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Building a Robot Cofounder


photo by Ben Husmann

In the beginning there is never enough time and never enough people to do everything that your startup needs done. The dev team could always use an extra hand, the nontechnical cofounder always hogs the summer intern, you enjoy the spike in traffic a new blog post brings but wish you could figure out a way to write it in your sleep.

Worst of all are the critical tasks that need to be done on a regular basis over time in order to be effective. Nothing kills your entrepreneurial stamina like monotony.

That’s why I started building a robot cofounder for Exversion almost a year ago.

My robot cofounder is really a collection of scripts and APIs that automate our most basic regular tasks. Most of these tasks are biz dev or social media related, but you can just as easily build automation into boring and awful technical tasks if you wanted. I cannot overstate the power of smart automation. Anyone can write a script that runs regularly, but the robot cofounder project was about making sure the output of those scripts didn’t seem like it was generated automatically. People love robots, but no one wants to feel like they are talking to one.

That makes it sound like there’s some complicated machine learning AI magic built in, but really it’s more about applying small amounts of human processing in the right places.

Task One: Managing a Weekly Mailing List
It started with our mailing list. The mailing list always brought in tons of traffic, the problem was writing the content was a real pain in the ass. I knew we really weren’t utilizing this resource very well, but I also knew that most of the startup mailing lists I have been automatically subscribed to I also automatically delete every week. There didn’t seem to be much point to taking valuable time away from tasks I enjoyed to produce content many people would never even open.

That being said, there are a few weekly emails I do look forward to reading. And they all had one thing in common: they were news digests. Blogs posts and announcements on niche topics that interested me compiled and delivered weekly so that I didn’t have to troll the internet looking for them.

So I thought to myself: why don’t we do that with data? No one else is.

This is how Exversion’s weekly mailing list came to be. Every Tuesday night a cron job fires on Exversion’s server that runs a request to Algolia’s API. Algolia– if you are not aware– has built a search engine that indexes Hacker News. So robot cofounder sends a query to Algolia asking for all links posted to Hacker News in the last week have the keyword “data” in either their title or comments. We take only the first twenty links.

Then robot cofounder scrapes DataTau’s front page. DataTau is basically a data science specific Hacker News clone. It has much less traffic, but consequently articles that make it to the front page are much more technical and in-depth. There are no startup announcements, no general interest links. An article can stay on the front page for a full week.

Lastly robot cofounder assembles a list of new content on Exversion that we may want to promote. This includes blog posts, tutorials, interesting new datasets or new data requests.

Robot cofounder takes this large list of links and pushes them to MailChimp’s API which assembles the mailing using the right template and formatting and schedules it to be sent out to Exversion’s mailing list pending approval. Robot cofounder than triggers a test email which delivers the draft to my email.

Now all that remains for me to do is to trim the list of links down to the most interesting collection of news. I cut pretty aggressively, trying to get the right blend of data science, data infrastructure, open data news. The balance between content for beginners and content for experts is particularly important. We want there are be something for everyone at every skill level.

Once that’s done I create a title, regenerate the plain text version and click send. The whole process takes me around ten minutes.

Task 2: Manage Our Twitter Account
The mailing list worked out really well. We had a wave of unsubscribes as our emails went from once-every-six-months to once-every-week, but we were anticipating that. It had been so long since our last email surely most of our subscribers had forgotten they were subscribed! Over the next two months the bleeding stopped and slowly but surely we started gaining more users than we were losing. People were constantly coming up to me and telling me how much they loved the new mailing list and we got a nice spike in traffic every Wednesday.

It was time to expand robot cofounder’s responsibilities to our Twitter account.

The thing about sites like Hacker News and Reddit is that they are basically firehoses to content. No one can keep track of everything so there’s a real value in tapping into that content and helping people find the gems that will interest them. Our weekly digests were great, but they only grabbed the top matches for the week at that moment. It seemed like a smart idea to resuscitate our neglected Twitter account by having it distribute interesting data news daily.

And since the code for grabbing that news was already written, automating our Twitter account was just a matter of setting up a free Buffer account and hooking robot cofounder into their API.

Every morning when I open up Exversion’s admin dashboard, robot cofounder has prepared a list of links about data extracted from Hacker News the day before. I approve the ones I think are worth tweeting and robot cofounder assigns a time for them and sends them to Buffer. The whole process takes no more than five minutes.

Task 3: Harvest and Qualify Sales Leads
I have recently fallen in love with Contactually (FYI – signing up with that link will give you $10 off) which is a tool to automate and manage your relationships via email. You can import contacts from almost anywhere, sort them into buckets and build whole automated programs around the buckets that send specific emails at certain times based on certain triggers.

Most people use Contactually as a CRM, but robot cofounder uses it for so much more than sending dry sales email. Because they have a pretty robust API, I can create whole series of interactions with users and potential clients that seem organic and real but are actually generated and managed by Exversion’s server.

What Good is a Robot Cofounder?
Since I started building a robot cofounder, traffic to Exversion has grown by 275% Our twitter account has gone from hundreds of followers who were mostly fake to thousands of followers who are extremely real and influential in our field. Our mailing list open rate is a good 20% above the average for our industry. All this is starting to translate nicely into more users, more sales, more speaking engagements, more collaboration opportunities and most importantly more free time for me to write code!

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