The Power of Voice, AI As A Tool with Omar Tawakol, CEO of Voicera

This week on the Tech Cat Show:

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Lori Schwartz:                      Hi, everybody. This is Lori H. Schwartz, your Tech Cat, and we are coming to you live from Los Angeles. What topic, what trend has been on the top of everybody’s mind in the last year? More along the lines of killer robots, but really, artificial intelligence or AI is the topic now that comes up in almost every business conversation. What to do about it? How to not be disrupted by it? How to leverage it in the smartest way? Today’s guest is a CEO of a company who is really taking AI to the next step to really solve some really interesting business problems and business solutions. I’m very excited to introduce Omar Tawakol. Tawakol, Tawakol, right?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, glad to be here.

Lori Schwartz:                      That’s so funny because I knew they were there. Voicera, and Voicera is leveraging AI technology to harness the power of voice in the workplace. Omar, tell us a little bit about your background, and then we’ll get into Voicera because I just love what you guys are doing. It’s so interesting and so helpful to get in through your business day, but give us sense of your background.

Omar Tawakol:                   Shall do. Yeah, thanks for having me on the show. My background, I did computer science in graduate school and focused on AI. Then, for a long time, I went in the world of big data. I built a company called BlueKai, which was one of the leaders in kind of big data for marketing. Oracle acquired it, and then we built something called the Oracle Data Cloud, which was a big business supplying data infrastructure and data for marketers. We went out and did a bunch of acquisitions.

It was a wonderful, fun ride building one of the biggest data business in the marketing world, but then I really got this itchy to go out and build a company again and really wanted to focus on productivity. Something that would make people better at work, something that had a wider impact than kind of advertising because I wanted to be able to kind of do things that touch everybody’s life. That’s why the idea of kind of Voicera was born.

Lori Schwartz:                      That’s so awesome. I do remember BlueKai, maybe we met during those years. What turned you on about AI? Obviously, when you’re working in consumer data, AI is a big part of that, but what made you sort of say, “I want to just buckle down on this topic”?

Omar Tawakol:                   When you’re trying to build cultures that are data driven, that make decisions, and you’re using data science, the pace of movement, it’s great, it’s interesting, but you could really accelerate the kind of rate of change if you use AI because there’s a lot more automation there. Instead of trying to find a few big insights that you can communicate to a person in their job, here are millions of little insights continuously guiding and augmenting the way people make decisions. I thought that could be harnessed to make people more productive.

To back even one more, there’s really two approaches to AI. One is, you build a robot, you put it out on a factory floor, and it makes the owner of the factory floor richer and the person who had the job poorer. Eventually, you could argue that it will create more jobs than it destroys, but if you’re one of those people whose jobs are destroyed, you’re not loving that argument.

The other approach is really to build augmented intelligence, which is to say, take people and make those people faster, extend the range of their capability, extend the accuracy of the capability, and now you’re really solidifying their job. That’s another part of AI, and that’s the one that I really like because that’s a win for everybody rather than just being a win for the creator who can IPO and become rich and then kind of make excuses on why thousands of people lost their job.

I’m not saying that’s not going to happen, that’s going to happen. Progress has to happen, but augmented intelligence is a win-win for everybody.

Lori Schwartz:                      We’re coming up with this, are there a core group of people who are focused on AI? Or is it so vast and so hits everything in different categories that it’s not a bunch of geeks hanging out in a corner? There’s AI everywhere now, so it’s not like there’s one singular type of expertise?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, and once you start building these solutions, you kind of have to shift your conversation to very different types of hires. You need people who understand kind of ASR’s automatic speech recognition, it’s this whole own area of its own. And you have pure kind of deep learning, and you have machine learning infrastructure to build all the systems around the AI and the deep learning. Then you’ve got NLU, which is natural-language understanding and natural-language processing. So you’ve got a lot of different areas that are interesting and just saying AI becomes too broad for you to find really the right people when you’re building a team.

Lori Schwartz:                      Yeah, I totally get it. Plus, you’re dealing with voice, which is very different from other categories of AI, right?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, absolutely. For example, one of the first 10 people in the company was somebody who’d specialized in all the engineering around the audio, really understanding the systems that you need to capture, and how phone is different than telephony over the web, and understanding the stacks around that. This person had no AI background, and they really weren’t touching the AI, they were touching all the infrastructure around it. So voice is its own category with its own set of expertise.

Lori Schwartz:                      Tell us specifically what problem does Voicera really solve? And how does it work?

