Diego Ventura has always been ahead of the curve.
Back in 1995, right at the start of the dot-com boom, Ventura started a company called STEFRA, building video chat software for the better part of a decade before Skype was so much as an idea.
One of STEFRA’s key partnerships was with webcam manufacturer Logitech, selling a software-plus-hardware bundle to businesses for video conferences. This was great news for the bottom line — but STEFRA’s customer support was totally crushed by the sheer number of users who were coming online with their software.
To deal with the onslaught of customer service supports, Venture and STEFRA built an automatic customer service robot to answer common questions via chat. It seems obvious in hindsight, but in the mid-nineties, it was totally revolutionary.
With the success of the automatic customer support platform, Ventura sensed opportunity. He got a patent on the technology, titled “Internet expert system and method using free-form messaging in a dialogue format.” Companies like IBM, Oracle, and AT&T have been required to give Ventura proper credit in their own patent filings around chat.
And in 1999, STEFRA became NoHold, a company that outsourced the technology to customers including Dell, Cisco, Lenovo, and Toshiba.
Today, 17 years later, Ventura is looking downright prescient: What NoHold called an “expert system” for customer support in the nineties is what Silicon Valley is now calling a “chatbot.”
And those chatbots are going to be huge, at least “if Mark Zuckerberg is right about all businesses being reachable by Facebook Messenger,” says Ventura. And to that end, NoHold is today announcing a connector to hook up NoHold’s patented technology to Facebook Messenger.
Ventura describes himself as having a “hard-headed mentality” — back when NoHold was founded in 1999, he says, the company’s investors pleaded with him to keep “artificial intelligence” out of the company’s marketing, amid over-hype around the technology in the eighties.
Now that everyone from Google to financial services are talking about artificial intelligence, Ventura looks right once again. Everybody is building artificially intelligent systems, and turning to Facebook Messenger-style chatbots to power them.
The trick, Ventura says, is that it’s much easier said than done. Doing customer service automatically via bots requires a lot of specialised expertise. Any given customer service question may require the system to dig deep into a variety of manuals, support pages, and other resources to get the right answer.
“To be able to answer those questions, the virtual assistant has to be connected to all this data,” Ventura says.
That’s NoHold’s sweet spot, Ventura says. It’s been doing this for 17 years for big tech companies, helping them automate whatever customer service can be automated and shunting what can’t over to human operators.
As businesses turn to chat to better connect with their customers, Ventura says, it’s a huge opportunity for NoHold. And with that Facebook connector, it helps customers take advantage of the current Messenger craze. And it means that Ventura’s long bet on chatbots is looking to pay off.
“A couple of years ago, nobody cared what we were doing,” Ventura says.
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