Hot Jobs: Singapore’s Bus Uncle Leading the Way for Chatbots

For our series of Hot Jobs, we aim to speak with people who truly love what they get up and do every day. Passion is important in a job, whether it’s for the role itself, the people you work with, or the product you’re working on. For Abhilash Murthy, founder of Singapore’s Bus Uncle, it’s all three. – Powered by Michael Page

We sat down over teh at a local coffee shop to speak with Abhilash about going from regular employee to company founder, building a sustainable company culture and why he’s sure that yes: Robots are definitely coming for our jobs – but that they’ll create some new ones along the way.

The start: Bus Uncle

Abhilash wasn’t looking to become a founder of a fast-growing tech company as he waited at the bus stop – he just really wanted to know when his bus was coming.

As the former software engineer stood there waiting, a simple idea came into his head: To build a Facebook chatbot that would answer his question about bus timings, but also provide him a bit of entertainment for the wait. The result? Bus Uncle.

Like a cranky uncle in real life who will scold you while simultaneously helping you out, Bus Uncle gives bus and transport information to users around Singapore that are cheeky, helpful and distinctly Singaporean, turning both Abhilash and Bus Uncle into serious success stories – at the bus stop and in the technology and chatbot space.

Fast forward to two years later, and Abhilash finds himself running a company with Bus Uncle as its public face. But the company itself is growing far beyond bus times and Singlish jokes and into the future of technology: AI, automation and chatbots.

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Driven to entrepreneurship

Abhilash has always known that he wanted to run his own company, an idea that started in high school. When looking around at his extended family, he saw that they were all working for someone else. So his goal became starting something for his family that could be carried on.

“I’ve always felt that I wanted to do my own company. Even if I fail, what I’ve learned through this experience is that running my own company really excites me, to a whole new level that I never thought I could attain. It excites me to the point that I won’t give up – I’ll always start something new.”

Abhilash is now focusing a lot of his attention on the newly launched BotDistrikt – a software as a service (Saas) platform aiming to help other companies build their own chatbots: Virtual employees able to handle tasks from sales to customer service to marketing.

Take risks to follow what you love

Leaving his full time developer job back in 2017 was a definite risk – but one that Abhilash believes is essential when starting out on your own. He’s careful to point out that when others, such as family, are depending on you, it might not be the time to take a risk. However, assuming that the only person you’re supporting is yourself, Abhilash is all about jumping in.

If your only major commitment is to yourself, I feel that’s the point where you can take a risk. And in that case: go all out. There’s no reason to hold back, if you don’t have much to lose and then you only have things to gain. Even if you fail, you would still walk away with learnings and that much more knowledge than before.”

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Maintaining company culture

One major challenge for companies of all sizes and industries today is developing and maintaining company culture. Abhilash recognises that and is adamant that sustainable growth is the way forward. Growing too fast would potentially change the company’s culture and values, and they might lose sight of what they are really trying to achieve.

“For me, personally, I don’t look at growing fast and having a large team as a good indicator of success. The way forward is slow and sustainable.”

Key to attracting good talent

When asked about how to attract good people to your company, Abhilash seems confident in his strategy: focus on making users happy.

“If you’re able to make users happy, you have solved the major problem that most companies face today. If you have a good reputation and your users are happy, then magic happens. If you have 1000 happy users, 10 of them will want to work for you. Out of those 10, five would be good employees.”

His other strategy for attracting good talent is to talk to people. Abhilash stresses the importance of simply talking to people of different backgrounds, different ideas and in different places. He met one of his developers in a bar, where they struck up a conversation over their shared love of code. The next great employee may be out there in a place no one would expect.

Automation in their workplace

Currently, the company works with a lean team – four people handle everything from their office in the CBD, but Abhilash cautions that fewer people doesn’t mean less productive. Automation helps the team stay lean and get a lot of work done.

The Bus Uncle bot itself takes on the role of the entire marketing and sales team – turns out that the cranky Uncle is a great market and salesperson. And Heritage Granny, a bot later developed for the National Heritage Board of Singapore added on to the marketing team, and generated immense inbound interest from companies wanting a similar bot of their own.

“A lot of start-ups, investors, and clients think that the number of people in your team is a measure of success. The perception is that if you are a small company, you can’t do much. However, so many people don’t understand the value of automation, technology and the ability to replace a lot of roles. We try to automate as much as possible.”

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The future

When asked whether or not robots were coming for all our jobs, Abhilash’s answer was clear.

“Yes. 100% yes.” he said with a laugh. “Technology is going to replace all possible jobs, but it will also create a lot more new jobs – those that require creativity, an artistic touch and the ability to think outside of the box.”

In his view, humans will always have jobs to do, but the look, feel and requirements of those jobs is going to change drastically within the next decade and beyond.

“Artists, comedians and designers are going to have a thriving life in 5-10 years. With Bus Uncle, we automated a lot, but we also added in humour and that artistic value that made Bus Uncle shine. Bots of the future will relate to humans much better if they are designed in a way to make humans feel good about themselves. And artists, designers and comedians have the ability to do that.”

Bus Uncle and beyond

With 36,000 followers and a 4.8/5 star rating on Facebook, Bus Uncle is well-loved by the public, but a very small part of what Abhilash and his team are working on. Their office might be quiet until 12pm  (one of the perks of being your own boss, Abhilash says, is not having to conform to regular working hours), but once the team starts, they’re firing on all engines.

Young, driven and ready to put in the hard work to make their specific vision comes true, the team is living their passion – let’s see where the future, and the Uncle at the front of the bus takes them next.

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