TECHNOLOGY

Inside the App Richard Branson Used to Meet Up with Billionaire Ong Beng Seng

Don’t worry, there are a lot of use cases for non-billionaires too

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BY Ezra Ferraz - 07 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In London, Howdy co-founder and CEO Benjamin Abbott was sitting with his brother at a cafe that was a popular hub for entrepreneurs when a curious thought occurred to him: Everyone in the room could be their next collaborator, yet they had no idea who anyone was. Furthermore, they were all probably connected on social media, and an informal poll of people around them confirmed this idea.

According to Abbott, this gap sparked the thought of leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to help people identify a new meaningful connection and turn it into a real-life meeting.

“It is not meaningful to connect with everyone digitally and it’s not practical to say hello to everyone we pass on the street,” Abbot says of the challenge that he eventually tried to address with mobile app Howdy.

Howdy, which is currently raising a seed round, has gotten a lot of traction and good publicity to boot. According to Abbot, when Richard Branson visited Singapore, he used Howdy to connect him with billionaire Ong Beng Seng, who joined the Englishman for dinner.

Use cases for non-billionaires are just as plenty. “When you join a new community or arrive at a conference, Howdy identifies the right people for you to meet to save time and create new opportunities,” Abbot says, adding that contacts are also stamped with when you met them to help you remember who they are.

But because Howdy is useful for events, Abbot admits that event apps can be an indirect competitor, but he was quick to differentiate the two.

“We are different because people don’t delete the app when the event is over because the community engagement begins, and because we are a platform, the members can join other communities so they have more use for the app,” he says, noting that the breadth of engagement only means Howdy’s AI makes better recommendations in time.

Company messaging trickier than AI

Although Abbot says Howdy’s pipeline is bursting with projects due to many introductions and referrals, there are still many challenges to contend with for the growing company. People sign-in to Howdy with their LinkedIn profile, but he admits learning how to “top up” their profile to make it relevant for a particular day can be easier. Similarly, the messaging system is very rudimentary, and so they are taking steps to improve both these features.

Howdy’s messaging has proven as tricky, if not trickier, than its artificial intelligence. He says at the beginning, they weren’t able to express their value proposition without explaining it face-to-face with someone. Early incarnations of the website were also confusing in that it muddled whether Howdy was B2B or B2C.

The company is taking steps to improve its messaging. “Beyond that it is about credibility and we have purposefully built an advisory board of investors who have extraordinary experience and track records in marketing, scaling, fundraising, and machine learning. This gives confidence to our customers. We think we have identified an HR guru to help us ensure our nascent culture and growing the team does not take us off course,” he says.

Moving forward, the company is reaching out to social media managers, so that they may understand Howdy’s value proposition, and is also focused on refining the core product.

“We want to layer in the social graph so that when our matching engine suggests two people should meet, Howdy can say, ‘Elaine, please meet Claire, we think you should meet because you are an entrepreneur and you are an investor and you both love kite-surfing, red wine and think Elon Musk is awesome,’” Abbot says.