Sonalight – Making Handsfree Voice-To-Text Work

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The young duo that stand behind the all-new voice-to-text venture, Sonalight, are looking to revolutionize the way we text on our phones. Curtis Liu and Spenser Skates, both recent graduates from MIT, were frustrated that there was no good way to safely use their phones whilst driving and decided to tackle the problem head-on by developing an Android app that lets you do exactly this.


When asked about the duo and how they met, Spenser told us they both graduated from MIT’s undergraduate program in 2010. “I majored in Biological Engineering and Curtis majored in Math and Electrical engineering and Computer Science,” Spenser said. “I went to work for a year in high frequency trading at DRW Trading. My cofounder Curtis worked at Google on Google Plus for a year. We then started this in August of 2011.” Quite a recent development then! So how did the two of you decide to go for this rather than stick with your already successful careers? “Well, we’ve been looking at startups for a while and have always wanted to build something of our own”, Spenser told us enthusiastically. “We decided this was a good time for us to take the leap as we’re relatively young with few commitments.” So how much of this venture are you outsourcing? “Everything is done internally by the two of us,” Spenser said. Quite a bit of work for two mortals, but it seems to really be catching on to people.


You mention you didn’t like the existing options out there for voice-to-text applications, so you were looking to build a clear solution to a problem; a good way to start a venture by finding faults in current options rather than build something which doesn’t have an existing demand base. What did you not like about the current options out there now? “Existing voice applications are clunky and not very user-friendly”, Spenser said, “They just aren’t really designed to be fully hands-free”. Fantastic concept, especially because it’s truly hands-free, without having to take your eyes off the road for even a second.


So how are you funding this venture and what kind of support are you getting? “We applied to Y Combinator and were really pleased to get funded through them.” Another Y Combinator venture, excellent! So how did you apply for it, was it a difficult process? “Well to be honest it went very smoothly. We just applied through the online application form [see for details], got an interview, and got accepted.” Sounds easy than it is we think! Great job on getting accepted, it really sounds like Sonalight is gonna be big!


So apart from coming up with the concept and the funding behind the venture, what has the journey been like so far for you guys and Sonalight? “I hate to sound cliché, but it really is a rollercoaster. With a regular job, you just show up and work on what your boss wants you to work on. With startups there’s a lot more that you have to deal with – both things in your control and out of it.” It’s a whole nother world, that’s for sure! You have to be able to wear multiple hats in terms of daily tasks, but it seems you guys are doing really well so far in getting it out there. Have you started ventures before or is this your first one? “It’s our very first one but we feel really positive about it,” Spenser told TJ. So what has been the most positive and/or rewarding aspect so far? “It’s great to build a product that users get excited about and make a difference for them.” Very true, having users cheer you on must be a great feeling rather than releasing something you have no idea about how it will land with the public.

What about the biggest mistake, or dare we say, ‘regret’, and the lessons you learned from it in terms of the journey so far? “Well, this is a long and involved set of blog posts! We’re also in the process of figuring some of these out now, so I’d be better at talking about them on the other side.” Your blog is fantastic; it really gives an insight into the true behind-the-scenes workings of a startup company, something you don’t get to see a lot of. Is there any single experience that you have learned from and would like to share with us? “Sure. When we first released the product, we forced people to pay $20 /year if they wanted to use the product a lot. Our customers hated it and told us so, so we ended up removing it. Definitely a mistake to charge so much early on – it’s more important to just get a product out there and into people’s hands so that they use it, and then figure out how to make money later.” Great piece of advice!


So what are your long-term plans for Sonalight? Where do you hope to see this venture go long-term, Spenser? “Any plan more than 3 months out in the startup world is bogus. We’ll be continuing to improve what we’re working on and growing our user base by improving our product in the next few weeks and months – we really want to impact a lot of people. Long term we know we’ll be here for a while, so we’re excited to see what the future holds!” Great stuff! You mention you know you’ll be here for a while, I’m guessing that’s partly due to Y Combinator’s support (in addition to an awesome product), can you tell us a bit about that relationship? “YC is great – both the partners and a lot of the alumni have been very helpful to us. They’ve been through where we are now, so they are helpful to go to when we are looking for guidance.” Great network base for sure, having both senior (partners) and junior (recent and current alumni) close by.


We’ve heard some great stuff about Sonalight so far and it’s great to see you’re taking feedback on board; can you give us an idea of how successful Sonalight is at this point? “Well as said before, people love our app because it allows them to safely text while they drive where as they haven’t been able to before. They’re also excited about the potential of voice. In terms of right now, our app delivers 50,000 text messages every week.” Great statistic, and certainly a substantial number already for something that you started less than a year ago!


What would be your advice for others thinking about starting their own venture? “Build something and get it out there as soon as you can. Any good programmer should be able to put a barebones product out there in a week or two. This is the step I see people struggling with the most. You don’t have to get permission from anyone to do it. Just go build something.” Good advice, re-enforcing the general views of true entrepreneurs. What about a quote that you find has helped you out during this rollercoaster of a journey? “Absolutely,” he told us, “Write code, talk to users, anything else is a waste of time.” Pretty solid words there with regards to the dedication needed to make something like this work, where did you get that quote from? “I got it from YC. They spent a while drilling that into us and it’s a great guiding principle.” It certainly shows how motivated you are in making this work, we like your odds, thanks for your time and the best of luck to the both of you!

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