How we built EgyptianVoices

Trouble in Egypt

Early this week I was listening to NPR and it was reported that the Egyptian government had shut off the internet in Egypt.  This prevented most people in the country from communicating with the outside world via Twitter, email and Facebook among other things but they could still make phone calls.

Google tried to help

Google created a service that would take recorded messages and tweet them out but I don’t think it transcribed them and if it did then it wasn’t handling Arabic as well.

I knew there were companies out there that did transcription quickly and much more accurately than Google…

Enter VoiceCloud

The VoiceCloud team found me originally because  I’ve been developing a reputation as a phone XaaS hacker guru the past couple of years.  After talking to them about their service a long time ago I wrote an OpenVBX Plugin that used their API to do transcription.  It didn’t take long because I had already written similar things for my (now defunkt) startup OtherNum.  The plugin turned out awesome and I used it for own personal voicemail system I set up on OpenVBX.

What We Built

So,  the next thing I know, I have an email from VoiceCloud asking me to collaborate with them to build a better solution to this problem.  I was stoked!

I decided to get some phone numbers from Twilio (UK and Bahrain numbers – it’s an early beta feature and I’m special ) for this project and took some code snippets out of about 6 different projects I’ve worked on and built a system that takes recordings off the phone, passes them to VoiceCloud to be transcribed and then takes the transcription and posts it to Twitter.

So in total, I used Twilio, VoiceCloud, Bit.Ly and Twitter APIs (and I’m working on integrating as well).  That’s quite a mashup if you ask me.

Taking it up a notch

Then the VoiceCloud team decided to add another feature – They routed all the transcription requests to a team that could translate Arabic to English and then transcribe it!  So now people who only speak Arabic can use it too!  I didn’t even know they were going to do that but it works VERY well.  Now you can read the English text in the tweet and click the link and hear the original Arabic recorded message.

How to use it

People in troubled areas can call Bahrain +97316199857, the UK +441524488013 or the US +16199004859.

and leave a message in English or Arabic and then their message will be published here:

The Point

Neither I or VoiceCloud are making any money off this.  The idea was just to build something that might help people out.  Some people have used it but we’ve had trouble getting the word out about it because, well, it’s a little hard to reach people there.  Maybe the situation there will be resolved peacefully and nobody will need what we built.  That would be just fine with me.  We can hook it back up again next time a crisis erupts.

Published in: on February 3, 2011 at 23:45  Comments (1)  

It’s time to get paid!

I'm So Paid

Image via Wikipedia

Sell It!

This is going to a be a quick post about up-selling.  This is something a lot of startups do very poorly and there’s a billion blog posts already about developing an MVP and the death of the Freemium model out there.  This is a micro-lesson in startup economics.

You won’t get paid if you don’t ask for it

Maybe you can manage to get 10 million users to sign up for your new magical hosted blogging service by giving it away for free but you have to get paid eventually so how are you going to do that?

Ask your customers to pay you.  I know, seems logical right? Then don’t be afraid of it.  Ask early, ask often.


Here’s a great example of an up-sell right out of the gate. BAM! It’s not an especially compelling argument but it’s not bad.  It obviously did a little homework for you and puts an idea in your head.  I don’t have any stats on how effective this is but the point is that if it wasn’t there the conversion rate would be  0%.


Now here’s an example of a missed opportunity.  Tumblr doesn’t even ask you.  I don’t know if they offer it as a feature!

(Update: they don’t.  )

The Point?

Develop features you think people will pay money for and then be direct about asking them to do so.  If I have to track down how to turn on a feature and pay for it… I won’t.

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 10:33  Comments (1)  

Get Tweets as WebHooks with Notifo and

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

I’ve been using two awesome tools recently to connect my applications to Twitter events.  If you want to hook up your application to incoming Tweets without having to get access to the firehose then you should consider using this setup.


Published in: on January 22, 2011 at 00:31  Comments (5)  

Great idea in search of a technical co-founder

I just had lunch with an entrepreneur who has an idea he believes in and is passionate about.  He’s also got a great deal of inside knowledge for the industry he’s targeting and great connections to investors of various flavors.  He’s put a lot of thought in to the market and the opportunity.

