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ManyChat Makes It Easy to Create Custom Automated Messenger Bots for Your Small Business

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Get started for free, and start using bots for marketing, sales, and support.

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October 13, 2020 3 min read

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If you own a small business, you already know the importance of using social media to gain new customers (and retain old ones). But if your business has grown beyond the kitchen-table phase, you also know that it’s nearly impossible to respond to potential customers in a way that’s both personal and timely.

Luckily, chat bots are revolutionizing the way businesses interact with potential customers. And ManyChat is the easy-to-use service that lets business owners automate custom messenger bots to meet their specific needs.

ManyChat

Image Credit: ManyChat

ManyChat lets you combine the most effective method for reaching interested customers, Facebook Messenger, with SMS in a way that can drive response rates even higher. With 1.3 billion Facebook Messenger users out there, ManyChat is the best way to reach as many of them as possible. Its automated chat bots have been programmed from the ground up to help you with sales, marketing, and various other essential but time-consuming tasks so you can focus on growing your business.

ManyChat’s automated marketing bots are designed to help with a wide variety of tasks. They book appointments, collect contact information, and even nurture leads with customized follow-ups, all using Facebook Messenger. How do these follow-ups work? That depends on how you program your bot. For example, a client could receive a welcome message a day after connecting with your business on Messenger, followed by a discount code after two days, and a free gift and “soft sell” on day three. And it’s all orchestrated in a way that maximizes interest in your specific products or services.

ManyChat is built to be simple, and it only takes you a few minutes to set up. You can either choose a pre-existing template that fits your business needs or build your own bot using their extremely simple drag-and-drop interface.

ManyChat: Try it for free

ManyChat automated chat bots

Image Credit: ManyChat

ManyChat’s automated chat bots are tailored to your business in order to help it grow. And with ManyChat’s free video course in Master Chat Marketing, you can learn how ManyChat’s bots can bring your business to the next level in Messenger, SMS, and email, as well as every step of the ManyChat process as explained by expert Kelly Noble Mirabella.

ManyChat chatbots don’t just connect to clients through Facebook and text. They can also sync up with many of your own business’s tools. These intelligent bots can grab client info and other data from Google Sheets and even update your spreadsheets with new information. They can touch base with customers on Shopify and ping them with reminders and alerts if they abandon their shopping carts (a proven method of securing the business of reluctant/shy customers). Altogether, ManyChat works with more than a dozen apps to make its position in your business as seamless and convenient as possible.

If your business is new to the world of chat bots, you can sign up for the free plan. For businesses with “higher growth goals” the ManyChat Pro plan is priced at just $10-per month for engagement with up to 500 subscribers.

To sum it up, ManyChat is an ideal way to incorporate automated chatbots into your business. So sign up for free at its official site, today.

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Kodak Loan Debacle Puts a New Agency in the Hot Seat

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WASHINGTON — At a virtual conference in September, Adam Boehler, chief executive of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, described his nascent agency as a bulwark against China’s “economic colonialism” — with $60 billion in annual lending authority to counter Beijing’s strategy of spreading its global influence with low-interest infrastructure loans.

But in recent months, Mr. Boehler, a former health care executive, has repurposed the international agency into something far from its intended role: a financing arm for projects inside the United States.

Working closely with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Mr. Boehler helped draft an executive order over the summer that, for the first time, gave the agency authority to issue loans to U.S. companies for projects on American soil. The move was billed as a way to boost President Trump’s “Buy America” ambitions during a time of economic crisis.

Now, Mr. Boehler’s agency is embroiled in controversy over its first domestic loan — $765 million for Kodak, which was intended to help the once-iconic photography company transform into a pharmaceutical firm that could lessen America’s reliance on foreign countries for generic drugs and coronavirus treatments.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is probing allegations of insider trading by Kodak executives ahead of the deal’s announcement, and the Development Finance Corporation’s inspector general is looking into how Kodak got the loan. The funding has been put on hold and Mr. Trump, who hailed the loan as “momentous,” has distanced himself from the decision.

