Tag Archives: #startups

I’m not a chatbot


My friend in Facebook turned out to be a bot 

I felt just as I would chatting  with a human — but it was a chatbot.

I suddenly remembered Spike Jones’s  futuristic love story Her. It is an exploration into the possibilities of human connection in an environment of disconnectedness and into our evolving definition of what’s real and what’s artificial.  

Are chatbots dangerous? Not yet.

They are artificial intelligence software that can fool a human as Cleverbot and Eugene Goostman (computer program) did.

It was couple of years ago and after a chatbot passed the Turing test that they became a hot topic. With all the hype around AI, it’s sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction for a generation brought up on science fiction films and stories about the interaction of people and machines.


I’ll give it my best try.

Chatbots exist (live?) inside messaging apps like Facebook (M), Apple (Siri), Google (WeChat) and Slack and can do almost everything in virtual world: order your tacos, schedule your meetings, call Uber, even protest your parking tickets (London and NYC for now).

Do they think? No!

They  are just programs that simulate human conversation. To understand that there is no magic and machines are still controlled by humans even If they still seem creepy, review some of the Deep Learning techniques used to build conversational agents.

There is a wave of recent startups working to create new conversation systems between consumers and services. They build consumer apps like Operator or x.ai; bot platforms like Chatfuel and bot libraries, such as Howdy’s Botkit.

Do people prefer to talk to bots instead of human? Sometimes.

Many people, especially those under 35, don’t like calling businesses. In fact, they prefer to avoid conversations whenever possible —  but not all.

In other words, lazy is the new smart and bots are better than friends.

That said, companies that buy into the belief that all their customers, or even a large majority, don’t want good, well-trained, responsive, human customer service are in for a rude awakening. On the other hand, very few companies offer that now.

How many are there? More than you think.

There are certainly plenty of them out there and the number will just keep increasing.

Chatbots have actually existed since the beginning of the internet. But they’re coming back in force now, because there are more channels to use them (various messaging apps) and you can do more stuff with them.

The current jump started last year when large companies began to hint at all the things they’re going to do with the new bots And the biggest “kick-off” arguably happened during the Facebook F8 conference in April 2016.

Do we need to get ready for the chatbot revolution?  

Yes. They are the future of customer engagement, but will not totally replace humans — at least yet. Personalized customer service is harder to create with chatbots and this has created a large resistance to their growing popularity, especially from those like my friend Miki, who has bad hearing and only calls with uncommon problems. The kind that are rarely included in automated menus.

We aren’t to the point of the Rise of the Machines, although they seem smarter and more ironic than some humans.

Clev: What is your aim in life?

To rule the world.

Clev: Then mine is to rule you.

One more thing I want to share with you. 

Starting tomorrow I’m on vacation, but only from NTR.

I’m spending the next two weeks touring with my band (my night job:)

If you are curious, you can see and follow us here. After all, music is music, even if you don’t understand the lyrics. Right? And, again, if you are curious, that’s me up front singing. If I played an instrument no one would listen!

Have lots of summer fun and I’ll be back on August 5th.

Image source: here

Outsourcing: professionals’ opinion

In the second post of this series I said that clear communications was the single, most important factor when outsourcing, whether locally or globally.

I said this based on conversations with my management, since NTR does remote development for both large companies and startups.

I asked my friend Miki what she thought and she agreed. But, since we are both hyper-focused on communications, she suggested posting the question to Silo, a startup tech forum. Here is the question she asked.

What is the single, most important point when outsourcing local or global?

Anything can be outsourced, not just sftwr dev. Biz outsource recruiting, benefits/payroll, design, marketing, sales, etc. Personally, we outsource shopping, cleaning, child-rearing, etc.

For an outsourcing series at http://blog.ntrlab.com/ tell me in one sentence the single, most important advice you can offer when outsourcing.


image credit: here

The first response was from Silo founder Moshik Raccah, “To me, the most important aspects for successful outsourcing are setting expectations and communication. It’s also the hardest to get right.”

Sagit Weiss, Founder and CEO at Crowdacure, was quick to chime in. “Agree. Clear expectations and communication”

Computational Biologist Doron Lemze added an astute warning to which few pay enough attention, “When you outsource think if you can live with less control on the element that you outsource.”

