Industry, Vioby, & Voice Dream: Three Mobile Entrepreneur Stories
Mobile technology is becoming a redundant term—almost everything is mobile these days—but the classification is still useful. It helps organize trends and themes that otherwise cut across swaths of different industries.
Consider the wide range of mobile entrepreneurs in the Boston area. There are well-established mini-clusters around mobile advertising, marketing, and enterprise apps. There’s a burgeoning mobile health scene. Not as well known are some efforts around consumer-mobile interfaces for existing niche markets.
I’ve recently met with several experienced startup folks working on new mobile interfaces for online shopping, e-reading, and professional networking. If there’s a common theme, it’s around next-generation communication tools being used to augment mainstream digital technologies. And the stories of these entrepreneurs—and how they think about their niches—are at least as interesting as what they’re actually building.
Take Industry, a mobile app (still in beta) being developed by Raj Bala and Subra Aswathanarayanan. At first you think, “Please, not another niche social network.” But bear with them for a minute.
The founders are both ex-EMC employees. That’s interesting in itself, as the data storage giant has a rep for not churning out many startup founders. (That might be changing.) Bala actually has left EMC (NYSE: EMC) twice to do startups. The first one was BigSwerve, an online comment aggregator that was bought by Lijit Networks. The second time, most recently, almost led him to develop something like “IMDb for Bollywood,” he says.
The idea didn’t pan out, sadly, and Bala and his co-founder went in a different direction, in pursuit of an answer to a simple question: “If LinkedIn were invented today, what would it be?”
Cambridge, MA-based Industry’s goal is to create an app that is “like walking into a hotel lobby of your peers,” says Bala (pictured). It’s like what you’d experience at an industry trade show, for example. Roughly speaking, they want to create an experience that sits between LinkedIn and Twitter, all from a mobile-first perspective, and lets workers in specific industries talk to each other, ask questions, and network with others in their field.
This doesn’t really exist yet, though there’s still plenty of competition. As Bala puts it, LinkedIn isn’t a communication platform; it’s mostly for connecting with people you already know (and mostly useful for recruiters). When the Industry founders were at EMC, most of their LinkedIn connections were with other EMC people—not that useful. Meanwhile, Twitter isn’t great for professional networking, though expert users can make it work; it’s more of a mainstream media-sharing and commenting platform, and it’s very noisy.
“We see ourselves as being in business to tear down walls between people,” Bala says. So he actually thinks of Industry as being “the inverse of LinkedIn,” in that communication comes first.
Industry is still in private beta trials, and its focus so far is on the high-tech industry. But its founders have plans to branch out into life sciences, K-12 education, and eventually other sectors such as healthcare and oil and gas. (And who knows, maybe a premium version for Bollywood?)
The company, which got started in February and is self-funded, has a long way to go to overcome people’s reluctance to sign up for (and maintain) a new messaging service. But if it can fill an important hole for users in their jobs and careers, word could spread quickly, so stay tuned.
Meanwhile, a bit further along but also early is Vioby, a mobile e-commerce startup that’s using speech technology, natural language processing, and other “intelligence built in to emulate a good salesperson.”
That’s according to co-founder Mike Krasner, a longtime veteran of BBN Technologies (fka Bolt, Beranek and Newman) who has led five tech startups including InTouch Systems (acquired by Comverse in 1999) and Oxy Systems. His first startup was a BBN subsidiary in Edinburgh in the late ‘80s. (Of haggis, he says, “it’s good.”) He’s also married to Jean Hammond, a prominent angel investor and education tech advocate.
Krasner (pictured) gave me a quick demo on an Android phone. Say you’re shopping for shoes on Zappos. You can speak into the phone, “I’m looking for men’s dress shoes in black or brown.” Up pops the portion of the catalog that answers to that description. Then you can ask questions like, “What’s on sale for under 200 dollars?” to narrow the list down further. Or if you’re looking at golf shoes, you can pare down the selection by style, brand, or other features.
The software uses Google’s off-the-shelf speech recognition and integrates store catalogs such as Zappos (Vioby signed up as an affiliate). The tricky part is figuring out what the user is trying to do or look for, when he or she might not actually know. That’s the main difference between this technology and something like Apple’s Siri, or other goal-directed virtual assistants.
“It’s not a search, it’s a conversation,” Krasner says.
But it’s still very early. Vioby (vee-OH-bee), which has a half-dozen full-timers, is targeting retailers and brands that have their own mobile apps as early customers. The idea is to layer the smart-assistant technology on top of existing apps and online catalogs to enhance them, Krasner says. Down the road, he and his co-founder Alec Belfer might also create stand-alone apps or tools for retail sales associates to quickly take inventory (for office supplies, say).
One thing that Krasner and Bala from Industry have in common is they’re using mobile interfaces to go after a market they have 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.”