Clara de Soto has built chatbots for KIA, Starbucks, Coca Cola as the co-founder of Reply.ai, a top chatbot building platform. A serial entrepreneur, Clara founded the viral KillSwitch app on Facebook, built and sold ClearHart Tech, and is also editor of ChatbotsWeekly.com. We talk artificial intelligence and authenticity, resilience, when to sell your company, and how to triumph over adversity.
Melinda Wittstock: Welcome to Wings Clara.
Clara de Soto: Thank you so much for having me Melinda. I’m thrilled to be here.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh it’s awesome to talk to women who, like me, are serial entrepreneurs. This is company number three for you, so what was the epiphany that got you on this entrepreneurial journey to begin with?
Clara de Soto: Yeah. Great question. So the first product that I made with my amazing co founder, Erica, was an app that removes traces of your ex from your Facebook profile.
Melinda Wittstock: Awesome.
Clara de Soto: Yeah. It was called Kill Switch. We launched it on Valentine’s Day. We had partnership with the American Heart Association so broken hearts could help broken hearts.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s so creative.
Clara de Soto: Well we’re not monsters. It was a really interesting moment in that my co-founder Erica and I, we were roommates in college, and we were freshman when Facebook came out. We were the first wave of college students to go through that experience with Facebook. As a result, in 2013, when we launched Kill Switch, it was an interesting moment in which a lot of our friends, they were either getting engaged or breaking up with fairly long-term relationships. We were seeing essentially, consistently, all of our best girlfriends going through this terrible experience of breaking up and then having to deactivate their Facebook accounts, which at the time really functioned as your corner of the internet. In the same way that you wouldn’t sort of leave your ex’s picture on your night stand, why were we sort of forced to do the same on your sacred place, essentially, on the web.
In order to remove it, unfortunately, people had been sharing for years without thinking about those repercussions; it was a really painful process. The reality is that the best way to get over someone is out of sight out of mind, but there was no easy way to achieve that online until Kill Switch.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s awesome. So is it still working? Kill Switch? Can I go and get rid of my ex husband on there now?
Clara de Soto: So funny story about Kill Switch, Facebook shut it down 10 days after we launched.
Melinda Wittstock: No. Why?
Clara de Soto: So really, really big lesson to learn there. First off, it was an app that enabled the mass deletion of content. So for whatever reason, they really didn’t like that, but that was our first really big lesson learned from an entrepreneurial standpoint, which is that stuff is going to happen. You have two choices, you can either lie down and take it, or you can do something about it. We chose to do something about it. So we actually, we went to South by Southwest, the big tech conference in Austin. Networked our butts off, and got in touch with anybody that we could that would help us. We ended up networking our way directly to Cheryl Sandberg. I will never forget, I wrote her an email, probably the most important email of my career.
Essentially laying it on thick. Leaning in extremely hard. She wrote back in 15 minutes.
Melinda Wittstock: Wow.
Clara de Soto: Which is just incredible. I remember, I just assumed that I would send it into, send off the email and it would sort of be lost into oblivion, but then 15 minutes later I had an email from Cheryl Sandberg in my inbox, which was just incredible. Anytime I’m behind on emails, I just remember Cheryl Sandberg wrote back to me in 15 minutes. If Cheryl can do it, anyone can.
Melinda Wittstock: Hey, so do you remember your subject line? I mean seriously because I think a lot of times people don’t try because they assume that oh that person’s going to be too busy, they assume and know and this is a really important lesson just to go for it, but also how did you get noticed in that email?
Clara de Soto: You know what, I can tell you exactly what the subject line was. It was “Banned by FB, praised by media, Kill Switch appeal.”
Melinda Wittstock: That’s noticeable. That really stands out. It raises eyebrows. I would open that email. Absolutely.
Clara de Soto: Yeah. You know what? I was totally violated all the rules of quick email etiquette in that it was an extremely long email with hyperlinks et cetera. It was clear she took the time to read it and she wrote back almost immediately and send it on to the group that takes care of it. We were able to get it turned back on.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh that’s fantastic. Okay, so how long did it take you, you launch, it’s gone for 10 days. Kill Switch gets killed.
Clara de Soto: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: You kind of rehabilitate, and then where does it go from there?
Clara de Soto: Well it actually turned into a bit of a saga from there in that, Facebook, after a few rounds, they agreed to reinstate our access to their API. However, the next hurdle was actually with the Apple app store review board. They didn’t want an app on their platform that was a clear sort of exception to the rule. Getting in touch with the Apple app review board, they might as well be in witness protection. So we had to jump through a lot of hoops on that one, and you know, ultimately Kill Switch, when we launched it, it actually went viral. We had downloads in over 110 countries. It was in every, nearly every news publication just because we launched on Valentine’s Day. We had a media budget of zero, so we figured how can we piggy back on that existing story knowing that every newscaster, essentially every media outlet is going to have to references valentine’s day in some respect why not kind of position ourselves as the most sort of unique way to do it that year.
