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If you get the feeling that bots are taking over, you’re not alone. But rest assured – most of them are friendly. Business bots and other forms of AI are quickly becoming more sophisticated and branching out from automated chat features. They are making an impact in the travel industry, finance, retail, and especially technology. Various forms of user input are quickly changing the experience as well. As a multi-functional and automated agent with the goal of helping users accomplish simple tasks, bots are quickly becoming mainstream. In fact, Business Insider predicts that business bots are going to be one of the biggest tech trends for 2017.
That’s why we were thrilled to talk about bots with co-founders of Eventbase, Jeff Sinclair, and Ben West, at SXSW Interactive. In our latest episode of the Microsoft Partner Network Podcast, we talk about the challenges of keeping their industry-leading event app scalable and innovative and how launching their new bot Abby has helped them revolutionize the event experience.
Eventbase is a cutting-edge app platform for Tier 1 conferences and events. They were named “Best Event App” at the Event Technology Awards for the last three years and have been the app of choice for big conferences and events including Microsoft Inspire, SXSW, the Sundance Film Festival, and the Vancouver Olympics.
Staying Ahead of the Curve
“We can actually help attendees have a better experience, by making an event the size of SXSW – 6,000 sessions – feel actually digestible and tailored to the user.”
– Jeff Sinclair, CEO and Co-Founder of Eventbase
Eventbase is considered one of the leading providers of event applications. Their unique infrastructure allows them to scale up or down depending on the needs of their clients. They provide a consistent foundation on which they can work with partners to personalize the app experience. For users, the app is anything but cookie-cutter.
Launching Abby – the Event Bot
To keep pace with the rising expectations of their users, Eventbase launched their new bot – Abby – at this year’s SXSW conference. Abby was designed to deliver a conversational-style user experience and help event attendees navigate the SXSW ecosystem.
To those unfamiliar with bots, these helpful programs are designed to engage with users in a personable way while providing answers to questions or responding to user requests. Bots like Abby are a kind of virtual assistant meant to simulate a conversation with a human user. She was designed to answer frequently asked questions and provide easy access to searchable conference information with the added benefit of a built-in “intelligence layer.”
Abby understood user preferences and context to provide content, session recommendations, and information that was personalized for the unique users. Event attendees who wanted to know what keynotes were taking place on that day or who needed help finding something to eat nearby found the helpful bot ready to provide information right in the app. Abby was able to identify gaps in users schedule and recommend sessions nearby with open seats. She also had some fun answers to the stranger questions asked by users.
While according to Jeff and Ben, Abby is still learning, they say she could quickly become the main interface for users. Their long-term goal with Abby is to provide a personal event concierge that can answer questions quickly, intelligently, and conveniently. While they admitted that it’s a little scary to test out new features like Abby at events as large as SXSW, Jeff and Ben said the key is to do so in a way that doesn’t compromise the user experience. From their perspective, success hinged on the following activities during the launch process:
- Balancing user expectations with new capabilities,
- Closely monitoring usage,
- Responding quickly to feedback, and
- Working closely with partners.
It can certainly be challenging to be the pathfinders with new technology such as this, but Ben and Jeff have found it to be very rewarding.
“What I’ve seen is that large organizations are starting to become more risk tolerant. With innovation comes risk. And while larger organizations want to mitigate that risk, they are ok with putting themselves out there as users become more forgiving in response to new and exciting technology.”
– Ben West, CPO and Co-Founder of Eventbase
To hear more from the founders of Eventbase, tune into the latest episode of the Microsoft Partner Network podcast. This and past episodes are available for download on iTunes, SoundCloud, iHeartRadio, Google Play Music, and YouTube.
For a full transcript of today’s podcast, please see below.
Rachel Braunstein: Welcome to the Microsoft Partner Network Podcast. Every week, we bring in industry leaders and Microsoft partners to talk about the big ideas shaping business and technology today.
Hey, everybody. This is Rachel Braunstein with the Microsoft Partner Network. I’m here in Austin, Texas at SXSW having a crazy time at Interactive. It’s kind of tapering off today. I’m sitting here with Ben West and Jeff Sinclair who are cofounders of Eventbase. Eventbase is actually the app behind all of SXSW, along with Microsoft Inspire and many of our other fantastic events around the world. So, I’ve wanted to first introduce these two guys to you. See how they meet and how they started Eventbase. Jeff?