The questions about the Kodak project highlight the risks inherent in the Trump administration’s strategy to build American manufacturing by embracing the type of industrial policy that other nations have long employed — one that the United States has traditionally avoided in favor of free markets.

Mr. Trump has taken aggressive measures to prop up flagging sectors and companies, including supporting steel and aluminum by imposing global metal tariffs. He has funneled nearly $30 billion in subsidies to prop up struggling farmers who were hurt by his trade war with China. And this summer, Mr. Trump’s Treasury Department gave a $700 million stimulus loan to a struggling trucking company, YRC Worldwide, under the questionable rationale that it was critical to national security.

In May, the Trump administration found a new way to support domestic companies: The Development Finance Corporation. The agency had been created by Congress in 2018 to replace the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which had encouraged American companies to invest in developing countries. Congress gave the new agency $60 billion to bankroll international infrastructure projects and a mandate to coordinate more closely with the State Department on loans that, ideally, would help to curb Chinese influence and support American foreign policy.

ImageRay Washburne, who ran the Overseas Private Investment Corporation during its transition to the Development Finance Corporation, rebuffed a request by Jared Kushner for money to fund President Trump’s border wall.
Credit…Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

The agency has funded 80 overseas projects totaling $4.8 billion in places like Mozambique, Kenya, Colombia and Costa Rica this year. But top Trump officials had long been eyeing the agency’s pot of money as a potential source of cash for domestic projects. In 2019, as Mr. Trump was seeking more funding for his wall along the Southern border with Mexico, Mr. Kushner approached Ray Washburne, who was then leading the agency as it began transitioning from the O.P.I.C. to the International Development Finance Corporation, to see if financing might be available.

“Can you give me a billion for the wall?” Mr. Kushner asked Mr. Washburne, who left the agency early last year, according to a person with knowledge of the exchange who was not authorized to reveal a private conversation.

Mr. Washburne spurned the request, citing the agency’s international mandate. A spokesperson for Mr. Kushner said he had no recollection of the request.

As the coronavirus pandemic swept through the United States, Mr. Trump signed an executive order on May 14 that allowed the Development Finance Corporation to shift its focus from international to domestic investment.

The move was part of an effort by the White House to use American companies to make supplies like ventilators and hand sanitizer and to transport testing swabs. In many cases, it used the threat of the Defense Production Act to compel companies to ramp up production of personal protective equipment.

Some critics in Congress and development experts panned the move, arguing that the agency lacked the resources to accomplish its original mission overseas, much less rebuild American industry.

But Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012 and had spent years trying to reinvent itself as its core photography business weakened, spied an opportunity. Kodak made the case to administration officials that the company could help with producing generic pharmaceuticals to reduce American reliance on foreign drugmakers and potentially help produce treatments for Covid-19, according to a review of the deal the law firm Akin Gump carried out at Kodak’s request.

Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

The company had been producing some pharmaceutical ingredients for several years and had begun making hand sanitizer and face shields since the pandemic took hold. Kodak officials told the administration that the loan would be part of a larger corporate reinvention that entailed converting vast chemical facilities once dedicated to their print business to produce raw ingredients used in pharmaceuticals.

By July, after a byzantine application process, Kodak had won a “letter of intent” to receive government support.

Administration officials saw the loan to Kodak as dual victory — a way to both help restore America’s factory capacity and lessen its reliance on China and India for critical drugs.

In a White House briefing on July 28, Mr. Trump said the administration had taken “a momentous step toward achieving American pharmaceutical independence” and called it “one of the most important deals in the history of U.S. pharmaceutical industries.”

But critics immediately questioned why Kodak could not secure financing through the capital markets and were dubious the effort would help address the immediate health crisis.

“The Kodak loan didn’t seem directly relevant to the crisis that we’re in,” said Clemence Landers, policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. “This feels like part of the administration’s broader onshoring agenda.”