He just needs a technical co-founder to help him build a platform, make technical decisions and start building a technical team.

I really enjoyed talking to him about the business he wants to go in to.  I gave him some advice from my personal experience and tried to give him advice on next steps to take.  Here are the first steps I gave him:

Also, I promised him I’d help him find someone so that’s why I’m writing this!  If you’re interested in learning more about it just stalk me on my AboutMe profile.

Published in: on January 18, 2011 at 09:00  Comments (2)  

Engage Your Web Users in Real Time with Notifo

Image representing Notifo as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

For the most part your web application engages the people using it (you should call them customers) directly as they navigate the application.  That works fine while they’re actually using your application but what do you do when you need to tell them something and they’re off doing something else?

There’s a few things you can do and each has it benefits and drawbacks.  You can send emails to you them but you might end up in their spam box.  You can SMS them if they’re willing to give you their cell phone number.

The problem with both of those methods is that once the user gives you their contact info they can’t really stop you from contacting them or giving away that information.  There’s a little bit they can do to filter things out but it’s not easy and it’s a pain.  And with SMS you and your users have to pay per message (yeah yeah, unlimited plans, I know but their still paying for it).

If only there was a way to get a message to them through a system that allowed them to modify their subscription later?  What if they could choose where and when to receive messages from you?

That’s where Notifo comes in.  Once your users have Notifo installed you can send them notifications that they can get as push notifications on their iPhone or Android phone.  They can also choose to get them on their Mac as Growl notifications.  They can set quiet hours, change the notification behaviors, set up their own WebHooks  and unsubscribe at any time.

The API is great and very easy to use.  For an example of something I built using it check out my Notifo plugin for OpenVBX and this presentation I created about it.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 03:16  Leave a Comment  

About Pitching at StartupRiot

Startup Riot 2010
Image by Sanjay Parekh via Flickr

It’s that time of year again.  There’s a chill in the air, sleigh bells are ringing…

It’s time to apply to pitch at StartupRiot!

First, I’ll tell you a little about myself so that you understand why you should listen to me on this important topic.

I started a business in 2009 and launched it in 2010 two weeks before StartupRiot.  I pitched in front of about 450 people and finished 4th in the voting behind 3 rock star entrepreneurs (Allan Branch, Chris Turner and Jen Bonnett).  Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

While I prepared to pitch I got some great advice from some very smart people including Jeff McConnell, Keith McGreggor, Paul Freet and many others that helped me tremendously so I’m passing on some wisdom to try and do the same for you.

UPDATE: Paul says there will be a Startup Gauntlet January 11th so do whatever it takes to get there.

MORE UPDATED: This actually never happened due to the ice storm.  But there is one on February 8th.

Warning: A lot of the advice you get from experienced entrepreneurs is delivered bluntly because it takes a long time to tiptoe around people’s feelings and time is one thing that experienced entrepreneurs don’t have a lot of.  This post will probably be written in the same manner.  Don’t take it personally.

Note: This was going to be a whole series of posts but I’ve decided to condense it into one. After all, the whole point of StartupRiot is to get your point across quickly and effectively.

Why you should pitch at StartupRiot

This is an event that has few equals in the startup world.  Each year it draws a bigger, more diverse crowd.  There’s well known attendees from out of town like Robert Scoble as well as media coverage from networks like CNN and National Public Radio.

In the room will be more than 600 of the most well-connected people in the the Southeastern US startup community and more than a few from some place called “The Bay Area”.  The people you’ll be pitching to have been there and done that.  They know how to get what you don’t know how to get and if you play your cards right they might help you.

In short, it’s in your best interest to pitch.  It’s a little scary but if you can’t get up the nerve to pitch then you either don’t believe in your business or you have no business running a company in the first place.

Here’s the thing about starting a company: It’s not going to be easy. Get used to learning new skills and kissing your comfort zone goodbye.  Some people can’t do that.  Some people change their mind after applying to pitch.  Some people change their mind the day before.  You will not be one of these brain-dead idiots. (Seriously, that takes a special flavor of stupidity).

