Aman Goel founded his startup Cogno AI while still in college. Like many aspiring entrepreneurs, Aman “never wanted to get a job,” but instead wanted to build a business that he and his family would be proud of. Majoring in Computer Science, Aman did entrepreneurship courses on the side, dreaming of the day he’d settle on a business idea worth pursuing.
That day came during an entrepreneurship class on ride-hailing services. It started simple enough: How could they help the less tech-savvy order an Ola or Uber? The solution, Aman suggested, was to call a voicebot that walks the customer through the booking. No need to use a fiddly app or even own a smartphone. This was the start of “AllinCall”, Cogno AI’s parent.
“If you’re over 55 years old, not too educated, and don’t understand how to use a smartphone or the internet, it’s difficult to access app-based services,” Aman said. “That’s why we wanted to build a voice solution. Instead of booking through the app, customers call a number and an AI bot using interactive voice response (IVR) helps guide them through a booking.”
It was an elegant solution, but Aman’s Entrepreneurship professors saw an even bigger opportunity in pitching the idea to large enterprises as an automated service agent. Their insight and mentorship helped Aman win his first contract, which gave him the confidence to reject job offers of $150,000 (to his parent’s chagrin) and begin a journey to his first million dollars and beyond.
“When we showed the technology to some of our entrepreneurship professors, many of whom were industry veterans and billionaires, they were impressed,” Aman said. “They told us to take the technology to enterprises rather than build a consumer base of our own where we’d have to worry about customer acquisition costs, unit economics, and so on.”
Young, Bold, and Restless
Aman is no stranger to entrepreneurship. He spent his formative years developing business ideas for problems he and his friends faced every day. He credits this to his curiosity, a drive to help people, and his experience interning for companies like Rubrik in the Bay Area. Although his ideas made a little money, none compared to the success of Cogno AI.
The concept began as B2C, like Aman’s Uber idea, but when his mentors at the Desai Sethi Center for Entrepreneurship, a department of IIT Bombay in India, suggested pivoting to B2B, he understood what was on offer. He was young, and in India, age matters. If his mentors had the network to get him in front of big companies, he’d have been a fool to refuse them.
“Because we were young, we had lesser experience than most of our customers. So the big challenge was always going to be, how do we get attention from enterprise companies? This was our biggest roadblock. But we got around it by leveraging our advisor network, which we met through our entrepreneurship mentors at DSCE.”
Banking the Unbanked
The digital divide is huge in India. What better way to bridge that gap, Aman realized, than leveraging enterprise companies and their distribution to improve public services? The obvious choice was banks. Helping bank the unbanked, or at least providing wider access to financial services, resonated with Aman’s original intention for his IVR technology – helping people.
But they didn’t have a product yet. Just an MVP of their bot solution and a vision for wider access to financial services. As Aman pressed his suit and knotted his tie, he wondered: What would India’s biggest banks think of him pitching a service with no product or entrepreneurial experience to back it? Without their approval, he’d fail his mentors as well as himself.
“We met the State Bank of India which has 470 million customers – more than the US population,” Aman said. “We also met HDFC Bank. And like Dropbox, we had to market the product before building it. So we created an explainer video for the voice and chatbot. We showed it to these banks and they loved the idea. So that’s when our journey started.”
Aman’s first contract was to build a chatbot for the State Bank of India (SBI). The collaboration tested Aman’s ability to design, build, and deploy a solution that helped the bank serve common customer queries autonomously. If the chatbot cut down on queues, tickets, and freed advisors to solve tougher problems, SBI would deploy Aman’s technology nationwide.
“In June 2017, after I graduated, SBI gave us a $100,000 contract,” Aman said. “In some ways, it was a seed fund. The typical salary of a junior software engineer in India is around $15,000 a year. We were from good colleges, so had better offers, but even $60,000 puts you in the 0.1 percent of the workforce. This contract was a fortune which we could reinvest in the business.”
SBI’s approval opened doors Aman never thought possible. In the following months, they introduced him to the CXOs of their mutual fund, life insurance, stockbroking, and general insurance arms. Aman already had the IT and compliance clearance, so the subsidiaries could immediately onboard his startup. Aman then looked to penetrate other banks, too.
