Locally, there are nearly 190,000 SMEs, and these make up 99% of all companies in Singapore. They also contribute to nearly half of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), and employ 7 in 10 members of the workers.
Locally, there are also a good number of government grants for these SMEs, some of which are better publicised than others.
Grants are some of the best things that companies, especially for startups struggling with the rising costs of running their business, can get.
From helping to defray wage bills so that they can hire eligible Singaporean workers and tap into their experience to making the buildings they’re in fibre ready, grants are the metaphorical wind beneath the wings of those aspiring to make a positive difference via their products.
But as with most application processes, finding the right one can be a daunting process – this is especially so for entrepreneurs who don’t have the luxury of time to peruse and digest all the information on various websites.
This is where a new chatbot, Grant Uncle, wants to come in.
The Team Behind The Uncle
The brainchild of Marcus Eng and his business consultancy company BTME Corporate Services Pte Ltd, Grant Uncle is the newest ‘Uncle’ chatbot in town (with the pioneer being the unconventionally charismatic Bus Uncle), and aims to be a “one-stop, easy to understand channel for SME owners who wish to tap on the abundant grants that many government agencies are offering but have little or no awareness”.
But to first clear things up – no, the brains behind the uncle isn’t actually an uncle by definition.
Marcus is actually an ex-NUS Computer Science undergraduate who took a Leave of Absence from his studies since November last year to set up his own company.
And no, he is not looking to return to the books in the near future.
“I honestly don’t see myself back in the lecture halls any time soon,” said Marcus.
In spite of being 25 years old, Marcus isn’t one without a fair share of experience in running a company, though.
Prior to matriculation at NUS, he was running his own web design company, and “felt that these lessons were far more interesting and applicable in the real world setting as compared to the academic environment of a Computer Science undergrad”.
However, given the often emphasised importance of having a university degree as a necessity for succeeding in the “Singapore Dream”, Marcus still understandably felt uncertain in embarking on the route less conventional.
“I had [struggled to make a decision], but after a month of contemplating I decided to take this leap of faith.”
Why a business consultancy, though? Why not tech, finance, or F&B-related ones like most young bosses?
Said Cheng Jun Xiang, an NUS Computer Engineering undergrad-to-be and IT & Speech developer at BTME, Marcus’ “experience in his first web design company gave him insights of how clients actually look forward to fresh ideas that come from young, passionate minds [and] many times, the ideas actually work even better than conventional, widely accepted ideas.”
“Many of them actually like the ‘raging fire’ of these young minds, which has died down in many experienced owners,” added Marcus.
And with that, he set up BTME Corporate Services Pte Ltd, a business consultancy “aimed to empower local SMEs”.
Given that most of the solutions provided by Marcus and company were mostly covered by government grants, he soon realised that clients often asked him about what government grants they were eligible for, if they were to take on services offered by his company.
As such, Marcus and his partner, Brayden Teng, who’s currently the Marketing Lead, decided to package their services with government grants.
Said Marcus jokingly, “If the government is offering to give discounts for my services, why not right?”
But there seemed to be a recurring theme that kept popping up during grant consultancy services – many “lamented that government websites had contents and layouts too complex and was a overload of information; many of which they do not require” – something even Marcus, as a business owner, experienced first-hand while setting up his company.
This was when the team realised that there was more to be done in helping SMEs navigate the wonderful, yet intimidating world of grants.
The Origins Of The Uncle
While modelled on the grounds of a traditional consultancy, Marcus’ interest in building a chatbot came after being exposed to Artificial Intelligence (AI).
“The growing technology of AI was astounding; I was very impressed by its capabilities,” revealed Marcus.
With its ability to reach more business owners, its 24/7 availability, and potential for digital marketing, Marcus and team decided to create an ‘Uncle’ chatbot to address the pain point.
“[Given] the growing tech-savvy backgrounds of the business owners coupled with the increasing acceptance of Singlish in marketing, Grant Uncle would be a perfect fit [for our company].”
But there was a problem – the team had zero experience in building a chatbot.
“All we could bank on in the beginning was enthusiasm and a willingness to learn,” quipped Jun Xiang.
“We have agreed that the internet—Youtube and forums, were the best teachers. Choices eventually revolved around a very-easy-to-use Chatfuel, and the take-awhile-to-learn API.AI. Due to the long term plans to develop Grant Uncle further, API.AI built Chatbots had more potential, providing portability through JSON codes to other platforms, which would no doubt transform vastly in the near future.”
While testing out prototypes of the bot, Dawn, the UX designer, provided user insights and that helped to make conversation flow “more intuitive”. She also helped to design the graphics of the Grant Uncle, which boosted the ‘Approachable and Friendly’ ratings of the bot.
IT developer Anura Dias then stepped in to link the bot to Dashbot.io 3, which helped to collect much-needed stats from the Uncle.
“A Chatbot without collecting data and statistics would just become any other “Auto-reply” feature. […] These statistics were crucial in improving Grant Uncle, as well as for supporting business processes.”
“The decision [of using Facebook as a platform] was based on part research, and part gut feeling. From our research, more than 80% of online users in Singapore own a Facebook account, which justifies this choice. By gut feeling, we do see an increase in Facebook membership, be it from friends and relatives or from fellow business owners.”
The team is currently working on a Telegram version of Grant Uncle.
Joining The Bus Uncle As Another ‘Uncle’ Chatbot
Wanting to avoid the trend of ‘professional-toned’ consultants, Marcus decided to “[take on the risk] of tacking consultancy from a different angle”.
“[We decided on an] approachable, friendly figure. [And since] ‘experience coming with age’ is a common school of thinking, [and there is a] homely feeling of being able to speak to someone with […] Singlish, [this added up to] an approachable, Singlish-speaking, and experienced figure – Grant Uncle”.
But one can’t help but notice that the Grant Uncle is heavily inspired by the already well-known Bus Uncle chatbot – and the team readily admits to getting their inspiration from there.
“Indeed, certain inspirations did come from Bus Uncle. The fun and joke-infused conversations [with the Bus Uncle] managed to take my mind of the waiting time, all while serving its ultimate purpose – telling users the bus arrival time,” said Jun Xiang.
But as compared to being separate entities, the team expressed a wish to be linked to the Bus Uncle.
“As uncles, Grant Uncle and Bus Uncle both love to lim kopi. Though initially not a deliberate act, we do now hope that the two can coexist in a common universe. We (Grant Uncle) even tried to poke fun at Bus Uncle [during April Fools].”
The Future Of The Grant Uncle
“We do have high expectations of our Uncle.”
The team expresses their wish that in the short term, they want to offer a new feature – linking up service providers and users.
“For example, when a F&B owner decides to sign up for Grant A with a project regarding the purchase of Point-of-sales systems, Grant Uncle will link this owner up with an affiliate providing these POS services.”
As for further plans, they hope to enter Hong Kong.
“With a similar market model in Hong Kong, where SMEs are abundant and government provides grants, we hope to link local SMEs and service providers with Hong Kong SMEs, which would then help increase sales for local companies.”
Check out the Grant Uncle chatbot on their Facebook page!