How you should pitch

Now that you’ve wisely decide that you should pitch, you need to come up with 4 slides and some speaking notes.  (Don’t get too caught up in the speaking notes.  I wrestled with mine too much and then when it was my turn to go up on stage my mind went completely blank anyway.)  The slides are key.

You only get 4 slides and the first one has to have your name on it so really you get 3.  I would put a maximum of 4 words on each and they should be enormous.  You’ll be very uncomfortable with the size at first.  That’s ok.  The room you’ll be pitching in is HUGE.  Anything more than a few ridiculously large words won’t be readable to most of the people there.

You can see my slides here.  Keep in mind, the speaking notes don’t resemble what I actually said.  I rewrote them many times in the 12 hours before I pitched and then my mind went blank as I walked up on stage.  I partially blame Ben Dyer for not advancing the projector to my first slide like Sanjay instructed us but I digress…

Avoid the following AT ALL COSTS:

  1. Screen Shots*
  2. Photographs
  3. A background color other than white
  4. A text color other than black
  5. Quotes from Spaceballs

Ok, I’ve never seen anybody use a quote from that movie in a pitch but I’m pretty sure it’s a bad idea, even though it was the funniest movie ever made.

* I broke this rule and I have regretted it ever since.

What you put in your pitch depends a lot on why you’re pitching.  I think there are a few common reasons why businesses pitch at StartupRiot and they all boil down to “I need something”.  For some people that something is investment money.  Sometimes it’s customers, a technical co-founder, a mentor or just to gain visibility and experience.

Regardless of why you’re pitching, it’s my belief that these should be your four slides at a high level:

  1. Names
    1. The Company
    2. Founders
    3. URL
    4. Twitter Handle
  2. State the Problem You Solve
  3. State the way you make money by solving it
  4. State what you need the audience to do

#1 is simple enough but people find a way to screw it up. Don’t be one of them.  The URL is important but it’s placement on the 1st slide is controversial.  Lots of people will have laptops or iPads there so they might jump on your site and stop listening to you.  It’s ok to defer this item to the last slide if you’re paranoid about that.  The twitter handle is good though because a certain percentage of people will instantly tweet “Next up at StartupRiot is @andrewwatson pitching @othernum!” or similar.  You do have a twitter handle, right?

#2 If you can’t clearly describe the problem you solve then you’re not going to get very far with anyone.  I can’t emphasize that enough.  Figure out how to describe it verbally in a sentence and visually in about 4 words.

#3 This is where you demonstrate that you have a way to profit from the act of solving the problem described in slide 2.  If you can’t make this case clearly then you are running a charity or a tax evasion scheme but not a business.

#4 Tell people what you want from them (don’t make them guess).  If you want investment dollars, tell them.  If you’re going to name an amount and/or a valuation then for crying out loud do the math right.  Most of the people in the room will do the math in their head and know within seconds that you should have said pre-money instead of post-money or that you’re valuing your business at $100 million instead of the $1o million it says on your slide.

If you want customers instead of investment (kudos) then make them an offer.  Give them an incentive to sign up quickly before a shiny object distracts them.  Get that crowbar into their wallets quickly.  It sounds crass but it’s the truth.  Offer them a bonus for signing up today.   They’re more likely to do it and more likely to tweet about it.

If you are looking for a technical co-founder then be sure to say so and to be specific about the skills you think you need.  Be sincere and convincing or nobody will want to play on your team.

General rules

Do not, under any circumstances, turn and look at your slides on the screen.  If you do, it will screw your brain up.  Turning around and looking at the slide will cause you to read the slide to the audience.  At this point, some people will wish you bodily harm. You have been warned.

Very few entrepreneurs can successfully pull of the obscenity bit.  Last year Allan Branch was the first to say “fuck” in his pitch and it brought the house down. I debated it but since I was going up 3rd I hadn’t had a chance to drink any alcohol before my pitch so I chickened out.  In any case, he pulled it off because he’s a very funny guy.  You probably should not attempt this maneuver.

Be memorable but DO NOT FALL DOWN ON STAGE.  I know, you’re thinking, “That’s a weird rule.  Who in their right mind would do something like that?”  It happened.  Twice.  I thought that guy was DEAD, especially the second time.  I almost charged the stage to give him CPR.