Omar Tawakol:                   Basically, if you look back and ask, “Where is the most collaboration happening in businesses and the enterprise?” People talk about email and Slack. They’re great, and they’re kind of integrated in the way you work, but really, from a time perspective, meetings is where people collaborate. It’s where they spend tons of time. But the problem is people go from meeting to meeting to meeting, and they, at the end of the day, forget what the decisions and actions they took, and then they hope to remember to write a bunch of email follow-ups.

Because of that sorry state of meetings, if you do auto complete on Google and ask how people perceive meetings, it’ll tell you meetings are a waste of time, meetings suck, they’re where ideas go to die. That’s actually what Google will pull up, so there’s a perception that you’re not getting enough done in these meetings.

We saw that as an opportunity. What if we can go in and fix that? Take the largest chunk of time people spend at work and make it a little bit more productive and make it connect to your workday, so you get a lot more out of that time. For example, if you go into a sales meeting, make sure that, as you’re coming out of it, we’ve automatically captured that you promised to send the contract, that you’re going to bring in your sales engineer next, and maybe you can even log into that person account on Salesforce and update it with that amount.

Or if you have a staff meeting, rather than coming into it and saying, “Well, what did we agree to last week? Why didn’t this get done?” You come out of your staff meeting, everybody’s automatically emailed with, “Here are the action items and decisions that we agreed to in the meeting.” So you can radically enhance the way people are productive.

Lori Schwartz:                      God, I love that. I did get a chance to see the results of an experience with Voicera. It’s very comprehensive too, which I really like, because especially when you’re doing meeting after meeting after meeting, and you think you’re taking notes, you’re not always really taking notes. Right?

Omar Tawakol:                   Oh, yeah. Well, that’s the biggest problem we have with note-taking, by the way, is that you walk into a meeting, and some people have their computer open to take notes. That’s maybe how they started, but while they’re doing that, you’ve got Facebook updates, email updates, text updates showing across your screen. Studies from Stanford and other places have shown that your IQ drops by 20 points when you’re multitasking. That’s why you get the effect when you’re in a meeting, and somebody’s like, “What was that middle thing you said?” They just don’t have the presence because they’re taking notes.

When I look back at some of the great CEOs I’ve met, when I’ve been in meetings with them, they didn’t have any screen between me and them, they were completely focused on the conversation. We wanted to democratize that great CEO skill of letting people have presence by saying, “You know what? We’ve got your back. We’ll record the call. We’ll transcribe the call. We’ll even identify the important note moments for you so that way you can completely focus on the person that you’re talking to and have a productive conversation.”

The idea there was, why don’t we do the opposite of what most technology does? Today you go to lunch and three people’s eyes are focused on their iPhone, and they’re not in the conversation. Technology, sometimes it’s separating us even when it tries to connect us. So we wanted to do the opposite and say, “Let this technology have your back. You focus on the human relationships, so you can get more out of it.”

Lori Schwartz:                      God, I love that. All right, well, we’re going to take a break in a moment. When we come back, I want to talk a little bit more about other things, trends that you’re learning from Voicera. How people are reacting to it, it must be fascinating, and what other new behaviors are coming out of this great tool. Then maybe some more on some other business trends in AI because I think, again, people are so frightened of it in a way that I haven’t seen before, and I think it really is all the negative chatter about losing jobs. But to your point, I think there are some great things that are going to open up our world for us.

So we’re going to be back with Omar who is the CEO and co-founder of Voicera, which is a new solution that leverages AI technology to harness the power of voice in the workplace. More in a moment on The Tech Cat Show.

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Lori Schwartz:                      We are back with Omar … Oh, my God. Omar Tawakol who is the CEO and co-founder of Voicera. Voicera is one of the newer AI technologies that’s coming out to voice space that’s helping meetings. Helping you get your meetings organized but in a really intuitive and exciting way, capturing all the insights and information in the meeting so that you can just focus on being in the meeting.

Omar, tell me some of the things that you’re starting to see happen when people use the product.

Omar Tawakol:                   At work, we’re seeing about, I’d say, four classes of use cases that are really interesting. The first one around customer calls, and those customer calls could be driven by sales, or they could be kind of customer success. These people will bring even the meeting, make sure they can capture everything automatically upped at Salesforce, but really kind of coordinate their team.

