I love productivity and efficiency. I preach it, I evangelize on its behalf. I campaign for its adoption across every enterprise and initiative that seeks my advice and counsel. There is a line between Utility and Assistance, however, which cannot yet be crossed – no matter how many startups try valiantly to ignore the prevailing reality. Utility is a largely passive operation, which must be activated and managed by the user to fulfill its potential. It’s a useful tool such as OneNote or Wunderlist. Assistance is an active function that manifests itself independently, and must anticipate and manage multifarious unqualified scenarios to be truly effective.

The list of Virtual Assistant startups grows daily. It’s the present fad. For every variation that promises to reinvent the VA space yet flames out (Zirtual), another two replace it with air-dancing artificial plums (e.g.: Genee, x.ai). The new holy grail of tech startups is AI virtual assistant apps. For the next 6 months or so, all the early adopters will fall over each other, just to be able to claim they had “Amy”, “Genee”, “Cortana”, “Siri 2.0”, et al, before everyone else. What you won’t hear much about is the fact that all these AI solutions fall far short of useful. Virtual assistants have existed for years, and work with varying degrees of success. Productivity apps have been around for a long time as well, exhibiting capricious achievement in their own right (yet but few pretentions to actually *replace* staff). Zirtual did not fail to provide the services they promised to clients. The company failed because, like so many startups today, it was encouraged to grow too fast, in an unsustainable quest for lightning ROI. The likely result was an inability to meet financial covenants, founders and investors working at cross-purposes, and lack of transparency between stakeholders seeking markedly different objectives. Whoever takes over the operations, such as they are after this negative brand impact, will assuredly restructure for more realistic growth metrics, if any future is to be realized for the employees and their clients.

I have no doubt that after various highly overvalued iterations churn through talented developers, employees, and investors, the chasm between AI VA concept and reality will begin to narrow, such that solutions that provide useful value finally establish themselves on semi-solid footing, and scale sustainably. Until then, you will have to contend with one offering that has access to your calendar, but not the other party’s calendar; another unable to process plain language text or speech; and probably none that take “drive time”, “weather”, or “distance” in to consideration when booking meetings back-to-back, not to mention the probability of client A being notoriously late, or client B correspondingly early, by habit. In short, none will be able to do what a proficient human assistant can do.

AI

Sometime in the future, our human administrators may well be replaced by competent digital, or even robotic, facsimiles. However, the truest measure of a great assistant is their ability to adapt to and accommodate the unexpected scenarios, and no algorithm can proactively absorb this aspect of the job, yet. Artificial Intelligence learns and improves with use, but most companies and executives who require assistants cannot afford to patiently wade through failure, in an iterative quest for efficiency and reliability. If the day comes that Artificial Intelligence Apps crowdsource their refinements, machine learning will accelerate exponentially, and I’m frankly not sure how comfortable I’d be with an employee who mathematically assures me they know what’s best for me, simply because they know more than me.

For the past 7 years I have been aggressively promoting the notion of sustainable business development, and campaigning against the fad of Venture Capital infused vaporware growth. Valuations based on nothing but ideas and Powerpoint (or Prezi) presentations might lead to a successful lightning IPO or other lucrative short term result, but the Piper must be paid, else the music stops. Those left holding the bag at the end of the short dance are left with little but debt and shattered dreams. This is not the way to build and sustain long-term innovation pipelines, or quality workforces, let alone support the dreams and aspirations of sincere emerging entrepreneurs. The terms “serial entrepreneur” and “unicorn venture” just piss me off.

graves

So many businesses have been encouraged to scale super fast, disregarding the absence of solid structural, brand, and product foundations. Their Towers of Babel have been raised with alarming speed, designed to look impressive, and promising extraordinary views and world-class functionality, yet delivering very little of substance. Investors have repeatedly relied upon the advice of brokers whose only interest has been swift maximization of returns, and nobody seems to have spent much time worrying about employees, product sustainability, solution viability, brand audits, or anything else that would underpin a business proposition designed to last beyond year 3.

This is why I decided 7 years ago, to stop working with clients seeking aggressive short term returns, instead of measurable and sustainable growth milestones. This is why I no longer invest in flashy business propositions, but instead in people. This is why I only mentor businesses willing to invest in their long term narrative, as opposed to the short term climactic scenes to which so many startups and larger organizations seem to still be aspiring.

When the State of Oregon recruited me last year to set up a business ecosystem supporting Digital Storytelling startups, some members of my new Board wanted to replicated “conventional” VC incubator and accelerator models. I resisted, and was thrilled that enough members of the Board accepted my vision, as well as my alternative business plan. As a result, we were able to help launch and build twice as many companies as had been required by the government, and nearly all of them continue to exist and grow today. The growth is at a rate that permits adaptation and management of both expected and unexpected challenges and opportunities, whilst protecting the people and assets around which the businesses operate. It saddens me when I hear of talented people or great ideas imploding under the weight of the overly ambitious aspirations of impatient investors. We cannot build sustainable new industries this way. I’m convinced that my model works. My proof is logic based, and has examples. I sincerely hope that the example set by companies such as Zirtual, Goodmail, Secret, Springpad, Outbox, Wahooly, and the hundreds of thousands of other companies that fail due to high churn, overly aggressive growth, and other errors in judgment, will soon set enough of a precedent that market practices will correct themselves, and more than a few of us will see the merits of more responsible investment, mentoring, and sustainable business development.