This Chatbot Can Even Deal With Comcast
DoNotPay's AI-powered chatbot says it can negotiate bills, cancel subscriptions, and get you a better deal.
Here are today’s highlights:
Ami Kassar thinks there are better ways to help underserved entrepreneurs than lending them money.
Retailers are trying to avoid a wave of returns and another inventory glut.
One indication the job market is still strong? Those laid-off tech workers are finding jobs.
Hurricane Ian was devastating for bees and beekeeping companies.
An AI chatbot wants to negotiate with Comcast for you: “DoNotPay, the company that bills itself as ‘the world’s first robot lawyer,’ is launching a new AI-powered chatbot that can help you negotiate bills and cancel subscriptions without having to deal with customer service. In a demo of the tool posted by DoNotPay CEO Joshua Browder, the chatbot manages to get a discount on a Comcast internet bill through Xfinity’s live chat. Once it connects with a customer service representative, the bot asks for a better rate using account details provided by the customer. The chatbot cites problems with Xfinity’s services and threatens to take legal action, to which the representative responds by offering to take $10 off the customer’s monthly internet bill.”
“DoNotPay’s bot issued convincingly human-like answers throughout the entire interaction with Xfinity, save for a hiccup where the tool says ‘insert email address’ instead of providing the customer’s actual email.”
“Browder tells The Verge that DoNotPay will clean up some of its responses before it goes live — and make the bot sound less polite, as it’s pretty heavy on the ‘thank-yous.’” READ MORE
Ami Kassar is all in favor of helping underserved entrepreneurs—but doesn’t think their biggest need is debt: “One night during the Pandemic, I was asked to teach a virtual SBA class for a female entrepreneurship group at an African American church. About a dozen women on Zoom were trying to get side hustles off the ground. The session was supposed to last an hour, and my SBA slide deck was ready. As the session began, I quickly realized that the last thing any of these entrepreneurs needed was a loan. You see, like many entrepreneurs, they thought they needed more money to get started than they really did.”
“For example, one woman wanted to start a business baking desserts for restaurants. She was convinced that she needed to borrow $50,000 to open a kitchen. She hadn’t considered that she could prove her concept by baking in her home kitchen or renting a kitchen during off hours at a local restaurant.”
“But here’s the thing: I have little doubt that if a fintech lender were to offer these budding entrepreneurs an SBA loan that would land in their bank accounts in a few days, every one would jump on it.”
“The current proposal to allow alternative lenders into the SBA program with lighter rules and regulations, is shortsighted and flawed.” READ MORE
Retail sales fell sharply in November: “Sales at U.S. retail stores, online sellers, and restaurants fell by a seasonally-adjusted 0.6 percent in November from the previous month, the Commerce Department said Thursday. That was a slowdown from October’s robust 1.3 percent sales increase. Shoppers spent less on holiday categories including electronics, clothing, sporting goods—both online and at department stores. They spent more on everyday staples such as food and at health-care stores, but also on restaurant meals.”
“‘It’s a story of slowing momentum,’ said Rhea Thomas, senior economist at Wilmington Trust. She said spending on goods has slowed as consumers shift spending to services, a change from earlier in the pandemic.”
“Unlike many government reports, retail sales aren’t adjusted for inflation and can reflect price differences in addition to purchase totals.” READ MORE
Retailers are taking steps to avoid another inventory glut: “Retailers appear to have made a dent in the inventory glut this fall. According to the Federal Reserve’s latest statistics, levels are down about 6 percent from where they were at the end of last year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the volume of returns this season is expected to blow past last year’s record. That means another wave of goods to be disposed of. Coresight Research recently reported that the rate of returns the weekend after Black Friday was almost double last year’s rate. According to goTRG, a returns logistics provider, the e-commerce return rate is expected to be about 20 percent.”
“In the whole year of 2021, about 16.6 percent of total U.S. retail sales were returned, equal to about $761 billion worth of merchandise, according to National Retail Federation data. This year will be a record in part because retail sales are forecast to rise versus last year, by some estimates as much as 15 percent, driven in part by higher prices.”
“Whatever the final score, returns have been a major and growing headache that has gotten so costly that, according to goTRG, some 60 percent of retailers are adopting tighter return policies, and some are charging mail and restocking fees.”
“Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and J.Crew have shortened their regular return windows to a month. Kohl’s has stopped paying for shipping returns by mail. Anthropologie, REI and L.L. Bean (which once promised lifetime returns) charge fees of about $6 for mailed returns, which, according to industry insiders are only meant to deter returns.” READ MORE
Those laid-off tech workers are finding jobs pretty quickly: “Even as the tech sector has been hammered by mass layoffs this year — more than 140,000 workers since March, by one count — the vast majority who have been let go haven't remained on the sidelines for long. According to an analysis of laid-off workers conducted by Revelio Labs, a workforce-data provider, 72 percent have found new jobs within three months. Even more surprising, a little over half of them have landed roles that actually pay more than what they were earning in the jobs they lost. The findings underscore just how strong the job market remains, even in the face of a cratering tech sector.”
