They chanced upon a humongous problem while chasing another.
Dipankar Sarkar and Akshaya Aron set out to build a bot with enough artificial intelligence to automate marketing. That’s a tough problem – not just to solve but also to explain to the rest of the world. There are, after all, several marketing automation tools out there.
The term ‘marketing automation’ is used loosely for almost any piece of technology that can help marketers do their jobs better. Usually, the high-brow ones involve a few humans tweaking codes to segment users into neat profiles and automating the system to identify and target a certain profile with a certain marketing message. Dipankar and Akshaya wanted to take this a few steps ahead.
They built an AI bot – Octo-matic – that does not require any human intervention after you integrate it with your app. It will help you reach each of your users personally, analyze their behavior, and act on them automatically. But the bot needs to be fed raw data of your user behavior to do its job. The more raw data you have in store, the smarter the bot will be.
But when, Dipankar and Akshaya tried to deploy Octo with a bunch of companies, they stumbled on something huge.
“We wanted to show the companies what our bot could do. So we went up to them and said, ‘we need three months’ data or as much data as you have from your end so that we can actually do a good job of delivering you full automation.’ But none of them had any!” Dipankar says.
Though all these companies were gathering a lot of user behavior data, they were not storing it. They had installed data analytics tools like Google Analytics (GA), Mixpanel, or CleverTap to make sense of the data. “So all their raw data would go to these tools. The marketing teams were left with just processed information on their dashboards,” he says.
A lot of things need to be built before better bots come, before better user personalization happens, and so on – we want to fuel that.
Google Analytics, Mixpanel, and such tools process data, chop them up into neat counters, and serve them up to you. So, your historic data have been sliced, diced, and baked so that now you have tables and numbers to act upon. “But you can’t do any future analysis on the raw data as you’ve lost it,” Dipankar points out. “GA and others have no incentive to store your data.”
But you have. It’s your data and it’s valuable for your business. “Tomorrow, if your company decides to do user personalization at a high level, with very interesting algorithms that look at historical data and generate specific content for each user, that’s when you realize that you don’t have the data set,” Dipankar explains.
That was an interesting problem – and a big problem, he and Akshaya figured. So they decided to tackle it.
“Somebody has to collect all that raw data. Because that is the first step to building something intelligent out of data – you need raw data.” So they built a middleware to allow web and mobile companies to copy and store raw data. And they open-sourced it.
Why open source?
The biggest requirement for any form of machine learning or AI system is high quality historic data. “From our point of view, to actually build intelligent services it would require a whole new layer in the existing software development stack where all analytical data would be stored – as early as possible in the application’s lifecycle. We decided that our first goal should be to get people to store this data! This is how we decided to open-source that part of our stack,” Dipankar explains.
On top of that open sourced stack sits Octo-matic that will sift through all of the stored data, create “segments of one,” and generate personalized feeds or push notifications for each and every one of the client’s users.
For example, when you go to a news site, currently it will show you articles that are new or trending. A lot of it might not interest you. “We think the site should show you stuff that is based on what you usually like to read. It should combine what is trending as well as your personal preferences,” he says.
We have released the code for startups to host their own advanced analytics, on their own servers, and run it at one-fifth the cost they pay to an analytics company.
Octo-matic turns “analytics data into actionable insights and acts on them automatically to create great user experiences on mobile sites and websites,” says co-founder Akshaya Aron. “Once integrated, Octo is autonomous and does not require human intervention to do the marketing automation.”
“We fulfill the functions of Mixpanel, Google Analytics, or other larger marketing automation tools through our internal tools and dashboards,” he adds.
But if companies only want help with storing their analytics data, they can use Octo’s open-sourced framework to do just that and continue to use other tools like Google Analytics, Mixpanel, and so on.
“We have released the code for startups to host their own advanced analytics, on their own servers, and run it at one-fifth the cost they pay to an analytics company,” Akshaya says. “Companies just need to install the open-source version from Github and they have their own analytics and marketing automation solution – with a pre-built dashboard which can be customized for their business needs.”