Jeff Sinclair: I apologize my voice. I sound a little bit like Debra Harry right now. I’ve been talking for four days at SXSW. So, apologize for that upfront. Ben and I met each other back in the .com days. Worked for a company called Stock House at the time. Ben was the CTO. I ran the products team. It was a very large websites—one of the busiest financial websites in the world. It was the busiest website in Canada; we’re based in Vancouver, Canada. And it was one of the busiest Microsoft-powered websites in the world. So, we really knew the web. But in 2008, when smartphones came out, Ben and I were walking our dogs in the forest and we’re like, you know what? We need to do a mobile company. Then we decided—that was right around the time when Vancouver was hosting the Olympics in 2010 so we started the company 9 months before the Olympics and we made it our mission to do the official app for the Olympic Games. So, we did that. It was a big challenge for a group of 5 people at the time but that set us on a path of doing event apps.
Braunstein: That’s awesome. Ben, how’s this guy, Jeff?
Ben West: He’s alright, I guess. Other than his voice and his strange pseudo-Australian accent. Jeff and I have worked together for a long time. Like Jeff said, we met in the .com era. When the smartphones came onto the market, it was just one of those things that seemed like a natural new segue for us to work together again on something really interesting. The Olympics, we worked really hard. We also lucked out on that opportunity. But that really did set us on a path to be able to do the world’s biggest events and be taken seriously regardless of what event we walked into. I think we work really well together. Jeff has a really good sense of how to work and partner with the world’s largest brands and enterprises. That allows me to focus more on the technology side and understand how to fulfill those obligations at an enterprise level in terms of reliability and scalability and also feature set. Features that are going to make for a great experience for the attendee and also make sure that our partners and our clients feel that their objectives are being met through that technology.
Braunstein: Awesome. So, you’ve been talking a little bit about partnering. Jeff, can you talk about how you started your partnership with Microsoft and what that journey has been like a little bit?
Sinclair: Sure. I think it might have been at SXSW where we met the digital team from Microsoft had come down to experience SXSW and they loved the app and we started talking about well, what could we do with Microsoft? And ultimately, we started working about two and a half years ago. There were certain things that Microsoft was really excited about. Having a great Windows phone product at the time, with the introduction of tablets, having a fantastic tablet experience there as well. We started building for Windows back at the 2010 Olympics. Back then it was called Windows Mobile. It was terrible, I’m not going to lie. The introduction of the Windows phone—that was a complete rewrite from the ground up. That was a big step forward for Microsoft. It meant that we enjoyed working on that platform again. For us, working with Microsoft, we started with your biggest event which was called Worldwide Partner Conference which is now Inspire. And for us, that’s the way we typically work. We come in and help a brand with their biggest problem—their biggest event of the year. And then they realize well, maybe we can use for our other events as well. So, at Microsoft, we do probably about a dozen of your largest events worldwide. We have a new platform that we just launched which allows us to use that same infrastructure to host even small events for Microsoft now. So, we’re definitely focused on premium experience. Microsoft has really enjoyed being able to showcase what’s great about the Windows phone platform at their events and at other events around the world as well. So, we have other customers like the Consumer Electronics Show—CES. We worked for them for the first time this year. Groups like SAP and others. Hewitt Packard, for instance, have great partnerships with Microsoft as well and they really want to showcase the technology there as well. So, it’s been an important platform for us.
Braunstein: Something that you talked about, Ben, is that what you really do when you’re working with customers is figuring out what they need and building upon that. So, clearly, you’ve had to scale up quite a bit. Can you talk about what that was like in terms—because you’re on the product side—what that’s been like over the past few years? Especially when you’re doing something like CES or South by.
West: Yeah, it’s definitely been a steep learning curve and somewhat mirrors what we went through back in the .com era where things were just exploding. We had to work very closely with our partners at the time which included Microsoft, to understand how to tackle these challenges around scalability for a new technology. So, when we work with our partners, it’s really important to understand what their needs are from a marketing standpoint because a lot of these events are marketing driven. And that often filters down into a suite of features that showcase what their latest and greatest are. So, when we came into this space, what we did—instead of having a cookie cutter approach, we built and extracted a system that allows us to have a consistent core foundational technology and then build upon that to meet the needs of our customers. So, the platform services biggest events around the world. SXSW, Inspire, and ComicCon and all these events around the world are all running off that same foundational platform but they look very different because, on top of that foundation, we have this layer that allows us to customize the experience to be perfect for that event so it looks and feels like that partners’ brand. It has features in it that make sense for that user group. And then behind the scenes, we really try to understand the specific engineering requirements of that partner and it’s not always the most exciting thing to talk about it—it is for me and the team—but really understanding what they need from an InfoSec perspective to make sure that we’re adhering to their corporate policies. So, in the case of Microsoft, where do they need to be hosted geographically? What are their requirements in terms of security auditing? And what environments do we have to host on? Are we going to be hosting on Azure? So, what sort of technologies do we need to put in so that our foundations can run on that? So, when we started working with Microsoft, it became clear that we would need to host on a variety of environments including Azure so we invested very heavily in the engineering and worked very closely with them to understand how we could segue our foundation to run on Azure and allow us to consistently deploy and monitor that. As a result, we don’t compromise the experience or reliability or security of our core platform, even though it’s now running on many, many different environments. Then, after every event, what we do is get back together with that client and see what worked, what could be improved on, and what’s next because obviously, it takes a while to roll out these features to match what that client’s objectives are for the next year. So, we’re really lucky that we have this extensible platform because it means that we can become perfect for that client and not force them to the limitations of our technology. Instead be much more of a partner approach.