Irene Lefton, with a career fostering global services and customer success added more detail, “Align objectives with your contract terms – both parties need to benefit and it needs to be clear what the team will do and what outcomes are expected.”

Israel Rand, VP Business Development & Sales at Labgoo, elaborates the value and yield of good communications, “I think that communication is the most important piece in outsourcing! If both, the user and the outsourcer have an open good communication channel, then there aren’t any surprises. The rest will follow (expectation, pricing, changes etc.)”

And Oleksandr (Alex) Andriyanov, CEO of American Programming Company adds, “From my humble prospective Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies should keep in mind Business Value for the Customer. This way everything else is coming in place.”

Finally, Gal Nirel, an online and offline entrepreneur, expanded on what’s involved and, sadly, the cost of not doing it, “I outsource to achieve a business goal, the benefits can be reducing the time to customer/market, cost or other company’s resources. Since outsourcing has its risks the most important element in my view would be to mitigate it by setting clear objectives, KPI’s and the resources to manage it and stop/modify it if necessary. If you can’t manage it well, you can’t outsource it well.

Writing it with pain for my friend who just closed his business this week burned his entire seed round on a bad, poorly managed outsourced product project…”

There you have it. My totally unscientific sampling confirms without a doubt that clear, well thought-out communications are the key to successfully outsourcing a project, whether large or small.

No real surprise, since good communications is the secret sauce in every successful venture, from marriage to management to parenting and anything else you can think of.

Outsourcing: Finding the Right Vendor

As we said at the start of this series, outsourcing simply means hiring outsiders to perform tasks that would be done internally if the time and/or talent were available.  

Outsourcing often goes against the grain, since most founders believe that no one can do it as well/better than they can, so your first act is to put your ego in the closet until further notice.

Your outsourcing success will be based on the effort you expend finding the right partner, not the cheapest, and the strength of your communications.

The cost, complexity, scope and deadlines are your most important criteria when deciding whether you want the work done locally, domestically or off-shore.

аутсорс 1

image credit: here

Finding vendors, whether individuals or companies, to do whatever work you want done is easy; identifying the right one to hire is the difficult part. This is even more critical when outsourcing technical product development (software or hardware).

Start by asking trusted advisors (as opposed to your drinking buddies), preferably those who have outsourced themselves. It’s good to ask your network, just remember to consider the source of the recommendation along with the rec itself.

There are dozens of sites, such as Upwork (was Elance), CraigsList and Outsource.com, where you can browse the talent, but be sure to read the comments, too.

Obviously, you need to develop a detailed description of the skills and experience you need, just as you would if hiring in-house.

And, just as obviously, you need to do more than check their Yelp rating.

Time spent reference checking and actually speaking to previous clients can be the difference between a brilliant match and a mediocre one, because along with the technical skills for whatever the project, the human interaction needs to be positive, too. The last thing you need is arrogance that doesn’t listen or a contact who won’t ask questions to clarify something.

Once you identify a vendor you like, query your network to see if anyone has used them and talk to them (the same for other references) — it’s amazing what you can find out in a conversation as opposed to a text or bunch of yes/no questions.

The effort to successfully outsource is much like a marriage — finding the right partner and completing the courtship are the easy parts; the real work starts when the contract is signed.

Here are more resources to help you do it right.


Outsource: communications



What is the common thread that runs through every successfully outsourced project, whether a new website outsourced to the designer you met at Starbucks, your payroll to a recommended company on the other coast or a new product to an overseas development team?

Crystal clear communications — which aren’t all that common.

Joseph Priestley said, “The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.”

Russell Hoban warns, “After all, when you come right down to it, how many people speak the same language even when they speak the same language?”

Good communications are what sustains all human interactions (the result of every interaction is a form of relationship) and this is especially true when you reach outside your employee framework to get something done. Good communication with employees needs to come from the heart.


image credit: here

Your own people have experience deciphering what you really mean, even when you aren’t as clear as you should be.

Outsiders lack that experience, so it is your responsibility, not theirs, to make sure you are understood.

It’s your responsibility to make sure everyone is on the same page, whether it is a large project involving remote teams doing product development or a small one outsourced to an individual.

And while managers in established companies can afford to hire project managers, it is more typically DIY for startup founders.