The best were sort of the local news outlets that were on air and the local news stations like, “Oh you’ll never believe what’s on Twitter today.” It’s just, it was something that, even though technology might not be as familiar with everybody, everybody a broken heart really resonated. Our sort of, we were kind of tapping into this ardor kind of challenge that I think a lot of people were facing at the time in that as Facebook uses, or social media users were kind of coming of age, these platforms just haven’t been around long enough that we’ve kind of learned from the mistakes that we’ve made on them. I think that that’s the reason why Snapchat has been so successful. Other kind of services that offer that sort of ephemeral more human approach to things.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh it’s so true. I mean one of the aspects of your story that I find very intriguing, is that you knew instinctively, or however you knew, to really drive that kind of earned media or attach your message in a guerrilla kind of fashion to something that the media was already going to be talking about so you can stand out. This is so important for a start up, without say a lot of money. You know? You’re not funded yet say, or you’re boot strapping or whatever. That’s really important advice.
Clara de Soto: Yeah. And I think it’s a very sort of, it’s a kind of selfless way of thinking about it. Not to say that I’m super selfless and that you’re putting, I think the thing with PR, you forget that you’re dealing with human beings on the other end, right? That it’s a reporter. It’s somebody that they’re looking for a story so how can you make something, put yourself in their shoes and sort of make their job easier. I think that that’s something that I’ve adopted with all of my work is how can I make the person that I’m either selling to or creating for, how can I make them leave work early on a Friday and look good while doing it?
I think that that’s a very valuable skill when trying to get anything done essentially, is how can you really be sort of thinking about that other person.
Melinda Wittstock: Well exactly. So that kind of give forward or creating value for others means that it comes the value. When you’re creating value, the value comes back to you. I think it’s something that women are uniquely good at, is actually figuring out or thinking in systems or thinking in relationships, or doing those sorts of deals that are win-win-win. So has this really, I imagine this has really informed the work that you’re doing now. Is there like a, one of those kind of direct connections from so we haven’t talked about company two yet, but talk about the evolution through what gets you now and the enterprise software from Kill Switch.
Clara de Soto: Yeah. So basically I’ve always been really interested in that human element and technology. I think so often with tech, you get the same type of people building the same type of technology for more people just like them. I actually think it’s pretty powerful to not only be a woman, but also a Latina and I was an English major in college. So as a result, I’m going to think very differently than the rest of the folks in the tech space. I look at that as a strength. So that kind of human element in tech has always been really fascinating to me. It’s what drove Erica, again my co founder and I, to create Kill Switch. Then actually from there, we created a wearable tech for live events company.
Where we saw, again, we were sick of going to events, to music festivals where everybody’s holding up their phone and experiencing what’s on stage. Their phone has the best seat in the house. That there needed to be a better way for people to digitally capture their event experiences, their special experiences without interrupting it. So we created a whole system where we equipped attendees at large scale events, music festivals, food festivals, large corporate events with NFC-enabled wristbands so that they could digitally capture that experience in a seamless way, in a hands free way. We were fortunate to work with some of the biggest events in the country. I heart radio music festival, outside lands, Uber’s conference, New York Wine and Food Festival. That was actually my favorite.
Then we turned around and sold that company in June of 2015.
Melinda Wittstock: Congratulations. Was that, actually it’s really interesting to talk to founders about exits because it’s an emotional event as well: To build up and sell your company. Let’s take a detour there for a minute. What was that like to exit the company?
Clara de Soto: For us, we learned so much with that business. We loved seeing the reaction of people when they were experiencing our product, but it was a really difficult business. This was a hardware, software, and required manpower. It had a lot of sort of ups and downs and that it was a lot of work for then your product was essentially only live during that event, and then it was back into the bat cave and looking for that next one. So far as, they always talk about entrepreneurship being a lot of ups and downs. This was literally, physically ups and downs. So when we got the offer to sell, it came at a time where we were sort of ready to, we were proud of what we had accomplished and were ready to kind of see how it could grow.
With more resources. With a bigger team and essentially move on to the next one. So first it was emotional, but it felt like 100% the right decision at the time, and we were just proud of what we had created.
Melinda Wittstock: Right. So much of entrepreneurship is knowing the right moment to make decisions. I mean timing is everything. Not only, I mean the worst is to have a great invention and be ahead of the market so much that you’re educating and it just doesn’t, people talk about the first move or advantage, but sometimes it’s really not. You get too far ahead, you can end up being [inaudible [00:13:18]. But knowing when to sell, knowing when it’s time that you’ve really done what you can with this business and maybe you’re not as motivated in it now, or you’ve learned enough that you really want to go do something else and being able to make that decision is a big one.