Braunstein: So, I was really excited by the South by, you announced Abby, a chat bot. And here at South by, bots and AI and IoT have just been the topic of conversation everywhere. And so, how did that come to life? How does that work exactly and what was the process like to get you to the launch and what do you see in the future?
Sinclair: Sure. So, we always like to launch new technology at SXSW. It’s why people come here—to sort of see a glimpse of what’s next and how they can maybe apply that to their business or in their everyday lives. So, a couple years ago, we were the first company to do a large beacon deployment. We deployed a thousand beacons across 600 venues in Austin for SXSW, all with the purpose of allowing hyper-local networking. So, when you’re in a room because GPS doesn’t work indoors, we were able to show people that were near you and you could actually chat with them and connect while you’re in the same room. So, we’ve always tried to launch new things. I think this year is really the year of the intelligent app. It’s not just about bots and it’s not just about artificial intelligence. We’ve migrated over the course of the time we’ve been running a web-based from just trying to replace the printed guide which was the first mission. Just make it digital. Make it searchable. Make it updatable. And then there was all that interactivity. So, the networking or indoor location or gamification. Those are all great use cases. I think the introduction of things like this intelligence layer, we can actually help attendees have a better experience by making it, at an event at the size of SXSW, 6,000 sessions, to make it feel actually digestible. Like it’s actually tailored for you. So, we launched the session recommendation engine last year and that was a big success. Recommending these sessions for you based on everything we know about you. We would do things like look for gaps in your schedule and recommend sessions that are nearby as opposed to across on the other side of Austin. And we also looked to see if those are already at capacity; we’re not going to recommend those. We’re not going to send you to the keynote when we know that’s going to be sold out. But that was the sort of start of this making this intelligent app. This year we added recommendations for attendees based on the same sort of algorithms and introduced the bot. Which for us, we see eventually the bot may be the only interface a user has to the SXSW app. It might be the first thing you see because it’s like a digital concierge in your pocket. Ideally, I want to have with you at all times the—equate it to like a hotel. You go to the concierge and you can ask them anything and they would know where to get a taco that’s not too street food but a classy place nearby.
Braunstein: You gotta have tacos here.
Sinclair: You have to have tacos. But with Abby, we have to train Abby to be able to understand the context of what the questions are. We also have to—the intelligence really comes from being at like a pre-scripted set of questions like what times does the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] open, for instance. The harder part is when they ask questions about anything in the schedule. If you ask what artificial intelligence sessions are run tomorrow afternoon, we have to like route that request to our event database and make the request that way and bring that back and then we actually present in a tile for you inside the bot. So, we don’t have to get bumped out of the bot to get the results. So, that was the idea of intelligently routing that was a lot of the work that Eventbase had to do to make that work. But in the ideal world, we work with a lot of these big consumer events like Microsoft events, and if we can make it so that the bot is like having every expert from Microsoft with you at all times, somebody following you around that you can ask a question to and be able to get a really intelligent response, I think we’ll get there. I think the speed with which we get from kindergarten to grade school and the Master’s degree might only be another year or two but eventually, it will get there. So, for us it was a really bold experiment to do this at SXSW by the response has been great.
Braunstein: I tried it out. It worked for the few things that I did ask it. It was pretty cool. Ben, what scares you the most when you’re at these huge events? What has happened? Do you have a story or anything kind of cool? How do you tackle it?
