Hey Alexa, say hello to Ulimi. One startup's story

In the evolving world of artificial intelligence, Siri, and her cousin once-removed, Alexa, are the most well-known and popular assistants to help us find music we like, check the weather, or look up trivia.

Neither Siri nor Alexa have yet to meet Ulimi, a Covington-based startup that is using artificial intelligence not to play music or sell products, but to make worklife easier for manufacturers and other employers.

Ulimi (pronounced yoo-LEE-me) was started in 2017 by Nick Dokich, whose background is not in tech but in human resources. Working in the labor-intensive arena of call centers and third-party logistics, Dokich struggled to keep on top of the demands of a workforce of hundreds of employees who operated on a 24-hour a day basis.

A techie friend approached him with a project he had been working on – developing chatbots, automated software programs, for Facebook Messenger. In 2016, Facebook opened up its Messenger platform to allow businesses to build their own bots to answer questions and generate sales leads inside that widely used application.

Dokich, who even as a HR person still has the mind of a techie, helped out on his friend’s project. He started to think about how he could use the bot technology to make his day job a little easier. Much of his time was spent doing repetitive tasks like sending out notifications about workplace requirements to hundreds of employees.

“I said, ‘Wow, I’m in this HR role running around like a chicken with my head cut off, no time to do anything. Can I use technology to enhance my work performance?’”

“In HR operations, you always have too much to do and not enough time,” he says. “I would be reminding someone to follow up on sending me a piece of paper. If you have 500 employees, the time starts adding up rather quickly.”

That was the beginning of Ulimi. The name means “language” or “tongue” in Zulu. The company started in Over-the-Rhine developing custom chatbot applications and dabbled in voice technology, a la Alexa and Siri.

Dokich began tinkering with the Alexa platform, developing applications that he could use to help sell his idea. “I’m not a developer, but I coded when I needed to,” he said. He spent “a lot of sleepless nights” working with the technology.

Instructions and videos on writing Alexa apps and working with its software are available on the web. “It was mostly me going through documentation and trying to figure it out,” he says. “It was a long, tedious process of working through documentation and working it from scratch,” he said.

He reached out to Northern Kentucky University’s College of Informatics and hired a student as an intern. His intern had connections with the developer world in India, where Dokich found more high-tech help. One of the first bots they built was one that could deliver facts about the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where Dokich initially set up shop. After figuring that out, subsequent applications moved much faster.

“That took 48 hours to make,” he says. “After that, I was able to make a Covington facts bot in 15 minutes.” He created a bot that would answer questions about his fledgling company and used that to make presentations to business leaders. Dokich joined the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky chambers and began networking and pitching his ideas on using bots to perform human resources functions.

He relied heavily on personal networking, and made the move from OTR to Northern Kentucky, where he felt he could more quickly get in touch with the people who could make decisions on working with his young firm.

“I wanted to connect directly with the people who needed the services the most,” he says. “Doing that in Kentucky tended to be a little more easier.”

He did not seek investors or venture funding. “That was a conscious decision,” he says. “We found clients who paid us to make something. Then I could sell that to other people. That was our model – find clients we could partner with and help solve their problems.”

Dokich and his developers evolved the company away from voice applications and into smart applications to enable companies to communicate with large workforces, particularly in manufacturing.

The company grew quickly in 2019, at a rate of about 1,000%, Dokich said. A big win that year was a deal with JTM Food Group, the Harrison-based food manufacturer. JTM purchased Ulimi’s Click360 software product that helped automate performance reviews for the company’s 500 employees. The time spent on performance reviews decreased 74% and the cost of doing them fell by 46%, the company says.

Just as important, the employee satisfaction with the review process, an often-dreaded fact of work life, increased, and the on-time completion rate grew to nearly 97%.

Ulimi developed a product called Reach that enables companies to communicate via text with a large number of workers who may not have company email addresses, such as factory workers or warehouse employees. CIO Applications, an industry trade magazine, named Ulimi one of the top 10 chatbot solutions companies, a recognition that was also shared with IBM Watson.

Then 2020 happened.

Businesses suddenly needed a way to communicate with their workers about safety and health guidelines and requirements and to perform regular checks on their health to make sure they were cleared to come to work. Ohio and Kentucky both issued guidelines on screening employees to promote safe workplaces.

Ulimi created Reach Health Checks, which sends out screening tests to all employees. Fujitec America, the Mason-based manufacturer of elevators and escalators, used the product to send out daily COVID screening checks to 4,000 employees in 12 locations each night before the start of the employees’ shifts the next day.

“Reach was our pivot for COVID to make our products more approachable for a wider audience,” Dokich says.

The company’s exponential 2019 growth slowed in 2020 to a still-healthy 25 percent, Dokich says, as the pandemic caused some prospective customers to hit the pause button on some purchases.

“We had things on the docket for restaurants and COVID jacked that up,” Dokich says. “But in some ways it was a blessing for us to fill a different need for our clients.”

Dokich says he expects Ulimi’s growth to exceed 25 percent this year, as he has contracts pending with Kentucky’s community college system and other big employers.



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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.