Episode 19…Jamie Sutherland and Sonix


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The following is the transcription from the Invention Stories Podcast Episode 19…Jamie Sutherland and Sonix

I went to http://www.sonix.ai

Signed up for the free trial.

Uploaded the recording

And received a transcription.

Robert Bear interviewed Jamie Sutherland over the phone where the audio quality was poor.  We apologize for this but wanted to test the Sonix software using less than optimum audio quality.  The transcription did have errors and required proofreading.  We believe that Sonix performed better than expected and the transcription was completed quickly.

 

Robert Bear:

Welcome to the Invention Stories Podcast. I am your host Robert Bear, and thank you for joining us. I would like to introduce you to our very first sponsor of the Invention Stories Podcast…the Socket Saver. Do you have loose wall sockets in your house? The Socket Saver is an easy, safe, and effective solution for you. Please visit their website at www.SocketSaver.com. You’re listening to Episode 19 of the Invention Stories Podcast, Jamie Sutherland and Sonix.  The show notes for this episode have been transcribed using Sonix.

Jamie Sutherland co-founded and launch Canada’s first mobile taxi hailing app TaxiNow that was acquired by FastCab. He was the president of Xero, US where he helped it grow from a market capitalization of 200 million to 2.5 billion. Jamie is now the co-founder and CEO of Sonix, Inc. Transcribing and editing audio and video is painful and Sonix makes it really fast, refreshingly simple and remarkably affordable. I’m grateful for the opportunity to interview someone so successful on the Invention Stories Podcast so let’s get started. Jamie, thank you for joining us today. I want to start off by asking what kind of child were you? Did you enjoy figuring out how things worked or were you interested in computers or artificial intelligence?

Jamie Sutherland:

I got bored easily and like being active.  I found myself always doing something. In terms of computers, my first experience was with a Commodore 64 and that wasn’t really anything more than playing games. But we got good at copying games and getting as many games on diskettes as possible.  Then I got into creating our own games but that was offline, not with a computer. Lots of things around creating board games, building furniture and building wood constructs were largely influenced by my father.

One of the funniest things I built was a skateboard. At the time, I don’t think we had skateboards where we lived but we had roller skates and also had wood.  So combined some wood with some carpet and attached a roller skate to the bottom and then sat on it going down hills. That was a lot of fun. So I guess the story goes yes, I like to build things and create things.  I just found that a lot of fun and rewarding.

Robert Bear:

Right on. I just wanted to start off with a little bit of background first before we get into it.  Did you have any family members who were entrepreneurs or inventors?

Jamie Sutherland:

No I didn’t but I was always inspired by creators that were around me. I think building things like my father did around the house was a lot of fun for me. It was more the creation of things, that whole process I found interesting. I think if I look back when I was younger, my vocation probably would have been as an architectural or engineer but I felt like I was encouraged to do business and that started early on, even in high school. But if I was to go back I think that’s something I would have enjoyed more than just simply business degrees.

Robert Bear:

I can’t blame you. I was a business major myself it got awfully dry and I had a lot of friends of mine were political science and liberal arts majors. It looked like they’re having a whole lot of fun. I notice that you you went to college. You’re from Canada?

Jamie Sutherland:

That’s correct.

Robert Bear:

It looked like you went and did your undergraduate degree and about ten years later obtained your MBA.

Jamie Sutherland:

Yes.

Robert Bear:

I’d like to ask you about TaxiNow.   How did you get into that?

Jamie Sutherland:

TaxiNow, that was a venture we started in Vancouver. I think it was a real pain that we were having getting taxis in Vancouver because the supply of taxis was limited.  TaxiNow was the first iPhone app that allowed you to hail a taxi from a mobile device in Canada. There were some apps in the US that were doing this so we weren’t the first to think about it. But I saw the potential and truly believe there should have been a global taxi brand. So if you get off the plane in a different city, it should just be one app that helps you connect to a taxi that’s closest to you.

We sought to build that and I just felt like it was something that was going to happen. It wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when and we got it running. We had several hundred taxis that were with taxi brands and we were kind of a layer on top to connect passengers and drivers.  It was working in Vancouver but it was a difficult market and it still is. Actually, Vancouver is one of the cities where Uber does not exist today because of the regulations. So it was a foray into that but you know I think it was a tough market. We ended up selling the company to another company that was working on the same thing in Canada and then I had another opportunity which was Xero.

Robert Bear:  

Were you like the person coding or what was your role with TaxiNow? Did you do different things?

Jamie Sutherland:

I was more on the business side.  I was working with a co-founder that was doing all the technology and we had a few other people working for us part time but it was mostly business and getting the thing up and running.