Clara de Soto: Exactly. It’s interesting that you mentioned that first move or advantage, because we knew that NFC would be this kind of transformative technology, but it would just take a long time to get there. I mean, NFC is what powers Apple pay for instance. It’s the technology that’s embedded in your phone. It’s in the majority of Android devices. Apple pay, rather the iPhone, it’s that chip within the phone is still not open to outside developers. So we kind of made the decision, because the intention was that we could eventually sort of take this concept of being able to tap to store digital, create digital reactions to offline actions from a wristband experience to just being able to tap your phone to get that. We didn’t want to essentially be at the mercy of when Apple would decide to release this feature to all developers.
So it was really kind of like okay, it’s just, it was too much, to your point, it was the right timing. What’s interesting is seeing now Nike just launched a whole campaign where they’re doing something similar with NFC tags directly in jerseys and interacting with Android phones so it’s interesting, yup exactly.
Melinda Wittstock: I mean so you were ahead of your times. We talk about, kind of, I like to call them entrepioneers where kind of like it’s just sort of like Tesla was way ahead of his time. Right? It can be a very lonely and awkward place and so on one hand isn’t it amazing to be inventing, but it can also be very hard when you have to educate the market. You mentioned, with two start ups in a row, you were dependent on an ecosystem or on these big giants that if they make one little pivot or one little change, your whole company can either blown up or it can just take longer to get the traction that you need. Which, you know, speaks to, it’s kind of like a business model issue I guess.
Clara de Soto: Yeah. Totally. And learn huge, it was an era of huge learning. Now I’m very excited about what I’m working on now and being able to take those learnings and put them into practice.
Melinda Wittstock: Exactly. What I like about your story too is that your life is kind of your lab. You know? You’re taking these experiences and saying wait a minute. Okay here’s a problem. It’s a problem for me, so it’s going to be a problem for all these other people and figuring out specifically what the customer pain point is. It’s amazing, I think in all the, I don’t know, advising and mentoring’s and whatnot that I have done for entrepreneurs over the years, I find that many of them, I men and women alike, we can all fall into this. Get so focused on our product, on how awesome our product is that we can forget about the customer or the addressable market, or how big is that market. How are we going to get paid? How are we going to increase the valuation of our companies? All of those things.
I remember, you know, advising a lot of companies and founders would come on the phone and say, “Hey my product’s amazing. It does this, it does that, it does this, it does that.” I say, “Well hey that’s great. So how can I help?” They’d say my products’ amazing. It does this and that, and that and that and this. You’re like, “Well that’s okay. So great! So who’s your customer?” There’d be like a little bit of a silence.
Clara de Soto: Well everyone obviously. Well you know, yeah totally. It’s that concept of you can be really good at making bread, but building the bakery is kind of a totally different story and when you’re able to do both things, then I think that that’s the real sort of recipe for success.
We are now officially in the messaging age. Messaging is global. #ReplyAI #WomeninBusiness @ClaradactylClick to tweet
Melinda Wittstock: Right.
Clara de Soto: A peculiar extended metaphor.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah so how did the learnings then of companies one and two inform what you’re doing now?
Clara de Soto: Yeah, so I’m now the co founder of reply AI. We are a customer experience automation platform, and we help companies better reach their customers, specifically millennial customers on messaging channels through Chatbot. We’re an end to end platform to build, manage, and optimize Chatbot like a new scale one to one communication through Chatbot on messaging channels. The whole sort of thought behind it is that if you’re asking a millennial to pick up a phone to get in touch with you as a business, you’re already starting off on the wrong foot. We are now officially in the messaging age. Messaging is global. It’s something everyone can do. It’s already installed on phones, and again, it’s the preferred communication method for the largest consumer group on the planet.
The problem is that trying to reach customers, especially Millenials, on messaging, can get if you employ traditional methods like call centers, like stack social media teams, human being only essentially, that gets really expensive and often times you’re dealing with all of legacy software et cetera, that makes it really difficult to scale.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes.
Clara de Soto: So that’s what that’s essentially what we solve for at Reply. We’re an enterprise platform to deploy Chatbot that can essentially help reach customers on messaging.
Melinda Wittstock: So they’ve used Chatbot, do they go out on social networks. They go on, say, Facebook messenger and platforms like that?
Clara de Soto: Yeah. So our platform, this is one of my favorite parts about our platform is that you’re able to build once, and then deploy anywhere that your customer is. So you can build one Chatbot experience and then deploy it on Facebook messenger, on Telegram, on Kik, on SMS. We just set up Alexa, we have meet chats, line, Twitter, we have a web widget. We’ve even been experimenting with putting a bot in an ad unit, like in a banner ad and have seen a 32% engagement rate with it. But really that ability, it’s not like app development where you have to spend so much time to first build on IOS, and then build for Android, and then Windows for the dozens of people that have that phone.