When you come out of a meeting, sometimes a salesperson will hear the customer ask for something, and then they’ll go to product and say, “Hey, the customer wanted this.” The product team might be like, “Yeah, just sell what you have. You’re always asking for stuff.” But here, when they have EVA at the meeting, they can come out of it and just say, “Hey, here are some really cool things the customer’s asking. Why don’t you listen to it?” They’ll send them the snipped of exactly the feature the customer wanted, won’t be lost in translation, and now the product people own it. So it’s not so much that the salesperson’s asked for it, it’s the customer asking for it.

So these kinds of capabilities leverage the whole team around the salesperson. The finance people, the legal people, they don’t have to go to the whole meeting, they just get the piece that they care about. That’s true for sales and customer success, and it keeps the manager happy because they have a record that update at Salesforce.

Lori Schwartz:                      Right, so there’s transparency too, right? Because you can’t say, “Well, that was said in the meeting.” Or, “He was supposed to do that.” Or, “She said she would take of that.” Whatever, so it kind of holds people accountable too, right?

Omar Tawakol:                   Absolutely. I mean, definitely there’s a cultural impact on what happens when you have the accurate record. It’s almost like this is the first time you really have a socially acceptable form of recording because the value prop isn’t the recording, the value prop is, “Hey, we have a better conversation, and now I have a record of the actions.”

The side effect is it had to have been recoded. Because of that, we had to think through how do you make this more controlled by everybody, so anybody who was in the meeting can delete the whole thing because they want to feel like their privacy was protected? People can edit the highlights that come out of it. They get to see who saw the audio and control if it gets shared. We had to really think through the social aspects around how do we make recordings kind of very useful for people and give them the controls they need to make it productive.

Lori Schwartz:                      Wow, I love that. Have people reported back that their ability to execute in the office has tripled or anything like that? Is there enough data out yet to show how this is increasing productivity?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, so we’ve reached out, and we’ve seen that our customers say their ability to execute follow-up from the meetings has increased. For 77% of the customers said that when we asked them what was kind of the impact, so we see that. We’ve seen certainly some really interesting growth in the quarter that we were getting out of beta and moving into kind of general availability. We saw a 10X growth. A lot of that was driven by people show up to the meeting, they hear EVA, they ask what it is, they sign up, or somebody forwards notes from the meeting, they’re like, “Oh, I want notes too.” And they sign up. Something there is working.

It’s not perfect yet. This is an area where I look at AI like bringing up a child. They get better and better, and eventually they become a teen, and then they’re out there in the workplace. The trick with AI is to keep the surface area of your promises really tight. What I mean by that is you don’t go in, and you say, “I’m going to make your meeting so good, you don’t have to go to them anymore, and we’ll do the work for you.” I mean, this is ridiculous.

Instead, what you say is, “No, no. Go to the meeting, participate, do everything you would’ve done. We’re just going to make it a lot better because we’re going to capture the important moments.” Then once you get really good at that, then you add the second value prop and the third. What you don’t want to do is pull the early days of Siri and hire the world’s best actress to get up and promise world peace, and people are like, “Well, why isn’t Siri answering that?” Then Alexa comes along and says, “Well, I’ll just turn on the lights and play a song for you.” A very specific task done well.

That’s kind of how we think through introducing an AI, try to keep the surface area really tight and small, but do it well and then improve it and increase it.

Lori Schwartz:                      You have basically a sort of phased approach to how this is going to grow out?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, incredibly, incredibly phased. If I look through, I could probably give you a road map that would extend out two years that would be incredibly detailed because there’s so much we want to do. But we’ve learned over time that with AI, it isn’t about having 52 features, it’s each one of them really to get it used right.

It has all these things that you would’ve expected, so you roll out a set of commands, and then nobody uses the command right. So what do you do? You come back and say, “They didn’t use it right. It’s their fault”? No, of course not. You now need to create intent detection and say, “Well, they really meant to say this other thing.”

You have to continually improve a small surface area of features, nail it, and then move on. I think classic product feature work in B2B is you’re a little bit more value-focused, “Hey, a customer’s asked for these 25 things, so let me do these 25 things.” Can’t work that way, the AI. The most important things have to really work well and accommodate all the unanticipated ways people interact with something when they think it’s smart.

