An App That Helps The Hearing Impaired “Hear” Conversations Again


The current tech industry is full of companies and applications that are looking for an overnight success story. This desire to create a rocket ship leads to shiny new products that founders and investors think are “cool.” However, majority of the time cool doesn’t pay the bills.

Successful companies almost always solve a painful problem for a large group of people. It is widely accepted that founders who experience a problem first hand tend to be more effective at solving it. Transcense, a startup aimed at bridging the communication gap between the hearing impaired and the hearing world, is a great example.

Thibault Duchemin, the CEO, grew up with hearing impaired parents and a hearing impaired sister, which caused him to use sign language throughout his childhood. Skinner Cheng, the Head of Technology, has been hearing impaired since the age of 2. Both of these individuals understand how hard it is for a hearing impaired person to comprehend a group conversation.

Group conversations are quick and dynamic. This makes it hard for the hearing impaired to lip read and comprehend the conversation. The existing solutions of interpreters and captioners are expensive and inflexible. These professionals charge $80 to $120 per hour and it is nearly impossible to plan days in advance every group conversation that you’re going to have.
According to Transcense, 5% of the world’s population (360M people) suffer from disabling hearing loss. These people consistently struggle to comprehend group conversation. Transcense’s solution is a mobile application that translates who is speaking and what is being said. It displays the conversation in text on the screen of your tablet or smartphone and brings back full autonomy to it’s user.

The team of 5 from UC – Berkeley is currently testing an initial prototype and attending the Boost VC accelerator program. They caught my eye on Indiegogo because they are attacking a large problem that can change the quality of life for so many people. This alone does not guarantee them success – they still have to execute, find product / market fit, and successfully scale – but they appear to be in a solid position.

We need more companies and products like this in Silicon Valley. Technology can improve lives – we just need to find the entrepreneurs and investors who are willing to put in the work to make it a reality.

The Snapchat Rocketship

Photo courtesy of slashgear.com

Photo courtesy of slashgear.com

In December 2013, most of the tech world was appalled when Evan Spiegel and Snapchat turn downed Facebook’s reported $3 billion acquisition offer. I wrote at the time that people were overreacting and predicted a 3-5X valuation within 18 months. Snapchat has grown even faster than my expectations and is now rumored to be valued at $10 billion.

I am now more bullish on Snapchat than ever. There are three factors that will drive additional growth and an ultimate IPO:

1) Snapchat’s daily usage among the under-25 crowd is insane. This demographic continues to send multiple Snaps a day, similar to their text messaging rates. It has become common to have a complete conversation with ephemeral photos. This places Snapchat as a competitor to WhatsApp, WeChat, or Facebook Messenger.

2) Snapchat’s My Story feature has filled a niche market need. Young people want to share content with each other in our public, social world. There are plenty of social networks that empower this sharing but they all have the same problem – the content lives forever. Snapchat was able to figure out a way to facilitate one-to-many communication without the fear of someone digging up the content two years from now. This small difference is powerful and compelling.

3) Snapchat ads are coming. Earlier this week, Spiegel hinted that the ads product would allow brands to tell a story in a similar fashion to My Story. With a highly coveted demographic, I’d expect brands to be attracted to this new, creative channel. Since self-service advertising appears to be farther down the product roadmap, I imagine the early advertising deals will be lucrative contracts with large agencies.

Additionally, most social platforms receive another level of validation when unknown individuals are able to build a celebrity following on the platform. We have seen this occur on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine. Snapchat hit this milestone in the last 12 months. In some cases, thousands of kids are following a “random” person for multiple updates a day.

Everyone thought Snapchat was a fad back in December. It is clear that the company is not going anywhere for awhile. The big challenge for the team will be whether they can successfully execute their ads business. If all goes to plan, expect an IPO in late 2015 at a $25-30 billion valuation. This will be fun to watch.

Google Will Acquire Uber – Here’s Why

There has been speculation about Google’s intention to acquire Uber. If we break down different potential motivations, there may be more reality than speculation to the deal.

Google invested in Uber

Google has invested over $250M in Uber through Google Ventures. These types of large investments indicate a strong belief in the companies leadership and an expectation of successful execution. A close relationship of this nature could easily lead to acquisition – just ask Tony Fadell and Nest.

Self-driving Cars

There has been no shortage of media coverage for Google’s self-driving car initiative. While it seems likely that the cars will become the norm, it may take time before there is wide-spread adoption by the general public. Uber’s use of self-driving cars could help people familiarize themselves with the technology and ignite faster adoption. Removing human drivers would increase efficiency (less wrong turns or mistakes), increase margins (you don’t have to pay the driver in a driverless car), and would empower Google/Uber to have more control over the rider experience.

Shopping Express

Shopping Express is starting to see increased adoption but it is still hampered by the limited workforce and vans. Using Uber’s platform, Google could empower anyone with a smart phone to become a Shopping Express delivery driver. With shorter wait times and cheaper delivery, I’d expect to see even more people leveraging same-day delivery. We know that Uber has run many tests in select markets to highlight their logistics power. This could even provide an acceptable intermediate step as we wait for aviation regulations to catch up with the drone industry.

Google Maps

Uber was integrated into Google Maps back in May. The integration allows users to compare transit, walking, and Uber routes as they try to get from Point A to Point B. There are plenty of additional integrations that Google could do if they owned the ride-sharing company. Imagine a world where a self-driving car shows up 30 minutes before your next meeting (based on your Gmail Calendar) to take you there.

