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How Tiago Paiva turned a hackathon project into a startup that’s changing call centers



Tiago Paiva TalkdeskTalkdesk

  • Tiago Paiva won a Twilio hackathon in 2011 with his
    startup Talkdesk. Now, the company is one of the most
    recognizable names in the call center industry, with clients
    such as IBM, Peet’s Coffee, Dropbox, and apparel store
  • Paiva, who is originally from Portugal, moved the the
    US the week he won the hackathon.
  • Paiva told Business Insider that he doesn’t see AI or
    Google Duplex as a threat, because customers still prefer to
    talk to humans.

Tiago Paiva never wanted to be in the business of call centers.

But when he entered Twiliocon, a hackathon set up by
cloud-based messaging company Twilio, Paiva decided the only way
he could win was by embracing an industry that, he thought,
wasn’t exactly exciting.

“Let’s be honest, you don’t wake up wanting to build call center
software,” Paiva told Business Insider. “So having Twilio and
this challenge kind of pushed me and gave me a reason to build

Paiva, who was living in Portugal at the time, went on to win the
entire competition with Talkdesk, his company that lets
businesses set up call centers in the cloud. Talkdesk now has 400
employees and is used by the likes of IBM, Peet’s Coffee,
Dropbox, and apparel store Zumiez.

Talkdesk makes the platform that helps agents receiving customer
service calls. And since it’s all in the cloud, it makes setting
up call centers easier for big companies.

The platform, for example, lets users make calls from their
desktop, control the numbers of callers in a queue, automatically
dial numbers, and, using artificial intelligence, automatically
route calls. It also has a built-in analytics platform that lets
companies keep track of how the center is doing.

Putting these features all under one roof and in the cloud was,
in 2011, new for the industry, Paiva said.

“Usually what happens in the call center world is that when you
want to set up a call center you have to go to the big players
that have been around for 20/30 years and buy a huge piece of
software and hardware that you have to install,” he said. “So
what Talkdesk does is simplify everything so you can set up a
call center anywhere in the world with a few clicks.”

Moving to the US in one week

Part of the hackathon took place in San Francisco, where
contestants were flown in to pitch potential investors. When
Talkdesk won the entire competition and secured $50,000 in seed
funding from venture firm 500 Startups, Paiva decided — at that
very moment — that he needed to move to San Francisco and work on
Talkdesk full time.

“I remember calling my mom and telling her I wasn’t coming back,”
he said. “And I’ve been here ever since.”

That same week, Paiva moved to the US. For the next six years,
he lived on a H-1B visa, which allows US employers to
sponsor foreign workers. Paiva received his green card earlier
this month.

Despite some initial excitement when Talkdesk first won the
hackathon, the first three years were slow. The company wasn’t a
recognizable brand yet, and Paiva needed time to perfect the
technology. But eventually the company started landing big
customers, driven by the need to be in the cloud.

“The industry is changing. People are starting to realize now
that they need to be in the cloud. At the same time Talkdesk
became a brand and a product people knew in the space,” he said.

Is AI a threat?

AI is moving into the call center world. The
reported earlier this month that Google Duplex,
the company’s voice assistant, may be looking to become the first
point of contact for callers.

Google later denied that it was testing Duplex with enterprise
customers, but even so, Paiva doesn’t see the Google as a threat.
Customers, he said, still prefer to talk to humans, especially
for complex questions that require empathy and context.

“Humans are the only ones that can really understand the customer
and can relate to the customer,” he said.

Instead, Paiva said, if Google Duplex did get into the call
center business, Talkdesk would want agents to use it within
Talkdesk’s platform, in addition to Talkdesk’s proprietary AI
that routes calls.

“We see AI as augmenting the experience versus replacing humans,
so we would want to integrate with Google Duplex,” he said. “I
don’t think AI will replace humans anytime soon, but we’re moving
in a direction that, who knows what’s going to happen in five or
10 years. But right now, I see AI as helping, not replacing.”

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