Josh Comrie’s business Ambit had an unorthodox start in life, at least in New Zealand start-up terms. Today it’s well on the way to becoming a leader in chatbot technology.
Josh Comrie is an experienced entrepreneur and angel investor. He brought a founding team together about two and half years ago and they set to work, in a structured way, to decide what sort of company they wanted to build. That included finding the killer idea to build the company around.
The team knew each other through business connections and once Josh and his two co-founders, Gareth Cronin and Tim Warren, had agreed to work together they set out to find that big idea.
Josh is CEO and has already successfully established two major human capital companies, along with a substantial commercial property syndicate. He’s also a serial angel investor and businesses he has been involved with include Wherewolf, a tourism booking and loyalty management system; Youtap, a contactless mobile payment solution; and Fuel50, an HR and talent management system. His portfolio is all technology companies based in New Zealand with IP they have taken internationally. He sees it as investing in ‘NZ Inc’.
Gareth, who is Ambit’s CTO, is currently an executive GM product at Xero and a former head of engineering at Wynyard Group, Orion Health and others.
Tim, the COO, is a strategic consultant and former developer and tech executive. He’s also a former Goldman Sachs/JBWere executive and an experienced angel investor.
Between them, the three founding partners have years of experience running and investing in technology companies. But this start was different and their first move was to decide where each believed good business opportunities might lie.
They came up with 25 “big ideas” which were set out in a spreadsheet. Each was analysed on 16 different points to test the strength of the thinking.
Josh says they considered the problem each idea would solve, the business model best suited to each idea and who would be the likely acquirer of such a business.
Once this analysis was done, the 25 ideas were whittled down to seven validated ideas which were then put through a Business Model Canvas designed by Stanford University. This looks at customer segments; the value proposition for each segment; channels; customer relations; revenue streams; key resources needed; key activities and key partnerships to create and deliver value. And once this infrastructure is mapped out, on ‘sticky notes’, the cost structure of the idea is looked at.
Josh says under this model it took about one and a half hours to see if they could validate each idea or not.
The partners also had three key criteria the best idea had to meet. It had to be an emerging piece of technology; something that would work in a B2B sales model and, most importantly, it had to be something they could see would have a meaningful impact on the world.
It also had to be an idea the founders would be ‘passionate’ about.
The big idea that met all the criteria is an artificial intelligence (AI) company called Ambit which has built a turn-key AI chatbot platform for business.
Gartner projects that 85 percent of all customer service interactions by 2020 will be managed by chatbots rather than humans.
The company describes its technology as “next generation conversational artificial intelligence”. In essence the business provides “cost-effective, fully managed, turn-key chatbots” for any type of business for the outcome the client wants.
Funding initially came from the founders and the next round from friends and family.
In just 15 months the company has garnered some impressive clients including Watercare, ACC, KPMG, Hallenstein Glassons, Vector and Flexicard.
Despite the very different approach to building Ambit Josh says that doesn’t change the fact that start-ups are hard work. They require incredible dedication and long hours but he believes in investing in his own efforts and spent almost seven months working seven days a week.
Josh, who has been driving and growing his own businesses for 15 years, notes that perhaps his skills are not aligned with a corporate structure. He likes to do the things he enjoys and create something at an optimal scale.
He likens AI today as evolving, much as the web did in its early days with the initial websites being cumbersome and difficult to build until easier content management systems emerged followed by ‘drag and drop’ websites.
And it is that self-service analogy that Ambit is building with customers using their platform for the chatbots which are tailored to each client’s needs. They are also building a partnership model and channel with reseller partners who will, over time, become responsible for selling, implementing and supporting the chatbots.
“Our piece of the work is in providing the platform to the clients.”
Newness spells challenges
As to the challenges, Josh says these tend to come about because of the newness of the space. One major challenge is balancing their resources. In an ideal world you would be able to look forward and see the number of customers who were going to sign up – so you could align the resources and hire the people you needed at the right time.
But in the fast-moving sphere of AI it’s an ongoing challenge to ensure the timing is right and that new employees will be fully deployed.
Another challenge has been recent changes at Facebook. They had looked at using Facebook’s Messenger service as one platform, but in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data situation Facebook paused its app review process, which meant developers were no longer able to launch new apps or chatbots onto Messenger.
But the team has since put more development into their web-based widget so they now have an amazing one, Josh says.
The other continual challenge is managing cash resources – making sure there’s enough capital to fund growth and that it is being spent in areas that will add value.
Recently Ambit was awarded entry to Vodafone’s start-up accelerator and innovation lab, Vodafone xone, which aims to take New Zealand’s best start-up ideas global. Josh says they work well with Vodafone and while the win has a financial aspect to it, he sees the partnership with Vodafone across its large sales force as the real opportunity.
So where’s the company heading? “Our intention is to be in a leading position with New Zealand enterprise and medium-size businesses in chatbot technology and then have a strong presence in the international market.”
They’ve already had conversations with partners and prospective customers in Australia and the UK.
As to the wider picture, Josh would love New Zealand to be recognised as a leader in the adoption and implementation of AI – perhaps in areas such as agritech, primary production and tourism.