Forethought CEO Deon Nicholas knows you’re probably sick of hearing about chatbots. Once promised to provide human-like customer service at much faster speeds, the software’s lost much of its hype through head-scratching, rote answers and dead ends that can make you dream of speaking to a human being again.
At his three-year-old startup, however, Nicholas says that the tools are built differently from the ground up. These ones, he insists, really help. The difference: real artificial intelligence software versus basic automated decision trees. “We know you’ve been burned,” Nicholas says. “But that wasn’t artificial intelligence. It was a lot more artificial than it was intelligent.”
San Francisco-based business Forethought offers a tool called Agatha that it believes can actually work, with a product for service agents, triaging support tickets and resolving them on its own using natural language processing and AI software that gets smarter at anticipating solutions over time. The company says it’s resolved more than 500,000 claims automatically so far.
Investors have noticed: Forethought announced on Wednesday it’s raised $17 million in a Series B funding round from previous investor NEA, Sound Ventures, Neo, Geodesic Capital and Operator Collective, alongside high-leverage individuals including Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith, Sean “Diddy” Combs and LL Cool J.
A former engineer at Dropbox and Pure Storage, Nicholas launched Forethought with ex-LinkedIn engineer Sami Ghoche in 2018, both appearing on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for enterprise tech for the following year at the ages of 25 and 24. (Three other team members are also alumni of the list.) Later that year, Forethought won TechCrunch’s Disrupt Battlefield startup contest before raising a $9 million Series A led by NEA.
What has made Forethought resonate with customers—nameable ones are mostly in tech, too, like Carta, Gusto and Masterclass—is software that plugs into a company’s sales and customer service software to learn how past issues were resolved and better predict what an individual ticket might be about. That can lead to much higher accuracy and faster resolution times, Nicholas says: “Agatha is able to figure out when new problems start to arise and how to respond to them by listening to how [human] agents are responding.”
At Sound Ventures, investor and actor Ashton Kutcher says he was initially skeptical about backing another customer service tool. Digging in, Kutcher says the Sound team was impressed by how Forethought’s tech really worked. “It’s a headache so many of our portfolio companies have, because with everything becoming 24/7, customer service has to be 24/7. And it gets more complicated when everything is on-demand and everything is at your fingertips,” Kutcher says.
“There’s a lot of folks who are working on different AI things, but no one really has a front door to it,” adds Qualtrics’ Smith. “Watching what Deon is doing, they are making every organization way more intelligent.”
Term sheets for Forethought’s Series B arrived just as the killing of George Floyd set off Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. That made closing the round “a tough time” for Nicholas, a still too-rare Black startup founder in tech. Over the following weeks, Kutcher and Forethought’s investor base worked to bring in prominent Black entrepreneurs to join the round, leading to the participation of Combs and LL Cool J.
“For me, it is really important to tell a new story, change the face of what success looks like,” Nicholas says. “I’ve always been a builder, so if that’s what I can do for the world, then I’m going to do that and make waves while I’m at it.”
-By Alex Konrad, Forbes Staff