Competition

Uber is in a battle with Lyft and Sidecar to win the ride-sharing market. Even with the first mover advantage, Uber is not out of the woods yet. An acquisition by Google would allow the company to leverage the resources of an international tech giant, while continuing to scale at an explosive pace.

Dynamic Pricing

Uber’s most underrated asset is the dynamic pricing algorithm that determines each fare. It calculates distance, time, current demand, and traffic among other things. Google could leverage the formula to provide dynamic delivery pricing – flat delivery fees are outdated. This increased efficiency would motive drivers and ensure that there was always a delivery vehicle available regardless of the traffic or weather.

Price

Google is one of the only companies with the cash and equity on hand to pull this off. Uber was valued at $18.2 billion during their last funding round (remember Google has large equity stake). Lets say that the ride-sharing service could now demand a $20-22B valuation. With over $50B in cash sitting in the bank, and a sizable equity stake already, Google could easily negotiate an attractive deal for both parties.

This deal makes sense from both a utility and economics perspective. If it came to fruition, it would be the kind of blockbuster acquisition that defines a decade and changes the trajectory of an entire industry.

The Power of Controlling Your Thoughts

The mind is a powerful tool. Our brains are able to process 120 bits per second. We subconsciously decipher important information from non-important information instantaneously. The brain excels at processing either many things at once or few things with a great degree of focus. David Foster Wallace once said:

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

We can amplify the power of our brain by controlling our thoughts. Intense focus on the right things will pay huge dividends. What do you spend your day thinking about?

9/11: The Most Powerful Image For Me

This photo has special meaning to me. It hammered home the pain and suffering that innocent civilians experienced on 9/11. It showed me the compassion of our fellow man. It illustrated the courage of those who were sworn to protect us.

I carried a small, laminated copy of this photo with me while I was deployed. It reminded me why I was there. It made me realize that, American or not, no group of people should be subjected to brutality and extremism. Hopefully it does the same for you.

man-in-chair-911

Can iWatch Redefine The Mobile Payments Space?

Photo credit: techloon.com

Photo credit: techloon.com

Apple has never been the trailblazer that everyone makes them out to be. Historically, the playbook has been to bring a superior product to market after watching other organizations fail. This “second mover” advantage allows Apple to gauge the interest in a market, learn from other’s mistakes, and benchmark their amazing product against shitty ones. 

Napster disrupted the music industry before iTunes. The iPod was the 6th or 7th MP3 player available to consumers. The Simon Personal Communicator hit the market 15 years before any iPhone. Apple prevailed each time because of a superior product that came with one of the strongest brands in the world. 

If the rumors are true, the Cupertino-based goliath has their sights set on dominating a new industry – smart watches. Everyone from startups (Pebble) to established players (Google) have taken a crack at the mainstream market with minimal success. Early adopters will always flock to the latest shiny thing, but the real winner will capture majority of the non-tech savvy market. 

I’m bearish on the wearable market overall, especially smart watches. There has yet to be a product that has substantial additional functionality that can’t be realized through my phone. Due to this, I haven’t been too excited about the iWatch – but that changed yesterday. Rumors claim Apple will unveil two-factor authentication between your iWatch and iPhone in an attempt to remove the friction in secure mobile payments.  This has the potential to completely redefine the smart watch vertical.

With two-factor authentication, Apple would leverage their ecosystem of hardware and software to create a defensible market position. Very few companies in the world (Google is only other) have full control over the smartphone in your pocket, your daily operating system, and now the watch on your wrist. Multiple devices is one of the only ways that two-factor authentication can be introduced to the general population with very little friction. 

To serve the masses, everyone is unbundling services. Apple appears to be headed in the opposite direction – doubling down on their closed system to create additional value. They are probably the only company that could pull this off but it won’t come easy. Android adoption is exploding on a global scale. Battery life is a constant concern. Most importantly, mobile payments require the highest levels of security.

Apple not only has to successfully protect an individual’s payment information, they must also gain the user’s trust. Credit cards are commonplace in North America but rare in countries like Indonesia. These emerging markets struggle with adoption because of the fear of fraud or the general distrust in banks or governments. With iWatch, it will take majority of people a long time to comfortably walk around with their financial details strapped to their wrist.

The deck is stacked against Apple. This won’t be new territory for them. I’m excited for the announcements. I’m just not holding my breath while they try to find success….

The Coolest Emoji In The Room

Communication and location are two staple elements of recent successful technology products. Steven, the new mobile app from Abdur Chowdhury, Twitter’s former Chief Scientist, automatically converts your life to emoji. The product shares your current location through an emoji-based status update with your network of friends. I’ve only been using it for two days but I’ve enjoyed how simple and fun the experience is. 

Many apps struggle to retain users over a long period of time due to decreased engagement. These apps typically require numerous actions before the user receives value. High-friction moments (navigate to the app, wait for the cold-start, multiple clicks to get value, etc) eventually wear the user out and churn becomes inevitable. 

Steven is interesting because it provides multiple levels of functionality. Users can let Steven do all the work – update your status with an emoji based on your current location (ex: A coffee shop is represented by a coffee cup). If they want to be more involved, these same people can share photos from each location or spend time scrolling through their friend’s past location updates. 

Most emoji-based social networks have appeared to be dumb and/or gimmicky. Something about Steven has caught my attention but I can’t seem to pinpoint it. It could be the playful nature, the passive functionality, or ease of use. Either way, I wouldn’t sleep on the emoji vertical. There is a large appetite from consumers, which means that one team will eventually capture the market with a solid product and excellent execution. At least Steven’s got a chance.

If you know of any other emoji apps that are interesting, leave a comment or tweet me.