Lori Schwartz:                      That’s so interesting. In terms of people learning AI, I had to learn how to talk to my Alexa, and sometimes when there’s a new skill, I have to relook up the voice protocols. So you’re kind of saying, “Let’s let everybody learn some initial protocols, and then we’ll keep taking them along on our path, and we’ll educate our user base as we release new features”? Is that kind of-

Omar Tawakol:                   Well, to be specific, we started out with voice commands just like Alexa. Not the same commands, obviously, but it would be things like, “Okay, EVA, take an action. Okay, EVA, action item.” Stuff like that. Then what some users told us is, “Hey, for many things I don’t want a command. I actually just want to speak and tell someone, ‘Hey, I’m going to send you the deck next week.’ Or, ‘Hey, we decided that we are going to extend the time period for this trial.’ And I want EVA to figure out that that was a decision or an action item without me calling to EVA.”

So a very different user interaction model than something like an Alexa, or a Siri, or Cortana, and so we changed, and we did that. Now you can go through an entire meeting and never give a voice command and EVA will still capture action items and decisions for you because that’s what people wanted in a social setting like a meeting, which is a different setting than picking up your iPhone or going into your kitchen and asking for a timer. That kind of getting that social design right was quite a challenge and very interesting.

Lori Schwartz:                      God, that leads me down this other path. We have to have one killer robot conversation. That is, you’re basically empowering EVA to think for herself, to interpellate context and make decisions. That’s when we get into a lot of the negative dystopian futures about robots. Now we’re taking away our need to command, and they are interpreting what we say to activate.

Are you getting any pushback on that or are people get at all paranoid? Because the only moment of concern I had when I read the sort of report back of the meeting we had is sometimes I just say things that are inappropriate. Well, all right, frequently, and so I saw it all printed back, and so I got paranoid about, “Oh, now I really have to watch what I say.”

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah. No, definitely there’s going to be some social learning there. For example, we’re going to create a variant of EVA that doesn’t actually record and create the call transcript. At the end of the meeting, you’re only going to get the actions and decisions and not all the color around it, and you get to choose which EVA do you want. Do you want the full transparency version or the really tight just the promises version? We’ll see what people choose.

But going back to your general intelligence comments, we have not built anything remotely near general intelligence. What we’ve built is the ability to go into a meeting and try to understand what’s important to you and capture that. We will probably be fine-tuning that for the next five years, making it so that when I walk into a meeting, and you walk into a meeting, you get a different record than I do because my variant of EVA understands that I’m really focused on certain concepts, and you’re focused on other ones.

Like, I might be asking, “Hey, did it sound like was there any contention in this meeting? Did I make any decisions? What can I learn about people’s reaction to me?” Whereas you might have a completely different surface area that you’re interested in coming out of that meeting, and so we both get different outputs. That’s the kind of thing we’re building, and that’s nowhere near general intelligence, but it’s incredibly useful.

Lori Schwartz:                      God, I love that. So my EVA may be meaner than someone else’s EVA? Because my EVA is going to be more aware of my inappropriateness or something. I mean, will they learn stuff like that?

Omar Tawakol:                   We wanted to create a joke, a kind of a funny version of EVA that we’d call the [Scaramucci 00:23:48], that would interject inappropriateness in the meeting, but somehow we decided that that wasn’t really the best feature for the workplace yet.

Lori Schwartz:                      Oh my God, that’s hysterical. I could just totally see it taking on different personalities. I mean, I love all this.

We’re going to take a break in a moment, but what I would love to hear from you is, so as someone who is in a business building out a tool, and there’s a service model behind Voicera, what other trends in AI are you looking at? And are people coming to you? Do they want to embed her into other things? Which we saw so much of in the last two years, the [CESs 00:24:30], people embedding Alexa, and Siri, and Cortana into solutions. I forget what Samsung’s smart … Is it [Quigley 00:24:43] or something like that? Bixby! Bixby.

Omar Tawakol:                   Bixby, yeah, that’s right.

Lori Schwartz:                      Yeah, we started seeing those being embedded into hardware, showing up in other devices that they normally wouldn’t be there. I’d love to hear from you, what do you think what will be the next steps for Voicera? Do you see her being embedded into office blackboards and things like that?

I don’t know, but we’ll be back in a moment, and we’ll talk a little bit more with Omar about what is the future of Voicera, but also just AI, as it rolls out across other businesses? And what are some of the surprises? Have you been surprised about some things in building this out? Has it been like, “I didn’t know that was going to happen”?

Omar Tawakol:                   Totally. I’m sorry, and you want me to answer that now, or when we come back?

Lori Schwartz:                      Oh, no. We’re going to come back. We’ll be back in a moment, and we’ll dig into all of that, but I know it’s always interesting to hear from a CEO about surprises. We’ll be back in a moment on The Tech Cat Show with Omar from Voicera, digging more into harnessing the power of voice in the workplace.

