In Conversation with Nitin Babel, Co-founder of Niki.ai
Chatbots Revolutionizing e-Commerce
Founded in April 2015 by four IIT Kharagpur alumni- Nitin Babel, Keshav Prawasi ,Sachin Jaiswal and Shishir Modi- Niki.ai is an artificial intelligence-based chatbot that uses the state-of-the-art technology like natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning to converse with humans on a simple chat interface and order food, tickets, cabs, laundry and so much more.
Among its backers there are big names like RatanTata and Ronnie Screwvala. While the former has recently invested in this promising startup, the latter provided the seed funding. We recently sat with Co-founder, Nitin Babel to discuss this exciting platform.
How did Niki.ai happen?
Technology of machine learninghasbeen in research for some time now. We realized that the technology was reaching that maturity stage where we could start testing it for use by general public. Since e-commerce has been a very non-intuitive and non-interactive experience for the users, we thought of Niki- a self-learning AI- powered with natural conversational skills. So, in short, Niki was born out of our idea of having a go-to assistant for commerce.
How did you all four co-founders meet and decide on doing this?
We know each other for 8 years now. We all were studying at IIT-Kharagpur and used to frequently collaborate with each other on various projects. Then we started talking about starting something of our own. The focus was on building tech-oriented customer products. This was followed by a lot of discussions until we all landed at the idea of Niki.ai. But it definitely took us some time to figure it out and start working towards it.
What major challenge did you face while building this platform?
In order to function, Nikihad to understand the language first. The main problem was we Indians have a unique way of speaking and chatting. Our way of English is full of slangs and Hinglish. The idea was that it should be a very natural experience. When you talk to Niki, it should just feel like you are conversing with a friend. To overcome this was a major challenge as we were trying for the machine to learn and look past behind these errors to understand what was needed of it. We started collecting data on which our model started learning. Today, Niki can easily see understand what you ask her.
How did Ronnie Screwvala’s Unilazer Ventures come onboard? And how hard was getting the intial seed funding?
We had been working on our product for a long time before going in for funding rounds. The beta version was released last year around June after which we worked extensively with the beta users improving Niki based on their feedback. Also, we four had a very good synergy working between us and we had a clear idea of revolutionizing commerce globally. Our extensive work and a clear vision helped us secure the seed funding from Ronnie Screwvala. This October marks Niki’s one-year anniversary since its launch.
JIO recently announced setting up a INR 5,000 crore VC fund to support young entrepreneurs. What significance does that hold for you?
Despite all the growth, Indian startup ecosystem is still in its early stage. Startups like Niki.ai have a lot of potential. Moves like this can greatly benefit us and help us take our offerings to a wider audience across the world. Customers can have more and better options to choose from.
How have things shaped up in last one year, and where do you aim to go from here?
In one year since its launch, we have gone from being Android app to collaborating with Facebook to build chatbot for its chat messenger. Now people can simply chat with our bot over Facebook messenger and get things done. We now have 80,000+ user base. Initially we had launched with just two services- mobile recharge and cab booking. As of yesterday, we have added hotel booking feature too. We have collaborated with Oyo Rooms for this. One can also chat with Niki and order food, book bus and plane tickets, buy insurance, get laundry service, and even pay utility bills. All this in just a span of one year! And then there was a big boost that came in when Ratan Tata decided to personally invest in us.
How the four co-founders divide duties among yourselves?
Keshav Prawasi looks after the technology department as he has close to 4.5 yrs of experience with software development from working with Amazon. Sachin Jaiswal handles the product development and has prior experience with Oracle. Shishir Modi has experience in various business department roles. And then there is me who looks into customer experience right from initial acquisition to the fulfillment of their requirements.
What is that one major learning from the experience so far?
The most important learning has been that team members are the most important assets of any company. Maintaining good working relations with all is of paramount importance. New joinees must be taken through an interactive session with the team as it puts them in a comfortable zone with them. Another thing is to choose your teammates carefully, with whom you can share your business vision. It is important because being the only person with that vision won’t really help when you have a business to run.
Have you tried Niki.ai yet? Share your thoughts in our comments section below.
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