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Meet The Makers #3: Stefan Kojouharov

Originally posted on Medium

In this week’s edition of Botmetrics Meet The Makers, we speak to Stefan Kojouharov, who is a serial entrepreneur and has built many successful bots, the most recent one being Smart Notes.

Arun: Hi everyone, welcome to another edition of Botmetrics Meet the Makers. I’m one of the co-founders of Botmetrics and today well be speaking to Stefan, who’s built a number of bots on Facebook and he will share with us all of his learnings and experiences building bots. Welcome, Stefan.

Stefan: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Arun: Maybe we can start off by talking a little bit about yourself and maybe a brief introduction of how you got started with bots.

Stefan: Yeah, that’d be great. My background’s in entrepreneurship. I started my first business right out of college, did very well with it. I got into technology in 2013 and my first startup, we had a messaging platform. Essentially it was a platform to let you send messages to businesses and let users send either one message or many messages, and after doing that for a number of years, we were one time featured in South by Southwest, Las Vegas 2015. In 2016 it became very known in the community that Facebook was going to do something very similar, so I transitioned into this. It was a very natural transition and I feel like coming into it from a background in messaging was vital because it kind of gave me a little bit of a head start.

Even some of the things that Facebook is doing with chatbots, for example, for businesses, that was one of the main pain points that a lot of businesses had on our platform. They didn’t want to answer questions at times, they wanted to automate that process, so c-bots was very, very exciting. Right away I started making a lot of bots. So far I’ve built probably around 10 bots, maybe a little bit more, give or take. I’ve built bots for startups, sometimes I help startups with their flow, their onboarding process, their copy writing, that sort of thing. Throughout this process I have learned quite a bit and I would love to share it with you.

Arun: Cool. Maybe you can talk a little bit about … I know have have used at least one of the bots that you’ve built called Smart Notes, so maybe you can talk about Smart Notes and how that came to be and what platforms it on.

Stefan: Yeah, absolutely, so this is one of the behaviors that I noticed that I had, and that was that I was always emailing myself or messaging myself. I decided one day, I’m like, “Why am I doing this? What underlying reason is the reason why I’m emailing myself or texting myself?” I realized that it was a top-of-mind awareness. I wanted to have a certain note or a certain idea or a certain link that would be instantly available to me with like one click and that I would know exactly where it is. The notepads that I was using at the time didn’t do that. Evernote was like cluttered and the things were everywhere that you would have to look at and that was painful, so I created Smart Notes.

What Smart Notes essentially does is it’s a chatbot that exists inside of Messenger, and you just go inside and you write anything and right away it makes it into a note. You can add a reminder, and then to see all your notes, you just have to literally just push one button, which is the persistent menu in the notes tag, and it will show you all your notes, up to 10 of them in one carousel, so you can see, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 notes just by, with one single glance. I thought that was really, really, really cool. That was the idea behind it.

The other part that came into why I built Smart Notes was that at some point some of the notes that you create are going to be easy for someone else to do, so for example let’s say you need to get dry cleaning done. Yeah, you can probably get dry cleaning done on your own, but what if the note was smart, and it said, “Hey, look, I know these dry-cleaning companies and they can help you.”

Now, this sort of idea isn’t new,, Evernote probably tried it. I know they wanted to, and the problem with doing it on those sort of platforms is that at the end of the day it almost feels like someone’s reading your notes, because they’re supposed to be private, but if you’re talking back and forth with a bot about what your goals are for the day and what your notes are for the day, then it feels far more natural when the bot says, “Hey, I see you want to get dry cleaning done by Thursday at 6 PM. If you like I can have XYZ company come and pick it up for you at that time. Does that work?” This is the inception of Smart Notes.

Arun: Yeah, so even when I was using it I think one of the first things that struck me was that it kind of felt like you had your own personal stenographer or assistant who you were just like kind of dictating notes to and they were remembering all of what you said and repeating back to you whenever you wanted to, which is a very natural interaction for bots.

Stefan: Right, and then the other thing that I threw in there, and it did this intentionally, was rewarding the user for getting things complete. I think this is really something that’s kind of missing from general note apps is that you get things done, but there is no gamification of it, right? You don’t feel any different really afterwards. In real life when we get things done, generally we feel good about it. Now imagine if this bot or this app rewarded you for getting things done and that was one of the other features that I threw in there. That was one of the features that people actually really like.