Octo has raised its seed round of funding of US$200,000. Investopad’s co-founders Rohan and Arjun Malhotra [they’re brothers] led the round. A bunch of other angel investors participated in the round:
- Rahul Khanna, managing partner of venture debt fund Trifecta Capital
- Rakesh Agrawal, who is a limited partner in a few VC funds and a seed investor in startups like Cruise, Shyp, and LendUp
- Sidharth Rao, co-founder and CEO of Webchutney
- Karan Bareja, former vice president of Webchutney
- Rajan Navani, managing director of Jetline group of companies
- Seed fund Outbox Ventures
- Gautam Gandhi, who heads Google’s New Business Development – India
- Jaspreet Bindra, head of digital transformation at Mahindra & Mahindra
- Michael Pargal Lyngdoh, co-founder of Tripoto
- Gagan Duggal, founder of Matrix SIM
The AI obsession
Earlier, Dipankar and Akshaya had built an AI-based text summarization tool. “You could crunch a whole article into a paragraph,” Dipankar says. “Without grammar mistakes, of course.” They had pitched it to a few news sites, but that didn’t go too far.
Dipankar and Akshaya have been building things together for a long time now. They have been friends for over a decade – since their days at Mother’s International School in Delhi. After school, Dipankar went to Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi and Akshaya to Manipal Institute of Technology – Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s alma mater.
Two years ago, they built a fully automated bot on WhatsApp, which would answer natural language queries. “It was a Siri for the developing world,” Dipankar quips. They raised some capital for it, raced to around 40,000 users without spending any money, and got five million messages exchanged over it.
Our goal is to push for something that will become a standard of sorts, on which people – including us – can build stuff on top of.
“But we realized that when India gets ready for bots, it probably needs to talk in the vernacular. Americans and the rest of the English-speaking world can build a bot that would work well for the English-speaking Indians as well. So our bot will be basically fighting off a multimillion dollar bot company from the US – and you can’t really beat that,” Dipankar explains.
So they shut it down and used their AI framework to build Octo. “We believe the next level of smart stuff going to happen on marketing data will be built on top of a framework like this,” Dipankar says. “Our goal is to push for something that will become a standard of sorts, on which people – including us – can build stuff on top of.”
But selling complicated technology is a tough, tough thing. Not many people understand complicated technology. Neither do they want to understand it. As far as marketing automation goes, at the end of the day, most companies just want a small widget at the bottom right of the page, which a user can click and do something. That is still almost all they want.
So, most marketing automation tools that do more complicated functions have a limited number of people who want it. “Once that lot gets saturated, you hit a plateau. VMware, Optimizely, and others are all in the same boat,” Dipankar says.
Clearing the path, digging the road
Then what is spurring Octo? Why are they building something so few people understand? “We are, primarily, an engineering shop. We want to advance the level of engineering which will precede, let’s say, better AI bots being built, better technology being built. Our primary goal is to further how artificial intelligence and deep learning can be enabled. Maybe we can be the guys to push that out,” Dipankar says.
“This is all very new. A lot of things need to be built before better bots come, before better user personalization happens, and so on – we want to fuel that,” he adds.
If man wants to truly live forever, then the machine that records your consciousness has to exist.
What about selling what they built? “Of course, we want to sell. But if you are focused on selling, you are a sales company. Then you don’t think about tech. Those are different tradeoffs – you have to know where you stand,” Dipankar is clear.
The open source factor gives Octo an edge over its competitors like Google Analytics, Mixpanel, Segment.io, Kahuna, and so on. But it also means a different revenue model as well. Like other open-source companies, such as MongoDB, Octo will charge companies for customizations, marketing automation, and other products.
For Dipankar, artificial intelligence is a personal quest of sorts.
He reads voraciously. Not just tomes on computers, engineering, and the sorts but literature. Elias Canetti, Augusto Roa Bastos, Thomas Mann… understanding a serious piece of literature is far more complicated than writing a complex algorithm, he feels. “Programming is fun. It’s like a hobby. There are constraints – you know those and you work around them. But literature is infinite – there are no limitations. So that is far more fulfilling,” he says.
Human consciousness is an obsession with him. “If man wants to truly live forever, then the machine that records your consciousness has to exist as your physical form will anyway perish. That’s why I like bots. Bots can help humans transcend the physical. I believe bots will do that,” he says.
He adds an afterthought: “The only problem in our country is that if you think like this and say it aloud, it is not a good sign. So I don’t tend talk like this in public,” he laughs. So like Superman, he too wears a nerdy, geeky, stereotypical engineer avatar that puts people at ease.
He didn’t know I would spill the beans.