Robert Bear:  

Was is a good memory for you? Did you learn lots of lessons?

Jamie Sutherland:

It was a lot of fun and I spent a lot of time talking to taxi drivers and taxi lineups asking them about their mobile devices and whether they would want to use it. So I’ve learned a lot about the taxi industry. I had no idea that this would be one of the hottest private companies of this decade, but I knew something was brewing but that’s neither here nor there. Xero was also a good run.

Robert Bear:  

I’d like to ask you about Xero.  So how did you wind up with Xero and how many people were there when you joined?

Jamie Sutherland:

So when I joined Xero it was probably under 300 people if I recall. And it actually started outside the U.S. It started in New Zealand. I was at a company called Sage in the North American market and we had them on our radar.  But because we were all over the world and they were still quite small we didn’t pay attention to them. Then I got connected with the CEO and we had a conversation about what they were doing.  Everything I was pushing Sage towards in terms of cloud in terms of accountants-centric accounting software; in terms of collaboration was the future and they were doing that already.

It wasn’t really for me a matter of whether this was going to happen because I could tell and knew that would be the future. It’s just a matter of who would do it first in the U.S. market. We really hit it off and ended up relocating me to San Francisco to kickoff the U.S. operations. And that was exactly what we expected. A lot of interest in what we were doing, especially the accountants looking for more collaborative ways to work with their clients.  Also, small businesses that are on the go and don’t want to be spending time on a Sunday night doing some bookkeeping when they could do that standing in while they’re at Starbucks, for example.

Robert Bear:

I’m not even sure what the Cloud is exactly.  It seems like not only did you exactly know what it is but you are one of the really early adapters. When is it that you discovered and realize the cloud is a really important innovation?

Jamie Sutherland:

It was probably pre-2000.  I don’t remember exactly when but it seemed that the technology was so revolutionary that is was going to impact every single industry on this planet and that’s pretty much what has happened and still continues to do so.  With tax accounting specifically, this is an industry that lags behind everything else.  Yes, we were at the forefront of that mostly because that industry is so slow to move.  The nature of those who are doing accounting and finance work is relatively risk-averse.  So adopting new technology is not the first thing they would opt to do, whether or not it was going to increase their productivity.  At least in the U.S. we pushed the agenda forward around cloud as it relates to accounting.

Robert Bear:

You can say that again.  Risk-averse is a great way to describe the accounting industry and so is the bottom line and if you are saving them money and time…it make a whole lot of sense.  How did you go from being a worker at Xero to the President and then to the General Manager?

 Jamie Sutherland: 

It started in the U.S. office, there was just nothing and we had to build it from scratch.  What we had was operations in Australia and New Zealand, so there was a bit of framework established in terms of how we bring on customers and service them as well as some products that was tailored to those markets. It was really just about the needs of the U.S. market and growing a team there. We grew quite quickly and had fundraisers throughout the process to help accelerate that growth. After about 3-3 1/2 years, I wanted to get closer to the product and one of the bigger challenges we had was adapting to the U.S. market.  So that is where the General Manager role came in.

We also launched a new product to a new market and opened up the doors for Xero to what has been coined the gig economy or the contractor economy. Freelancers that are earning money but not very much wouldn’t require a full blown accounting system so we built a mobile application called Tax Touch.  We call it tinder for taxes.  You would swipe right for a business expense and it would automatically categorize it and then swipe left for personal.  At the end of the year what you have is a Schedule-C that you could file along with your taxes, saving a lot of headache and work at the end of the year.

That market is roughly 23 million users in the U.S.  Big market, big opportunity…and that’s the kind of thing that just gets me excited.  It’s how do we grow these businesses, how do we build these businesses, building these products and impacting lots of users and obviously making them happy.

Robert Bear:

Was everything run through you? Let’s say somebody may come up with an ideas.  Were you the ultimate decision maker?

Jamie Sutherland: 

Yes and no.  It’s always a collaborative effort. At least the way I like to run teams and we do have teams in different parts of the world. But for all intensive purposes the U.S. fell under my jurisdiction.

Robert Bear:

Before you came to San Francisco, you lived in Vancouver.  Was that moving to San Francisco like a culture shock? How’s it different being in San Francisco versus in Vancouver? Is it easier to get work done?

Jamie Sutherland:

Yes.  The bigger difference was moving from Toronto to Vancouver. I think the East Coast to West Coast you see bigger differences. Vancouver vs. San Francisco is not that different with the exception of San Francisco being the epicenter for technology. I feel like you have similarities in terms of coastal environmental surroundings and what people are attracted to that type of area. Both are beautiful places but in San Francisco, technology is the driving force here, the kind of the lifeblood of what happens.

