chatterboxes

Houston startup hopes to revolutionize the chatbot business

Houston-based alive5 has over 800 customers using their chatbox services — and has found a special niche in sports team's websites. Photo via alive5.com

It seems like every other webpage nowadays has a virtual assistant that pops up via a chat box. A Houston startups is hoping to ride the wave of this digital marketing initiative.

Houston-based alive5 has created a platform that allows small-to-medium-sized businesses to engage customers using Chatbot Technology, from their websites, apps, SMS text-message, and social media pages.

"What we do at alive5 is really simple," says Glenn Gutierrez, COO and co-founder of alive5. "We help your business make more conversations."

Gutierrez and his co-founder Dustin Yu started out in 2017 as Alive Chat System and they were one of the first chat systems in Texas.

"Our chat system was kind of a common system that you might see on a website that says, 'Hey, how can I help you today?" says Gutierrez. "And when you press that button, somebody on the other end sends a message and says, 'Hey, how are you doing today? How can I help you?"

After exploring how to take the company, which was initially a lifestyle product, to scale, they added new products and found new ways for their clients to have more conversations with their customers.

"We had to create as many channels as possible outside of web chat," says Gutierrez. "We talked about the live chat system, moving into SMS text message, moving into social media and interestingly enough, we started moving into business cards with QR codes where people can actually scan a QR code or text a phone number and we can automatically build a relationship with a customer at an event, in person or from a billboard.

"And that activates pretty much all the rest of the system for businesses to be able to engage a customer. So we think about ourselves as the best way to help you create more conversations, not just on your website, but pretty much anywhere you would engage a customer."

The platform enjoyed a meteoric rise in the chat space due to its participation in Capital Factory's accelerator program. From there, they were placed in another accelerator program in Philadelphia, the Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, powered by Techstars.

"Because of the boost from the accelerator programs, we developed relationships with a lot of great organizations," says Gutierrez. "Today, we service over 800 customers, including 200 of the top college sports teams and pro teams like the NBA, NFL and NHL."

The platform's collaboration helps teams sell more tickets, especially premium seat tickets, by facilitating conversations with VIP clients and allowing fans the opportunity to go to the team's website to use the automated chat solution.

"A good example of one of those is the Jacksonville Jaguars website," says Gutierrez. "You can go there and see one of our chat boxes available to assist with inquiries or questions that you may have before, during or after a game. And our solution is built for organizations with a high volume of customer interactions to automate some of those tier one questions."

Alive5 also services customers like Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, major hotel brands and other companies in the hospitality space. They are also now collaborating with Spectra Venue Management, which manages hundreds of venues throughout North America, to pilot alive5's messaging and concierge services.

Outside of their inroads in the chat space, the platform is creating AI-powered strategies to help companies maximize their communication opportunities at personal touchpoint events such as conferences and trade shows.

"With our A.I. powered business cards, we're able to take an engagement that happens at a conference, an event or at a networking session and turn that into a prospect that's now part of a company's digital lead funnel," says Gutierrez. "What we're proposing is to give them a laser-etched metal business card with the QR code. That is better than just giving them a paper business card that they will take and may or may not call you and that's it, that's the end of the interaction.

"With the QR code, a potential contact can scan it and it will send them a demo of our product to their phone and it will give them all of a client's contact details so they can reach out to that client anytime they're ready to buy. The best part about that is that now you have something that no other system can do and you have that customer's phone number available to you at any point in time."

Moving forward, the Houston-based platform wants to do everything within its power to be one of the most successful chat companies nationwide.

"I like to think about our product like a Lego set," says Gutierrez. "It's up to you to choose what package you want. I've been in the startup space for a long time and to finally see that ecosystem starting to mature to the point that businesses are more open to digitally transforming their organizations, where they're understanding the need to take risks, to try new things, that's great for us.

"When you think about a company that can help you with your communication, I want alive5 to be the first company on their minds."

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

It's not too huge of an assumption to make that many Houston startups and small businesses failed to pay their rents in full yesterday. Since the city's stay-at-home mandate on March 24 — and even preceding that — most businesses have seen a slowdown of revenue as a result of COVID-19-caused business disruptions.

Business owners are frantically looking in their leases and searching online to see what rights they have and what sort of protection they have in such an unprecedented time.

"People are confused. They don't know what to do, and finding information is hard," says Meredith Wheeler, co-founder and chief creative officer of Sesh Coworking, which opened earlier this year.

Wheeler and Sesh's co-founder, Maggie Segrich, have created a petition to get on the radar of local elected officials to challenge them to pass legislation to protect small businesses in this time.

"At the end of the day, it would be so wonderful and idealistic to say that we could rely on the niceties and the moral compasses of our landlords, but it's probably not true for everyone and so that's why we need legislation to dictate what is right," Wheeler says.

But landlords are also in unchartered territory, says Josh Feinberg, who has worked in Houston as a commercial real estate broker and co-founded CRE tech platform, Tenavox.

"There's this idea that there's this acrimony between tenant and landlord, and I think, as a former broker, we're set up that way to get our side the best deal. But in reality, that's just not true," Feinberg says. "The majority of commercial real estate is owned by regular people — not usually some faceless, gigantic corporation."

And they have a piper to pay too, Feinberg adds. Ninety percent of CRE is owned by debt, he says. If the government steps in anywhere, it should be on the lender level, as well as creating some sort of tax relief.

"If there's any relief here, it's going to have to come from lenders, and I think you'd hear that from owners and brokers," Feinberg says.

In somewhat convenient timing, Tenavox has recently co-founded a new company that provides a bit of a solution for small businesses. Otso provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. Traditionally, deposits are held onto by landlords — they aren't legally allowed to spend it unless the tenant defaults.

"In general, I think cash deposits are wasteful," Feinberg says. "It's critical capital that the business can hire with, invest, and use."

Tenavox teamed up with Euler Hermes, a 135-year-old credit insurance company, to create Otso, and the credit company backs the lease performance of each tenant that is approved by Otso. The transaction calls for a fee added to the rent, but no large cash deposit would be required.

The tool can be used on new leases, and, in light of the current situation, Otso can also be used to create an addendum in existing leases so that the tenant can get back their deposit and use it in this time of crisis. Either landlord or tenant can apply online and hear back that same day — Feinberg says he's focused on a speedy response to help get this deposit money back to the tenant.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg says.

Other than looking into Otso, Feinberg has some other recommendations for small business owners. He says they should be applying for relief from the Small Business Administration, which has more money to dole out than they have ever had. And, as it pertains to working with their landlords, communication is key. Show financials and specific information — like what March 2019 looks like compared to 2020 — so that landlords can take that to their lenders.

"An unprecedented crisis is going to require unprecedented solutions," Feinberg says.