Scott Lincicome, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Cato Institute, noted that the effort to prop up Kodak “appears to be taking a page out of China’s playbook,” which the administration has criticized for helping “zombie” companies and politically connected firms, causing economic distortions.

A spokesman for the International Development Finance Corporation declined to comment.

Almost immediately after announcing the loan, the project unraveled amid accusations of insider trading.

Credit…Richard Drew/Associated Press

Kodak had issued its chief executive, Jim Continenza, 1.75 million stock options on July 27, the day before Mr. Trump publicly announced the project. The company’s stock rose from $2.62 per share on July 27 to more than $60 on Wednesday, before closing at $33.20. Within days, Mr. Continenza’s new options were worth about $50 million.

Public filings also showed that Mr. Continenza purchased 46,737 additional shares on June 23, while Philippe D. Katz, a board member, purchased 5,000 shares on June 11 and again on June 23.

In a statement, Kodak said Mr. Continenza has purchased shares with his own money at nearly every available window since joining the company in 2013. He has not sold a single share during his time at Kodak, the company said.

The damage was done. The loan was put on hold and, in the following weeks, Mr. Trump and Peter Navarro, a trade adviser who helped coordinate the agreement, distanced themselves from the deal.

“I wasn’t involved in the deal,” Mr. Trump said on Aug. 4. “Kodak has been a great name, but obviously pretty much in a different business.”

Democrats, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have been scrutinizing Mr. Kushner’s medical supply chain projects and his close ties to Mr. Boehler. They have raised suspicion that personal ties, rather than economic considerations, were the main factor in granting the International Development Finance Corporation a prominent new domestic mission. At Ms. Warren’s request, the agency’s inspector general is reviewing the loan process.

Mr. Navarro, in an emailed comment, said that “a key mission of the Trump administration is to bring home our medical supply chains.” He said the White House was “pursuing numerous projects to advance this mission, with Kodak now far in the rearview mirror.”

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Schools Clamored for Seesaw. That Was the Good News, and the Bad News.

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The first requests that upended Seesaw, a popular classroom app, came in January from teachers and education officials abroad. Their schools were shutting down because of the coronavirus, and they urgently wanted the app adjusted for remote learning. The company figured it could do that with a single short hackathon project.

“We were so naïve,” said Emily Voigtlander Seliger, a Seesaw product manager.

Weeks later, reality hit: The virus spread to the United States, where more of the app’s users are. Seesaw had been designed for students in a classroom to submit an audio comment or a digital drawing after a lesson. But thousands of teachers suddenly wanted it to work as a full-featured home learning tool. Rather than using Seesaw for a couple of assignments a week, they were using it for hours each day.

It seemed like every start-up’s dream: racing to keep up with demand from people desperate for your app.

And in many ways, that has worked out well for Seesaw, a San Francisco company. The number of student posts on its app increased tenfold from February to May, Seesaw says, and the paid customer base has tripled from last year. The app is now used in more than three-quarters of American schools, including big districts like Dallas and Los Angeles.

“In a matter of two days the world flipped upside down,” said Victoria Lawyer, global sales manager at Seesaw. Seesaw usually pitched large districts for six months or so before one signed up. Suddenly, she said, those districts were saying: “We need to get set up by tomorrow. What can you do?”

But Seesaw’s experience also shows the kinds of hurdles that a company must jump in such extreme circumstances, going through years’ worth of growing pains in a few months.

ImageA screenshot of the app, whose use increased tenfold during the first few months of the pandemic.
Credit…Seesaw

Other digital education products, like Zoom and Google Classroom, experienced similar growth spurts and ran into their own problems — such as unwelcome strangers who dropped into those early weeks of Zoom school. But they are public companies with resources to spare. Seesaw had just 60 employees in February, when the coronavirus hit the United States, and was trying to prove that it deserved a tryout for the big leagues.

