Founder Tales: Paul Shepherd, CEO of We Build Bots
In the most recent Founder Tales interview, we caught up with Cardiff-based tech entrepreneur Paul Shepherd.
He’s the CEO and founder of We Build Bots, an artificial intelligence company that uses chatbots, voice assistants and analytics to help improve customer service.
Paul reflects talks about how he quit a corporate job to set up a tech company, his biggest business lessons and the things to know when raising investment.
TD: How did it all start?
PS: I founded a social media agency back in 2010, having worked in digital communications for some large financial services companies. A large proportion of what we did was to manage the customer service channels across Facebook and Twitter etc for some quite large corporates.
In doing so, we recognised just how repetitive in nature manual customer services are, and at any one point, we probably had 15 – 20 people answering, a lot of the time, the same questions.
So we started to build some rudimentary internal web apps, just to expedite the process and make our internal processes more efficient. Having seen the results of that, we decided that it was probably a product that we might be able to take to market.
So we really began to productise between the years of 2016 – 2017, and then we span out We Build Bots mid 2017 and the product IntelAgent was put out to the market.
TD: So you had a successful company, and then you made that difficult decision to launch We Build Bots as something new. Can you talk about that a little bit?
PS: Coup Media is the agency and is still in existence to this day. Coup actually became an incubator for a couple of things that I’ve gone on and launched.
Apart from doing social media marketing for large corporates, we acquired the OI Conference (Online Influence Conference), which was a social media conference, and strategically it fitted with what we were doing. So we sponsored it one year and then acquired it. We went on to scale that to be 2500 delegates – one of Europe’s fastest growing conferences.
I also co-founded an analytics company, called Hello Soda, which has now gone on to around 40/45 people in offices in Manchester, Austin, Bangkok; raised 10 million dollars.
So Coup became as much as an agency as a platform through which I could try different things and launch different companies, or cofound different companies. We Build Bots was one of those.
TD: How did the opportunity for Coup Media develop?
PS: I launched Coup Media because my role in financial services with Lloyds Banking Group, and then Principality here in Cardiff, was largely me managing agencies.
I got to know the industry quite well, got to know the pricing models and got to know a lot about how agencies deal with their clients, so I decided that I could probably do that and then set out to start the agency
TD: Did you just quit your job and start it overnight?
PS: My wife, girlfriend at the time, fell pregnant with our second child, and I’d had this idea that I wanted to do something on my own. And I hadn’t made the decision at this point, but I took 2 weeks paternity, and just got used to waking up later and getting on with some work while doing other things.
And I thought, ‘I really like this – I like this doing things when I want to do them, and how I want to do them.’ And I’d work late nights instead of early mornings. So I never actually went back after paternity. I just called my boss and said, ‘I’m not coming back.’ And they were fine, actually. In fact, they gave me our first big contract, so it worked out well.
The family were a bit shocked and worried because we didn’t have money – mortgage payments in the bank or anything – but it worked out ok.
TD: Can you talk a bit about that – juggling work/life balance?
Juggling the work/life balance is a challenge in the early days, but the thing that I loved about it was that you do work long hours, but you’re not tied to when those hours have to be put in, all the time anyway.
I found that I quite enjoyed working late into the night and early into the morning when people were outside of work, so I could do big chunks of work when it was deathly silence and I had some real headspace.
And then the daytimes, I could help out with my little lad and do little tasks around the house. Obviously, with mobile phones and emails on phones, you’re never really out of touch. So if you do need to do something at a point in time when you weren’t planning on doing it, it’s not a problem – you just duck back to the house, or let someone know that you’ll be on it within the next hour or something.
TD: What have been your biggest lessons as an entrepreneur?
PS: I used to pride myself on not planning, being a little bit flighty about things and taking opportunities when they come along. And there’s definitely a lot to be said for being opportunistic and spotting a gap in the market and really going for it.
But I’ve definitely learnt that if you can map out where you want to be and how you’re going to get there – even if it completely fingers in the air stuff and stuff that you deviate from in the first month or two – planning is quite important.
And then as the businesses became bigger, and we went to raise financing, the first thing you’re asked for is the business plan and your forecasts. I’ve actually grown to really really love that stuff.
TD: How do you start a conversation when you’re trying to convince a stranger to give you money to make your dream happen?
PS: I think when you’re trying to convince someone to invest – effectively a stranger, to give you money – a story helps a lot. For us, it helped a lot to be able to say that this product idea had come from our own experience of recognising the inefficiencies of customer service, because we were those inefficient people, working in a very manual way.
That helps a lot because it shows that you’ve experienced the pain of what you’re about to try and solve. I think there’s a lot to be said for chemistry. I think you need to appreciate that you are asking for money and be humble about it.
Take on board any reservations. We had quite a few people question our valuation of the company – certainly We Build Bots. We rationalised that valuation, we accepted what they said, but we went back to them and explained why we thought that valuation was accurate and we got that valuation.
But ultimately I think a lot of that was around not digging our heels in, and not getting our backs up when someone said, ‘I don’t think your company is as valuable as you think it is.’ I think you need to kind of pace yourself, take it on board, think about it, go away. And I’m sure at times, people are right about valuations and reducing valuations, but if you really believe in what you’ve said, then spend a lot of time to explain why, and then go back.