My company, NTR Lab, provides remote software development teams for both startups and scaling companies. Nick (our president) says that poor and/or incomplete information has wasted more time than any other action, even pivoting.

My friend Miki, who writes for startups, vented her frustration with them by writing 5 Rules for Interacting with Contractors and Other Non Employees; she sends the link and insists they read it before they start working together.

If you need still more motivation keep reminding yourself that if you can’t/don’t/won’t make the effort to fully communicate from the start, and over time, then you don’t get to complain when the results aren’t what you wanted.

CHANGES: lessons learned


Old wisdom says that the only constant is change. Time works great changes. We are living them.

More so than most, the startup ecosystem is constantly changing.

There are the repeating cycles: bubbles and downturns will always exist, whether large, small or in-between.

Our effort over the last few posts has been to focus on what is happening currently and link to those with enough knowledge and wisdom to possibly predict what will be next.

You don’t want to see your company lose nearly 20% of its value because you missed a trend or ignored a warning sign.


Illustration by BRIAN STAUFFER

In 2016 Bill Gurley, a savvy venture capitalist who invested in Uber and Snapchat, was the first to issue a warning to unicorn investors — one that was actually heard.

Many things have changed, including tech layoffs as a sign of a slowdown in booming Silicon Valley.

Over the last few weeks we wrote a series of articles about these changes. Here is a  wrap of the important points, AKA, lessons learned:

  1. Short-term thinking; continued fund raising instead of exiting (IPO, acquisition, organic growth, etc.), employee valuation-watching and candidates joining for riches, instead of passion.
  2. 2016 will be a year of tightening investment. The reason we are all in this mess is because of the excessive amounts of capital that have poured into the VC-backed startup market. Perhaps now startups will get back to the basics, i.e., make a product people or companies want and will pay for > sell it to drive revenues > run/grow on operating cash > and make a profit. Now is the time to do more with less and be a RABBIT (Real Actual Business Building Interesting Tech).
  3. Hiring changes: when the easy money faucet turned on many startups found themselves drenched in cash. When the faucet was turned down, and investors returned to the old fashioned values of profit and sustainable business models, over-funded companies, such as Dropbox, started eliminating perks and cutting staff, in order to lower their burn rate and conserve cash. Bad for the unicorns (fast becoming unicorpses), but good news for companies, such as Google, Facebook, etc., that have the revenue to continue to offer fat salaries and multiple perks.

Now is the time to lower your burn rate and do more with less. An interview with Miki provided encouragement and links that show there are great advantages to starting a company when money is tighter.

Hiring changes


Has hiring really changed?

The need to find and hire talent has always been one of the biggest challenges for most managers, no matter their position or how long they have been doing it.

Although the need never goes away, accomplishing it seems to be a moving target.

Startups are no different.

For decades joining a startup meant giving up benefits, perks and salary in return for the opportunity to work on the bleeding edge of tech and doing something that could have global impact.

Then the easy money faucet turned on and many startups found themselves drenched with cash.

So much so, that they started offering Google-style perks, six-figure salaries and sign-on bonuses to, mostly, young, white males who could code and were willing to work “insane hours” as a badge of honor.

picture on hiring

image credit: here

Recently the easy money faucet was turned way down as investors returned to the old fashioned values of profit and sustainable business models. Continue reading Hiring changes

Matt’s point of view: from unicorns to reality

Today’s guest post is from Matt Weeks, a serial entrepreneur and longtime friend of NTR.
image source: here

From Matt:

I saw a great article in BI about Postmates CEO Bastian Lehmann’s attitude towards hypergrowth.

For years, venture capitalists have been pushing hypergrowth over profits, at least though the initial phases of investment rounds. Investors told Lehmann to reinvest the company’s money in pushing more growth over building a sustainable business.

That advice didn’t go far with the Postmates CEO. (…) Lehmann argues that it’s the CEO’s fundamental job to have looked at the margins and made decisions early on.

“Companies that run for the last two years in hyper growth are now wondering how to make money.”

I completely agree — hypergrowth without a hope of unit economics that lead to profitability has always been a fool’s errand with precious few exceptions, and even those “superstars” eventually had their “come to Jesus” realization moments when investors got nervous and were anxious for at least a hope of a repeatable, profitable set of unit economics. It’s okay to use early capital to explore and iterate to figure out the product-market fit and pricing/monetization formula. But at some point there must be a path to profitable and repeatable unit economics.