You can really have, that’s what’s really exciting to me about bots is that sort of all the rules are out the window. From, it’s not something that you want to spend a lot of time on the initial build on because ultimately, you’re never just building a bot, so much as launching a conversational strategy. That’s something that needs constant optimization, and you can’t fall in love with your initial product. You have to listen to how your users are actually engaging with that bot experience and adapt accordingly.
Melinda Wittstock: Your users are going to influence that bot. With the AI, those bots are getting smarter or more responsive depending on the interaction with the user?
Clara de Soto: Yeah, so a great example of that is that we launched KIA’s first bot. The KIA neuro bot. KIA, the car company, they were launching their first electric car. The standard practice for car companies when you’re building a new car to market is you create a branded micro site that it can be successful, but in this case they realize that hey, if you want to buy a car, you’re going to have a lot of questions. So why not create a Chatbot experience where people can literally ask the car their questions?
So we created this Chatbot, it’s called the KIA neuro-bot, they actually did a whole tie in with their Super bowl campaign, and the bot was hugely successful. It had an average conversation length of three minutes. People talking to a car for three minutes! One guy in Texas, talked with it for 42 minutes. It was just incredible. One of the questions that the bot continuously received was how do you compare to a Tesla? That was something that KIA felt really uncomfortable about initially. Why would they want to even mention Tesla in any of their kind of marketing efforts, but the questions kept coming up so frequently that they realized that hey this is a moment where they can either, again, kind of choose to be like sorry I don’t understand. If it spits out an error message or they could embrace it and own that conversation.
So we ended up adjusting the conversation design to have better responses to and thoughtful responses to that question.
Melinda Wittstock: So all these corporations that you’re working with have to think differently and they’re not as nimble, I know this from selling enterprise software. They’re not as nimble as a start up in the way you think, so how do you make that sale? I mean has that been difficult to take your start up and cross over into these large companies like KIA, and right? Because there’s a bit of a culture shock difference between a small guerrilla marketing startup, right?
Clara de Soto: Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: And these big companies.
Clara de Soto: Well so a couple things. One, as I mentioned, with Chatbots kind of all bets are off versus other technology products in the past. Another big indicator that is my second favorite piece is that it’s the biggest opportunity with Chatbots is that it no longer has to live within the IT or the tech department alone. Our platform is code free, specifically so that those that know the subject matter the best can be at the helm of bot creation.
Melinda Wittstock: Ah so you’re working with the creative; the marketing departments in all these companies. Okay. They’re going to be a little bit more creative outside the box thinkers, that kind of thing.
Clara de Soto: Well and what’s interesting is that, yeah, it has been hard because a lot of organizations, they see a tremendous amount of potential with Chatbots, but they’re still defining which group even owns bots and that’s, it’s not because nobody wants them, it’s because too many of them want them. Because the way that I see the future is that everything will have a conversational interface to it. From your office printer being able to literally just ask it what’s wrong with you, to being able to just send a text message to your airline when you want to make a change to your ticket. We’re seeing this already now with Domino’s. I can just text Domino’s I want a pizza, and it knows to ask me what toppings. In the future everything should have that, because people are just happier when they understand things better. The best way that we as human beings have to understand things is by asking questions.
And Chatbots and chat interfaces can be really good at answering those questions. So I think that it’s an indicator of technology finally catching up to how human beings get things done. All that to say that yes, marketers were 100% the first to move, and there’s I think a big opportunity with marketers to change the way, if you think about it, almost breaking down that fourth wall and instead of guessing what customers want, just asking them. Having a conversation about it. But really our focus has also just been on how to make, just B to C communication in general kind of suck less.
Melinda Wittstock: It’s interesting when people prefer to talk to a bot than a human being. I think the guy who was talking to the bot for 45 minutes… it was like what was that movie where the guys falls in love with the OS?
Clara de Soto: HER, right? Yeah.
The objective of a bot is to provide a service, not necessarily to mimic a human. The measure of that bots efficacy shouldn’t necessarily be its ability to trick the user into thinking it’s something it’s not. #ChatBot #AI #WomeninBusiness @Claradactyl Click to tweet
Melinda Wittstock: So is it sort of less complicated, can the artificial intelligence, can the bot end up with a personality that is the kind of perfect “person” for that person? I mean where are we going with this? The other thing that I’m curious about though too, is to what extent do consumers really know that they’re talking to a bot? Are they conscious of it? I mean how can we be authentic, which everyone craves in our communications with bots. How can bots be authentic?
