but as you can tell, there wasn’t any fluff or anything left on the cutting room floor. I’ll let my fandom and tweets speak for themselves, but I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Ben (and his lovely wife/co-founder), Tom and the Message.io team, as well as the rest of the Botness tribe for inviting me, welcoming our little company AviKaiDo into the community, and having me participate in such an exciting event and by extension, thrilling time in an uncharted future. I can’t wait to see what comes next. If you are interested in bots and Botness, reach out. Bots don’t bite.