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Lori Schwartz:                      Hi, everybody. We are back, and we’re talking to Omar, who is the CEO of Voicera, about really using voice to power voice in the workplace and his great tool, which has an AI component sort of powering this tool, that lets you pull out insights, and next steps, and making meetings much more valuable. Omar was just telling me that users are giving him a lot of feedback on the product.

Are you surprised about the feedback and how excited people are about it?

Omar Tawakol:                   I’ve built B2B companies before, and this is a consumerized B2B. The whole philosophy of it isn’t to do a top-down sales where you call somebody at the sea sweep, and all of a sudden your product is being used by that company. Here, it’s more bottoms-up. People just hear about it, they try it out, it’s viral, there’s a free version, and if they like it, they pay. It forces you to build something that they love.

What I was surprised here is the volume of nonstop questions and feedback. For example, one of our features is that EVA’s completely calendar-driven. Just read your calendar, shows up, comes in, takes notes, so when the meeting time’s done, EVA says, “Hey, I’m done.” and leaves. All of a sudden, we got this chorus of feedback from people saying, “Hey, where’s the extend button? My meeting is going over, and I want EVA to stay longer.” For security reasons, we had to think through how to make that.

But that kind of feedback, we probably get, I can’t tell you how many times a day on so many aspects of the product, which is, “Hey, how do I add her to phone call?” And you realize we have a way to add to a phone call, but it’s not obvious yet to them, so we have to make it more obvious. Continual feedback has been awesome.

The idea here is that as you build a product that’s easier to use and people love, it’s much easier for you to then do an enterprise sale because you go into a company and say, “Hey, we already have 50 people in your company using the software. Why don’t you get an enterprise version to get more analytics, and security controls and so on, and maybe even volume pricing?”

Lori Schwartz:                      So it’s really been very helpful in the development of the product?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yes, absolutely.

Lori Schwartz:                      I was asking you before, have there been any other big surprises for you growing this business? Anything even from a trend’s perspective? Anything surprising about AI that you really had no idea as you’ve dug into this?

Omar Tawakol:                   Again, I think the biggest surprise we had was the amount of time we had to rethink your social design in a enterprise context that was different than people’s expectations of the consumer context. Meaning, people have an expectation on how to deal with an Alexa, or Siri, or Cortana, but if you replicate exactly that in a meeting environment, it’s not what they want.

Having to design for, “Wait a minute. It’s worked, therefore the data is owned by the company.” It’s not like a consumer play where it all goes into this cloud, and they get to do what they want. The enterprise needs a lot more control about the security and privacy of the data. They don’t want this thing to interrupt the meeting with commands, they want it to just intelligently figure stuff out. They want the stuff to actually show up in an enterprise system where they work.

These design issues that make it very different in a consumer space was, I knew that was going to happen, but it turned out to be even deeper than I expected.

Lori Schwartz:                      It’s just so interesting. Are there other trends in the AI that you’re looking at, and you think are relevant, that you might partner on or sort of layer into what you’re doing now?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, absolutely. If I look at kind of on the partnership side, there’s so many places people want us to integrate our outputs into. Somebody uses Trello, somebody else uses JIRA, somebody else uses 10 other different flavors of task management. We integrated with Salesforce, and then there’s 10 other CRM systems people use, so we’re finding that we have to open up API so that people can just easily add integrations. There are conferencing systems that want to embed what we do and have already done some embedding of what we do, there are hardware provides, and so really having to prioritize the API so that other people can take this output and do something with it is kind of top of mind for us.

Lori Schwartz:                      Then you’re really giving developers the chance to take the product to the next place?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, absolutely. We saw some unexpected ones there where people would say, “Hey, I’ve got really good analytics. I might understand the motions.” Other people might be able to take date and marry it with other data sources. Even there, we don’t have to be the end-all be-all of every form of analysis, just opening it up so that other people can plug in is the right way to go.

Lori Schwartz:                      So interesting. What other trends in marketing and technology are you looking at as well? I mean, do you think that Voicera is going to even expand in other ways that you haven’t taught up before? I mean, are there things percolating at the company now?

