When a team of fantastic four, Sachin Jaiswal, Keshav Prawasi, Nitin Babel and Shishir Modi, started Niki.ai in April 2015, they were just interested in building an AI platform for customer support or general purpose search or productivity. But within a span of six months, Niki got transformed into an AI (Artificial Intelligence) powered chatbot, ready to revolutionise conversational commerce for brands.
Since its beta launch in June and going live since October last year, Niki now has in its kitty 30+ clients including biggies like Burger King, Uber, Ola, Mobikwik, JustRechargeIt, Timesaverz and more. Backed by Unilazer Ventures and Ratan Tata, Niki is currently based in Bengaluru and has a team of 20 developers, designers and growth hackers.
“Initially, when we launched it in June last year, we were building more of channels for each brand and the idea was to aggregate all brands together within one app. Then over time we thought that if this is the product shape, then as a concept what makes sense is we should make Niki a concierge, powered by AI,” says Shishir.
The founders raised their seed round of funding in October 2015 from Unilazer Ventures and a follow-up round in May 2016 from Ratan Tata and existing investors. They are currently working with businesses on a channel partnership model.
The ‘Who’, ‘What’, ‘Why’ Of Niki
With more than 3 Mn apps floating around, consumers today find themselves wandering in a maze of multiple apps. This pushes most of them to uninstall a majority of the apps and even turn off push notifications. As per comScore’s new mobile app report, 80% of a person’s mobile time is spent on just three apps. And that space is increasingly dominated by big players.
According to Nitin, discovering content seamlessly on mobile is still a challenge. Also, there is no single platform to transact plus discover curated information. Niki aims to simplify this maze and make the order experience hassle-free, working through a simple chat interface.
For instance, if you are planning a getaway this weekend, you can just start chatting with Niki to get all possible options based on your preference. Similarly, it can coordinate with partnered vendors to book a room, book tickets, and so on.
This in a sense restricts users to the services of only the registered brands with Niki. Although Sachin agrees to this, but he also believes that their idea is not to support a single brand. “For example, we support both Ola and Uber for cab booking. This is just the initial stage and later we will be supporting more brands on the platform,” he adds.
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Niki is currently providing services such as bill payments, cab bookings, food ordering, bus booking, recharge, and home services.
With more than 60K registered users and 60K app downloads, Sachin states that Niki is helping brands in increasing their pie of transacting users. “The major transactions are from Tier 1 cities but the most important thing is people from tier 2 and tier 3 are using our app. In terms of percentage, what we have seen for other apps, the percentage of users of Niki from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities is significantly higher. The average user age is 30+, where a majority of them are not used to of transacting on other platforms. They come to our platform and are doing transactions,” he adds.
Changing The Way Brands Interact With Consumers
Access to captive users: Generally, for most ecommerce apps, the retention percentage is not more than 20-30%, with a conversion ratio of mere 1-2%, resulting in a cat-fight for a small mobile real-estate. From a brand’s perspective, maintaining captive users in today’s world is a tremendous challenge. As Nitin elaborates, Niki users have access to multiple brands, so even without downloading the specific brand’s app, or visiting their websites, it is giving retention rates 3x times the industry numbers. It also provides product discovery for consumers on a single interface, putting an end to long call centre queues for placing orders and reducing the costs of deploying manual chat/ call agents.
Personalised digital assistant: Additionally, Niki also knows the users, thereby making the product and service recommendations personal. Let’s say, if you are to buy a t-shirt or jeans in a shopping mall, typically your conversion will increase if you talk to a sales person out there. With Niki, you have a bot who knows the products that are out there and also your personal preferences. As claimed by founders, this has enabled the brands using Niki to have 20 times higher conversion ratio.
Providing fulfilled orders to brands: Also from a vendor’s point of view, they don’t even have to build a website or an app, to get transactions as Niki can enable it for them. “We just don’t pass on the lead to brands but get them fulfilled orders – that is, we do an end-to-end integration.For instance, if a bus booking vendor partners with us, a user can chat with Niki and book their seats for the journey by paying instantly on the Niki platform. The vendor just needs to worry about the delivery part,” explains Sachin.
Sachin further adds that “We focus heavily on building a loyal user base, so users who transact with us usually come back, over and over again. Typically, from a brand’s point of view, we have seen that repeat orders have increased. Earlier brands were spending so much on discounting but were unable to maintain a loyal user base. However, for brands that partner with us, every user that comes makes repeat orders. We basically have been able to do that, because with the algorithms behind Niki we can understand what a user wants. Once a transaction is done with us, for each user, we can do prediction analysis.”
The Bot Brigade Of India
In the past six months, we have seen a major shift of brands towards AI bots. Google recently announced Allo in its I/O conference. Facebook also has opened up it’s Messenger platform for developer to build bots on. Such is the case with Microsoft, Slack, Kik. Amazon has seen success with Echo and Apple too has joined the game now.
Jugoo, NewsByte, MeruCabs, Lybrate, iClinique, PayJo, FitCircl, Acumenist Analytics, are some of the startups utilising Facebook messenger to build their bots. However, there are also a few who are trying to be platform independent. For instance, Fynd launched its conversational commerce bot for fashion discovery and transaction earlier this year. Although it’s in public beta on Facebook Messenger it will soon have the presence across SMS, Whatsapp and Telegram among other platforms.
Major competition for Niki are startups like Lookup (acquired by NowFloats), Haptik, MagicX who all have manual chat-based ordering platforms. However, Keshav claims that Niki is the first of its kind AI – powered bot which gives personalised recommendations for products and services. “She takes the consumers through the ordering process in the most intuitive way. When most apps refuse to work or slow down their process on 2G, Niki works seamlessly,” he adds.
Learnings, Challenges And The Road Ahead
As Sachin Says, “One of the learnings has been that for the long run, getting the right fit in the team is really important. Additionally, you should go that extra mile to retain those team members who have stuck with the business during difficult times.”
He also believes that building language understanding, which effectively caters to the messaging style of Indian users; and getting the right talent in natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning were the two difficult tasks to get past initially.
The founders further aim to position Niki as a platform-agnostic company. Currently, Niki resides in Android as an App. But going forward, Niki is going to be a platform-independent, plugged and usable on any interface, whether iOS, Messaging, Mobile OS, Wearables or otherwise. Hence, Niki will be available (in the form of SDK – Software Development Kit) for any brand to integrate and use.
“For brands, it’s simpler since we will replicate the entire transactional experience and provide them in the form of an SDK. We have 25+ services in the pipeline for the next 3 months including hotel booking, groceries, movie ticketing, flight bookings, healthcare and several others,’ added Sachin.
He further adds that “We at Niki.ai are focussed on using AI to cater to anything commerce. Niki will become your go-to sales assistant who knows every brand out there, and knows you too at the same time, thereby making your buying decision the most convenient that it can be.”
In India, there are 950 million mobile users, of which 250 million+ are on the mobile internet, 20 million+ are transacting on mobile and 150 Mn+ are on messaging apps. Globally 3 billion users are on messaging apps. Thus, AI-based commerce through messaging opens up a 3 billion global user base and 150 million user base in India, which are both growing at a fast rate.
The market opportunity is huge, and the applications are immense. AI is already coming up in every industry right from healthcare, commerce, space exploration, productivity etc. We believe that going forward, AI is going to be omnipresent, right from helping you out in your home to driving your cars to transact for you. Much work will need to be done in making AI localised, so as to better personalise your life.