Clara de Soto: Yeah. So we’re, I’m a firm believer that the bots should, the objective of a bot is to provide a service. Not necessarily to mimic a human. The measure of that bots efficacy shouldn’t necessarily be its ability to trick the user into thinking it’s something it’s not. So we’re big believers that the bots should always disclose. It should be clear that it’s a bot. That said, that doesn’t mean that the bots shouldn’t have a personality. I think personality and trying to hoodwink the user are two different things. But ultimately, your objective is how can I solve this person’s question fastest. That sometimes means adopting very un-human-like characteristics. So I think, I always think of X.AI as an example. I think what they’re doing is really remarkable. X.AI is the scheduling AI that you’re able to CC into your emails and you can either assign a gender to him or her. I think it’s Amy or Adam, and then that AI will schedule the meeting for you.
It’s an incredible: a large part of it is powered by humans. while they’re still kind of working through the training of the AI, but it’s an incredible experience in that this bot now jumps in and schedules the meeting for you. It’s great for the person whose cc’ing in Amy, but if you think about it, it kind of still sucks for the person on the receiving end of the scheduling bot because they still have to deal with scheduling. So that I think is an example of where they’re prioritizing trying to trick the user into thinking it’s a human being versus how do I get, solve this problem as fast as possible, which is just scheduling. So I mean I’m a big fan of mix max for scheduling, where it just pops up a bunch of different buttons to it’s like you can just click and select a time and it books the meeting for you.
So I think that that’s, it’s critical that this isn’t about just bots passing a turning test so much as how can bots be helping people.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes. I love this whole area. I mean my company, Verifeed, does artificial intelligence as well, and one of the things we’ve found is through we analyze millions of social conversations. You know Twitter, Facebook and all of that. We can discern a lot from these conversations about what people, you know their hobbies, their habits, their interests and from that kind of discern who are your ideal customers. [inaudible [00:28:39] your true tribe, who are all the people out there who kind of want what you’re selling, they just don’t know you yet and being able to connect those. When you look at artificial intelligence, it’s interesting because one of the things we’ve really noticed is something that you’ve mentioned as well, is that when you’re selling to consumers, it’s about them. It’s about meeting them.
It’s about having a conversation with them, not telling, but engaging or enrolling. So how does that kind of message change. I think with the AI, this idea of a personalized marketing at scale, becomes possible. Because everyone expects this really personalized, kind of concierge connection, right, but how do you do that at scale? That’s one of the things that we’re working on, which I think is really interesting, but I love the AI world because there’s so much potential. What do you say about all the people, though, that are the naysayers like the Stephen Hawking of the world that say that it’s possibly our last invention as human kind?
Clara de Soto: I guess, again, with my ethos around this is about providing service as opposed to. Look, I’m trying to remember who says AI, if they turn against us we can just unplug them. I’m trying to remember who spoke that, but it’s just like okay. Still, they can’t converge oxygen into carbon dioxide yet. Look, I think we’re a ways away from that and I think today we’re just trying to solve getting things done better. It’s been really interesting sort of watching how human beings actually respond to them. We’ve had to sort of spin up a whole protocols to deal with bot bullying. People, when they feel there are no repercussions to their actions, because there isn’t a human being on the other end, I have to say I’ve seen some really dark things with how people are respond.
Melinda Wittstock: People are bullying the bots?
Clara de Soto: Yes. Well it’s this sort of innate desire to find the seams. To see where does the bot end and potentially a live person then take over. So we actually launched Starbucks first bot. It was the pumpkin spice latte bot. That was a bot that had over half a million engagements in the first four days. Average conversation length of two minutes. So that’s two minute long conversations with a latte. Yeah. In that case, we had to spin that whole sort of repositories of foul language so that the bot had responses for if users said any number of things to the bot. And they do say those numbers of things. I always prep my clients beforehand, before they look at the logs, that look the Internet can be a really dark place.
This isn’t a reflection of how people feel about your brand; this is also people just engaging with a new technology for the first time.
Melinda Wittstock: Right. And people taking out their frustrations on the bot because they don’t really perceive, I guess, that there will be any consequence.
Clara de Soto: Yup. Exactly.
Melinda Wittstock: To taking out that aggression. So let’s go back in time a little bit. To when you were a kid. Because you mentioned you were an English major. So did you know, I mean so you studied English, but what were you going to be when you were growing up. I mean did you think you were going to be entrepreneurial?
Clara de Soto: Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: What then took you through English? I’m trying to connect all these dots here.
Clara de Soto: Yeah. Thank you. So basically, I grew up in a pretty unconventional household. My mother’s from Argentina, my dad’s from Peru. My dad actually worked for the UN for 25 years. He was an under secretary general and then my mother is actually a career economist. She’s worked on Wall Street, and now actually represents the US treasury in Latin America, spearheading microfinance initiatives. She’s just this incredible powerhouse. It was a really interesting environment. Also, my parents are divorced. We moved. I was always part of this kind of not even bi cultural, but tri cultural because Argentina and Peru are very different, household. Where even now, Spanish was actually my first language, but I only learned it from my parents. So as a result, when I speak Spanish to other, to my peers now, I realize that my Spanish is essentially a time capsule.
