Trending: 5 things no one tells you about starting a startup

Polly co-founders
Polly co-founders Bilal Aijazi and Samir Diwan. Photos via Polly.

Polly.ai is utilizing chatbots to help managers assess employee happiness.

The Seattle-based startup on Tuesday officially rolled out its chatbot product, which integrates with popular office collaboration app Slack and lets managers poll employees on a one-time or recurring basis. The chatbot automatically collects feedback and data, tracking trends to provide insights for employers.

Polly measures factors like team happiness, meeting effectiveness, and product health. The startup, similar to fellow Seattle company TINYpulse, is just the latest in a series of tech companies entering the “Conversation as a Platform” space. Microsoft, Facebook, and several others are investing in chatbot technology.

Former Microsoft engineers Samir Diwan and Bilal Aijazi founded Polly.ai, which is currently part of the Techstars Seattle accelerator.

“We felt like management didn’t have a great pulse on what the engineers were thinking and feeling,” Diwan said of their time at Microsoft. “We wanted to create a way to quantify that sentiment and have it accessible to managers so they could use it to make better decisions.”

We caught up with Diwan for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Polly is a chatbot that users can train to gather, connect, and analyze data from employees within your team.”

Polly CEO Samir Diwan.
Polly CEO Samir Diwan.

Inspiration hit us when: “When we realized that there’s a massive shift in enterprise user behavior taking place — users are spending more and more time in chat applications like Slack. It only made sense to build out new enterprise applications where we expect the world to be in a few years.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “All three, at different phases of the company. We’ve bootstrapped for the past 18 months, and we’re currently raising from angels and micro VCs. This will give us some initial capital to reach the milestones we’ve set out to accomplish over the next year.

At the same time, we believe we’re at the beginning of a major inflection point in the way enterprise users get their work done. We believe that, in five to 10 years, chatbots will either replace or be the interface into every major enterprise application (this does not even include the new use cases that chatbots will unlock). The opportunity in front of us is tremendous, and we will eventually need venture capital to win out in this space.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Our team. We’ve known each other for over a decade and have worked together for over seven years. We’ve built chat applications for millions of users, and we’ve built systems that handled trillions of data points for complex organizations.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “After spending months on the web and mobile app, we shipped a chat integration on Slack in May 2015. We immediately realized the power of building apps within chat applications — we knew this was the future.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Building one-off features from users. We weren’t disciplined early enough on to say no, and as a result, we had features that were sparingly used and were detracting from the core value prop of our product.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: Zuckerberg. He’s become the quintessential product-focused CEO and has shown an uncanny knack for understanding what users want and how to get there.

Our favorite team-building activity is: “Walking — it works well for both ranting and coming up with new ideas.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Will I be happy to see this person when I go in to work today? If you can’t pass this test, it doesn’t matter how smart or capable you are.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Sounds simple, but work with people you like working with. It’s a long, hard ride and having a friend along for the journey makes it way more fun.”

Editor’s note: GeekWire is featuring each of the companies participating in Techstars Seattle’s class of 2016 in the lead up to Demo Day on May 18.

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