Omar Tawakol:                   Right now, we’re really focused on internal, external meetings. So external meeting’s customer-focused, and internal meetings are getting follow-up. The customer-focused angle is really interesting because it expands into something I call the voice of the customer. Today, if you want the voice of the customer, you either have a call center, which is taking a lot of orders or complaints, but if you’re B2B business, your employees are talking to your customers all day long. Everyone from engineering to project management, to product, to the CEO, to salespeople, to customer success, and that really valuable voice, the customer is lost on the floor. Instead of reading Twitter or doing surveys, you could actually capture those conversations and really understand how things are going with the customer, what they want. That’s kind of an upcoming trend that we see here.

Lori Schwartz:                      I’m always blown away just by interesting ideas and trends around AI. Again, because last year and the year before, everybody was talking about VR, and now everyone’s talking about AI. It’s just interesting to see the direction and the path that AI is going to be going into. Do you see Voicera ever becoming a B2C tool?

Omar Tawakol:                   There are definitely a lot of individuals using our tool for conversations. Some of them may be using it in the schools, lectures, so on. It’s not yet our focus area as there’s so much to be done in the enterprise, and there’s so many other people in the consumer area, but never say never. Consumerized B2B really is about making it great individuals, and then have those individuals expand into teams and enterprise. I won’t say no, but today’s focus is a little bit more work.

Lori Schwartz:                      Right, and just staying in the enterprise area. I kind have asked this before, but I’m dealing with so many people who are paranoid, what happens to the recordings and the information that people can feel secure and protected that that data isn’t going to leak out?

Omar Tawakol:                   The short answer is this, think of us more like Outlook than Gmail. Outlook from Microsoft is your email tool. The data belongs to you, and Outlook software is just processing it so you can use the email. We’re the same thing with voice. We’ve not given ourselves rights to do anything, we’re not going to show ads in your data, we’re not trying to have some other play to monetize the data. You pay us to do what we do, so very much like Outlook.

As a matter of fact, where we’re going with this in the long run is a concept I call the conversations inbox. You have an email inbox, but there’s so much more information that happens in all your conversations. You have either on phones calls, or one-on-ones, or conference calls. What if all of that went into an inbox? And not just yours, what if all your team’s conversations that they wanted you to have access to was in the same inbox? And you could search across anything, see how things are going, what things are getting done.

We think this may become a major component of your day at work. Just like you spend time in email today, we think the conversations inbox is where people will spend some time and get real work done.

Lori Schwartz:                      Huh. I love all of these ideas, especially because sometimes you feel so overwhelmed by all the tools not coming together that it’s really hard to move anything forward, so this kind of helps that. I think about, will Omarosa be using Voicera when she works for her next president?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, you kid, but over the last couple weeks, we noticed on our Facebook that people were seeing, “Hey, is this the tool that Omarosa and Michael Cohen use?” It turns out that we’re a lousy tool for that use case because we do four things they would hate. One, we email people telling when going to be there. EVA announces with an actual voice. We show up in the webcam if there’s an opportunity to project video, and we email after it and give the opportunity to delete it. All things that Omarosa would not have wanted because Omarosa wants to be stealth.

Lori Schwartz:                      Right? That’s funny. So you have thought about these use cases, and you’re really staying strong to what the real way to use this tool is.

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, trust is key. If you get cute and say, “Oh, yeah. You can go stealth and do all these things.” That will come back and bite you, and it’s not a smart move on our part, so let’s just be completely transparent. If you’re really trying to record someone in stealth, use another tool.

Lori Schwartz:                      Right, right, right. Are you going right now, are you going to different conferences and trade shows that are focused on AI? How do you keep up on all the different things that are happening?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, it does help. I do go, try to be a little bit selective time wise because you want to spend some time running the company and meeting customers, but I do go to AI conferences. I spent a few hours in one just a couple weeks ago. There was a bunch of stuff happening in September and October. We have some really good investors that have conferences, so Microsoft, and Google, and Salesforce, and Cisco, and Workday all invested. They have great events, and AI’s relevant in those events, so we also kind of participate with them.

Lori Schwartz:                      This will inevitably be in some solutions almost like a Slack where people take it on, and then bend it, and flex it, and create their own versions of it to use in their tool kits?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yes, we would love for it to go that way. We’re very much like Slack in the sense that we’re just about voice collaboration, so when we look at companies to emulate, they include Slack, and Dropbox, and Zoom, and folks like that who built great productivity collaboration tools that people like to use.

Lori Schwartz:                      That’s fantastic. The business model behind it is a service model, right? Are you paying a monthly fee to access a dashboard? How does that roll out?

