INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
From Covid to Comcast: How to Pivot in the Time of Corona
We talked to Jameson Rader of CUE Audio about ultrasonic audio.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jameson Rader: My family has so far been very lucky in this situation. We’ve all done our best to be safe and follow the recommendations from the CDC. Fortunately, none of us have been sick. That being said, I am from Vegas, which is a very service-based economy, and you can’t avoid feeling some sort of impact.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded CUE Audio.
Jameson Rader: Let me start by placing CUE Audio into some historical context.
Long ago, cell phones had only cell service. Eventually, phones started to support a Wi-Fi connection. A few years later, Bluetooth made it into the list. Lately, NFC and QR codes are increasingly popular communication protocols adopted by smartphones.
Most recently, another communications protocol has gained rapid adoption, downloaded on over 10M smartphones in just the past 24 months. That protocol is data over audio, developed here at CUE Audio.
CUE converts data into ultrasonic audio. This provides a universal standard by which any device with a microphone or speaker can communicate with any other device with a microphone or speaker. This means that any two devices in the same room, even if in “airplane mode,” can still communicate using sound as if they were speaking. Quite literally, we’re giving robots a voice.
This all started because many non-professional sports teams didn’t have a gameday app, so I wanted to make/sell one. I didn’t know how to code, so I started learning. Within 18 months of picking up my first programming book, I had sold my app to many teams in the NBA, NCAA, and NHL. I developed the first iteration of our ultrasonic acoustic modem in order to synchronize devices to create crowd-sourced smartphone light shows in large venues with poor connectivity.
I actually did a popular Reddit AMA on this a few years back: https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/5pouv4/18_months_ago_i_didnt_know_how_to_code_im_now_a/
Now, a few years later, at 100+ arenas and stadiums across four continents, CUE’s ultrasonic audio signals are broadcast from the speakers to allow tens of thousands of attendees to synchronize. We have partnered with many NFL teams, Disney, and over 50 D1 universities. The secret to this growth has been the development of our acoustic modem.
How does CUE Audio innovate?
Jameson Rader: It’s a balance of listening to client requests mixed with trying to think of ideas so bold no current client would be brazen enough to request it. Ideally, this is an idea that you can validate very quickly without much investment of time or money, in line with the “lead startup” philosophy — a book by Eric Ries is all but required reading if you plan to develop your entrepreneurial skillset.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jameson Rader: We were very much a company focused on live events. Our revenue came primarily from NFL teams, concerts, tours, and events like March Madness. Basically, all the first things to go during the pandemic, not to mention the things that may be slowest to return. When COVID hit, we knew we needed to pivot our targeted customer segment — and pivot fast. As a team, we looked at the inquiries we’ve received over the past two and a half years from all clients that were not in live events, sports, or music. This gave us some insight into customer segments that had expressed interest in our tech but in which we had not found product-market fit. This included things like Defense (we had done some work with Verizon in 2019) and rideshare (we had had a few calls with different rideshare companies in the Middle East and Asia, but that had made it past introductions).
Focusing on those markets, within four months after our pivot, we have been able to:
– Secure our first rideshare partnership
– Deploy a contact tracing application in production use right now
– Collaborate with Raytheon, a multi-billion dollar defense contractor, to find opportunities where acoustic, non-RF comms stand to benefit exiting Raytheon clients
– Land a paid pilot with Comcast to provide Audio QR codes to improve accessibility for non-sighted persons
– Expand our live event product suite to support virtual events
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jameson Rader: Faced with tremendous uncertainty, we’ve had to make some extremely difficult decisions. As a small team focused on live events, we saw other companies in the same industry, letting go of 60% or more of their workforce. Our team members didn’t know if they’d have a job next week. And as founders, we didn’t know if we’d have a company in a few months. As our upcoming event schedule and planned work collapsed in front of us (for example, March Madness was a client…), it was tempting to do nothing but sit back stunned with our jaws open. The next hard decision was prioritizing what we worked on. In a lot of ways, we were building another company from scratch. We had some neat IP and a good reputation, but we were pursuing completely new verticals. Landing our first rideshare client gave us all a big motivation boost, and that carried into landing a pilot with Comcast and even getting some movement in the defense sector.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and CUE Audio in the future?
Jameson Rader: Projecting CUE into the future: When live events come back, we’ll celebrate and look forward to servicing big events again like College Football Playoffs, the Superbowl, and big music festivals. Until then, we’ll develop and define what virtual fan engagement looks like — a relatively new concept and something that has always taken the back seat in sports to in-venue fan engagement for these teams. We’ll also get well outside of our (previously) normal day-to-day event operations and pioneer audio ticketing in rideshare across the world (our first rideshare client was actually in India) and even see how ultrasonic audio transmissions can be used in a battleground scenario.
As for dealing with stress and anxiety: I’m not a psychiatrist, officially, but one of the primary causes of anxiety is uncertainty. There is a lot of that in a startup under normal conditions. In a global pandemic, we’re dealing with unprecedented amounts of uncertainty. How I like to deal with it is a combination of non-work-related hobbies and pet projects. For example, I learned to play the harmonica between March and June, typically practicing around 1-2 am in my apartment, so I’m sure my neighbors love me; I also go through a massive amount of audiobooks, and I also worked on a funny Kickstarter video with my brothers.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jameson Rader: Competing acoustic modem providers include Chirp, which was recently acquired by Sonos, and LISNR, a startup with a current valuation of $80MM. One key differentiator between CUE and those competitors is how well CUE owns the full product lifecycle. Owing to our virtual and non-virtual live event applications, we’re one of the biggest consumers of our own technology. This gives us invaluable insight into the customer point of view and allows for much faster “innovation” cycles, whereby we learn what our customers need and how to best provide it.
Your final thoughts?
Jameson Rader: I’ve found that the hardest part of creating a startup is ensuring that what you are building is something that someone actually wants to buy. It’s all too easy to end up spending hundreds of hours and thousands or tens of thousands of dollars building something that nobody wants. I’ve made both of those mistakes personally, and it never gets less painful. I love audiobooks as a stress reliever but typically avoid any business-related book because I’m often looking to escape with my reading — I usually pick something related to biology, evolutionary psychology, physics, or linguistics.
That being said, I finally did listen to a few business books, specifically Hacking Growth and The Lean Startup, and if I had read those books as a 19-year-old, I would have saved myself 1000+ hours of labor and tens of thousands of dollars. Considering those books are around $12 online and only take 20 hours to read them, the better alternative is to buy them, read them, and get them out of the way.
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