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General Catalyst’s Phil Libin eyes bots with his first investment in stealth bot startup Begin

TechCrunch TechCrunch 8/04/2016 Matthew Lynley

Phil Libin has made his first investment since joining General Catalyst in a bot company called Begin that’s co-founded by GDGT co-founder Ryan Block, who left AOL Alpha in September last year to pursue the new venture.

This is Libin’s first investment in bots, but it certainly wont be his last, as he will be primarily focusing on bots for the next few years. Begin will be yet another startup that’s part of the explosion in bot activity, in which startups are betting everything on conversational user interfaces living inside messaging platforms. And we’re seeing those kinds of bets emerge more and more in the startup ecosystem, with Slack looking to make investments in bot companies that live on its collaboration platform and Facebook expected to announce chat bot APIs at F8 this year.

Details for Begin are slim — one reference point we have is from Libin, who says Begin is “a bot for making it easier to get work done, for people, for teams.” The company didn’t announce any additional details about the fundraising round, either.

Here’s what we got from Block: “The happiest people and the strongest teams don’t do more work — they do their best work. Begin is a bot that helps you stay on top of everything you’ve got going on.”

But Begin — and many other bots that fit into Slack and Facebook Messenger — are just the first wave of what will be a big overhaul in the way people interact with technology, Libin said. Block says he doesn’t expect conversational user experiences to replace the traditional UI altogether, and that they’ll be complementary. Still, Libin says that bots will make up a majority of the way people interact with technology. “My perspective here is that software and especially bots are at their best when they work on our behalf to reduce stress and expand our capabilities,” Block said.

“To me, the ‘bots are the new apps’ refrain doesn’t mean that apps are going anywhere,” Block said. “Many bots will live inside chat platforms like Slack or Messenger, while some bots will have apps of their own.”

In a conversation with TechCrunch, Libin talked more about his investment thesis and focus on bots, and why he thinks that it’s the next frontier in technology for the next few years.

TC: What is Begin working on?

Phil Libin: They’re making a bot for making it easier to get work done, for people, for teams, Ryan will be ready to unveil things pretty soon, but it’s an idea that he’s been working on for a while. We talked about it a few months ago, it fit in with my investment thesis on conversational UI becoming one of the most important topics in the next few years.

TC: Why are we seeing an explosion of bot activity now?

I think, the reason apps exploded the way they did, they made things much more natural by removing a lot of friction. The next version of those same forces are going to happen to bots. They’re gonna carry the promise of ease of use and frictionless computing further than apps did. The range of technology, it wasn’t ready even two years ago, it’s ready now and we’re seeing this exponential growth. What we went through with apps in 2007 is gonna happen even faster for bots.

TC: What is the underlying technology that’s available now that enables this?

PL: For apps in 2007, the underlying tech was a good enough and responsive enough touchscreen, networking everywhere, and good enough app installation and deployment. It was difficult to install software, the idea you could install on the web was novel. There was all this underlying technology that needed to happen that was around for 10-20 years, but was all early adopter until 2007 when it crystallized into the iPhone. That made mainstream adoption of that possible.

The underlying technology for bots are like NLP, machine learning, these are things that have been around academically for decades. But just in the past year they’re getting to the stage where they’re good enough. They’ve gotten to the point that mere mortal developers can build on them. Other technologies like messaging, the ubiquity of messaging platforms, and none of them had APIs. Now there’s an API culture, messaging is everywhere. It feels exactly the same way as apps in 2007.

TC: Are bots going to replace the traditional user interface?

PL: The traditional UI is static. A designer says we’re gonna put tasks over here and buttons over here, both interfaces are really powerful but for narrow uses. Professional tools, you’re probably not gonna interact with photoshop through a bot. On the other side of the spectrum you’ll still have entertainment stuff. Pretty much everything in the middle, almost everything we use at work and at home, that isn’t authoring or something complicated, 80% of the rest of it goes to bots.

TC: Is Alexa a good example of how this will work?

PL: Some bots are gonna be convergent and some are gonna be divergent. Divergent bots are bots that implement their own app. There’s one you download from the app store and it happens to be conversational, like reserve and Luca. Convergent is, there’s not app, it lives in Slack or Messenger or Kik. My feeling is most serious bots will be both, they’ll service and multiple entry points. Amazon Echo is an example of a convergent platform, there will be bots that live on Echo but many will have apps you can download. It’ll be slightly different capabilities, but it’ll be the same service, the same brand.

TC: So your primary focus will be on bots?

PL: My focus is primarily on bots, on conversational user experiences for the next couple of years. This is the most important development in the next couple of years. It’s gonna become so ubiquitous that in a few years it won’t make sense to be ‘focusing on bots.’ It’s like saying I’m focusing on mobile. It’ll be integrated into the fabric of everything, but in the next few years it’s a really big thing to focus on.

TC: Where did your interest in bots come from?

PL: About six months ago I had a similar experience to when I held my first iPhone, it was with the Amazon Echo. I was washing dishes, there’s a game you can play on it called word master, you can play that against Alexa. Of course she can crush you, she’s an AI, but she’s programmed to not beat you that badly. I realized I’ve never interacted with technology like this. I can take my time, she can take her time, she’s keeping score, it was a very natural-feeling technology. All sorts of lights lit up in my brain. Not just Echo, that’ll be an interesting part, but this idea of cognitively ergonomic, natural conversational UI.

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