I have no knowledge of any sort of slang and I know I’ve tried to say things like oh that’s really cool and then I’m later informed that I had said the equivalent to oh that’s really groovy. Then you feel, you question everything. Anyway, it was a very unconventional way to grow up. I also have a sister who is 17 years younger than me, who has really kept me relevant. It’s been fantastic. We Snapchat all the time. So as a result, nothing was sort of done the way that everybody else’s family was doing things. So immediately, I kind of grew up in this environment where that you kind of question things. We were already doing things differently, and that sort of outsiderness, at the time was sometimes very difficult to grow up and feel that otherness. But then, at a certain point you kind of have to decide okay, is this going to be something that you’re cranky about your whole life or that you realize that some people spend their whole lives to feel different, and here I was, I already had that sort of skill set.
Melinda Wittstock: Interesting that you mention outsiderism, because I think so many entrepreneurs feel that. I mean I know I do. You sort of grew up thinking God, I’m just totally different from everybody else. I’m just not really going to fit in so I’m just going to create my own experience. I mean do you think, I mean that seems to be a pretty powerful psychological driver of most entrepreneurs, both mean and women.
Clara de Soto: Yeah and it’s something, it can be, it’s a very kind of difficult hurdle to overcome because it’s something that you can, early on you kind of hate about yourself but then you sort of come to a point where you realize that this can be powerful. My mother, she literally, she can do anything and it’s really incredible. That kind of, at no point did I ever think that I couldn’t just do this thing… I couldn’t just be an English major and then eventually start a technology company. Of course I can just figure this out. So it just, that is definitely sort of a big part of my DNA. The other sort of critical thing that has had a huge impact on my whole career, is I had stumbled into an audition for my college’s improv group my freshman year.
I ended up doing improv for about five years, and it is, I cannot recommend it enough for any entrepreneur out there.
Melinda Wittstock: That is the best way to increase your confidence. You know that’s so funny you mentioned that, so I didn’t do it for five years, but I remember in college I was part of this thing called theater sports. I remember being absolutely terrified. It was probably the most terrifying thing I think I’ve ever attempted, but having stood on a stage and having to think on your feet, something completely nonsensical, it didn’t really matter. Getting past that fear, yeah you can’t let fear get to you as an entrepreneur. You’re just every hour of every day there are things beyond your control and it is really, actually it’s just a great way. We talk about this a lot on the podcast. Entrepreneurship is also probably the fastest, surest way to get the kind of therapy that allows you to grow as a person.
Clara de Soto: [crosstalk [00:37:24]
Melinda Wittstock: So I think improv does that to you too.
Clara de Soto: Yeah. Exactly. I think it helps you to sort of pick your partners really well because with improv, you can’t have an ego. It’s all about setting the other person up for the joke. To succeed. When you’re looking for co founders, you inevitably look for that same quality. Is this person going to be a team player in that way. Also, the ability to turn a joke that falls flat and turn that around and make it, try and make it a success. That’s something that’s kind of in the DNA of every entrepreneur is the ability to kind of turn a situation into hopefully a successful one. With Reply, we’ve been able to, we actually within our first year of starting, we’ve been around for about a year and a half, we actually got ranked by Forrester, in their top 10 Chatbots for enterprise customer service.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s amazing. Congratulations. So it’s really only been a year and a half and you have customers like Starbucks and KIA.
Clara de Soto: Yeah Coca Cola, Samsung, Nike, and that’s a lot has been from looking for that humanity. You mentioned earlier about how challenging sometimes it can be to sell this type of software. We knew early on, to your point, that marketers would be the first to move, but actually before starting my first company I actually worked in advertising for a few years. It was the closest thing to professional improv without waiting tables basically. For any entrepreneur, I do think that going into advertising can sometimes be a really great way to learn about how a lot of businesses function really quickly. In my case I was a creative. I was a copywriter. In order to be successful now, you have to understand how a business works to a certain extent. How does this company make money.
Whatever business you’re trying to create advertising for. Anyway, but having that knowledge of how that larger sort of machine works, we knew that yes, Coca Cola would want a Chatbot, but Mr. Coca Cola or Ms. Coca Cola isn’t going to make her own bot. She’s going to look to her creative agency. So with our platform, the fact that it was code free, we knew that we could essentially go through these creative agencies early on and essentially position our product as almost the Photoshop of bots, where they could kind of turn their creatives into bot developers. They could respond to their clients bot needs and we could benefit from having these incredible testers on our, or users on our platform early on.
