Back when I first started at Tech North in spring last year, one of the first startups I spoke to was Flow XO. This Burnley-based firm was starting out with a platform to let businesses build chatbots.
Chatbots were a much-hyped field back then, but tech trends move on. I caught up with CEO John Jackson to find out how life is as a chatbot-building platform from the North of England in late 2017…
It’s over a year since we first wrote about Flow XO. How have things moved on since then?
John Jackson: Well firstly, we’ve grown. We set up an office in Headspace on Mount Street in the centre of Manchester. Phil Goddard joined us as Head of Product, managing and growing this new studio. Our plan is to bring on board four or five developers over the next few months.
Our base in Padiham (near Burnley) is still very much going strong, with our support team based there, but we’ve found it hard attracting the engineering talent we need.
Product-wise, our current focus is on building in features that allow websites to connect visitors directly to Facebook Messenger chatbots, as a new marketing and on-boarding channel. We don’t see this as necessarily the end game for chatbots, but it’s certainly something that is working for a lot of businesses and is an area where we can get the product to provide real return/value for our users.
When we first spoke, chatbots were cool. Now there’s less hype around them, how are you finding demand for your product?
I never liked the hype around chatbots. Especially as all the talk was about chatbots acting like super-intelligent humans, answering any question or fixing whatever issue a person brought to it. That was always a pipe dream.
What I’m interested in is the idea that businesses connect to customers by phone, email, and social. With messaging so popular now, there’s going to be a new channel. A mix between email and social. It won’t be one-to-one chat like email, and it won’t be open and limited like social. This will be a steady trend over the next few years, and this is what we’re aligning ourselves to.
The smart marketers and those on the cutting edge are already thinking like this. Connecting to customers/fans via messaging instead of collecting an email address is already taking off.
What’s the biggest challenge you face right now?
Normally in business, you take a safe bet. You get into a proven market and do something better or smarter than competitors. Our bet is on the future. So the payoff for us will be huge, but it’s certainly challenging trying to predict and react to developments that haven’t really evolved yet.
Another big challenge is for us to hire the right people in Manchester. We need uniquely agile, talented, forward thinking developers to take our plans forward.
Where is Flow XO heading in the future?
You’ll start to see chatbots in their more basic form, as a channel for business interactions, steadily growing as a concept.
We’re focused on the fundamentals – how can our customers get real benefit from them? Where do they fit in and what do they help a business do better?
Our team will grow, both in Padiham and Manchester, and we’ll move into a phase more focused on a narrower vision. This is already been shaped by what our customers are telling us works and what doesn’t.
And how about the chatbot world more widely?
Watch out for WhatsApp as a platform for connecting to businesses. Facebook announced both a small business and enterprise product coming soon. This will add another 1 billion monthly active users who will now be able to access businesses through messaging. Very exciting times, and a sure sign of the future.