Bots didn’t flop; they just became invisible

The hype cycle for bots exploded in 2016 as developers poured time and money into the dream of personal digital assistants. Facebook and Microsoft announced major investments into conversational user interfaces, and Slack launched a fund to capitalize on the bots hoping to build on its platform.

But when bots became available the public, the public largely shrugged. The advantages of conversational interfaces paled next to their drawbacks. It turned out that typing into text boxes — often while trying to guess the appropriate commands — felt frustrating compared to the visual interfaces people were used to. And so bots largely receded into the background as another Silicon Valley innovation that arrived before its time.

Eoghan (pronounced “Owen”) McCabe, co-founder and CEO of the fast-growing marketing startup Intercom, says the collapse was predictable. “Have there ever been any super destructive, sexy technology innovations that haven’t actually worked that way?” he says. “You’re just never going to be able to perpetuate that excitement for the amount of time it actually takes for actual innovation to actually take hold in a market.”

In other words, the bots never really went away; they just became invisible. More automated messaging can be found on companies’ websites and apps than ever before. The work continues. And as Intercom’s own story has shown, businesses’ appetites for the automation they enable is only increasing. (Intercom released a tool to let businesses build custom chat bots earlier this month.)

Founded in 2011, Intercom’s first product was a (human-powered) chat box that popped up when you visited a company’s website. The idea was that a website should say hello to customers the same way a barista might when you enter a coffee shop — and then sell you on something available for purchase. Since then, Intercom has added machine learning to automate more of those conversations, along with various other tools for generating and managing sales leads. (In these ways, it’s a direct competitor to Salesforce.)

While public interest in bots waned, Intercom has continued to invest in the technology. In March, the company announced that it had 25,000 customers and was powering 500 million conversations a month. As part of the announcement, Intercom — which is based in McCabe’s native Dublin, with additional headquarters in San Francisco and London — said it had raised another $125 million from Kleiner Perkins and Google Ventures. The company is valued at nearly $1.3 billion.

McCabe says the company has grown because businesses are looking for a single platform to help them organize their communication tools across every platform. That’s an approach that’s different than a company like Facebook’s, which similarly hopes to offer a popular front end for business conversations through its Messenger and WhatsApp services. But those are just endpoints, McCabe says. Another service is needed in the background to organize a company’s communications.

“What the world will need is one platform to band these multiple channels together,” he says. “They’ll need someone to build workflows for the people inside these companies to help them collaborate and be efficient. They’ll need someone to build the automation that works on these channels.”

McCabe lays out his thoughts on the future of bots on the season finale of Converge, an interview game show where tech’s biggest personalities tell us about their wildest dreams. It’s a show that’s easy to win, but not impossible to lose — because, in the final round, I finally get a chance to play and score a few points of my own.

You can read a partial, lightly edited transcript with McCabe below, and you’ll find the full episode of Converge above. You can listen to it here or anywhere else you find podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Overcast, Spotify, our RSS feed, and wherever fine podcasts are sold.

You can also cast your eyes on the all-time Converge leaderboard. (Note that a different number of points are available in each game of Converge, making it deeply unfair to all who play.)


As we think about this future world that you’ve just described for businesses, it seems like they’re going to have two options. One is that they can build and own these relationships themselves on their own website or their own apps, or they could look to, say, a Facebook or a Microsoft and try to plug into some giant messaging app that’s already out there and try to use that to manage their customer relationships. Facebook has a lot riding on whether this works out at WhatsApp, for example. How likely do you think it is that businesses are going to want to run those kinds of conversations on a big social app, as opposed to owning the whole thing themselves?

One of the first questions when it comes to messaging is, will there be one messenger to rule them all? I know today I use Facebook Messenger, iMessage, WhatsApp, Snapchat very occasionally. Slack, Telegram, and probably a couple others I’ve forgotten. I don’t think that’s going to change. If you look at my behavior, your behavior, you’re going to see that they’re used for a bunch of different, specific use cases. And I think they’ve probably already found their niche, and we don’t even know it yet.

I think that it’s probably really, really unlikely that serious businesses and consumers — especially business customers and business consumers — are going to trust, for example, Facebook Messenger, which actively promotes stickers with dogs with their tongues hanging out and stuff, as the main place for serious conversation.

So the game for all of these folks is to try to be the channel to rule them all. Again, I don’t think that’s going to work. I think what’ll happen is they’ll own certain demographics, and therefore, they’ll be interesting to certain advertisers, and then they may also work in certain markets. Like, I could imagine perhaps Facebook Messenger working with mom-and-pop type online stores, potentially.

What the world will need is — and it’s super convenient that I’m here today, thank you for inviting me — one platform to band these multiple channels together. They’ll need someone to build workflows for the people inside these companies to help them collaborate and be efficient. They’ll need someone to build the automation that works on these channels.

Facebook and these folks, they’re not in the software game. They’re in the game of monetizing these channels by way of exploiting the data. “Exploit” is obviously a highly charged word that I’m using here on purpose. But they are not selling software. So the software sellers of this world will be the ones who will need to partner with them. By the way, if there’s anyone from Facebook out there: we’re excited to partner with you, and we love everything you’ve built and appreciate your channel.

That’s right, Facebook, and you can go to Intercom.com and get in touch via the chatbot that is available on the homepage.

That’s right.