Here at the Spoon, we read about and try out new foodbots all the time. This is Behind the Bot, a series looking at the stories of people behind the technology.
The past year has seen a huge surge in interest in virtual assistants and bots. While much of the action in the food and smart home space has been with voice assistants like Alexa, some of the most interesting work is happening in chatbots.
In this week’s edition of Behind the Bot, we feature Forksy, a conversational assistant that helps users track their food consumption. I’ve been using Forksy for the past week and found it fairly intuitive way to track food consumption and less work than many of the food tracker apps available on the market.
I caught up with Mike Ushakov, the CEO of Forksy. Ushakov, who sold his last startup to Russian search giant Yandex, has been working on Forksy since mid-2016.
How did you get the idea for Forksy?
My cofounder & CTO (Eugene Molodkin) and I were watching the food diaries market to find a suitable solution for ourselves to track foods and drinks and to eat healthily. We were amazed by the complexity of the current solutions: it takes a lot of effort to track foods via any popular food journaling app. We saw an opportunity for a new product here.
Why is a chatbot a better way to track calories and food consumption vs. other methods?
There are two factors:
1) You can speak to a chatbot in your natural language
2) You use the chat bot in the environment that is natural for you – messenger
Both of these factors solve one major UI/UX problem: most of the users are not ready to adapt to a new interface. So it is usually a huge barrier to learning a way to track foods in a freshly installed food tracking app. And there is no barrier in Forksy’s case: you just tell the bot what you are eating and drinking and she does the rest.
On which platforms is Forksy available?
We are on Facebook, Viber, Kik, and Telegram – so on every significant platform presented in the Western world.
Why did you decide to make a food-focused skill?
We are tech guys, I sold my previous company a year before we started this new one – so we so the problem (absence of useful food tracking apps) and now are trying to solve it.
What have you learned since people have started using your skill?
We have 100 thousand users on different platforms. The major thing we learned is that when you create an app, you compete with other apps on the phone’s home screen. And when you create a bot, you compete with the people in the contact list in Messenger. So the competition is much more fierce – and you need to constantly engage the user to survive. It is a tricky thing to do, as there are no best practices to read. Everybody is reinventing the wheel, but it is one of the most interesting things to do now.
What is the biggest challenge for bot makers?
To explain the whole world what the bots are and how to use them. Now only a fraction of people (even among journalists) get it.
Bot discovery is a challenge. How are you going about getting people to learn about and try your bot?
We rely on traditional marketing ways (like SMM and paid marketing) as well as on the quality of the product. The good product spreads itself.
How does usage patterns look post first engagement?
We see two types of the users – kids and grown-ups. Most of the kids play with the bot once and then never come back – but the product is not relevant to them, it is just a talking toy.
Grown-ups, especially women, likely to stick with Forksy at least for several days and try all the features. Some of the users stay for a month or even several months. We didn’t expect that at all given the current immaturity of our product.
Forksy is not relevant for all of the people in the world, but she is relevant for those who want to count calories. So most of the people who want to lose weight return after the first usage.
Why did you choose a chatbot using Facebook Messenger vs. a spoken word skill like Alexa?
It is only about focus; there is no contradiction between text chatbots and voice assistants.
Messengers are more wide-spread platforms than systems like Alexa, that’s why we start with the Messengers. When Alexa audience becomes comparable to the one billion users of Messenger, then everybody will be building for Alexa.
It is relatively easy for us to support Alexa and we play to do it some day.
Tell us about yourself and your team.
Forksy is our first bot. It is my second company – I sold my first one 2.5 years ago.
My co-founder and CTO is Eugene Molodkin, he works with me on a different projects for the last seven years. He is an engineer with 10 years experience and a computer science degree. We have a small team of several other people who help us create the product. My co-founder and I were born in Russia, I currently live between Russia and Europe and the team around the world (Berlin, Tel-Aviv, etc.).
We are still bootstrapped.
What do you have in store for Forksy?
We are going to do much more extensive analysis of users’ food diaries than we do today, and provide the users with AI-enhanced advice on nutrition in the different ways. Some of the upcoming features will be paid.