One Year in the Life of Voice: An Interview With Voicea CEO Omar Tawakol
Omar Tawakol is Chief Executive Officer of Voicea. Prior to Voicea, Omar Tawakol was the founder and CEO of BlueKai which built the worlds largest consumer data marketplace and DMP. Oracle acquired BlueKai in 2014 & Omar served as the SVP & GM of the Oracle Data Cloud. Omar earned an MS in CS from Stanford (BS, MIT) where he researched and published work on AI agents.
Interviewed by Donald Tucker: Donald Tucker leads Cisco’s acquisition and investment efforts related to the market for Collaboration products and services. Donald joined Cisco from Oracle via the acquisition of Responsys, and prior to that spent time at Jefferies & Co., Liberty Mutual Investments and Chevron in a variety of finance, investment and research roles.
Donald Tucker (DT): Omar, great to meet up. Before starting Voicea, you were the CEO of BlueKai. Tell us how that shaped creating the culture of Voicea.
Omar Tawakol (OT): With BlueKai, which was eventually acquired by Oracle, I really learned the value of strategic partnerships. We created a culture there which was collaborative, open and honest. When we were acquired by Oracle, I continued to foster that culture and build bridges throughout Oracle that helped us integrate more deeply with other teams, find new ways to go to market and be successful. When we founded and launched Voicea, it was the same thinking and our strategy of finding great corporate partners like Cisco continued. Our team is good at building Voicea, but we want and need those kinds of bridges and partnerships with other companies to expand our knowledge, integrate more external feedback and build a more useful, more valuable company. External insight is one of the most useful assets a company has to grow because your internal teams get knee deep in their own story. You need an objective, outside partner to help. Cisco provides that to us!
DT: There’s been a lot going on for Voicea since the Series A funding last year. Glad we can share with our readers.
OT: Yes, absolutely. The last year has been an exciting one for us. We launched the commercial version of Voicea last May, after having our beta open for about 6 months. Last year we grew 100x across many major measures such as new users, new meetings, and corporate domains. We have now had Voicea and EVA, our in-meeting assistant, in more than 10MM minutes of meetings and users have created millions of highlights that denote action items, next steps and key takeaways from their meetings.
DT: Given you were in beta, did you work with users to help launch the commercial version?
OT: Our users have given us great feedback that outlines how they have been using Voicea in their meetings. We are seeing adoption and traction in a number of business areas, with the two leading areas being executives and project managers. Execs use us because they know the key takeaways and actions are being automatically delivered to their team, before they even get back to their desk. For Project Managers, we see adoption usage for internal team meetings where the next steps are assigned to an extended team. Now those attendees and even the ones who were unable to attend the meeting know what has to be done and there’s no confusion on expectations, timelines or follow-up. These different types of users (execs and project managers) have slightly different needs and the beta helped us understand how to cater to each user type in the right way. Our users get more done, faster, and more efficiently.
DT: I’m seeing some new faces here, looks like the team is growing rapidly.
OT: The team itself is now over 45 people, which is up from about 12 at this time last year. We acquired a company called Wrappup back in February of last year that gave us an extended presence into a mobile app and most recently we moved locations from Menlo Park into Mountain View, allowing us to have more room for growth and expansion of the business.
DT: Any new partnerships? Integrations with any Cisco products?
OT: Certainly! We spent a lot of time this past year working with the Cisco team to find ways to work together more closely. The earliest and simplest was to make sure that our AI assistant, EVA, was able to join Cisco Webex calls. When you invite EVA to a Webex, EVA joins the meeting and announces itself, and you see EVA the robot as an actual “participant” in the webcam view of meetings. This allows us to be a reminder for the attendees that EVA is there and able to respond to voice commands and key triggers that you control. There are actions and movements that EVA takes when invoked with the wake word “Okay EVA” and this helps the users understand when Voicea is capturing important elements from the conversation.
More recently we have been working on an integration that enables the highlight reel from Voicea to be auto-synced into Cisco’s Teams functionality making sure the highlights are accessible where the team gets work done. This is similar to other integrations that we’ve established where meeting content and highlights are sharable into platforms like Asana, Todoist and more. We recognize the value that Teams offer and we want to make sure our users are integrated in with yours in all possible ways. We see that as a win-win for everybody.
Beyond Cisco we have integrated now with 30+ collaboration and note-taking platforms including JIRA and Evernote as examples.
DT: Integrations are definitely an important driver for growth. What else can you share with us about Voicea’s GTM strategy?
OT: Our biggest area of focus this year is continually improving, simplifying and tuning all our interfaces (voice interface, mobile app, web app) in order to nail the user experience. An Enterprise Voice Assistant is a new category and we believe that the growth we are seeing is because of this focus on the experience. Every quarter we get better, by really understanding the reasons our customers use our product and then fine-tuning the experience to accommodate those needs. In addition to this experience focus we are also focused on getting our Enterprise Voice Assistant in front of executives and project managers in technology, finance and consulting. These users have proven to be the best early adopters and mass users of the technology. These are the people who have the most need to organize extended teams with information that is gleaned from meetings, both internal and external. On average we are seeing as much as 6 hours per week in time saved by these users as they spend between 12-20 hours per week in meetings. They report back to us that 77% see dramatic increases in post-meeting productivity and they are able to be more focused in the meetings themselves, thereby driving clearer outcomes.
DT: Those are some huge numbers. What else are customers sharing?
