We talked to Bartosz Ziolko of Techmo about speech technology, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Bartosz Ziolko: We are doing fine right now, but COVID-19 had a huge impact on our lives. I was planning on going to Sapporo, Japan as a visiting professor on 1st of April (with my family joining in the summer) and that wasn’t meant an April fool joke. When we finally arrived in Japan, it was December 4th and made it to Sapporo even later. We decided not to have physical contact with our parents at all this Autumn. My kids became so used to this situation that they didn’t understand why we could visit grandma just before setting off to Japan (after negative results of COVID-19 tests). We used to live in Malopolska region, which experienced a very intensive infection spread. A lot of our friends and neighbours got ill. One of our infected employees congratulated me on the fact that I closed the company office and lab early enough so that he couldn’t infect others at Techmo.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Techmo.
Bartosz Ziolko: My father wanted to do his PhD in the UK. He tried applying for permission to go abroad for 2 years during the communist regime in Poland. Without success. This is why he was very happy to help me go to the UK for PhD, and it was thanks to his support that I managed to get to study at the University of York. It allowed me to learn very good research methodology and thorough experience in the field of speech and language processing. Afterwards, I returned to Poland and became an academic at AGH University of Science and Technology. It was a good time for it, as there were many opportunities for people like me to get public funding. Thanks to this, I managed to establish a strong group of young researchers working on speech and sound processing topics. The next big step in my career was the TOP 500 Innovators programme organized by the Polish Ministry of Higher Education and Science at Stanford University (other groups later went to Berkley and Cambridge). It drastically changed my mindset. After 2 months spent in the Bay Area, I started to think about opening a technological company back in Poland. It finally happened (there were 4 other co-founders from my department) and for a few years, I worked both at the university and at the company. I finally quit my job at the university in 2020 and focused on Techmo. Now I’m developing a product for the Japanese market thanks to the hospitality of NICT and University of Hokkaido.
How does Techmo innovate?
Bartosz Ziolko: We don’t really spend our time wondering if we innovate or how to do it. We set our goals and then it’s the matter of there being just job to be done. In our case, this job is the creation of the best possible speech recognition and synthesis systems. Many people are surprised to learn that we can compete with huge global corporations in this field. It is actually possible for two reasons. First, our products can be used on-premise, not only as a cloud-based service. Second, our software is tailor-made in order to elastically respond to client needs, based on our unique know-how.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Bartosz Ziolko: At first, I was anxious about a possibility that National Centre for Research and Development in Poland might not sign agreements for new projects, which was crucial for us because we got funding of a new large R&D project just in the beginning of the first EU lockdown. Luckily the agreement got signed, and they transferred the money pretty soon. Regarding our business activity, of course, some customers slowed or temporarily froze their investments, but generally, speech technologies are considered to be anti-Covid solutions (avoiding touch screens, remote customer care etc.), so we were doing fine. We actually had to employ quite a lot of new people during COVID-19 pandemic and won new customers.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Bartosz Ziolko: Luckily the only difficult choice regarding human resources we had to make was if we would employ people from hotel and restaurant business (so far from high tech IT!) for our sales and marketing activities. We took the risk, and it seems we made a good choice.
Covid times confirmed my approach to running a company. We’re living in a probabilistic space. Unusual things can occur. Do not ever assume conditions are constant. Always try to have some financial margin for bad times and always think what will you do if something does not work as it should in your company. So always be ready for implementing plan C, or at least for plan B.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Bartosz Ziolko: We mostly sell using an established partner channel. This is why the lack of high-quality meetings became the main challenge. We planned on spending quite a lot of 2020 time on a road, visiting clients and partners. That was the reason Techmo actually bought a car just before the pandemic. We planned to do around 25 000 km in 2020 while finally, it turned out to be only about 10.000. We did our best to replace live meetings with virtual ones of course and put a lot of emphasis on internet marketing, but I don’t really feel it worked for us and what we were used to doing. In my opinion, what eventually worked out for us was a growing market trend in Poland showing that voice bots are needed, and that voice technologies are a good solution. This is why, after the first shock of the lockdown, people were just calling and emailing us to talk about speech recognition and synthesis and our offer.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Bartosz Ziolko: Quite a big part of our budget comes from EU and government R&D grants, and they gave us stability and safety during these difficult times. We didn’t apply for any COVID oriented support because we didn’t really need it.
Your final thoughts?
Bartosz Ziolko: Don’t complain. Prepare yourself in silence. Be ready for everything. Think and plan a lot. Act fast without hesitation and while in the movement do not ever stop.
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