“The economists estimate that 75 percent of tech workers who were laid off in October will end up finding a job within three months. That's up from 71 percent for those who were laid off in January of this year and 67 percent for those who lost their jobs in July 2021, back when Silicon Valley was still in the midst of a hiring binge.”
“Today, not only are laid-off tech workers finding jobs quickly, Revelio Labs found, but 52 percent are actually earning more than they were before. It goes to show the kind of salaries that new hires are able to command in the current job market. To attract job candidates, as I recently reported, employers are still being forced to offer salaries that are 7 percent higher than those they pay their existing staff.” READ MORE
Hurricane Ian was devastating for bee companies and could have long-term consequences: “As Hurricane Ian approached Florida in September, Jeremy Ham had one thing on his mind: honeybees. His bees, like those of hundreds of other beekeepers in Florida, were in the middle of their fall honey flow as Ian barreled toward the coast as a Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. ‘If you get anything above 40-mile-an-hour winds, all of that flower bloom is going to blow off the tree,’ Mr. Ham said. ‘Then the bees are going to miss out on that really important buildup going into winter.’ There was not much he could do. Mr. Ham’s company, Old Florida Bee Company, had hives spread out across southwestern Florida, and he and his employees in Myakka City had to focus on their own safety.”
“Old Florida Bee Company lost 2,760 of its 7,000 hives. Mr. Ham estimated the damage at $2 million, including the loss of bees, crops, trucks and other equipment.”
“The Florida State Beekeepers Association estimated that Hurricane Ian destroyed between 150,000 and 300,000 beehives, a loss that could have far-reaching consequences across the United States. Many beekeepers keep their hives in Florida in fall and winter before leasing them out to large farms from coast to coast to assist in pollination for the country’s food supply.”
“‘Bees don’t make honey for us to eat for our biscuits,’ John Coldwell, the association’s president, said. ‘Bees make honey so that they can survive through the next season.’ Mr. Coldwell said that at least 100 beekeepers in the state would never recover.” READ MORE
MycoWorks is using mushrooms to make a material with the look and feel of leather: “The company, whose headquarters are in Emeryville, Calif., has obtained more than 75 patents and now has over 160 employees in the United States, France and Spain. It has also secured collaborations with high-end companies like Hermès and, most recently, the furniture maker Ligne Roset and GM Ventures, the investment arm of General Motors. If it continues to scale up, MycoWorks has enormous potential: The leather goods market exceeded $400 billion in 2021 and is expected to surpass $720 billion by 2030.”
“Because the process for creating Reishi has only a few steps, Mr. Scullin said, it has a ‘low impact’ on the environment. In addition, he said, while animal hides vary in size and texture, Reishi is more consistent and predictable for clients.”
“MycoWorks declined to disclose pricing except to say that it is currently comparable with exotic hides. As the company continues to grow, they added, MycoWorks will be able to offer some at lower prices.”
“In August, MycoWorks broke ground on a 150,000-square-foot plant in Union, S.C. Upon completion by the end of 2023, it will start producing at scale — several million square feet of Reishi per year.” READ MORE
Don’t believe the hype. Podcasting is a tough way to make a living: “In the booming, unpredictable podcast landscape, it’s entirely possible to have a hit on your hands and still have to keep your day job. Even if your show transcends the lonely-guy-in-a-basement stereotype to find a real audience, you may find yourself Swiffering or waiting tables as you put in the long hours of producing, hosting and editing a podcast. While many podcasters have 9-to-5s in media, some microcelebrities toil away in unrelated industries, creating some awkward situations as their fame grows. ‘I think that people are probably getting into it for the money,’ said Jenna Weiss-Berman, co-founder of Brooklyn podcast company Pineapple Street Studios, who is responsible for shows with Lena Dunham and Ronan Farrow. ‘And the truth is, so few podcasts make any money.’”
“Lily Marotta and Steven Phillips-Horst host a hit weekly podcast called ‘Celebrity Book Club With Steven & Lily.’ The freewheeling show, on which they review books by notables, has been critically lauded by outlets including the New Yorker and the New York Times.”
“The New York duo has sold out live shows in Los Angeles and London and appeared in glossy fashion spreads. ‘It is glamorous, but press doesn’t pay the bills,’ said Mr. Marotta, who also works as a maid.”
“Ms. Weiss-Berman estimated that a successful podcast with 50,000 listeners could make about $2,500 to $5,000 in ad sales per episode.” READ MORE
THE 21 HATS PODCAST
Jay Goltz’s 12-Step Business Check-Up: This week, in episode 136, Shawn Busse, Jay Goltz, and Sarah Segal talk about what they hope to accomplish in 2023. Sarah’s moving into new offices, aiming for 20-percent growth, and hoping to land a chocolate company as a client. Shawn’s looking for new space, too, and attempting to reposition his business to shake the corrosive effects of the pandemic. And Jay’s employing a methodical 12-step process to assess how his business is performing: Hiring? Check. Pricing? Needs work. Inventory levels? Way out of line. And then there are his ongoing efforts to mentor his two sons in the business and prepare for the inevitable. These days, Jay tells us, he’s especially careful when getting in front of buses.
You can subscribe to the 21 Hats Podcast wherever you get podcasts.
Thanks for reading, everyone. — Loren