Small issues that the company knew about but hadn’t addressed before the pandemic became significant problems. Teachers begged for app reliability, but some changes Seesaw made for at-home use didn’t always work smoothly. While Seesaw executives wanted the app to be interesting for students, it had to be streamlined enough for frazzled parents suddenly running at-home school.

All this happened while Seesaw, like many other companies, closed its headquarters and shifted employees to working from home, where many juggled their work with their own children’s classes.

Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“We’re going through what everyone else is going through in terms of balancing child care and home-schooling and working from home,” Carl Sjogreen, one of the company’s founders, said. “The intensity of the growth in our business at the same time is a challenge and a struggle.”

Mr. Sjogreen, 42, and Seesaw’s other founder, Adrian Graham, 41, first met at Google in the early 2000s. They left, founded a travel-advice start-up and moved to Facebook as product managers when it acquired their company. In 2012, they left Facebook and started Shadow Puppet, an app that lets people make videos by adding voice-overs to photos and other social media.

They thought Shadow Puppet was almost embarrassingly simple. But the app proved popular with teachers, and it led to the idea for Seesaw.

In the fall of 2014, teachers trying out an early version of Seesaw reported back with comments that surprised the founders, Mr. Graham said. Some students opened up once they had an audio recorder, the teachers said, and some who might not be great writers — and didn’t seem that engaged as a result — made lively videos or digital drawings once those became an option.

In January 2015, Seesaw released the app to the public. It’s free for individual teachers, with a features-added version for schools and districts for $5.50 per student per year. The founders took seed funding when starting the company, and $8 million more from investors in 2017. Mr. Sjogreen declined to give valuation or revenue figures, but said the company would be profitable this year.

And it’s been a year. In February, Mr. Sjogreen was mapping out long-term projects from Seesaw’s downtown San Francisco office. Come March, he was working from his Noe Valley house, juggling home-school duties for his 9- and 12-year-old children, just like many of the employees, and Seesaw was in “rapid-response mode,” as he put it.

Teachers like Sharmeen Moosa, a first-grade teacher at an international school in Bahrain, decided Seesaw would be their remote-learning platform.

“Prior to Covid, I used it as just a digital portfolio for kids,” an online collection of their drawings and recordings, Ms. Moosa said, but when her school closed in February, her use “transformed massively.” She used the app for morning messages and daily lessons, adding audio or video clips, posting additional resources, and creating student assignments along with communicating with families.

Many other teachers used the app in similar ways, exposing shortfalls that the company had to race to fix.

The app, designed to work with iPads and Chromebooks, had hardly been used with Android tablets. But now parents were logging on with Amazon Fire or Samsung devices running Android. Numerous students didn’t have email addresses and needed a different way to log in from home. Teachers, who could no longer look over students’ shoulders while they worked on an assignment, wanted to comment on saved drafts before students submitted a final version. Notification delays grew from a couple of seconds to hours. The company’s servers sometimes slowed to a crawl.

Those issues meant teachers, families and schools all fired questions at Seesaw for help. Mr. Sjogreen, who prided himself on getting back to customers almost immediately, found that just wasn’t possible.

“I’m sad that during a time where they were so stressed out, we were not as responsive as we would like to be,” he said.

Internally, the company had to figure out how to handle a remote work force that was also, in many cases, dealing with added responsibilities at home. Many employees needed time off at peak hours to handle their children. While being interviewed for this article, Mr. Graham bounced his baby girl in a Snugli, while Mr. Sjogreen was interrupted by his son, who asked for permission to go on YouTube. (Mr. Sjogreen nodded, resigned.)

Seesaw tried to accommodate employees’ schedules and child care demands, and even added a remote yoga session on Tuesday mornings to clear heads, “but I’d be lying if I said it was easy,” Mr. Sjogreen said.

