Chatbots are the talk of the tech industry right now. The recent introduction of Facebook Messenger’s bot platform has got people talking about how these automated assistants might be the future of the way we interact with businesses.
While the first wave of these bots haven’t quite matched up to the initial hype, startups around the world are helping people create a hopefully more useful second wave – and one such firm is based in the unlikely surroundings of the Lancashire countryside.
Flow XO is a platform that lets you build bots for Facebook Messenger, Slack or Telegram, with no coding knowledge required. This will allow businesses to share content, conduct surveys, conduct customer service and more via chat interfaces.
While competing services like Chatfuel and GitHub’s Hubot are based in San Francisco, Flow XO is building its bot empire from Padiham, a small town near Burnley in Lancashire. But the company is a truly global effort. While Managing Director John Jackson and three other team members are based at HQ, others work remotely from a diverse range of locations: Bristol, London, Guatemala and Argentina.
“There aren’t many tech companies around in Padiham, but the countryside is on our doorstep and it’s not stopping us getting good developers working remotely,” says Jackson. He adds that he’s considering opening an office 40 minutes’ drive away in Manchester, to attract staff who may not want to work in a more rural setting.
While some (not least Facebook) are painting bots as the future, and others dismiss them as a fad, Jackson is more measured in his outlook.
“I’m skeptical of some uses for bots – shopping for example – but there’s potential there in being able to amend orders and upsell. People have grand ideas about tech but it usually settles somewhere in the middle.”
For now, Flow XO is focused on what’s practical and useful in the present day, rather than dreaming of a world where artificial intelligence drives bots that act just like humans. “It’s better for now to tell a more sedate story than we’d like. A.I. is something we’d like to get into in the the future.”
While touting big ideas generates column inches, it doesn’t necessarily drive a sustainable business, and truly impressive A.I.-powered bots are still quite a way away. Even Facebook, with its treasure chest of resources, admits that its ‘M’ virtual assistant is largely powered by humans at the moment.
The journey to Flow XO’s bot platform started with another software business, FLG, which helps financial services and legal businesses manage customer relationships and sales leads. 280 companies, including household names like Confused.com and Gladstone Brookes, use the platform.
With FLG a successful operation, Jackson spun out Flow XO, first as an automation platform similar to IFTTT or Zapier that allowed people to establish workflows based on connecting up third-party services. However, competing with well-funded Silicon Valley firms proved challenging when the likes of Zapier could iterate faster than Jackson’s team was able.
Bots are proving to be a fertile new way to use Flow XO’s technology. Third-party integrations are a core part of the offering, and users can build bots that integrate with well-known services like Eventbrite, Google Drive, Salesforce, Mailchimp and Twitter among others.
It’s early days, but Jackson says that user registration numbers are promising. Still, the company is playing in a fiercely competitive field. Not only are new companies around the world jumping on the bot bandwagon, but established companies like Imperson have been offering chatbots to businesses for years.
Product Manager Steven Booth says that Flow XO’s ‘flow’-based approach, long list of third-party integrations, and built-in hosting and management make it a strong proposition against the competition.
As for the future, look out for support for Kik, SMS, Twitter, and website chat integration, plus analytics to give insights into how bots are being used.