Let's Talk Nuiku: Behind the Software with Co-Founder Sean Thompson
If you’re a salesperson, Nuiku will quickly become your favorite mobile business tool. This virtual sales assistant solution uses a powerful natural language processing engine that allows users to speak to their phones to get the answers they need. Though made possible by previous tech advances, Nuiku has positioned itself at the heart of upcoming industry trends. We spoke with CEO and co-founder Sean Thompson about how Nuiku changes the way salespeople work.
LOCATION: Redmond, WA
What void in the market prompted you to start Nuiku? How did you choose the name?
We built the name around our visions for natural user interface, so we started with “Nui.” Frankly, the “K” and the “U” came along for the ride because it was the best sounding and was available as a URL. Nuiku was born out of the vision that we’re all involved in the company enterprise application as veterans, and the issue we’ve always dealt with was that the computers people use at work have poor user interfaces.
A lot of people are frustrated with the computing experiences they have at work relative to the computing experiences they have in their consumer life. We believe that in the future, the way in which humans will interact with software is going to be much more natural. For us, natural means being able to use language—talking to computers or typing—in the old graphical user interface, which is then used in reports. So you simply talk to get answers from computer systems
Tell me a little bit more about Nuiku and how it can help salespeople.
First and foremost our solution is a virtual assistant. Think about if you were granted an administrative assistant that always understood you—you could talk to it and it would understand what you wanted. Our application reacts to somebody’s spoken word. Now you can speak it or you can type it. All we care about is being natural with the language that you use.
Second, we’re connected to what you already use. Salesforce is the first sales system we’re connected to, but imagine other systems that a salesperson would like to be connected with such as LinkedIn. Many users want Nuiku to integrate with travel itineraries.
Third, we’re constantly learning. The more customers use Nuiku the more we learn, and the more we learn the more we can be proactive. So the assistant that gets to know you and your work habits and starts to anticipate your needs. We’re hoping to expand the number of systems that we’re connected to, for instance other CRM backends.
Today, Nuiku knows your calendar and before every meeting will brief you on all the information that you need to know about your customer ahead of time. Sort of like if Google now anticipates telling you that you’ve got to leave at a certain time based on traffic patterns. We’re all about trying to make the sales person more prepared by anticipating their next actions.
What role have your customers played in the development or creation process? Who do you see as your ideal customer?
We started with a very clear focus on the role of sales, and in particular on the role of the salesperson. Traditionally, the salesperson is the one who’s always being hammered by management to update the backhand sales system. That’s been the bane of sale’s person existence since the dawn of sales. Frankly. It even goes back to using a pen and a piece of paper, when sales managers would say, “I want you to document till the end of the week your call log. Write down everything you did and who you talked to.” Salespeople are forward looking, so our focus is on the sales role.
Our software development lifecycle included customer in the early alpha testing, so we have been in market for 13 to 14 months. In month four we had prototypes out and were asking users, “What do you think? What would you like to do?” and this feedback has been a big part of informing our road map.
You’ve mentioned that part of the product’s success comes from deeply understanding what sales professionals do. How did you come to gain this understanding? Do these insights come from personal experience or are they fueled by computer algorithms?
This knowledge comes from both, really, even going back to the co-founding team: Me, as a business and salesperson, combined with my co-founder and partner Bill Baker, the technical, algorithmic genius. I bring a passion and an experience base from the role of sales. I’ve been a sales manager and I’ve been a salesperson.
I’ve been in and around sales operations most of my 23-year career, so it is a role and an experience base that’s near and dear to my heart. At the same time my partner likes to focus on what particular user cases we can solve. For him, it’s about the real business problems we can solve by bringing innovative technology to bear. The combination of these two perspectives has been really powerful.
As a relatively new company, what three challenges have you encountered along the way?
Now is a wonderful time to be in the software business, because it’s relatively inexpensive to build software these days: You use open source software. You rent, compute, and store it in a cloud. You can get up and running with very little capital. At the same time talent is in great shortage. In Seattle, the healthy tech economy has been a benefit, but at the same time that talent is in short supply.
The first challenge, then, is where do you get talent?
The second challenge is that because it’s a low entry cost to start a software company, everybody can do it. So you run into a lot of noise and breaking through the noise these days is hard. We’ve got all the cool, hip and happening ingredients inside of what we’re doing, but there are a lot of other companies out there as well, and so you have to break through the noise and that’s a challenge in a saturated space.
The third, I would say, is weathering the storms that come from things taking longer than you hoped and being creative along the way. At first, people aren’t going to like your software, especially when you release your software early. It’s hard to hear people tell you that your baby’s not ready or that your baby’s ugly. So it’s about getting customers to see beyond what you’re currently putting in front of them.
What makes Nuiku stand out from other products?
We allow salespeople to talk to their backhand sales system through the phone. We’re bringing in information and making it very easy for people to talk to do their jobs. Yet that’s hard to do; natural language processing is tough. You need your PhDs of computational linguistics on staff.
Using voice helps us stand out because we’ve got a cool factor. People really do want to talk, especially to phones because they don’t want to touch their way through a menu and they don’t want to struggle with the small keyboard. They want to talk and we are lucky in that Apple and Google have really innovated in these areas.
I just recently issued a blog called “Why Voice Right Now?” Voice helps us because we’ve got that shiny new object that people really want and if we can nail the experience then I think that we have something that truly will be a breakthrough in the way in which humans interact with software.
What new products or features are currently in the pipeline?
Once we have earned the right to be in a sale’s person bag and we are their companion and they see more data then the third part of the roadmap is all about how do you learn from that data? And how can you — over time we like to call it how can you become the assistant that eventually becomes the coach? Because the coach is informed by data and the data that we analyze is making that assistant a heck of a lot smarter than, frankly, even the salespeople themselves.
Does Nuiku hope to break into new roles? So, moving from sales person’s role to that of the research analyst, etc.?
We do. The way we marketed Nuiku was to say we’ll start with the sales virtual assistant, but you can imagine the field service virtual assistant, or eventually the supply chain manager virtual assistant or the shop floor virtual assistant. So the architecture and the way that the system works is that feed it domain knowledge. Feed it domain knowledge, i.e. sales domain, runs the software that says I know what you do because I’m been fed the domain — the language, the domain language of sales, and connect me to the ecosystem within that domain, i.e. sales system for the sales domain.
So the left hand side and the right hand side being run by the engine in the middle. The engine in the middle doesn’t necessarily know anything other than what’s connected on the left and the right and so we expect to — we call it, we are an application lead platform. We’re focused on an app and a domain space that will help us earn the right to continue to evolve but over time once we’ve achieved that certain critical mass in the first domain then we would step out and do the next.
If you could describe Nuiku in one sentence or a few words and really capture the essence of the product, what would you say?
Nuiku allows you to talk to software to do your job.
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