There has been a sense that pushing the bidding of sequential funding rounds at ever-increasing valuations would create a kind of de-facto “momentum” and crowd-out 2nd and 3rd and 4th place contenders, or at least amass a large enough war chest to drive marketplace pricing down as much as needed to push competitors out of the running (usually also by creating such a huge and dominant brand that customer acquisition in a noisy market is too expensive to make progress to catch up with the so-called leader).

Continue reading Matt’s point of view: from unicorns to reality

At the end of startups-on-steroids era

In January 2016 I wrote Time to do more with less, referring to the importance of being a RABBIT (Real Actual Business Building Interesting Tech).

In it, I cited the new funding reality as predicted by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and investor Bill Gurley, among many others, who believed that 2016 would be the year that tightening investment would prevent  many unicorns from raising funds based on their last round valuation and bringing a new term into the tech lexicon — unicorpse.

As the walrus said, the time has come and the bell is tolling.Unicorn_single

Image source: here

The indulgent years of cheap capital and billions invested on the basis of a great story, sans profit or even revenue, are over as investors sink ever deeper into reality and the old ways of valuing companies are once again in vogue.

Storied investor Bill Gurley issued a warning to unicorn investors in a lengthy essay posted on his personal blog. It is a must-read for all those in the startup ecosystem, not just investors, and includes links to other articles that bring the picture into sharp focus. His summation at the end is masterful. Continue reading At the end of startups-on-steroids era

Guest post by Miki Saxon. Entrepreneurs: About VCs


I’ve been around startups since the late 1970s; long before dot com and software took over the spotlight.

And what I learned about VCs back then was different from VCs now.

Back them, most VCs were guys who had started or helped start companies, with strong operational, not just technical, and strategic background.

Sad to say, most VCs with under 25 years experience often don’t know what they’re doing, because they have never created/built a company, while the rest are just bankers masquerading as VCs following “sure bets.”

Granted, VCs have always had much in common with lemmings, preferring to fund “me, too,” companies, as opposed to earth-shattering, high risk products/services that actually moved society in new directions.

From my perch back then on the edge of the VC ecosystem I watched as the “names on the door” retired and were replaced by Wall Street wunderkinds, whose only skill was manipulating money.

для поста с микой

Flickr image credit: billsoPHOTO

What didn’t change was their lemming-like, follow-the-leader investment strategy.

Things haven’t improved much. Continue reading Guest post by Miki Saxon. Entrepreneurs: About VCs

Miki Saxon and the Story of Content


Experts recommend reading/telling stories to infants and tell me a story is often one of a child’s first and most often repeated phrases.

Throughout my career, first as a headhunter and later as a coach, I’ve used stories and recommended their use (backed by brain research) to bosses and founders as the best possible engagement tool.


Simply put, people love stories.


Image gredit: PERMALINK

Better yet, people love to share good stories (Pssst, share = viral.).

Stories aren’t necessarily narratives or words, as can be seen in Jeremy Boudinet’s post about creating viral content.

This isn’t about your vision — a vision isn’t a story, it’s an overview of why the company was formed — and it’s not about how your app will change the world.

Your basic story is about what your product/service actually does and, more importantly, why your audience should give a damn.

In other words, the best stories (content) are about them (visitors/customers), not about you or your oh-so-cool technology. Look again at the tournament Jeremy dreamed up. It focused on clients, potential clients, their friends, others interested in SaaS companies and it was fun.

Along with being interesting/educational/inspiring, good content is entertaining — it has no choice, if it wants to rise above the noise.

Nor does your company need to have the action or sex appeal of a GoPro to create great content. Check out this case study (AKA, story) about great content for an unexciting product in a super-focused nitche.

Now that you know the end goal and the why-it-works, click the links links below for dozens of articles with expert advice and useable hacks.


Huffington Post

Miki Saxon is founder of RampUp Solutions, Inc and the author of MAPping Company Success (You’ve seen a few of her posts here). She’s a long-time friend of our founder and of NTR Lab, does clarity rewriting, especially for ESL startups, and coaches on developing/sustaining company culture. See more at LinkedIn; contact her at miki@rampupsolutions.com or call 360.335.8054. (She really does answer her phone!)