Then leverage that kind of early credibility to then go direct to brand.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. That’s a really smart way to do it because you have this kind of almost channel sail just distribution network set up and now all the agencies, it’s in their interest to look like they’re kind of with it, and with the times, and it makes them look good to all the fortune thousands or whatever that you’re selling to. That’s amazing progress though. I can tell, I mean you know given that you could get Cheryl Sandberg to respond to you in 15 minutes, I’m sure that’s probably true. While the other kind of potential clients, so it sounds like you’re growing really fast. I mean, what’s it been like trying to get funding. So I saw your presentation at the event in Brooklyn for Springboard enterprises. I’m an alum of Springboard too from 2011. It’s an awesome thing. They sponsor our podcast as well, which is great.
I saw your pitch, so you’re raising money. What’s that like? Is it going well, is it hard? What are the challenges?
Clara de Soto: Yeah. It’s going. Fundraising is, I’m always trying to look for what is that human angle. What’s interesting about the Chatbot landscape right now is that there was a huge boom where literally over 200 Chatbot companies from and there was a lot of excitement early on. We were able to raise a healthy round back in December, but now that we’re raising again you see a lot of VC’s that just hesitant in general about the Chatbot space. They’re essentially playing a waiting game. So we’ve had some kind of pushback on the just in general on the hesitant with Chatbots, just wanting to wait and see. So we’re, it can be challenging because of market forces. Even though we are putting up the right numbers. We have the right customers, and market indicators, Venture Beat referred to as the Chatbot world darling, which I’ll have embroidered on a throw pillow one of these days.
You know, at the end of the day, you can’t really control that these VC’s have their own timelines, and that they’re waiting for that kind of hype to wear down, and then come in a couple months when that number of Chatbot companies goes from 200 to 20, then they’ll make their bet. That said, it actually spurs quite a bit of growth from our company and how we’re really thinking about things. I should also mention that yes, I have my amazing co founder Erica, I also have two other incredible co founders, Pablo and Omar, who are former Google and Cerna engineers. They’re also entrepreneurs. They have their own indie app dev shop, where they had apps with over 30 million users. Incredibly brilliant guys! What we consistently hear is just they’re really impressed with our team. I think that that’s the best feedback that we can be getting.
Because that, you can’t fix that. If the team isn’t right then that’s a much, products can be improved upon. Business models can be pivoted. If the team isn’t right, then you’re really in trouble.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. So what are your tips, Clara, for women out there who are trying to build their founding team, or trying to grow their team. How did you, I mean your co founder, you guys went to college together. You were already friends, right?
Clara de Soto: Yup.
Melinda Wittstock: But say for somebody who has this great idea, or a lot of women struggle to find their tech teams, for instance, if they’re not technical founders themselves. So how did you find these amazing guys and talk to me a little bit about your strategy for hiring, team building, culture, all of those things because you’re right. It’s vital. If we don’t get that right, Oh My God! That’s what investors invest in. I mean they invest in the team.
Clara de Soto: Yup. It’s the people. Yeah. Erica and I, yes we’re roommates from college. We’re also, we’re fortunate that she and I, we’re basically the opposite. We have complimentary skillsets and also totally different tastes in dudes, which I think is the cornerstone.
Melinda Wittstock: You’re not competing on that level. Okay. Well that’s good.
Clara de Soto: Exactly. Then Pablo, Erica, Omar and I, we actually met at this V first product hunt meet up in New York. We physically ran into Omar. This was, and then ended up talking. Four years ago, over the last four years, we’ve been working on how we can potentially be on collaborating here and there, and in that case, first piece of advice is go to these events. Talk to people. Sometimes they’re not going to be the right person, but sometimes they are. They’re going to be people that are really sort of interested in taking on challenges, and doing something different.
In our case, we got really lucky with Pablo and Omar, who had that same kind of voracity, and were interested in doing things differently. You can only find those people if you’re hustling. They’re not just going to kind of drop in your lap and now there are so many more kind of digital resources as well around, you know for founder [inaudible [00:46:14], I love that Bumble now has a co founder version where you can find business partners on it as well. The short answer is that there’s not really a shortcut other than just, you’ve got to pound the pavement. You have to talk to people. Also, be honest. You might not agree on everything, but what you can agree on is the framework in which you are making decisions.
You have to kind of talk about…have those uncomfortable conversations early on. That’s probably been our biggest learning is getting comfortable with having those hard conversations. Just understanding that look, everybody can be wonderful when they want to be wonderful. What you want to get to as quickly as possible is understanding who you are when the house is on fire. When we’re growing from seven employees to 20. We’re 21 now. Finding ways that you can test that early on. Get drunk with them. It seems so simple, but one of our advisors gave us that advice and when we were going through a challenging moment and it was great advice.
Melinda Wittstock: Well I think of the Google founders taking Eric Schmidt to Burning Man, right? Right?
Clara de Soto: Exactly.
