Alexa, can you understand me now? Seattle startup helps translate voice apps into other languages

Alexa, can you understand me now? Seattle startup helps translate voice apps into other languages

The Jargon team, from top left moving clockwise: Levi Sawyers, program management; Mark Veronda, software development; Milkana Brace, co-founder and CEO; and Johnathan Burstein, co-founder and chief technology officer. (Jargon Photo)

The whole point of Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri and other voice-activated assistants is being able to talk to them conversationally. So what happens if you need to engage in a language that isn’t English?

Jargon, a Seattle-based company that launched last December, is working to solve that problem. The four-person startup is helping engineers localize some of the 55,000 apps or “skills” that have been built in English so that they’ll work for users in Mexico, Germany and Japan. Jargon also helps non-English-native developers translate their apps for the U.S. market, and plans to keep adding languages.

Part of the challenge is that a developer can’t simply translate a single command into another language. Even when people ask a device to do something simple, like turn on the lights, they can use numerous verbs and order the words multiple ways. For a more complicated task, like an app that plays a game, for example, the commands become more varied and nuanced.

Milkana Brace, CEO and co-founder of Jargon. (Jargon Photo)

“With voice conversations becoming increasingly complex and open-ended, we anticipate the need for powerful content management and personalization tools that do not exist today,” said co-founder and CEO Milkana Brace. “Jargon is a voice-first personalization platform that enables brands to intelligently tailor conversational experiences for their users.”

Jargon is one of nine companies participating in this year’s Amazon Alexa accelerator. It’s working out of the Techstars Seattle office, prepping for Demo Day on Oct. 9. Amazon and Techstars, which also run a separate Seattle accelerator program, invested an initial $20,000 in each company. Brace said the accelerator has been a boon, connecting them to voice developers working on Alexa skills who need their help.

Brace co-founded the company with Jonathan Burstein, Jargon’s chief technology officer. Brace’s background includes jobs at Groupon and Expedia. Burstein has worked at Amazon, Zillow and Microsoft.

Brace met with 100 candidates when she was searching for co-founders. “We are very complementary in terms of our strengths and weaknesses,” she said of herself and Burstein, who was the second engineer hired at the real estate company Zillow. At Jargon, his focus is on engineering, while she tackles product development and building their team.

The team members, which include Levi Sawyers (program management) and Mark Veronda (software development) as well as several part timers, are focused on their upcoming pitches for Demo Day. But already the startup is thinking bigger picture.

“In the future we’ll equip businesses to tailor their dialogue to each user,” Brace said.

That means Alexa or Google Assistant would use different words and speaking styles depending on who is using the devices. The dialogue would vary based on traits such as whether the person is a child or maybe a senior, and to match their technical expertise. It’s a level of personalization that tech experts are already calling for, given the increasing importance of these devices in modern life and the need for broad accessibility.

We caught up with Brace for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: Jargon enables the authors of voice applications to deliver customized content to their users.

Inspiration hit us when: It wasn’t inspiration, it was customer discovery. There was no eureka moment, no waking up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea. We had to put in the hard work. In fact, we were working on a different idea earlier and as part of the exploration, we talked to hundreds of customers and prospects in various scenarios and across industries. A very specific conversation, however, tipped us in our current direction. Once we started digging in, the opportunity was hard to miss.

Jargon co-founders Milkana Brace and Jonathan Burstein on the first day of the Amazon Alexa Accelerator in Seattle. (Jargon Photo)

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Bootstrapped initially, then got some investment from the Amazon Alexa Fund and Techstars.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: We are taking a global and long-term view of the needs and opportunities in the voice ecosystem.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Besides teaming up as a founding team, our smartest move so far has been to join the Amazon Alexa Accelerator, powered by Techstars. We weren’t considering accelerators and this is the only program we applied to because of its ties to Amazon and the voice ecosystem. We have been incredibly impressed by the quality of mentors, the accelerated learning, the structure and opportunities that have been part of the program. The Alexa Accelerator team is fantastic! As a result of going through the program, we decided to pivot away from earlier ideas and pursue the current direction of the company.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: This might come across as contrary to most startup advice, but our biggest mistake was taking customer input at face value. Just because a group of customers say they would use a product and are even willing to pay for it, it doesn’t mean they actually will. Many of us fail to predict our behavior. An earlier version of Jargon taught us this lesson first hand. So now we listen to not only what customers say, but even more so to how they say it and why they say it.

Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? Jonathan and I spent many formative years at companies founded by Rich Barton — myself at Expedia and Jonathan at Zillow. The type of companies Rich has founded and the enduring culture he has instilled make him an inspiration. We consider Jargon to be the next-generation of a “Baby Barton company” in Seattle and would love to have Rich in our corner.

Our favorite team-building activity is: A quick glance at our Instagram account might give you the wrong impression that we’re a dog-sitting service. All of us love dogs and we bring them frequently into the office. Our team bonds over food and four-legged friends.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: We look for amazingly capable individuals, who have Jargon’s DNA, and who want to shape the future of voice.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Be ruthless about what you spend your time and energy on, individually and as a team.

Source: GeekWire Startup

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