To bot, or not to bot, that is the question.

Betaworks recently announced a new experiment for this summer they are calling “Bot Camp”. I first learned about it via this tweet:

The small conversation that tweet initiated made me realize that I should probably post at least a few of my thoughts about bots, and the bot trend, in general.

But before we get into my opinions and theories, re/code has a really good article about what is a bot, so if this is the first time you’re hearing about “bots” I would highly recommend you read “What is a bot” first.

Assuming we’re now all on the same page about what a bot is, let me just say that I’m a HUGE fan of bots. I think they are kinda fun to build, can lower friction for a lot of situations, and can even add a ton of value to many situations.

That being said, I’m not entirely sure it’s wise to try and build a business focused on or around bots (especially one intended to be venture backed).

Bots are a hot trend for sure, but chasing trends is almost never the right path.

Don’t build or use tech to try to build a business around. Find a real problem (that people will pay to fix), and develop a smart strategy towards solving that real problem.

Use tech (including bots) to lower your costs, lower friction, improve productivity, reach more people, and any other way that makes sense…but always keep it focused on ‘the problem’ and 'the business’, not 'the tech’ (even though the inner techie in me hates to admit it).

Sure, bots can make money.

One of the most popular bots I know about is the Giphy bot within Slack (which is probably a stretch to actually call a bot because it’s just an integration, it doesn’t really have a conversation).

Giphy is super easy and fairly fun to use, and the fact that they can randomly show you anything they want for a given term (the hit or miss randomness is actually part of the fun for users) means they can show you as many 'sponsored Giphy’ images as they can sell.

I have no idea how easy or hard it is for them to sell sponsored Giphy images/terms, but I think it’s safe to assume that at least some reasonable, repeat, income can be generated via that path.

And to be fair, I should mention that Giphy does have more to their product/business than just a few bots (so maybe it’s not a great example here), but I believe the bots are driving most of their engagement (and revenue) at the moment.

Still, Giphy has reportedly raised $78.95M. At those numbers, Giphy will need to have revenues near ½ a billion (and either go public with a hefty stock price; or get acquired for close to a billion dollars) for their investors to get the 'happy’ return I’m sure they expect.

Again, the point is, I think you can make money with smart and interesting uses of bots…but I’m not sure you can make 'VC type’ money. But that’s OK because most bots really aren’t that expensive (or difficult) to build.

There are of course, probably a few exceptions.

One of the most interesting bots I’ve been watching develop is a thing called Fin. In my humble opinion, Fin is one of the rare bots that is being used to push the limits on what’s currently possible.

Still they blur the line a bit between what is an app, what is a bot, and what is a service (perhaps that’s part of why I think they are so interesting)…and ultimately the *really* interesting part about what they are doing isn’t actually the 'bot’ part, it’s the deep learning (and honestly they currently cheat at that [in a really smart, good, way]).

Which again is a key point, bots aren’t new technology, deep learning is the real paradigm shift.

You’re going to be hearing more and more about bots and bot-focused startups, but the truth is that deep learning is the paradigm shift (not the bot).

Bots that take advantage of the latest and greatest data science approaches are going to appear magical. The good ones will 'just work’ and 'totally get you’ (because of the data science and algorithms behind them).

I’m not going to dig into all the awesomeness that is data science and deep learning, but if you’ve got time I will recommend you read at least this, this, and this…and of course start keeping a tab on what the killer team at Fast Forward Labs is up to.

Ultimately, I think bots are mostly a marketing and sales tool.

Bots, done right, are a low friction way to take advantage of another platforms critical mass and interact with their users (hopefully converting them into YOUR users or better yet, YOUR SALES).

Which brings me to the my main insight/conclusion around bots…

Bots aren’t the 'new apps’, they’re the ’new APIs.

So by all means, build awesome bots…but don’t expect them to be the “bot all to end all” to your startup and business dreams…and remember, if all else fails, you can always return to the classics.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more;” - Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

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This is the personal blog of Kevin Marshall (a.k.a Falicon) where he often digs into side projects he's working on for digdownlabs.com and other random thoughts he's got on his mind.

Kevin also talks in more depth about many of the these things around twice a month via his drip campaign and has a day job as CTO of Veritonic. You can also check out some of his open source code on GitHub or connect with him on Twitter @falicon or via email at kevin at falicon.com.

If you have comments, thoughts, or want to respond to something you see here I would encourage you to respond via a post on your own blog (and then let me know about the link via one of the routes mentioned above).