We talked to Kumar Rangarajan founder of Slang Labs about ultra-responsive and multimodal in-app voice assistants for e-commerce apps and this is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Kumar Rangarajan: Today, we all are doing good. We have adjusted ourselves and our schedule according to the new normal. The first few months were challenging for everyone. All of us had to shift our work online. The kids had to get accustomed to online schooling, but they have been enjoying this though. But since then, things have been better and are improving.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Slang Labs.
Kumar Rangarajan: I finished my Computer Science Engineering from Chennai in ‘96 and joined GE Medical Systems and relocated to Bangalore. I worked at GE for two years. During my tenure there, I worked on nuclear imaging for GEnie.
I later joined HP where I worked with the compiler and tools division. I then joined Rational Software in 2000 which was later acquired by IBM in 2003. After that, I got bored of working in large corporations and joined a small services firm called S7. As luck would have it, it got acquired by BlueCoat and I was back in corporate life. Eventually, BlueCoat itself got acquired and we all got out. That’s when I started Little Eye Labs with my friends until it was acquired by Facebook in 2014. I then moved to Facebook in Menlo Park for a while before returning back to Bangalore in 2017 to start Slang Labs.
When I used Amazon’s Alexa, I realized its limitations which led to me thinking about creating a better performing voice-to-action SDK (software development kit) that can be integrated with any app. With Giridhar Murthy and Sathish Chandra Gupta, I co-founded Slang Labs with a quest of bringing impactful technologies like ‘voice’ to the Next Billion Users coming online for the first time.
How does Slang Labs innovate?
Kumar Rangarajan: Slang Labs was started with the aim of changing the way users interact with applications. The complex UIs and English-Only experience make things uncomfortable to the Next Billion Users who are adopting mobile technology rapidly. We felt that Voice would be an easier interface to use apps. But Voice has its limitations too. So a multi-modal interface that combines the best of Voice and the visual app experience is ideal. But building this experience is complex. It requires many months of effort and involves talent that is not easily available, thus making it hard for smaller brands to even attempt it. And this only accentuates even further if we add the complexity of supporting multiple languages to it. That’s why we built Slang CONVA.
Slang CONVA, is the world’s first Voice Assistant as a Service platform, which enables brands to easily add sophisticated multi-lingual In-App Voice Assistants to apps faster than it takes to get your pizza delivered.
Brands no longer have to spend huge investments or hire specialized skills towards adding this next generational and much-needed tech to their apps. Using our self-serve platform, regular mobile and web developers can do it easily and effectively.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business and how are you coping?
Kumar Rangarajan: From a productivity perspective, we luckily were able to adjust well quickly as we always had the culture of working from home earlier too. But we never did so many meetings online. That took some getting used to, but luckily we were able to handle that well. We saw our biggest customer go to production during the pandemic. We also gained the highest number of customers during this period.
But it was not all easy too. Some of our customers were in the travel domain and they were badly hit during this and they re-prioritized their work with us. But the pandemic helped us discover our biggest market segment – Retail e-commerce, which saw a huge spike during the pandemic. We redesigned our platform to be able to serve these customers a lot more easily and scale better.
Today, we have Slang CONVA which we built during the last year which will empower apps by integrating an assistant within an hour.
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Kumar Rangarajan: The biggest choice we had to take was about maintaining our company’s viability during the pandemic but without affecting our employees or our customers. We decided early on that we will not let go of anyone during this period but that meant that we still had to manage our expenses. So we ended up not giving a pay raise to anyone the entire year. But towards the end of the year, we managed to add additional members to help the team cope up with the increased workloads.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Kumar Rangarajan: We used Google Meet extensively. We also use Facebook’s Workplace and WorkChat as our primary communication tools. Emails are very rare and are only used for interacting with external customers rather than within the team itself. We also use Google Docs (all 3 – docs, sheets, and slides) quite heavily.
And we also increased our CI/CD process to help us not get into too much f tech debt too and reduce the dependency that we had on people to manage some processes. We moved away from Jenkits to GitLabs for the same.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Kumar Rangarajan: Our domain of Voice tech is very nascent but it has evolved significantly in recent years. We primarily focus on building a platform for adding In-App Voice Assistants. In that sense, our competition is other platforms that provide either similar tools (like Houndify and Alan.app) or major platforms (like Google) which provide some low-level APIs for free that developers can put together to build their own Voice Assistants.
The way we differentiate is by being the best in what we do – Building the easiest platform in the world to add In-App Voice Assistants. We are focused on reducing developer friction to the least and also understanding the business primary needs and codifying that into the platform and our commercials.
Your final thoughts?
Kumar Rangarajan: 2020 has been an interesting year for the entire world and we are no exception. We had to innovate quickly to adapt to the new world. We were lucky in that regard that our existing processes and culture enabled us to adapt to this new one without much pain. We are lucky to have a great and understanding team, which has stood by the company all through and continues to believe in what we are doing and keep doing it to their best of abilities.
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