Arun: That’s cool. Are there any interesting secrets or tips that you can share with fellow bot makers as you were building the bot?

Stefan: Yeah, absolutely. I built 10+ bots and towards the end I started following this because at the beginning I was like, “Why don’t a see what’s working on WeChat and see how, make something really simple and see how it works on Messenger?”

My first tip, and I’ve seen a lot of people in the bot community doing this. I think it’s so natural to do it that you don’t even know that you’re doing it. That is that bots to a large extent right now, are a solution looking for a problem. People are thinking to themselves, “Bots are so cool, they’re the future totally. What problems can we solve with it?” Generally, like in entrepreneurship, it’s a very backwards way to do it. You’re putting the horse in front of the carriage, the carriage in front of the horse.

You don’t want to do that. Instead what you want to do is you want to start with people that have a problem that you want to solve and if a chatbot becomes a natural solution to that problem because it can do things that a normal application cannot. One of those things being that it can take multiple variable inputs and help solve a problem. An example of this, and this is one of my favorite examples, I share it every time, is DoNotPay. DoNotPay is kind of like a chatbot that exists online. It doesn’t even exist on Messenger but basically go into DoNotPay, and it’ll fight, it’ll beat a parking ticket for you.

Now, if it was a normal application it would be really hard because there’s too many combinations and permutations. You’d have to literally push too many buttons to figure out if this bot could help you or not, but since it’s conversational it can get down to the core very quickly. If you have a use case that’s along those lines and you get to it in an organic way, I think that’s really cool. I think that should be kind of the goal is think, instead of thinking of building a cool bot or what does the future look like, instead, what problems are people having that you could solve? Maybe these are problems naturally that come up because they require multiple inputs.

Another one would be, and I have quite a few tips, once you have this idea, the very first thing you want to do is validate it, right? It might be a great idea, it might not, so you have to validate it. How would you validate it? I would recommend using something like ChatFuel or ManyChat. They’re really simple platforms. You could literally build a chatbot in an hour, maybe even less. What that will do is that will let you build something very quickly, find out how good you copy is, how good your interaction is, and then it’ll give you feedback. That’s the second thing I would really recommend is doing those two things. If you can do those two things well, I think you will on your way to making a good bot.

Arun: Got it. Yup. I think that the thing people sometimes don’t realize is that bots are like any other product out there. You have to fist come to the fundamentals of what problems it’s solving and like you said, making hypothesis, validating them quickly, and then iterating quickly.

Stefan: Yeah, exactly. I think that in a lot of other markets like with apps, the people that came to if first were the big winners. I don’t know if this is going to be the case for bots. For us, maybe the first people to get it really right are the winners, but not the first ones that are here.

Arun: What were some of the challenges that you faced while building the 10+ bots that you’ve built so far?

Stefan: Well, there’s a couple of big different challenges. I wrote them down just in case. Two of them we already talked about, finding the right use cases, solving a problem, and those are more internal things, right? Things that you’re in control of, things that you can effectively change and get right. Now there’s external things that will make it very difficult. One of those this is discoverability. Once you made your bot, what are you going to do? How are you going to get people discovered? How are you going to get people to it? I will say when it comes to this issue there is no bot store on Facebook, so there is not organic way, kind of like app store optimization is so far for the App Store or the Google Play Store that you can do to get free traffic. That’s one of the problems.

Another one is that let’s say that you want to build a bot and you build a bot for Facebook Messenger, okay, and now your bot’s doing well and you want to have the same bot and you want to build it for Telegram or Twitter or SMS or Kik. These are all different platforms and there’s a chance, depending on how you bot talks and if it uses the buttons or the carousels that you might have to rebuild the whole thing a few different times because for example, Facebook supports buttons, Twitter doesn’t. Neither does SMS, so how would you take care of those differences?

I would say that building on these different platforms with apps you have Android and you have iOS and that’s it. With this you have like, 5, 6 different platforms. That is one of the other main challenges.

Arun: Right. How you you overcome the discoverability problem? That seems to be a very common challenge faced by many botmakers.

