Why I Started a Chatbot Company

How experiences in Higher Ed and technology created an unanticipated opportunity

Hi — I’m Mark. I’m the CEO of Ivy.ai. I’ve been in Higher Ed tech for over 15 years, at companies like Optimal Resume and Brim.

Something must have been funny

During my career, I’ve had the privilege of bearing witness to tremendous changes in the industry, many of them brought technological innovation. I was lucky enough to help affect some of these changes.

I’ve learned a lot, and taken more lumps than I care to admit. This experience has helped me to understand how Higher Ed operates — how it accounts for problems, and creates or discovers solutions. And, my experience in tech helps me to understand how new ways of thinking can be used to solve old or old-fashioned problems.

Sitting at this intersection, I see in Higher Ed an industry still in flux, but aware of its flaws and unafraid of change. That in part is why I think we are on the cusp of something big in Higher Ed — bigger than anything that has come before.

I’d like to share my story, and tell you why I think the biggest changes in Higher Ed are just around the corner, and why chatbots will be instrumental to that change.

When I was in college at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (Go Heels!), the internet was in its infancy; University organizations moved at the speed of the US Postal Service, and customer service meant dealing with people either in person or over the phone.

The actual phone I dialed from to reach Financial Services at UNC-CH (not really)

In addition, Universities were simply smaller shops back then. There were internationally esteemed institutions and a few large state schools with national brands — but beyond those, most institutions of Higher Education were serving a single region, and sometimes just one state (or even an area of a single state).

Things have changed. With the advent of broadband internet, LTE networks, nationwide admissions campaigns and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Universities have seen an increase in both the number of people they serve, as well as the number of service channels they are responsible for monitoring.

This is the impact of technology. It has allowed schools to expand their footprints beyond any single region with relative ease. The consequence of this growth, however, is that Universities have had to expand their information repositories — the dates, times, and most basic materials that allow them to function. That information cannot be found easily by the public, as it is stored in online repositories (websites) which can only be accessed online.

To support an ever increasing demand for information by their customers, while also ensuring an incredible amount of critical information remains accessible, service organizations have had to rapidly increase their numbers.

This rapid growth seems to have fundamentally changed the nature of University service workers, from that of guide and student shepherd, to something more akin to a call center representative. It is fair to say that this transition— from meaningful problem-solver to the first point of contact for an ever-expanding information repository — has had a negative impact on job satisfaction amongst University service workers.

Unsurprisingly, the students themselves have changed during this time. As schools have expanded their breadth of offerings and reach, more and different types of students have decided to take advantage of these newly available educational opportunities. Remote students, students with careers, remote students with careers — each of these student types offer up different challenges to a University organization tasked with supporting them.

Remember, however, there are still typical students on campus who must navigate the University system! These large organizations, physically expanded to meet the needs of students from all over the world, are scattered all over campus; regular students are forced to work their way through their disconnected and disparate systems in order to gain access to the information they need.

The result of this situation, the result of rapid growth brought on by technological innovation, is that everyone involved suffers.

Traditional students are frustrated with their University and those tasked with helping them. New students, however, are more affected, and often end up leaving their institutions. Given their obligations — being adults and likely having additional responsibilities beyond school — this is not entirely surprising. However, it does leave schools in a pickle: they’ve expanded their breadth of offerings (and overhead) in order to meet the demands of a fundamentally different form student (i.e., remote adult students); yet those students aren’t fulfilling their end of the deal (i.e., staying in school).

So, the very Universities that expanded to meet the needs of a new form of student are being punished most: they cannot provide the different types of students with the information they need to be successful, and their staff is downtrodden because of the enormous and repetitive workload.

Something had to change.

This was the situation I encountered when I spoke to the UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Career Services. I was fresh off my last engagement, and looking for a new challenge. I asked to meet with them on a hunch that automation technologies — based on newly developed artificial intelligent frameworks — could solve problems like theirs.

A large and renowned organization, UNC was feeling the negative effects of an increasingly global brand on its service infrastructure. Not only were they experiencing all of the issues I’ve previously discussed — with remote and adult working students needing far more and different forms of support to be successful — but they were also experiencing a lot of employee dissatisfaction with the sheer amount of repetitive questions they were tasked with answering. Their website, though thorough, was incredibly dense. “We get the same questions over and over, and we know exactly why — but what else can we do about it?,” they said to me.

As I sat there and listened, it struck me that there was now a whole lot they could do about it. Artificial intelligence (AI) had progressed to such an extent that it was acceptable to broader society as a fairly routine tool; AI-driven virtual assistants (think Siri) permeate every aspect of daily life. Additionally, the technologies undergirding AI are now so developed and well-understood that purpose-built solutions can rapidly be scaled to meet the needs of a specific user.

It seemed like Higher Education was experiencing the perfect series of problems to benefit from the power of AI. Chatbots, driven by AI and machine learning algorithms, could provide accurate answers to questions at any time of day, over and over without ever fatiguing. They could traverse those expansive University websites in nanoseconds, providing students the exact information they need, whenever it was needed. And, with every question asked of them, the more accurate and responsive chatbots become; the larger an organization grows, the better chatbots will be at doing the job of finding the metaphorical needle (critical information) in the haystack of the University website. In other words, bring on the redundancy.

From what I can tell, this is only the beginning. As virtual assistants become even more intertwined in our daily lives, and Higher Ed becomes aware of their potential power, the opportunities for their application are seemingly limitless. Imagine doing away with your entire website as you know it, and allowing chatbots — through conversational interfaces similar to text messaging — to provide all requesters any sort of information they’d like about your organization. Imagine offloading the mundane, and doing better work. Imagine what can be accomplished.

This is why I decided to start Ivy. Technology helped Universities grow, to both their benefit as well as their disadvantage. New opportunities were opened up to them, but also created new and different problems. No obvious solutions to these problems were on the horizon, other than “more scale” — more people, answering more questions, which likely meant more dissatisfaction all around. This was not feasible.

So, along with my co-founder, I decided to try something new, hopefully at just the right time for everyone. Ivy is our answer to complexity, to the challenges of scale brought on by technology, to the issues we’ve never had to consider yet have somehow rapidly become ordinary.

We are young, but we are growing. With schools like UNC-CH, Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Pennsylvania agreeing with us, we believe we are on to something.

Let us know how we can help you.

So, how can a chatbot benefit your institution? Why don’t you let us explain how. Visit us at Ivy.ai to learn more, or Reach Out to chat.

Ivy.ai is a customer service chatbot focused on serving the needs of Higher Ed administrators

Our Ivy Bot makes the lives of University organizations and their students easier.