West: Stories I can tell? Well, I think the thing we’ve learned is that events are inherently complex, particularly at this size. There’s over 6,000 sessions, as Jeff said. There’s over 600 venues. Stuff’s going to go sidewise across the board because people are going to cancel, rooms are going fill up. There’s going to be changes to everything. So, we’ve put a lot of engineering in to be able to handle those changes. But what scares us is when we do roll out a totally new technology that’s unproven combined with the dynamic nature of events, we often don’t know what’s going to go sideways and we have to be able to handle that really quickly. So, South by is a perfect case where they’ve got a very critical audience. They’re savvy, a lot of technology experts here, designers. So, they’re going to really hammer you if you get it wrong. That’s great feedback for us. So, we don’t worry about the feedback but we worry about compromising the event experience. People can’t go to unlimited events; they go to the ones that are most important to them. And we really want to make sure they have a great time. So, it’s a risk for us and it’s definitely something that keeps us up at night. If we’re going to deploy something like beacons, like recommendations, or like a bot, and deploy that for the first time to tens or hundreds of thousands of experts that are demanding, are we going to get it right? So, with the bot, we went into it with the philosophy of we’re going to get a bunch of things right but we’re also going to get a lot of things wrong. But that’s okay as long as we monitor it and learn from it very quickly and set expectations for users. So, I would say we’ve done a good job of deploying something really innovative, technically very complicated, and not compromising the user experience and the event experience. And we’re going to learn a lot from it. We’re going to be able to segue that into other events that we do and South by is a great partner in that regard in that they go into it and they know it’s okay to take a swing and miss or to take a swing and hit it a little bit and then learn and correct. So, we work very closely with them as with our other partners to see what works and what doesn’t. When we deployed beacons for the first time, we did a smaller deployment to understand how that affects the user journey at events and then the following year went much, much bigger. In a similar way with Abby this year, we haven’t forced users into having that as the only way you’re going to use the app because people still have behaviors and expectations from searching the schedule, as they have for years and years and years. But I’ve been using the bot as my start point, not just because I’m forcing myself to do it as the product guy, but also I’ve honestly found it faster to get to the content. And we can see usage of the bot at South by in our dashboards going up roughly 15 to 20% per day is the increase on average of users using it more and more and more. We know we’re going to have to train them to use it in a different way. I’m loving the experience and so I’m really happy. As much as it did stress us out to come into this event deploying something new, I think it’s worked well and it will be even better next year.
Braunstein: Is there anything—are your heads already spinning for next year or something that you’re excited to try out and keep kind of iterating on?
Sinclair: So, I think the bot is going to be much more in the forefront next year. I think we’re going to be looking at innovative uses of beacons beyond the use cases we’ve had in the past. There’s still some use cases that we’re really excited about that we haven’t unlocked yet. Beacon technology is becoming less and less costly. So, once the cost of a beacon gets down below sort of two dollars per beacon, we can do some really interesting things like give every attendee a beacon that they carry around with them at all times. We can’t do that when they’re 5, 10 dollars apiece. But the price point gets low enough, we can actually incorporate that into the badge that you buy. So, we’ve already started doing this on a small scale but I think by 2018, that is going to be something that every event will have that level of interactivity built directly into the badges and we’ll tie integration back into the app so that when you walk into a room, you get an alert on your phone that says welcome to this session, would you like to participate here? Would you like more information about this topic—whatever it is? Or for gamification, the idea that you can collect points. We do some of those things right now but it does require that people opt in through—they have to turn on their Bluetooth which not everybody keeps Bluetooth on all the time. So, you have to really educate. So, that’s something that a lot of our customers are exploring right now. We sort of work on the cycle at SXSW so it will be over the summertime when we come up with the crazy concepts. That’s really what Ben—Ben comes into the room and says we can do all these crazy things. Then we boil it down to what is it that would have the impact in the event experience and what is it that will really move it forward because SXSW wants to be on the forefront of technology. They want to be showcasing new things. They’re not afraid to take a risk. Some of our big corporate clients would prefer that it’s their brands. They don’t want it to be that risky. I think they want it to work perfectly every time so it makes sense. That’s what we enjoy about working with SXSW. We’ve worked with South by now for a number of years. SXSW came on as our first investor in 2014. They actually created funds—they gave us 2 million dollars back in 2014. That was the first ever investment. For them, they saw the impact that our technology was having at this event. For us, that was an endorsement which has allowed us to grow. We’ve tripled in size in the last 18 months. Their endorsement and their willingness to take risks with us has really helped us grow so fast and ultimately our customers come to SXSW to see the technology that we’re rolling out here because they’re really trying to push the envelope there.
West: I would actually clarify—this is why Jeff and I work together so well. I’m not afraid to like call him out.
Braunstein: Oh, the factors are fighting.
West: No, we’re not fighting.
Braunstein: He’s adding on, Ben.