Stefan: Right. I wouldn’t say I’ve overcome it. I would say that being very active in the community is very good. That will get you visibility. It’s kind of like a double-edged sword. People are going to try your bot and people are going to know about it, but that doesn’t mean that they’re your target market. At the end of the day you still have a marketing problem, right? I would suggest that the best way to solve the discoverability right now is probably search engine optimization, SEO, might be one way. I would just treat it almost like a regular, any regular product. How do you get users? Once you have a certain amount, I think it’s 100 in order to do Facebook, targeting a look-alike audience on Facebook I think you need 100. Once you get to that 100, it becomes a lot easier to find another 100 people like them. I think that’s one way, retargeting is another way, and then finding them different communities.

If you have a bot that’s solving a problem that’s painful and people are highly motivated to solve and it’s easy to use then it’ll be much easier for you to get users and to keep them.

Arun: Right, right. How did the launch for Smart Notes go? What tactics did you use to launch it? Was it the typical Product Hunt launch?

Stefan: Yeah. I’m really glad you brought that up. I’m purposely staying away from Product Hunt. When I launched, my goal wasn’t to launch, have a big launch and have a bunch of people try it. My goal was kind of the opposite. It was to have a very soft launch, have very few people know about it, make mistakes, learn from them, iterate, and then once I get the bot to a certain point that I feel like 6 out of 10 people that try it would love it out of my target market, once I get to that point, then I would push it to Product Hunt and other things because then you don’t have a leaky bucket. You have a good bucket and you could add more water.

The last thing I want to do is have this leaky bucket, I don’t know where the holes are, and then have the downside of putting a lot of water in and some of it overflows and some of it comes through the holes and then at the end what’s left? Not that much. That’s where I am in the process. I’m in the iterative stage and then once I get it to a point where 6 out of 10 love it, then I’m going to push hard on Product Hunt and in other ways.

Arun: Yeah. What are some key lessons that you’ve learned? Like once Smart Notes has been in the wild among real users, like any interesting ways that people are using … ?

Stefan: There’s a couple of really, really crazy ones. Okay, and this one will blow you mind, but when I say it you’ll know that it’s true. Okay? No one reads. Whatever you bot says, no one will read it. What they’ll do is they’ll skim it. Okay, so what you have to do is you have to make sure that your bot talks like Donald Trump.

Arun: Yup.

Stefan: I’m serious. Literally think really short sentences, one line long, four letter words, one syllable each. It should be so simple that when you look at it, you don’t have a choice but to understand what it says.

Arun: Right. Got it. Do you think buttons and stuff kind of aid that?

Stefan: Oh, absolutely. If you look at WeChat, they’re very button-centric. I spoke with one of the guys from Facebook Messenger, the PM, and he was like, basically he was like, “I hate the fact that we’re calling it a chatbot.” He’s like, “I wish is was just buttons,” because again, when you talk there are so many different ways to say the same thing. That’s a challenge in and of itself and then you throw in the fact that when the bot responds then maybe someone misunderstands it, right? For example, emotions are hard to understand, and then all this stuff is kind of lost in translation.

That’s why Facebook is adding a lot of buttons. If you noticed they have a carousel, they have three buttons on it per card, and then they have the rich text buttons that you could slide now, that they recently added. They want to move, I believe, more towards WeChat for the more everyday things. It’s more easier, people don’t have to type. They can just push a quick button and it’s very, very clear what’s going to happen next.

Arun: Right, got it. Cool. Awesome. So where can people find Smart Notes?

Stefan: On Messenger. The best thing is, this goes back to discoverability, you have to literally type in Smart Notes. Two words and then it’ll come up. Smart Notes Bot is the name of it. Also, Facebook Messenger has the @ symbol now, kind of like Twitter, so it’s @smartnotesbot. That’s the other way to find it.

Arun: Where can people find you? Are you on Twitter?

Stefan: Yeah, I’m on Twitter. I also have my own personal bot, which is called Stefan’s bot. That’s another way. I write for Venture Beat and for Chatbot Magazine and Chatbot’s Life. Those are three other ways you can find me. My name’s very, very unique so if you go on Messenger and you look me up, I’ll probably be like the first result.

Arun: Cool, awesome. Cool. Thanks again Stefan for sharing all of your thoughts. I think this was really great and we look forward to hearing more about Smart Notes and all the other bots that you’re building in the future.

Stefan: Okay, Absolutely. Thank you so much.