Omar Tawakol:                   We start out with a 30-day trial of our premium product for free. At the end of the 30 days, you can either buy the premium product, buy another product that it’s less expensive, or stick with the free version. You get some of the tools with the free version, but it also loses some of the capabilities. Presumably, when people in the month after they move to free see the difference are like, “I kind to like those premium features.” And some of those people buy.

Then what we notice is when multiple people buy in one company, then we start talking to them about kind of team and enterprise capabilities.

Lori Schwartz:                      I think the future is very bright for you guys because I think you’ve been really smart about creating something that people care about.

All right, well, we’re going to be back in a moment. Last chapter talking to Omar at Voicera and finding out about the future of voice in the workplace and how to leverage it in a way that actually helps your business. So we’ll be back in a moment talking about AI and voice.

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Lori Schwartz:                      Hi, everybody. We’re back talking with Omar Tawakol. Did I say it right that time?

Omar Tawakol:                   Pretty good.

Lori Schwartz:                      If I just get over my fear of saying it wrong, who is the CEO and co-founder of Voicera, which is an AI technology and it’s used to power voice in the workplace. We’ve been learning all about new trends in AI and also how this is impacting cultures in offices. Omar, where can people learn more about this? Is there a way to try it out? Can we dig in, in a new way?

Omar Tawakol:                   Absolutely. We would welcome that. Come to You will, within minutes, have your own free account that you could use. Then you also go to the app store on iPhone or go to Android and download a free version of the app, which you could use in in-person meetings and then the conference calls. Use it, and we are very opened to feedback, and we actually change fairly rapidly, so would love to hear from you.

We also have a blog. If you go to the Voicera site and go to the blog. Go hear from people other than me, we have a great team. Hear from our CTO, who’s done some kind of podcasts, you’ll hear from our CMO and from other people who’ve written very insightful articles about the domain, and from our partners. So come on by.

Lori Schwartz:                      Is it such right now with AI that there’s going to be so many different AI solutions out there that are conflicting with each other? Or is there one big sort of learning center in the sky that everyone’s accessing? I mean, does Amazon have its own for Alexa? Everybody has their own, and so they’re not learning from each other? Or is more centralized than that?

Omar Tawakol:                   There’s two camps in this, and I think there will always be two camps, which is big companies are going to find that their data assets give them advantage. I believe in AI you can build even a compounding competitive advantage. That’s not like classic competitive advantage. It means that if you’ve got really good data, you could retrain your data every day automatically to get better and better, so your customers visibly see improvement, and they don’t want to go somewhere else. If you can get that, you’re not going to show your data. That’s going to be one camp.

Then there’s going to be kind of an opensource equivalent for data where all these companies that can’t compete with the top winners, who are going to be hoarding their data, are going to need to share their data to be able to train algorithms, and that’s going to have a pile of data in it.

Obviously, we play in both. We have our own provided data assets that we will not share, and we acquire data assets that we can get in the general marketplace. I expect both trends do continue, and I do not expect one winner of everything. No company ever dominates the world in everything. It just doesn’t happen that way, thankfully, and so I don’t think it’ll happen in AI.

I do think there will be fewer winners because it’s going to be harder and harder to build AI that has the intelligence people expect, and that requires a ton of data.

Lori Schwartz:                      Right. Also, if you’re working in just an Alexa scenario, and you’re used to that library having learned a certain amount, when you go to a different environment, aren’t you going to be frustrated that that same level of insights and data is different?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yes, I think that is right. We hope to have that same type of advantage in the long run in the enterprise because it’s a completely different domain. But step back, when I was growing up, people thought that there was only going to be the Microsoft operating system, and software companies were no longer be able to innovate because they couldn’t compete with Microsoft. Then Google came on, and there was fear of Google. Then Facebook came, and there was fear of Facebook. Same thing’s going to happen to Alexa. People are going to be afraid of, “How can we build new voice apps that compete with Alexa?” There’s always opportunity if you find the right area to focus instead of trying to take on the giant and the thing the giant’s strong in, you create something new, and that innovation has always happened.

Lori Schwartz:                      Yeah, I mean, that’s really a good point. It’s just interesting because it’s not like, and this is a little true with IoT, you start to assume and expect a ubiquity with all your experiences, so there’s one great AI voice gatherer in the sky, literally in the sky. Now, just in terms of your use cases, how long has the company been around for now?

Omar Tawakol:                   We started January 2017, went beta in November, and went general availability in June.