West: Yeah. I think what Jeff said about enterprise clients being very risk adverse is something that I’m actually seeing change a little bit. And I think that is part of sort of the grand experiment that we’re all going through as these new canvases, like mobile devices and augmented reality and big data coming out. You have an entire global population that is used to trying out new technologies and seeing what they like and don’t like and then expressing themselves. That’s very different from a heritage technology perspective where you would have a very long trial and buying cycles. No feedback loops. But mobile really started changing that because there was an immediacy to that. So, what I’ve seen on the product side is that these large organizations that you would normally expect to be very risk adverse are actually starting to become more risk tolerant because they want to innovate and then they know with innovation comes risk. And they want to have it mitigated and have some boundaries, like a sand box, put around it. But they’re okay putting themselves out there because the users are more forgiving because they know there’s an expectation of them. They might not realize it but they know that new technology is something that they can try and that they can give feedback on and that it will get better from there. So, for me, that’s great because it means that these very large organizations that do have the financial resources to fund innovation are actually doing it more rapidly than they did historically because they’re becoming more open to that iterative approach that gets you there faster. So, that’s great. As Jeff said, they don’t want a complete experiment; they do want to put some boundaries around it. But I think we’re going to see an increase in creative innovation in the enterprise space because of this changing perception of what’s acceptable to deploy.
Braunstein: I think we might be testing some stuff out at Microsoft Inspire. So, if you’re coming out, get ready. You might have beacons in your badges. Just kidding. So, last question, you guys got through .com. You clearly are looking at where you need to move your business and I think our partners, many of them are still transforming or trying to figure out how can they specialize or what area can they start to focus in on or do with marketing. What are some of your recommendations as we move forward into the future?
Sinclair: It’s very important to get your product market fit right. So, Ben and I bootstrapped this company for the first five and a half years. We had to be profitable. We started, as I said, working with these big consumer events, like the Olympics. We did the London 2012 Olympics. Worked on things like Sundance Film Festival and Comic-Con. We were building a great stack of technology, a really good product, but we recognize the product market fit, it was only about three years ago that we got the investment from SXSW and we can actually really scale what we’re doing. What we found was our offering was perfect for enterprise because they didn’t want a boring comforts app. So, product market fit was we had this really dynamic visually exciting tool that they can use at their events and they were looking at what their competitors had which looks like a boring conference app. No one wants their conference to be boring. So, recognizing that product market fit, that’s allowed us to scale. We now have half of the top 20 technology companies in the world have standardized on the Eventbase platform for their biggest events. For us, their trust in us is as much about not just the features that we deliver, the scalability and the security, it’s about how does this represent our brand. So anyway, the key is like to nail your product market fit. When you’ve got that and you differentiate in the market, that’s when you can really go big.
Braunstein: That’s awesome. Ben, do you have anything to add?
West: I would say focus, as Jeff said, is really key. It’s very tempting when you’re starting out to be all things to all people, particularly when you get requests coming in. But if you can focus on something that you’re really excited about, that gives you that singular vision that helps your product move quicker. It also helps keep your team aligned. When you’re moving really quickly, it’s important to have autonomy in your organization and you can accomplish that if you have this clear vision that’s constantly conveyed out to your team. Whether that team is 5 people or 50 people, if they truly understand what you’re building, then you can all run very, very quickly. But I would also say that that focus needs to be open to iteration and change just as our partners are doing now. So, look at the data. Understand what’s working and what’s not. Don’t put too much time into something because it just feels right. If it’s not actually working, learn how to constantly improve upon what you’ve built and address the market in a way—how the market’s responding to you because it is a two way street. There’s a feedback loop when you deploy a product to your partners. They’ll resonate with certain aspects of it and you have to learn to start aligning with that resonance as opposed to being kind of bull headed and push forward on your original vision because you might have missed the mark or the market place might have changed in the last six months. That’s one of the challenges in building the bot for us is that space is moving so quickly that we have to constantly iterate and find out what’s working and what’s not. That’s the same thing for any partner that’s starting out. You want to be constantly iterating. Talk to your partners actively. Sit on the same side of the table as your partners. Don’t treat them as customers. Really sit down, be honest with them. Talk about the things that are going to keep you up at night saying we’re worried about this, worried about this, but this we’re really solid on. They’ll work with you and you’ll get a better end result if you work together on it than if you treat it like the old school dichotomy of a product and customer. That’s not the way business gets done anymore. Everyone needs to collaborate.
Braunstein: Awesome. Well, thank you, Ben. Thank you, Jeff. Awesome to talk to you. Check back with us here at Microsoft Partner Network for our next episode in the series.
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