Melinda Wittstock: Because you really do need to be, to actually know what happens when the proverbial hits the fan, because that’s when people are really tested. That’s when you see true character. So actually having a lot of these things, these difficult conversations at the beginning, that’s really important. You’re bound to know that from going through an exit as well. You know, because I see people doing all kinds of crazy things like going into 50/50 deals or things like that where oh man, if you’re not in alignment and you don’t have your clarity about what happens. In my office you can’t foresee everything, but I liked when you mentioned the word honest because that really implies something that I’ve come to know is very, very true as predictor of success is to really know your why.
Like know yourself. If you know that, you’re more likely to attract the right people and repel people that, like you’ll save yourself a lot of time because you should be in that. You should be repelling as much as attracting.
Clara de Soto: Well exactly. Honesty is critical both with yourself about your own limitations. I mean I’ve listened to Sheryl Sandberg [Facebook COO] has been this kind of guiding light I feel like throughout my career, but she talks a lot about how honest she is, and open, and open to admitting mistakes. To creating the right feedback loops. It not only comes from when you’re honest with yourself about what your own limitations are, and that in thinking truly kind of embracing the fact that yes, you might have good ideas but only if you’re working in that, many heads is much better than just the one. I think that when you’re trying to find technical counterparts, just remember that anybody can dull the Cadillac, the hard part is taking it out of the garage, right?
Bringing it on the road and selling more Cadillac’s. I think there are a lot of really great resources out there if you’re a non-technical founder that’s looking for the right technical founders to work with. There’s ways that you can experiment beforehand, especially with Chatbots, there’s a lot of opportunities there. That’s one of the things again that I was so drawn to about Chatbots is that now this isn’t just this thing that’s owned by that technical team. In fact, the hard part is that the creative part is that conversation design. The ability to continually optimize… That’s not a technical challenge. There’s great app development folks out there or people that, third party services that can help you kind of stand up in MVP and you see that first person to believe in you essentially.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s so true. The first person that needs to believe in you, of course, is you. We talk on this show about manifesting confidence, connections and capital, and that the confidence and it’s really to believe in yourself. The confidence to be able to actually admit mistakes! I think the stronger you are, the more easy it is to just say, oh my God. My bad. That makes all the difference in the world so coming at it from that position of strength. So as we wind down today, because this has been so inspiring. I loved our conversation. I feel like I could talk to you for another hour. We’re busy entrepreneurs so we’ve got to move on.
Clara de Soto: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: So how can people find you Clara, and for all those companies out there that could use Reply.ai, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?
Clara de Soto: Yeah. Totally. Please email me at Clara de Soto@reply.ai. I would love to, happy to talk bots, or entrepreneurship or anything. You can also just go directly to our website, reply.ai. Our name is our URL. In addition to that, I’m actually also the editor of the newsletter called Chatbots Weekly. It’s exactly what it sounds like: A weekly newsletter about all things Chatbots. So definitely sign up for that. For you reader, or your listeners rather Melinda, we’d love to offer. We actually, if you’re working on a Chatbot concept currently with your company, and it’s not with Reply. We actually, we’re happy to offer free onboarding. If you are frustrated with what you’re currently going through, we’re happy to kind of alleviate that frustration.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s awesome. You know I just had an idea, maybe we should create a Wings Chatbot.
Clara de Soto: Yeah. Absolutely. We should botify you Melinda Wittstock.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes. Botify me.
Clara de Soto: Well one of my favorite bots that we’ve ever built is the Cindy Gallop bot.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh really?
Clara de Soto: Yeah. So Cindy Gallop, she’s this prolific figure in advertising and media. She curses like a sailor, but she’s this incredible proponent of bridging the gender gap, the pay gap and on equal payday, in partnership with Muse, and Pay Scale, and RGA, we botified Cindy. So if you’re a woman that needs essentially a pep talk to have the cojones to go and ask for a raise, Cindy will talk you through how to do that. We plug into Pay Scale’s API and the Muses database as well so that it actually walks you through what are our salaries et cetera. This bot has swept every award’s show. It’s the power of scaling one to one communication. Everybody can benefit from a chat, a pep talk from Cindy now. You actually can get that. For dudes though, I think she politely tells you to eff off.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay. So now we’ve set up this [inaudible [00:53:53], I like doing deals like on the fly. So everyone listening right now to this podcast, like email me at Melinda Wittstock@wings.podcast.com and tell me whether I should botify myself and what would be helpful for you. Then Clara and I can get together and we can do this bot. I think that would just be like so awesome. So much fun! Okay let’s do it. This is great. Deal on the fly, on a podcast. Amazing. This is great. Clara de Soto it’s so inspiring talking to you. Thank you for putting your wings on and flying with me today.
Clara de Soto: Oh my goodness. Thank you for having me. This has been such a pleasure, and happy Thanksgiving.
Melinda Wittstock: Happy Thanksgiving to you too.