Pay no attention to backnoise until after you’ve pitched.  If you look at what people are saying about the people that pitch before you, well, you’ll probably shit your pants and curl up in the fetal position on stage.  It ain’t pretty.  Actually, it’s better now but in 2009 it was completely anonymous… and it was a lot funnier. I won’t even link to it because then you’ll be tempted to check it out.

You can’t change your slides once you submit them.  At least, not without making significant trouble for Sanjay and he’s really busy so you don’t want to make trouble for him.  That’s another reason to keep the slides as simple as possible.

A note about VC Money

There’s a lot of confusion about this topic so it gets its own section.

There’s at least anecdotal evidence that startups have raised money soon after pitching at StartupRiot.  That being said, the odds are pretty small because no investor worth talking to is going to decide to invest in you during your 3 minute pitch.  Anybody who would do that is probably going to be a complete nightmare to work with later on.  What you’re more likely to get is an introduction to a VC and/or angel investor and the chance to give them more reasons to invest in you.

In fact, this year that’s part of the 1st place prizes!

So don’t think somebody will have their checkbook out when you get off the stage but be prepared to network with people and make the most of the impression you can make on stage and it just might work out for you.  If it does, don’t forget about me and how much this blog post helped you… (hint hint)

What you should do AFTER you pitch

So you think the hard part is done now, right? You fought through the flop sweats and the panic attacks and gave your pitch so it’s all easy now right?


Now the hustle begins.  You’re going to meet a lot of people.  Get their business cards, find out what they do.  Pitch them your business.  Put the moves on them.  Turn them into customers (paying customers if possible).

Bring a laptop to your expo table.  Have your co-founder man the table while you walk around shaking hands.  Open the registration form for your app on the laptop and encourage people to sign up on the spot in exchange for a discount.

When you get home, enter all the business cards into a spreadsheet.  Send emails to EVERYONE you met and remind them how awesome you are.

Only then do you have my permission to relax with your favorite beverage for a minute to bask in the glory of what you’ve accomplished.  Now stop basking and get back to work!

Enjoy the Ride

Pitching at StartupRiot is a blast.  It’s a great experience for an entrepreneur and it’s a fairly unique event.  If you have any questions about it I’d be glad to talk to you about it.  If you want some feedback on your slides, I’d be glad to look at them and help you out to the best of my ability.  Also be on the lookout for a special edition of StartupGauntlet at ATDC shortly before the main event.

Have fun and Good Luck!

Published in: on December 19, 2010 at 14:02  Comments (2)  

Convert More Perusers into Users with A/B testing and KissMetrics

KISSmetrics Sticker
Image by teamstickergiant via Flickr

One of the keys to success for a Startup company is keeping down the cost of acquiring new customers.  One way to do that is to convert a higher percentage of your visitors into paying customers.  I’ve been doing some work on this for my Startup OtherNumber with great results.  Hopefully you can apply this to your own Startup!

Getting Traffic isn’t enough

If you have a web application then I’m sure you’ve built a way for people to register for an account.  I mean, unless you’re a freak or something.

So you write some snazzy copy, extol the virtues of your app and explain why people would have to be crazy not to sign up for it.  Maybe you write too much copy.  Maybe Leo Tolstoy would balk at the copy on your homepage.  Maybe you just wrote the wrong thing.  Your customers need a voicemail platform but you’re blabbering on and on about SMS.

In any case, people aren’t signing up.  You get traffic to your site by running across the field in the middle of the super bowl with a URL on your ass chest but your conversion rate is terrible. (For the record, I don’t recommend doing that.)

So what do you do?

Experimentation is not just for college students

What you need is a way to test different versions of your “Call to Action” phraseology.  Maybe it’s your wording, your comparison charts or even the color of the button!

You need to build multiple variations of the page and choose randomly which one to display. (Well, random is not always best but for now we’ll go with that…)  My app is written in PHP so if yours is written in something else then you’ll have to translate it.