OT: We’ve also seen our customers give us valuable feedback that allowed us to find the right balance between voice commands for explicit direction (i.e. Okay EVA – create a reminder…) and “trigger” words for implicit direction where the AI marks conversational takeaways as important without giving an audible response (i.e. action items, decisions). We also learned that users want control. They want control of what an AI like EVA is doing. They wanted more voice commands that helped them impact workflow in their meetings and they wanted control over being able to edit the transcripts, the highlights, who gets the highlight reel after a meeting, and more. They even wanted control over the retention of meeting assets. Control was the name of the game and users wanted more of it.
DT: And I’m sure there’s also been a lot of value working with Cisco’s account teams.
OT: We have begun working with Cisco’s sales team to find ways to get in front of customers for Cisco. One great example has been our work with Cisco and one of Cisco’s largest accounts, where the team servicing that account has been using Voicea for their meetings together the last few months. With Voicea integrated, meetings go from being an ephemeral, temporary occurrence to a tangible, discoverable, searchable content asset that can be used for ongoing team and service management. This has been the single largest value we offer, and our customers agree, so that is how we focus our messaging and go to market.
DT: What has been the value of having a strategic partner, like Cisco Investments, for the company? Any specifics around the value of having us as a partner?
OT: The Cisco Investments team has been a great partner for us. The team provides feedback, and access to a highly relevant customer base. In terms of feedback, we get user feedback for how the tool is operating in real-world use cases within the teams of Cisco Investments. We also get great access to other groups within Cisco. This access allows us to tailor our message and GTM strategy to run alongside Cisco’s teams and offer a customized offering to Cisco partners. In terms of insight, we are able to get ideas for how we can integrate deeper into the Cisco platforms and provide additional value to Cisco teams and clients. From the outside of Cisco, these three areas would be impossible to achieve. The Cisco Investments team helps us navigate the waters and supports us in efforts to be successful.
DT: What kind of insights have you gathered from that first full year in the voice market?
OT: In the beginning, users found it a little awkward to ask questions or speak to Siri or Alexa. It was a novelty and if it didn’t work, they were dismissive of the technology as not being very good. These days, users are way more accepting and willing to engage with voice-AI. According to Voicebot.ai, Alexa-enabled devices are in over 100 million US homes while the numbers for Siri, Cortana, and Google AI are even larger (500MM, 400MM, and 500MM respectively).
The key issue is the vast majority of the usage is in a consumer context. The social context of a meeting is vastly different than the social context in your kitchen. When you are in the thick of the moment in a conversation at work, you often need a social queue before you give a voice command so that you don’t get an awkward interruption. For this reason, we created traditional voice commands as well as silent triggers. For example, if you are in a meeting and your colleague asks you to send the latest contract, that question creates a social queue where it is reasonable to say “OK EVA, remind me to send Cory the latest contract, today at 4 pm.” Using that command shows Cory that you’ll get the task done. On the other hand, if Cory and David are in the middle of articulating a new tagline and the conversation is fluid you may prefer to use a silent trigger word to mark the moment without interrupting the conversation. To do that you might say, lets “capture that” (with no audible chimes responding). Understanding that a verbal command in the middle of a conversation at work is different than saying “Alexa, turn on the lights” is a crucial insight. Creating the voice technology and voice interaction to make that work is where magic moments are created.
DT: Where do you see artificial intelligence headed? How should companies leverage AI in their messaging?
OT: We’ve seen the difference between being an AI company that solves a problem with being a company solving a problem using AI. AI is a term that comes with a lot of baggage. To be successful, you have to build trust with users before you get them to integrate your tool with their workflow. You want to solve a clear problem and position yourself in such a way. AI is one of the tools you have at your disposal, but it shouldn’t be the lead for defining your company. You should lead with the why, and not the how because people don’t really maintain interest in the how. Leading with the “how” means you are not resonating with the “why” yet, and as Simon Sinek suggests, it’s important to lead with the ”why”. When you do, you are likely to get further.
DT: What do you believe the meeting of the future looks like? I’m confident it will include EVA, but what else will change from how we experience meetings today?
OT: The meeting of the future will have three outcomes that differ from today. First, there will be fewer meetings. Second, they will require less people and the people there will be more engaged. And finally, they will have actions and decisions produced, which are agreed on communicated. Simply put, in the future you will meet less and do more.
DT: That’s definitely a future we can all look forward to. You mentioned earlier that you want a culture that fosters collaboration. What advice can you give to other founders of early stage startups?
OT: You want a culture that fosters collaboration. You want a team that is focused on a common vision and common direction and not on personal agendas or egos. We’ve been lucky at this because we seek the right kinds of people and we work together to establish our goals as a team. In doing so we ensure alignment. It’s not easy and it requires attention and focus, but we’ve seen a lot of success with this, both at BlueKai and at Voicea. A unified, well-aligned team can tackle almost any challenge and rise to the occasion.
DT: Omar, it’s no secret that startup founders are a passionate about building their companies but outside the office, what are you passionate about? Where do some of your interests lie?
OT: I love to hike, run, and bike. The Bay Area has amazing weather and an endless set of trails. My favorite is hiking or biking with friends or family, that way I can stay healthy and socialize at the same time.
I also am very passionate about building companies and that permeates a large portion of my life. Having said that, I am concerned that the status quo around value creation is great for company builders and investors and less so for the surrounding community. We need to rethink the rules that are creating such an imbalance. I am interested in figuring out how to be both socially responsible and entrepreneurial at the same time. At the moment, I have more questions than answers, but every valuable journey starts with a deeper recognition of the problem.
DT: We’re glad to be on the journey with you, Omar.