#Asia This startup just raised $1.2m to improve its automated sales assistant

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AI, artificial intelligence, automated assistant, machine learning

Photo credit: jirsak / 123RF.

Saleswhale, a Singapore-based startup specializing in automated sales assistants, has raised a seed round worth US$1.2 million, it announced today. Gree Ventures led the round.

It was joined by Monk’s Hill Ventures, Wavemaker Partners, and a group of angel investors that includes Pie co-founder Pieter Walraven, Zopim co-founder Royston Tay, Nonstop Games founder Juha Panaanen, early Dropbox employee Albert Ni, and LCY Chemical Corporation CEO and chairman Bowei Lee.

Saleswhale was founded in late 2015 by software engineers Gabriel Lim, Venus Wong, and Ethan Le. Gabriel and Venus previously co-founded Getting Real Software, a mobile software development house. Ethan was one of the early engineers at video streaming startup and Rakuten acquisition Viki.

The startup wants to improve sales processes for businesses. It’s created an automated assistant system that follows up on sales leads and takes care of the first stages of communication before routing them to a human salesperson.

The assistant is set up to offer a familiar experience to the person it’s talking to – it has a personalized name, an email address, and a profile picture. It can ask and answer questions to make better sense of a potential lead.

The startup was part of US-based company builder Y Combinator’s spring 2016 program. (Disclosure: Tech in Asia has also graduated from Y Combinator. See our ethics page for details.)

Sales for days

The funding will be used to improve the product and beef up the team’s engineering capabilities. New hires include engineers skilled in backend, data, machine learning, and natural language processing.

Saleswhale has been able to find demand for its product and has a clear idea of the needs it wants to serve, which makes this a good time for its seed round, Gabriel tells Tech in Asia.

The assistant can ask and answer questions to make better sense of a potential lead.

The company is getting clients on board in small batches at the moment because of “technical constraints.” “We need more resources, especially in engineering and product, to move faster and onboard these customers,” Gabriel explains.

It monetizes through a subscription model. The rate starts at US$99 per month and rises according to usage.

Saleswhale currently has “dozens of paying customers” and has had growing revenues at a rate of 7 percent week-on-week for the past few months. Gabriel doesn’t reveal more specific revenue numbers. He does specify that most of the increase in revenue comes from increased usage of existing accounts.

The startup considers traditional marketing software like Hubspot and Marketo its competition. In comparison, Saleswhale says its edge is the ability to qualify leads automatically, respond in natural language, and then share them with a human sales team.

“We think of Saleswhale as having a human sales development assistant that is reaching out personally to each prospect to engage them in conversation – while marketing automation software provides air cover,” Gabriel says.

He does think that Saleswhale could be complementary to the abovementioned apps – in fact, the startup plans to integrate with platforms like Hubspot.

Training the system

Automated systems that engage with clients, customers, and collaborators dominate the headlines these days. It looks like Saleswhale is part of a larger trend but also a very challenging space.

The key is knowing the limits of what automation can and cannot do today.

Gabriel thinks companies in this field need to find out how to provide real value and how to have the technology work seamlessly in order to avoid a user’s frustration when they go “off-script.”

Saleswhale’s system, for example, is set to hand over the conversation to a human if it doesn’t feel confident in how to respond. “Over time, we hope to improve the capabilities of our bot and steadily reduce the frequency of it requiring human intervention,” Gabriel says.

“The key is knowing the limits of what automation can and cannot do today, and to deploy it in very specific verticals and use cases where this automation makes sense.”

Saleswhale will continue collecting and labeling data from its interactions so it can improve the system and train it on all the different cases people will use it for. A huge challenge for the startup will be to collect this data in a scalable way. Gabriel says it’s already processing “millions of emails” every month.

This post This startup just raised $1.2m to improve its automated sales assistant appeared first on Tech in Asia.

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