Mr. Sjogreen said he had gotten a good idea for Seesaw from his 9-year-old, who uses it at his school. While working from home, Mr. Sjogreen heard “tears, frustration” from his son, who had accidentally deleted work completed on the app. The company added a button to confirm deletion — Mr. Sjogreen suggested an icon of a crying child to accompany it.

Credit…Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

To prepare for the fall semester, Seesaw added 15 full-time employees and 100 contractors to help with customer support. The app kept adding features: Teachers said students didn’t know what to work on first, so the company let teachers designate priority assignments and let students see which assignments were done. Assignments can now be filtered by topic, like math or Spanish. Users can print posts, and students and teachers can add multiple videos on a single post so teachers can conduct long lessons.

Jennifer Montemayor, a teacher at Bulverde Creek Elementary School in San Antonio, has kindergartners in her remote class who speak Vietnamese, Spanish, Persian or Russian at home. She loves how Seesaw translates her class announcements and assignments into languages the parents can understand.

A Seesaw enthusiast, Ms. Montemayor is finding fewer people to proselytize to these days. “Everybody knows Seesaw now,” she said.

Whether Seesaw can hold on to customers when schools, many of them facing new budget pressures, return to in-person learning is an open question. Kelly Calhoun Williams, an education analyst at the research company Gartner, said that while other ed-tech companies got nervous watching school budgets shrink, Seesaw was well placed because of its users’ “I want to keep Seesaw because now it’s part of my day” attitude.

Mr. Sjogreen said he was just looking for a chance to get back to some long-term planning.

“I never thought I’d say this as a start-up founder,” he said, “but I’m not worried about growth anymore.”

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Dunkin’ Brands Is Said to Be Near Deal to Sell Itself and Go Private

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Dunkin’ Brands, the parent company of the Dunkin’ and Baskin Robbins chains, is nearing a deal to sell itself to a private equity-backed company, Inspire Brands, that could be announced as soon as Monday, two people with knowledge of the negotiations said.

The deal being discussed would take Dunkin’ Brands private at a price of $106.50 a share, these people said. That would be a 20 percent premium over the company’s closing price on Friday, and implies a company valuation of about $8.8 billion. Dunkin’s share price has more than doubled since March, as investors took heed of its success in building up its app and drive-through services. Its shares are up about 18 percent from a year ago.

The transaction would add Dunkin’ Brands to Inspire Brands’ portfolio, which includes Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Sonic and Jimmy John’s. Inspire is backed by the private equity firm Roark Capital.

The two people requested anonymity because the talks are confidential, and they cautioned that the deal was not yet final and could still fall apart.

The company has said that as stay-at-home orders have shifted working patterns, customers have been coming to its stores later in the day than they used to and spending more on newer and more expensive items like espresso and other specialty beverages. Dunkin’ already brings in more than half its revenue through drinks, and it dropped “Donut” from its name last year as it seeks to shift its emphasis to coffee and take on Starbucks more directly.

“While Dunkin’ may not have been thought of by investors as a beneficiary of the current environment, these results make the case that it has been,” analysts at Morgan Stanley wrote in a research note this summer.

Michelle King, a spokeswoman for Dunkin’ told The Times, “As a public company it is our policy not to comment on rumors or speculation.” A spokesman for Inspire Brands had no comment.

During the pandemic, Dunkin’ has been bolstered by its drive-throughs and online ordering systems, allowing its restaurants to continue to serve customers while smaller, independent chains have faltered. It took an initial hit in the pandemic, reporting a 20 percent drop in sales in the second quarter and announcing plans to close about 800 of its least-profitable stores. But business since then has been improving.

Dunkin’ Brands, whose 21,000 outlets are all franchised, reported revenue last year of $1.4 billion and a profit of more than $240 million.

The chain has been private before. It was owned by a consortium of private equity firms, led by Bain Capital, Carlyle Group and Thomas H. Lee Partners, who acquired Dunkin’ Donuts from Pernod Ricard in a $2.4 billion deal in 2005. The firms took it public six years later.

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