$body = "one";
if ( rand() % 2 == 1) { $body = "two"; }
$_SESSION['layout'] = $body;

Simple right? No.  That will randomly present the users with two (2) different versions of your page but you’ll have no idea which one is the most effective.  That’s where the KISSMetrics comes in…

Measure Everything

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]With KissMetrics, you get the ability to record events that happen on your site and these events can be tied to page loads but they don’t have to be.  The Javascript API is very straightforward and that’s what I’m going to use in this example.  There are other APIs including PHP but I’m saving that for another post…

So you put this code in your PHP page…

<script type="text/javascript">
  if (document.location.pathname.toLowerCase() == "/" )
    KM.record("Home Page", { "Version": "<?php echo $_SESSION['layout']; ?>"})
  if (document.location.pathname.toLowerCase() == "/account/register.php" )
    KM.record("Self Register", { "Version": "<?php echo $_SESSION['layout']; ?>"})

And what you get as output in your browser is this:

<script type="text/javascript">
  if (document.location.pathname.toLowerCase() == "/" )
    KM.record("Home Page", { "Version": "two"})
  if (document.location.pathname.toLowerCase() == "/account/register.php" )
    KM.record("Self Register", { "Version": "two"})

So with this block of code added to the head of my html document the KM.record verb gets called on both the root of the site and on the page that processes the signup form.  The data you pass in with this function is where the magic happens.  Use easy to read descriptions as your page names because that’s what will show up in your report.  The { “Version”: “two” } is the real secret sauce.  Now you know not only that a certain user went from / to /account/register.php but you know which version of the home page they saw!

What you end up with in KISSMetrics is some awesome visualization.  Here’s an example from my usage of this technique on

So here I can see that the “two” version of the homepage was twice as effective at convincing people to fill out the signup form!  The next step is to make two new homepages that are slight variations of the “two” version that worked so much better.

Other Next Steps:

  1. Explore the PHP API
  2. Use three or more test cases at once…
  3. do micro tests by performing variations on button text or color
Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 05:21  Comments (2)  

StartupRiot Rocked!

Startup Riot 2009
Image by Tim Dorr via Flickr

I know Startup Riot was 2 days ago and most people have already written their summary posts… but I’m just now recovering from it.  It’s like I have a Startup Hangover!  The event was a smashing success this year.

Maybe it was because I was presenting this year, but the energy in the Fabulous Fox Theater was AMAZING.  People were buzzing around, meeting new potential customers, business partners, co-founders… maybe even investors!  The cacophony in the exhibit hall was thunderous.  It was wildly exciting.  By the time we left to go to the after party I was losing my voice!  I haven’t talked that much in one day in a long time!

The Keynote

This year’s keynote speaker was Bo Peabody who founded and later sold it to Lycos.  He’s now a venture capitalist running a family of smaller funds called Village Ventures in Massachusetts.

He broke down his personal history with Tripod and Village Ventures and opined on the nature of the word “entrepreneur” and joked about how it literally means “undertaker”.  Every venture he’s been associated with has been at death’s door at some point so both meanings are appropriate!

He talked about the doggedness required to succeed as an entrepreneur and gave examples of how the best defense is a gracious offense and how entrepreneurs get screwed ALL THE TIME.

He was a great keynote, took some questions from the audience afterwords and was very accommodating.

The Pitching

I thought we were pitching in the second block of startups so I would have some time to practice.  I thought maybe if my nerves were still jumpy I could have a beer at lunch and chill a bit… but it turns out something got scrambled a bit and we went up in the first block.  I had to go third, right after Ben Dyer who was pitching for MediaSode and did a great job.

I had been going over and over my new rough outline.  I had re-written my pitch several times the night before – and once that morning.  I went to Startup Gauntlet the night before and got a lot of truly great feedback from Paul Freet, Jeff McConnel and Keith McGreggor.  Those guys are awesome and Startup Gauntlet is something many more entrepreneurs should attend.

As soon as Ben was done and started walking off the stage my mind went blank.  Totally and completely blank. I walked up on the stage, pressed the clicker and my first slide came up.  *GULP*

I tried to work in something about entrepreneurs getting screwed from Bo’s keynote.  I made sure to say that I could help them with one of the ways that they get screwed: the outrageous expense of hardware PBX solutions.

