When I say Bordeaux, chances are you’ll think wine, but 21st century Bordeaux is about more than châteaux and cellars. Alongside the grapes, a vibrant startup scene is growing, and among the thriving young businesses of the emblematic city, we find Wiidii.
Wiidii was founded in 2014 by Cédric Dumas, an experienced concierge business professional with a desire to make personal assistance services available to everyone. After raising €600K from a group of private investors in July 2015, Wiidii is now preparing to conquer the world with a hybrid personal assistant combining the best of artificial intelligence and human service expertise.
Meet Cédric Dumas, the CEO who will happily pick up the phone to call a hairdresser for a client.
What’s your elevator pitch?
Wiidii is a concierge service in the shape of a mobile app, which combines advanced artificial intelligence with human personal assistants. Wiidii doesn’t just let your voice operate your mobile device, it handles the tasks of everyday life for you. It can book a taxi or a flight, call your babysitter, or recommend a concert or an exhibition based on your tastes and preferences.
What problem does Wiidii solve?
Wiidii is a real personal assistant, which uses artificial intelligence to make service delivery cheaper and more efficient. For instance, if you want to book a hotel or make an appointment with your doctor, the machine will interact with you in order to collect all the information that’s required to complete the task, but at the end it hands the information over to a human who will make the actual reservation.
Wiidii stores everything the user puts in, so the more it’s used, the more relevant advice the user will get. We estimate that the machine handles 50-80% of the work, depending on the use case. For a tourist visiting a new city, the machine can handle about 80%, but when a large customer is stress testing Wiidii with all sorts of weird requests, it’s closer to 50%.
It’s important to note that we don’t forge partnerships with service providers. If Wiidii gives you a hotel recommendation, we get no commission from the hotel chain. Trust is key. So is security; it’s typically one of the first questions our prospects ask, and security remains a key focus for us.
Wiidii is a B2B2C business. Our direct customers are large groups, such as airports, airlines, tourist boards and hotel chains, who offer the concierge service to their customers in order to increase loyalty and satisfaction. Travel is our primary market for now, but we see lots of interest from other industries as well, such as insurance and automotive.
My vision is to develop Wiidii into a true companion for our users, a digital clone of themselves which centralizes everything and helps them manage everyday life. Instead of using multiple tools and sources to manage their tasks, they should just be able to tell Wiidii what they want to achieve, and Wiidii will take care of it in a way that reflects their habits and preferences.
Describe the journey from initial idea to product launch.
Before founding Wiidii, I was already the founder and CEO of a traditional concierge service company, which is now in its 10th year. I had been thinking about how personal assistants could be made available to everyone, and finally artificial intelligence provided the answer.
The pilot started in 2014 and ran until early 2015. At the time, it was little more than a chat app, but it gave us important insight into how users interacted with a virtual assistant. It also gave me something tangible to show when I took my business plan and went to seek external funding.
The second prototype incorporated some artificial intelligence, and a few large groups started to take an interest in the solution. It was still a terrible tool, but it was good enough to convince our prospects that the idea behind it was solid. Investors agreed, and in July 2015 we raised €600K from a group of private investors and started developing for real.
In fact, it had taken me almost a year to find the right approach and the right developers. I met with lots of researchers, looked at what the industry leaders were doing, and finally found a technology which had been developed and then abandoned because it was too risky to use without a human team behind it. I had the human team, so I picked it up. My developers worked on the solution from mid-2015 until this spring, and it’s now stable since about a month.
During this process, we ran a pilot project with Voyages SNCF, the French national railway company, which offered a free Wiidii subscription to its 40,000 Pro business travel program members. The pilot was hugely successful, we got lots of uptake, and the user feedback was very positive. It was a great stress test, which my team passed with flying colors.
We are now a team of 11 in total, all based in France, but before the end of the year we plan to open offices in Montreal and Singapore to cover additional time zones. Other locations may follow, depending on contracts and customer needs.
Do you have direct competitors? If so, what do you offer that others don’t?
There is a number of US competitors in the artificial intelligence domain, such as Maluuba, but their approach is entirely digital.
As a small company, you have to think differently. Our strength is the hybrid between artificial intelligence and human service know-how, and I don’t mean just having a call center. Our service operators are well trained and possess real concierge business experience.
Machines don’t communicate like humans. A machine can find you a Japanese restaurant which fits your defined budget, but if you tell it “I’m taking my wife out tonight, find us a romantic place you think she’ll like”, it’s not yet in its power to satisfy your request. That’s where our human team takes over. Thanks to the hybrid approach, we understand our customers, we don’t just store and compute data about them, and that makes all the difference.
Your most challenging moment so far?
It’s right now. We have a stable product and are very close to signing with some major customers, but it can be very difficult to work with large companies. Negotiations go on forever, internal political conflicts can block the progress completely, there’s a tiny grain of sand in the gears at the last moment… Staffing an always-on service in France is also expensive and complicated. There’s so much potential and lots of interest from the market, but we are stretching our treasury right now.
And the most exciting?
An encounter with someone working for a major group, who believes in our solution and advocates for it internally. Without this person, we would be going nowhere with the prospect. You often feel very alone as a startup founder, but when you find those ambassadors, when you see that the product of your imagination makes sense to real decision-makers, it’s thrilling.
I also had a very positive experience meeting with the French Minister of the Economy, Emmanuel Macron. You know, there are times when you doubt, you wonder if all your work and all your sacrifices will ever come to fruition… and then you are met with genuine interest and encouragement from someone who’s constantly flooded with information and demands. It really boosted my motivation!
Your No.1 advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Determination is key. Never let go, every day is important. And it really helps if you can find your ambassadors early on. There will be plenty of challenges: Low blows, competitors, doubts… every day there’s something to tackle, but when people you trust and admire believe in you, it helps you to deal with it all and keep going.
What do you think Wiidii will look like in a year?
It will already look different tomorrow! Raising additional funding will be key in order to achieve our goals. One key objective is to make the service multilingual, with human assistants who speak all the major languages.
What are your values in terms of work culture?
A: At Wiidii, everyone is a service operator in addition to their other responsibilities. You can be the office manager, a marketing person or in sales; all of us – myself included – spend some of our time providing direct customer assistance. This approach makes sure every employee knows the tool and the service inside out, and it fuels the team spirit.
We also have a structured mentoring system, where senior employees mentor juniors in a formalized way.
Tell us something about yourself.
I’m very persistent. I don’t create barriers for myself, and I will do what it takes in order to achieve my goals. This style doesn’t endear me to everyone, but it doesn’t mean I’m ruthless or that I don’t care about people.
On the contrary, my goals are centered around humans and being of service to others. If I make Wiidii a success, I will be making many people’s lives easier every single day, and I will create meaningful and rewarding jobs. I have a dream to invent something useful, something that never existed before, and with Wiidii I believe I am well on my way.
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