Protocol | Workplace

Dialpad's strategy to take on Slack and Zoom is all about AI

The company's new all-in-one communication platform is a bet on simplicity, but mostly on more-helpful meetings.

Screenshot of Dialpad app on a laptop

Dialpad is trying to bring a lot of apps into one place, and use AI to make it all make sense.

Image: Dialpad

Dialpad built a big business out of a simple idea: Make it possible for people to make phone calls from any device. Craig Walker, the company's founder and CEO, had spent years working on VoIP calling products, first at Yahoo Mobile and then eventually at GrandCentral, which Google acquired and turned into Google Voice. Long before a pandemic forced everyone away from their desk phones, Walker had been exploring ways to help people make calls from any device they wanted.

Over the years, Dialpad built products for customer support and sales teams, letting them make calls, manage information and track everything all from a single interface. And through its UberConference product, it built a digital replacement for the good ol' conference call, even adding video in 2019. But somewhere during the last 16 months of remote work, and the massively accelerated digital transformation it created, Walker and the Dialpad team realized their vision wasn't big enough anymore. Or, maybe, they realized it was bigger than they thought.

Dialpad's response was to bundle. And bundle. And bundle some more. "The way we started, we kind of attacked three different verticals," Walker said. "Conferencing vertical, phone system vertical, contact center vertical. And what we realized over the last year and a half was it should just be business communication." The team worked to collapse everything into a single app, where internal meetings, customer service calls, sales outreach and day-to-day chatter all happen in one space. It even launched a new feature called Channels, akin to Slack Huddles or Discord Audio Channels. And since it uses phone numbers and supports SMS and standard phone calls, it's as close as you'll find to a universal chat system. "It's effectively Gong, Slack, RingCentral, Zoom and Talkdesk all wrapped into one," Walker said. "That's more than enough for us to fight on."

UberConference is gone, and so are all of Dialpad's other products. Now it's all just Dialpad.

The sales pitch, whether it's RingCentral or Zoom they're selling against, is pretty straightforward: Dialpad is the only communications tool you need to run your business. Using Webex for conference calls, RingCentral for phone systems and Genesys for contact centers may be fine for big companies with big IT departments, Walker said, "but for the vast majority of the market, people just want to have one thing. Frankly, one throat to choke, but one tool for their end users to use." It's one contract, one platform, one thing to update and troubleshoot and teach the team to use.

Dialpad CEO Craig Walker Dialpad CEO Craig WalkerPhoto: Dialpad

Plus, when everything is in one place, said Dialpad CRO/CSO Dan O'Connell, things just get easier. "You get weary, bouncing through tabs or systems or platforms," he said. Making it easier to switch from chat to audio to video makes communication feel more natural, more like an in-person experience than a series of very formal meetings.

Does this pitch sound familiar? It should. It's awfully close to the one Slack, Microsoft, Google and many others are beginning to make as they also transition into a new future of work. This new market goes by many names — "digital collaboration," "productivity suite," "video chat" and many others — and involves an increasing number of overlapping players. There's Microsoft Office and Google Workspace, the two giants of the space; Zoom and Slack and even Discord, the new players looking to take over; Webex and RingCentral and the many other long-standing business tools; and seemingly enough startups to fill Y Combinator classes until the end of time.

Meanwhile, many of Dialpad's features are now both easier to replicate and showing up everywhere. Good-quality video and audio are now easy to get in almost any app, thanks to WebRTC, and you can hardly boot a laptop without finding a dozen built-in ways to start a meeting. So Dialpad has set itself a nearly impossible goal: to do everything, and do it all better than anyone else.

Morgan Norman, Dialpad's CMO, said the company's ready for the fight. "The first-generation players are having a really hard time pivoting," he said, "because they're enterprise software. They're clunky." Zoom, meanwhile, is "so focused on consumers that they're distracted as well." Microsoft and Google, well, Norman didn't have an answer for that except to say that "it's super exciting to be alongside Microsoft and Google … and we don't need to make the same amount of revenue as a Google or a Microsoft." He said there's no one system that will rule them all, and top three is a good place to be.

In the long run, Dialpad is betting that the real battle will be won and lost on AI. If chat, voice and video are indeed table-stakes features, the only way to differentiate will be to make all that chatter more useful. That's why Dialpad bought TalkIQ, O'Connell's startup, in 2018. "How does Salesforce get disrupted?" O'Connell asked. "How does Microsoft ever get disrupted? I think the voice layer, and the intelligence layer on that, is how those businesses get disrupted."

Screenshot of Dialpad's Channels feature One of Dialpad's newest features is Channels, which brings Slack- and Discord-like popup chat into Dialpad. Image: Dialpad

There's a lot of work left to do on this front, Walker said. "Until you get a really accurate and real-time speech-to-text engine," Walker said, "everything else isn't going to work." One useful benefit of a bundled communication system is that it provides a massive amount of training data for these systems: Walker said more than 2 billion minutes of audio have gone through Dialpad's training engine. "We're now getting to the size where we can say, 'These are all our legal customers, here's what their conversations look like.'" He compared it to miles on a self-driving car: Every time one system collects more data, all the systems get better. And Dialpad's getting better fast: The company benchmarks its speech-recognition tools against Google's Cloud Speech, Amazon's Lex and others, and O'Connell said Dialpad has begun to consistently come out ahead.

The new Dialpad brings with it a number of artificial intelligence features designed to automatically capture action items from meetings, or present the right information to customer service reps as soon as a caller says, "My server is down," or "I want to cancel." The service that powers it, which Dialpad calls "Vi," can now listen in on all of a company's communication and try to help. It's not exactly a perfect system; in my call with Walker, Norman and O'Connell, Vi was pretty good at picking up mentions of money, curse words and competitors, but didn't do so well at pulling out "Interesting Questions" or action items. In more specific use cases, though, it's already proving productive. "If someone says RingCentral," Walker said, "my sales rep can get a battle card within half a second."

Dialpad has grown fast over the last year, raising $126 million in October 2020 and nearly doubling the size of the company since the pandemic started. The team knows it has giants to slay, and that its plan to do so doesn't allow for many missteps or mediocre products. But this, in many ways, is the future Walker has been working on for two decades. In 2007, when he sold GrandCentral to Google and started building Google Voice, he said the goal was to "make a worldwide phone system as simple as signing up for Gmail." Fourteen years later, the plan hasn't changed much. It just got a little bigger than phones.

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Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporting fellow at Protocol, based out of Los Angeles. Previously, she worked for Ernst & Young, where she researched and wrote about the future of work, emerging technologies and startups. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she studied business and philosophy. She can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

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