Lori Schwartz:                      Have you seen, just in terms of trends, is there a business category that seems to be working more with your solution or seems to adapt to it more? Like packaged goods, or automotive, or entertainment, or anything like that? Are there any sort of cultures that seem to be thriving as opposed to others?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, I would say tech savvy cultures tend to thrive pretty well, but if you look it, our adoption’s pretty wide. Like I said, it grew 10X in a quarter, so pretty much anybody who uses Webex, or Zoom, or BlueJeans, or Google Hangouts, or Skype, those are our customers, pretty broad set of customers. They tend to be enterprise. Smaller companies move a little bit faster in adopting this stuff. They tend to also skew to executives because executives are pretty focused on getting stuff done. That kind of characterizes our users, less so divided by was it health care, or auto, or banking, or insurance. We kind of see all of those.

Lori Schwartz:                      So it’s more cultural. Also, people that won’t be paranoid about these things because I could also see someone not wanting to come to work in a place where they’re being recorded.

Omar Tawakol:                   Yes, that’s right.

Lori Schwartz:                      If they were old-school. Do people have to sign something? Or is it part of employment contracts or anything like that?

Omar Tawakol:                   Well, remember this is not like an Alexa where it’s a speaker that’s always on. You invite EVA only to the meetings you want EVA in. You’ve got a lot of control, so it isn’t a situation where all the sudden you flip a switch and EVA has access to everything. It’s not like that. It’s much more controlled.

Lori Schwartz:                      I don’t mean to sound so paranoid. I’m sort of reflecting a lot of comments that I hear from colleagues, and also from non-technology oriented people, my Luddite friends, or my friends that have careers or jobs that don’t require them to be in an office, and so this idea of having something do this is a little threatening to them. So it makes sense to me that this is a cultural adoption with things.

Just down the line over the next couple of years, where do you see this all going? I know you’re going to be built-in to solutions, you’re looking at yourself as a tool. Do you see any other things happening with the growth of AI and voice?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yeah, I definitely think people spend time in this concept of a conversation inbox that manages a conversation. The real trends there are being really good with user adaptation. Meaning, over time, the tool really understands your specific language and acronyms, your accents, and where you want your workflow to happen. Meaning, if we get an action item out of something you said, what system should we be logging into and updating with that action item so you follow up on it?

That user adaptation can continue for years where you start to get really a lot smarter about what it means. If you said something, maybe I should be updating your calendar in Salesforce. That’s something that has to get trained in time, and we don’t have to do this alone as we open our up our APIs and a kind of ecosystem around us evolves to be able to do some of these things. You almost can’t predict the kinds of smart actions that are going to start to happen.

Lori Schwartz:                      I love it. I just love things that make sense. Well, we have been talking to Omar Tawakol who is the CEO and co-founder of Voicera. I know I have said his last name five different ways, but that is part of the gift of AI and voice.

Omar Tawakol:                   Exactly.

Lori Schwartz:                      Is having freedom. Omar has built a really interesting solution leveraging AI and something to really power voice in the workplace. I look forward to watching this company grow into this, becoming an integral tool for businesses. A really great solution, and not a killer robot solution. Tell us one more time the URL and where we can find out more about it all?

Omar Tawakol:                   Yes.

Lori Schwartz:                      That’s great. Well, thank you so much, Omar. And thanks everybody for tuning in. I am sure we’re going to be talking to more folks who are digging into AI and hopefully continuing to create great solutions for AI like this one is. I was very impressed when I got to dig in because it just kind of make sense.

Omar Tawakol:                   Thanks for having me. It was great talking to you.

Lori Schwartz:                      Did we ask EVA to the conversation? Because it would be nice to know what I did here.

Omar Tawakol:                   Surprisingly, because I was thinking of this as a radio show, I’m not sure I added EVA to it.

Lori Schwartz:                      Okay, that’s okay.

Omar Tawakol:                   EVA would show up by default if it came from my calendar, but from somebody else’s calendar, it doesn’t default.

Lori Schwartz:                      That’s right. Another great use case. Well, thanks everybody. Join us next week. We’ll be talking to someone also as insightful and smarty-pants as Omar on The Tech Cat Show. Have a great week.

Speaker 2:                              Thanks so much for listening to The Tech Cat Show. Please, join Lori H. Schwartz again for another great program next Wednesday at 4:00 PM Eastern Time, 1:00 PM Pacific Time, on the VoiceAmerica Business Channel and syndicated to the VoiceAmerica Women’s Channel.

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