Not long ago, artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots, computer programs that can simulate actual human conversations, were the stuff of science fiction. Today, however, companies such as Munich-based e-bot7, founded by SBE graduates Fabian Beringer (BSc in International Business) and Xaver Lehmann (MSc in Finance), have been using this technology to help companies’ customer service departments handle queries more efficiently.
″We integrate artificial intelligence into customer service operations,″ Beringer explains. ″We’ve built some very powerful neural networks and convolutional networks and we basically fed them with billions of support tickets that maintain and manage a catalogue of common issues and queries. Once the neural networks have been trained, we insert them into a company’s existing customer relationship management tool.″
To ensure the AI-generated response is accurate, a specific confidence threshold is set – 97 percent, for example – and if the system is 98 percent sure it has the right answer, the response is sent. If the system is not yet confident enough, the response is first sent to a human agent to confirm or adjust.
″In this way,″ Beringer explains, ″the agent trains the system, and at the same time reduces average handling time. So the AI gets more accurate the more it is used. With AI, you can have a self-learning system, but then you can’t control the quality of the answers being generated, so we still need the supervision of a human until the point where the system gets smart enough that it doesn’t need the human any more.″
The two founders, Beringer and Lehmann, got the idea for their business when they were both still studying at SBE. ″We saw Facebook Messenger chatbots on TechCrunch about a year and a half ago, and we said okay, this is going to be a very big thing,″ says Beringer. ″We sent emails to ten random companies and asked whether they’d be interested in implementing chatbots, and we got replies from eight of the companies saying yes. That was the point when we decided we needed to found a company right away and make this product.″
The two sought developers from around the world who could help build the product, but it was a challenge to find the right people who could not only build the product but continue developing it over time. Eventually they received funding from Telefónica Wayra, the startup accelerator of Telefónica Munich, and the team was joined by CTO Maximilian Gerer, a graduate of LMU (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich), one of Maastricht University’s partner universities.
Although a year and a half may sound like a short time between coming up with the concept and developing an actual product – e-bot7 is now implemented in several companies in Germany, including banks, e-commerce shops and the Deutsche Bahn railway company – Beringer says it required the full commitment of himself and his co-founders.
″I’ve done a few startups before and they didn’t go that well, so I tried to learn from those experiences,″ he recalls. ″You pretty much make the decision to cut your social life for a year, because obviously you have to do everything yourself until you get funding and then you can grow your team. So we made the sacrifice and were in the office for a year, seven days a week. Just building, building, building, building.″
Although the team now finally has some spare time on weekends, they remain focused and ambitious. ″Our goal is to be the leading company in the DACH market (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) by the end of next year,″ Beringer vows. ″We are passionate about this. If it feels like a job, you shouldn’t be doing it. It has to feel like a hobby. For us, we feel like we have to remind ourselves to slow down, because we love working so much. If you enjoy free weekends and want to sit in front of the television every evening, I don’t think you should be an entrepreneur.″
Just do it
Beringer’s advice to would-be entrepreneurs is to go for it. ″Honestly, just do it. There are so many people who can discourage you,″ he says. ″When you start something like a business, 95 per cent of your friends are going to think you’re crazy – because you’re doing something different. Some people need the security of working in a company and then others become entrepreneurs. You really have to believe in what you’re doing.″
The e-bot7 team has now grown to 12 people, and includes head of operations and SBE graduate Shozo Takaya (BSc in International Business) as well as three data scientists from LMU.
″I think the people you choose to work with is the most valuable thing about a business,″ Beringer says. ″You shouldn’t care so much about titles and such; it’s more about just getting the right team, one that’s motivated and shares the same vision of what you want to build. Without all your team members, you can’t do it. There’s no ′one-man show′ in a startup.″
If you’re interested in interning with e-bot7, contact the company via its website.