“One of our advisors introduced us to ICICI bank, which has a $50 billion-plus market cap,” Aman said. “I think it’s the third-largest bank in India and second-largest private sector bank. We got introduced to the Chief Technology Officer, and then the entire ICICI group became our customer, one subsidiary at a time. Again, we deployed our enterprise chatbot solution, which was NLP-rich, to lower their costs.”
How AI Helps Banks Serve Customers Better
Aman’s chatbot used Natural Language Processing (NLP). It didn’t matter which communication channel a customer used, whether it was phone, WhatsApp, Alexa, or Google, the chatbot could naturally interact and service them without human assistance. In other words, Aman’s product helped banks become more efficient while serving a greater number of customers.
“Later, we added modules to make it similar to what Intercom does,” Aman said. “We also added a video calling module where agents can initiate a video call with the customer, and a co-browsing module where agents can see customers’ screens in real-time and help them complete the purchase journey. Today, it’s a full-stack digital contact center.”
Aman’s plug-and-play technology allows his clients to develop better financial products rather than waste time perfecting an in-house contact center. He and his team provide all the tools and frameworks to help agents serve customers while also providing autonomous, flexible, and omnichannel support. They couldn’t do this without AI, so it was time to rebrand.
“AI was a hot topic so we rebranded from AllinCall to Cogno AI,” Aman said. “For the first one and a half years, from April 2017 to August 2018, we ran an AI-services company but hadn’t locked down our key product. But in 2018, we nailed this down as the omnichannel chatbot, since it’s been the most useful for our clients. We’ve been Cogno AI ever since.”
An Abrupt Departure and Other Challenges
If you think Aman had it easy, you’ll be unsurprised to learn his luck didn’t last. For that first year and a half, struggling to find product-market fit and collaborating with enormous financial institutions, Aman was in a state of flux. In August 2018, his co-founder quit giving just four days’ notice, leaving Aman concerned for the future of his business.
“I was left with one full-time employee and one intern,” Aman said. “It was a bad situation, and my parents were worried about my future. Fortunately, a friend of mine, Harshita Srivastava, with whom I ran another business in my college days, partnered with me. Today, I look at Sales, Operations, and Customer Success, and Harshita looks at Product, Engineering, and HR.”
Did Aman ever think of quitting during those early days? “It never made sense to quit,” Aman said. “We make mistakes all the time. Even today, things break or go offline, but you have to get comfortable when things go wrong. That’s very important as a founder because hustle is the only thing that differentiates a successful founder from a not-so-successful founder.”
Stop Overthinking Tech and Focus on Distribution
With Harshita onboard and renewed focus on their omnichannel chatbot system, Aman turned his attention to growing their distribution networks. Aman shot for international penetration, securing meetings with CXOs at banks in Nigeria and Oman. Aman is quick to note that without his advisors and banking contacts, he’d never have won international distribution so quickly.
“Chatbots aren’t a new technology,” Aman said. “The innovation is in distribution, on productizing the use cases of chatbots for large enterprises. We leveraged our network – my college alums from IIT Bombay are CXOs – to sell to the financial services market. Founders focus too much on technology and not enough on distribution.”
Cogno AI has been profitable since day one, a privilege few founders share. Aman believes he’s had distribution to thank for his healthy balance sheet. Rather than source new customers alone, which requires time and money, Aman recommends finding enterprise customers who can distribute your service for you. It’s the ideal model to launch your product, he argues.
“A lot of businesses need at least one to three years of gestation to make a profit,” Aman said. “If you’re young and want to bootstrap, I suggest looking at enterprise business ideas. I got a $100,000 contract from SBI because they saw the value in our product. They paid a premium to co-create it and customize it with us. It takes longer to grow, but you’re profitable from day one.”
Finding customers before building a product might seem like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. But if you convincingly pitch a product or service to the right people, they might give you the runway to build and scale it. Yes, this does limit your ability to pivot should things go wrong, but like in Aman’s case, it could also be the distribution lever that results in your first million.
Aman is thankful to his team members, customers, mentors, and parents for all the help and support that they have provided him in building Cogno AI.
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