Seated on a chair and swinging sideways, Sachin Jaiswal recharges his phone, finds the cheapest tickets for the film he wanted to watch and books a bus ticket for a trip — all in a matter of minutes and with the help of Niki, a chatbot he built in 2015 with Keshav Prawasi, Shishir Modi and Nitin Babel.
The Bangalore-based company Niki.ai claims to make lives easier by searching the best and cheapest options available on the internet for a host of services. It can book hotels for you, pay your bills and even look for a reliable laundry service.
“Niki is not a personal assistant but a family agent,” Jaiswal repeats several times during an hour-long interaction. “India connects more with an agent than an assistant. Most of us don’t have an assistant and don’t truly know what an assistant is supposed to do. Typically, if you want to travel somewhere, you call your agent who gives you the best option. It’s true even for buying real estate or purchasing an insurance plan.”
Jaiswal is going after all the scenarios which require services to be delivered instantly. Explaining how comprehensive the technology is, he says Niki understands context of the command given to it and remembers previous conversations, making it the most efficient digital agent present in the global market.
“Say, you ask Niki to look for the cheapest bus ticket, and you want it to pay your phone bill at the same time. If you decide to change your travel date at that moment, you just need to tell Niki the new date. It will understand you are talking about the bus ticket,” Jaiswal says. He claims this contextual understanding is something that many players, like Microsoft with its assistant Cortana, are still struggling.
Early last year, Microsoft set up a research institute to develop Cortana, so that in the future it can have contextual awareness while assisting with chores from cooking to calendar management.
When it comes to AI-based personal assistants, it’s a fierce battle between giants — Cortana vs Siri vs Alexa vs Google Assistant vs Samsung’s Bixby. Each one works best within its ecosystem. Amazon provides Alexa Voice Shopping service that lets Amazon Prime users buy from its e-commerce platform. However, Google came out with an update in 2017 that enabled users to buy stuff without going to a third-party site.
Goal: $500Mn worth transactions by 2021
Niki.ai claims to have more than three million users on its platform, with 100,000 to 150,000 new users signing up every month. Of these, Jaiswal says, 2.5 million users have transacted at least once on the platform. “On an average, people do about six to eight transactions a month.”
As of now, Niki understands English and Hindi, but the startup aims to go regional to get more customers by adding Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Gujarati and Marathi languages on its platform.
Niki.ai has partnered with 70 merchants, including BookMyShow, redBus and Oyo, to help customers do transactions on its app — most of which are for services like getting tickets and paying bills. The bot allows users to search for their required services, choose from the various options and pay within the platform.
Jaiswal says for transactions completed on its platform, the company earns commissions that vary between 1% and 15%. It is estimated to earn Rs 3.6-4 crores (approximately USD 509k-565k) in revenue in 2019.
In the first year, when Niki had 25,000 users, hardly anyone was transacting on the platform. Regarding the transaction volume, the company has grown significantly.
Jaiswal informs they did transactions worth mere USD 5,000 in the first year. “Back then, we were not even sure that users would trust bot-based transactions. The next year we grew to about USD 1 million worth transactions, and in 2018 to about USD 7.5 million worth transactions.”
Jaiswal says the company is expecting to grow to transactions worth USD 35 million this year and USD 500 million in 2021 by continuously adapting and learning what users want. Niki.ai builds products based on analysis of requests made by users during the chat. “Grocery is also something that users requested us to add,” Jaiswal says.
‘Industry preferring AI for biz’
By 2016, many direct to consumer apps like Tapzo, Niki and Haptik were launched, claiming to make life easy. In 2017, after running its artificial intelligence-enabled conversational bot for two years, Haptik pivoted from being a consumer brand to providing its tech to enterprises.
Aakrit Vaish, co-founder of Haptik, says the decision to shift focus was a no-brainer. “All emerging technologies go through a hype cycle. The hype makes users expect the technology to do everything and the service to work like a charm. And ultimately when it falls flat, people start saying this is not going to work.”
Vaish says people in the industry felt it would take longer for conversational AI to do what it intended to do and a B2C model was not the best way to move ahead. “We reached a phase which I like to call the ‘slope of enlightenment’; when you start realising what this technology will be best suited for and identify real business drivers of this technology. That is what has happened with conversational AI,” he says.
Before turning to enterprises, Haptik was a one-stop app for users’, much like Niki.ai. Vaish says users can still download the consumer app and “play around as it does cool stuff.” In its current avatar, Haptik is a conversational AI platform that builds chatbots for enterprises to automate critical business processes. Some of its customers include HDFC Life, Future Group, Cover Fox, Dream11 and Times of India.
However, Niki.ai’s Jaiswal is unmoved by his peers moving to the B2B space. “A bot is not going to be fully functional in the beginning. We will have to iterate it for years.”
He says the company is optimistic and is focused on fulfilling the service requests of consumers directly. Software enterprise SAP and Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of Tata Group, have also reacted positively to Niki.ai. After Ratan Tata invested an undisclosed sum in May 2016, SAP, along with Unilazer Ventures, invested USD 2 million in its Series A round in 2017.
Niki.ai doesn’t have a partnership yet with retail companies that sell apparel, shoes, furniture, among other things, and Jaiswal says the company doesn’t even intend to get into it. “It is a big market but we are focused on services.”
“Right now, many users in India have still not taken to online transactions. They need assistance. Around 90% of internet users are not comfortable purchasing online, and that makes this space big enough for us to be in. Moreover, the way to get these users to start transacting online, voice and local languages are going to be a huge enabler. That’s what we are addressing,” Jaiswal says.
Jaiswal insists that the biggest differentiator between Niki and any other player out there is this: “Niki is making it easier for the next set of internet users in India to transact online. That’s about 450 million.”