Interview With Michael Perry — Director of Kit at Shopify
We are always on the lookout for interesting stuff around chatbots and I believe Kit is one of the most interesting stories in this space.
The chatbot buzz is really huge but there are very few examples of successful chatbots that we can count and Kit is one of them.
Michael : Thank you very much for connecting. It’s been a really crazy journey since we started with Kit 4yrs back. We are doing this for a very very long time before there was even a ‘Chatbots Industry’ and it has been really interesting.
Was Kit already on your roadmap? What were your plans before a big buzz around chatbots started? You already foreseen the chatbot wave or your idea just collided with the future?
When we started, there was no chatbot industry, there was no facebook messaging platform for chatbots, there was no telegram chatbot platform or Kit chatbot platform. None of these things existed when we started back then.
We wanted to build a virtual employee that small business owners can talk to and do all their marketing. We came across this issue that small business owners could not afford to hire someone to help them with their marketing and making one more marketing software was a bit irrelevant. So we decided to build a person that they could talk to and communicate about their marketing.
The only thing that made sense was to do this over a text message because that’s how people talk back and forth.
Facebook messenger was not a mainstream standalone product at that time. We built it in 2014 and we scaled it to 10–15 different countries and now we are there in about 20 countries. We didn’t build it for Facebook messenger until they opened their APIs. So we are very lucky that we are now a part of this big industry.
We would like to learn more about how Kit evolved to be such a great product and your relationship with Shopify.
In 2013, we built a web application that allowed small businesses to do their marketing and we were incredibly unsuccessful with helping them achieve that.
It was in that journey from 2013–14, after hundreds and thousands of phone conversations with small business owners, we realized that they simply did not have time and resources to build and work with a marketing software. So we thought about an idea of building a ‘person’ to do marketing for them.
We thought about having a mobile iOS app but then we realized that nobody will download an app just to talk with one person. Then I started looking at how do I talk to people, I talk to people over a text message. So we decided to build the same experience as people communicating with their friends and families.
We launched Kit in 2014 and it was an instantaneous success. Kit has now become the most popular platform on Shopify.
They realised that we are very very early in the chatbot game and pioneer in that space so it made sense for them to acquire the business and keep focusing on building this virtual employee underneath Shopify as a parent company.
Engineering, AI and UX — how would you prioritize as a chatbot based business?
That’s very messy, right?
When we started, there were very little expectations. Today, there are all these huge expectations.
Does your product has machine learning behind it? whether it has AI and NLP? how is your user experience? and so on.
For me, it’s always been quite simple, there are two things I really focus on — Is it sexy or is it effective?
NLP is sexy and it can be effective but it is not needed to build our product when we started. You will be surprised to know that, as a 3 year old chatbot company, we are just now getting into NLP. Our priorities have been machine learning and AI which make Kit smarter and smarter and smarter and smarter…so we can generate better results..better results..better results.
Most importantly, we always focus on keeping a human aspect alive so that talking with Kit seems very very natural.
I think entrepreneurs have to do what they think is best for their business and prioritize on things which they think are important for their business.
For me, it’s always about making decisions that will help get largest output possible, not what the industry dictates. So consider what problems are you trying to solve and are these product decisions really helping to solve those problems in better way.
It’s fairly said Michael because lot of startups get lost in chasing the ‘buzzword’.
Yes. Even chatbots are being built just because everyone is buzzing about them. In lot of cases, a chatbot is not the right solution for the problem that you are trying to solve.
People are taking the web and mobile experiences and trying to force it into a chatbot.
They are not thinking about how chatbots should actually function and help them leverage a better user experience. These things will all get worked out over time as people become more and more aware.
Did Kit ever faced an issue with user retention? Did people prefer to use mobile or web app instead of Kit?
We never had a problem of people preferring to use mobile or web platforms over Kit. That’s because our product, from day 1, was designed to be a chatbot. We weren’t chasing industry or any buzzword but we were really focused on building a solution for a problem in the best possible way i.e. through chatting. So conversational interfaces came naturally to us. As a result, people loved to interact with Kit and keep their relationship going for longer period of time.
What are the challenges that you faced while building Kit?
For us, one of the biggest challenges in very beginning was ‘education’.
People did not know chatbot, they were skeptical about whether this actually works, how can they talk to a robot etc. Education was a big big big challenge for us. I went around the world trying to educate people on the idea of talking to Kit vs. using the Kit as a traditional software.
Then there was investment community, they didn’t understand chatbots at that time. People didn’t want to invest money into Kit, so hiring was the problem. We still face challenges today in different ways.
Entrepreneurs always face challenges, they are just different based on the stage of the business and the time period that the businesses is in.
Today, it’ll be much easier to raise a money for a chatbot company than it was for Kit in 2014–15.
Are you planning to add any new marketing channels to Kit? Whether Kit is exploring new channels or is it planning to go deeper into existing channels?
That’s the kind of fortunate position that we are in — being acquired, having great resources! We are spending a lot of time making our services better like social postings, paid advertising etc. We are just about to launch a bunch of new email marketing templates and technology which will help us do marketing better. We are also exploring new channels and ways to help people run and manage their stores in much better ways.
Also, we are investing HEAVILY into the developer ecosystem so people can build on our API and build Kit ‘skills’ which will eventually help more businesses. Developing the developer’s ecosystem will help us explore tons of cool new skills that are out there.
And how does the life change after being a part of Shopify?
Well, Life is good :)
There’s a saying that — ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. I would also say, ‘Great opportunity creates great responsibility’.
We have a really big opportunity to do something super-special here. We are in a special situation and we need to take the biggest advantage of it.
On the other hand when you are a startup, you try to stay alive, try to innovate, think within 30,60,90 day window, try to fund-rise, try to hire etc. Right now, we are working on projects that have been going on for 6 months and they are 6 more months away from being ready for the release. It’s a different kind of investment of time. I think that the life hasn’t changed too much after being a part of Shopify but the way we approach business has changed quite drastically.
There is still the risk but the risk is different. I don’t worry about going out of the business anymore but worry about missing the opportunity.
That’s still high risk. We can’t make mistakes, we still have to stay uncomfortable, we still have to move fast, we still have to think keenly about decisions that we are making.
What are the emerging conversational commerce trends you see for next 2 years?
In my opinion, it’s going to get a big piece of the pie in the future. I think it’s still very early and the adoption is still relatively small. But there is something magical about this idea of taking something that happens in the physical world and moving it over into the digital world. There are countries in the world where it has been incredibly successful. Obviously India is very very big market for conversational commerce. It hasn’t penetrated in US so much yet but I see an acceleration in the of adoption conversational commerce over the next 18 months or 2 years.
At Shopify, we are powering these things and participating heavily in this.
Here’s the last question — what’s the best way for our audience to reach Michael?
You can tweet me on @michaelperry, email me at email@example.com. I always try to make myself available to help other entrepreneurs.
Well, thank you so much Michael for your time :) Already looking forward to host you again!