I once went red. Not commie red but Wella red. It was an interesting experience because of the way people treated me. Redheads have a reputation, they are full-on or full off. Fiery. Binary. And even though my red hair was a lie that was the perception those that didn’t know me took.
I was reminded if this when I met Daniel Doulton from SpinVox, not because he’s red headed – he’s fair – but because the story of SpinVox of how he built SpinVox and so many things in the mobile phone business is either full-on or full off. I’ve seen some brilliant technologies and ideas fail. And SpinVox appeared just as one of the most brilliant: Wildfire was failing. Both Wildfire and SpinVox were voicemail services, both did clever things with voice recognition. Wildfire was a personal assistant who listened to you and acted on your instructions to return a call or create a contact. SpinVox is a service which converts your voicemails into a text message. It’s ideal for people who want to pick up messages in public or in meetings.
In the redhead mobile phone world one brilliant application succeeded and the other failed.
But what is really special is the story behind how SpinVox came to be. Daniel was working at Psion, and like all of the men I’ve met who are ex-Psion he’s incredibly smart. Smart doesn't always save a company and when Motorola pulled the plug on the Odin project, just as laptop manufacturers started building modems in rather than buying PC cards from Psion Dacom, the company went into free-fall.
Daniel left Psion and met Christina ‘Sherry’ Domecq who was running a business in New York which he helped with. Christina complained about the nightmare of Voicemail. Daniel started building his ideas for SpinVox.
The great thing about voicemail services is that they get into what mobile phones are about: always being connected with voice. The brilliance of SpinVox though is how it works as much as what it does. What Daniel designed was a system which used voice recognition to transcribe to text, but which would compensate for itself when the transcription failed.
To map this out he took redundancy and went off to think for six months. Spending the time teaching paragliding in Switzerland.
Things don’t get more redhead than what happened next: His sail collapsed and he fell. The ensuing accident shattered both his legs, broke his back and broken ribs punctured his lungs. He suffered multiple injuries each of which very nearly killed him. A catalogue of his injuries makes it sound as though only that really little stirrup-shaped bone in the ear was intact. Staying alive was a challenge, and that life would be in a wheelchair.
He spent six months in hospital. Thinking and building the architecture for SpinVox. “It was the God-send I needed as it gave me the reason and the drive to recover and get back out there” he told me. The solution he came up with for how to cope with transcriptions that failed was to make the system score it’s confidence in the transcription. If the Artificial Intelligence wasn’t happy with the result it would pass the message onto real intelligence in the form of a human operator – sent over IP to a low-cost call centre – who would manually transcribe the message. And then the really clever bit, the artificial intelligence would learn that transcription. So when the next voicemail with the line “Hleb is following Thierry” comes through it doesn’t have to be punted out to the human operator but can be automatically transcribed. He explained “The original system specs were written by me in hospital, I did my first technical workshop with systems guys in hospital and issued our first tender from there too!”.
Still on crutches, but with Daniel happy to be alive, Daniel and Christina started the company in a small London office. It took it’s first paying customers in 2004 And struggled with the networks to become accepted, but time, perseverance, the right contacts and luck led to rapid growth.
Today SpinVox employs over 340 people and has over 1m subscribers. It’s available in 4 major languages and is growing rapidly, but the best thing of all was that after we finished our chat Daniel got out of his chair and walked away. No wheelchair, no crutches.
Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com you can read the column the previous Friday by subscribing here.
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