Industry, Vioby, & Voice Dream: Three Mobile Entrepreneur Stories
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built up deep knowledge and instincts about outside of mobile. In Krasner’s case, it’s speech and language technologies. For Bala, it’s online communication.
For Winston Chen, who is on a journey of his own creation, it’s all about finding his inner passion. The founder of Voice Dream, an iOS app that does text-to-speech for e-books and other formats, came up with his latest venture while on a sabbatical of sorts in 2011-12. He had been at enterprise software firm Kalido for 10 years. He was CTO and VP of strategy and “hardly touched any code.” He saw a TED talk about taking “retirement” years during your working life, and he got inspired.
So Chen and his wife decided to take their two kids and spend a year living on Rødøy, a remote Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle. His wife, originally from Norway, worked as a schoolteacher while Chen did activities with the kids and carved out time to work on his own tech projects. There, he fell back in love with the “intricate problem solving” of writing code.
“I didn’t do as much hiking and fishing as I thought,” he says.
Instead he developed a mobile app to read text aloud, thinking it would be useful for busy professionals to catch up on their reading. Voice Dream debuted in the Apple app store in February 2012. To his surprise, it sold really well, especially among the visually impaired and teachers who had students with reading disabilities. Word of mouth spread through bloggers in the blind community and in education. One factor is that the reading and listening experience was easier to configure and control, compared to other apps out there, he says.
Voice Dream’s success led Chen (pictured) to put more work into it, talking to customers and eventually developing it for some 20 languages (and 78 different voices) and selling localized versions in 13 countries. “It’s a good living,” he says—and he’s still working on it full-time, though he and his family have been traveling in China this summer.
“The satisfaction I’m getting, you can’t put a price tag on it,” he adds. And he has found a new passion for developing assistive technology, as opposed to “software that helps P&G sell more diapers.” But he admits that this fall, he’ll have to decide whether to develop a next product or do something else.
Perhaps it’s fitting to close with some words of advice from Chen to entrepreneurs.
First, he says, find your passion—but it’s never as simple as it sounds. “Lots of entrepreneurs are heavily influenced by what is funded,” he says. “If you’re not personally connected” to your project, “you’re not going to succeed.”
Second, don’t be afraid to charge money from the beginning. Voice Dream had a paid version as well as a free app, but the paying customers were much more engaged, not surprisingly, and gave him the most valuable feedback. And while it’s important to reach out to customers, he says, you should spend more time on your product than on marketing. At least that approach has paid off for him. It’s crucial to “truly delight your customers,” he says.
Lastly, Chen says, there’s “nothing wrong with niche.” He sort of fell into it, but he has found it personally fulfilling to just focus on serving educators and the visually impaired. The key, he says, is to “serve them better than anyone else.”