The rest is a little blurry.  I know I made people laugh somehow.  I honestly don’t remember what I said.  I guess I was pretty nervous but I got tons of compliments via Twitter afterward so I think I did alright.


We came in fourth in the voting behind LessAccounting, Regator and Nexpense so we didn’t win a netbook but I was mightily pleased with our finish. 4th out of 50 is great, actually – especially if you look at the companies that came in ahead of us.

The After Party

We talked to people at our table for a while when the event was over but we eventually made it down the street.  We had great conversations with Jen Bonnet, David King, Josh Watts and Richard LeBer.

Josh gave me insight into the company I work for currently.  He’s a great guy and smart as hell.  I’m glad I finally got to meet him in person after all this time talking to him on Twitter.

Richard, Walter (my co-founder) and I talked extensively about strategy for OtherNumber.  I had met Richard once before at an “Open Lunch” at Which Which in Norcross but this was the first time I got to sit down and really talk to him.  Needless ot say, I’ll be making it a point to spend more time with him in the future!


Go to StartupRiot next year.  Just do it.  GO. Seriously.

I made connections with about 20 different companies.  I still haven’t entered all their business cards into Highrise yet.  I talked to potential customers, partners, consultants, investors, advisors…. you name it!  Several people told me there that they’d sign up for accounts.  I call that a WIN!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Published in: on February 20, 2010 at 05:19  Comments (1)  

Presenting at StartupRiot

My Camera Wins
Image by Tim Dorr via Flickr

Well, I can officially talk about it!  I’m presenting OtherNumber at StartupRiot today! You can watch the whole thing live on if you aren’t in the audience which you should be.

I can’t wait to see what the BackNoise channel looks like while I’m up on stage.  Bring on the Snark.

We’re running a special promotion today, in honor of StartupRiot.  If you add funds to your account today and use code “startupriot” you get a 30% bonus on the house.

So let’s go! StartupRiot is awesome and we’re super excited to be here.  Come find us!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 02:00  Leave a Comment  

On the Left Bank – My StartupRiot Story

An HDR photograph of the Seine, taken from the...
Image via Wikipedia

I was just reminded today of a long philosophical talk I had with 2 friends.  We were in Paris finishing up our executive MBA program at Georgia Tech about 4 years ago.  We had some free time and went to some museums and then we took a walk down the bank of the Seine.

Rodney was a single man and a determined entrepreneur.  Mike was married, had two older kids, had some startup experience and was working as the CTO of a new bank in California.  I was just working as a software engineer at the time and, while I had begun the MBA program as a single man determined to become an international business tycoon, I was now married with my wife sitting at home in Atlanta 8 months pregnant.  In the 19 months I was in the program my risk aversion had completely changed ends of the spectrum.

Rodney, Mike and I had worked together on our MBA project which was to build a business plan for a nascent venture centered around technology developed at Georgia Tech.  We wrote up a huge plan, 50+ pages, and when we got back from Paris we won the eMBA business plan competition but I’m getting ahead of myself…

So there we are, walking down the bank of the Seine and talking about what we want to accomplish after graduation.  They were ready put our audio/video search technology company on the front burner and see how much further it would go.  I was shrinking back into the steady state world of corporate IT – convinced I could make a difference there.

They both wanted me to take a risk – a risk on doing something bold, new and entrepreneurial.  I just couldn’t do it then.

Cut to February 2009, the ballroom at the 12 Hotel in Midtown Atlanta, GA.  It’s Startup Riot 2009.  50 startup companies get 3 minutes to pitch.  Their passion, creative energy and fanatical entrepreneurship fills the cavernous room.  I was infected with the spirit.

I learned about Twilio there from seeing ShoutNow up on the stage.  I had a million ideas for apps I could build with their incredible platform.  I founded OtherNumber about a month later.

Now it’s time for StartupRiot 2010 and I’m wondering how many other people will be making the same journey.  The entrepreneurial spirit will be a powerful force again this year.  I’m hoping everyone who goes there who’s considering either founding or joining a startup leaves there as transformed as I did.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 23:18  Leave a Comment