What struck me when I first moved here was how much people were trying to change the world, if you will. So many people building companies that you couldn’t go to a coffee shop and not see them working on their next idea and overhear conversations about their startups.  That environment is so invigorating. I think it’s special and you don’t have in too many places now. I think we’ve seen over the last decade a lot more tech clusters built throughout the world and in the U.S. and I think that’s a good thing. Between Vancouver and San Francisco not a ton of difference other than really cool interesting things happening and great companies being built in San Francisco. Whereas you of have more satellite offices in Vancouver.

Robert Bear:

I see Vancouver, the Canucks and just wondered what what life must be like and how it’s different.  When you were at Xero, you mentioned something on your Linkedin page about a new offering that is patent pending. Did you go through a lot of patenting while you were there with the new products and the new ideas that you had?

Jamie Sutherland:

That was the Tax Touch product I was referencing before. And no, we weren’t big on patents.  It wasn’t probably wasn’t until the later years I was there that we started looking at patenting some things. Some people are for patents and some against them. We were sort of dabbling in it and yes, there was a number of things that we were working on that we thought should be defended and we filed a few patents.  It comes with a lot of other administrative work and costs and so I’d say we were fairly neutral, we didn’t have a heavy strategy.

Robert Bear:

Jamie, what is Sonix?

Jamie Sutherland:

So let me start by saying transcribing and editing audio and video is painful.  We hear that from our users all the time. And what we do is we make a fast, easy, and affordable. It’s a simple as that. So what we do is we automatically transcribe an audio or video file and then we can do it in less time than the length of the recording at a fraction of the traditional cost.

A great example is a user like yourselves, which is a podcaster.  Podcasters like the service because we can create an easy way for them to convert a podcast into text form. You can post that text on your website or other platforms.  You get indexed far better with text than audio and that drives better search engine optimization which results in better traffic. So I talk to ,any podcasters and have yet to meet one that doesn’t want more listeners. An easy way to do that is to have your text version of your podcast somewhere on your website.

Robert Bear:

Did you start creating Sonix while you were still at Xero? How did it go from being an idea to creating a new business?

Jamie Sutherland:

Well I had several ideas before leaving Xero but I got really excited about voice recognition technology. There’s something about the intersection between sound language technology and technology that just got me really excited. Also, the fact that we can help storytellers tell their stories I find so amazing. So it was a process, it wasn’t something that happened overnight. It requires some research and fact finding.

Once I learned the technology is as good as it is today and the number of large companies who are working on perfecting this, I believed this is a good space to pursue. The whole notion of helping storytellers really strikes for us. There’s so many great people out there that have so many creative stories we’ve heard. I want to mention this morning, I just got a note from someone saying they’ve done a documentary about the world’s highest soccer game played entirely by females on Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s a really cool story and the fact that we can help them build that story and tell that to many people feels really good.

Robert Bear:

Why did you decide to leave Xero? Some people dream of actually making it to the top and I’m sure if you cut yourself you probably bleeds Xero blood. How is it to leave that behind…was it a challenge? Do you miss it dearly or are you still a consultant?

Jamie Sutherland:

It was a great experience and I really enjoyed my time at Xero. What I like is building companies and that growth phase and Xero had somewhat plateaued and while they will continue to grow, most of the work had been done and operationalized. It moves into a maintenance mode. While that’s interesting to me, it’s just not as exciting as building a new company and creating new things for new people. So no regrets. I was excited to leave but I also had a wonderful time at Xero.  I met some great people.

Robert Bear:

You’ve done two different things.  You’ve  started something new, from the ground up and you’re doing that again and you’ve worked at Xero who was in a growth phase.  Which do you prefer working on…something new or something growing?

Jamie Sutherland:

I think they’re all great and really enjoy solving complex problems and the more complex problems. Things that are not easily solved are in the early days of something.  That just gets me more interested. Once you’ve gone into somewhat more of a maintenance mode it’s a little bit more systematic what needs to be done.  Having done it several times now, it’s just still great don’t get me wrong, it’s just solving complex problems seems to get me a bit more excited.

Robert Bear:

Why did you decide on using the name Sonix?  I try to find you sometimes and I get the hedgehog with the blue hair. I’ve seen a wafer and a number of different things using the Sonix name. It seems like you would want a name in where visitor can type www. the name .com and it comes up… and your url is www.Sonix.ai. Why?

Jamie Sutherland:

So Sonix I decided…I wanted something that represented the sound in technology and I felt like that was a fair representation of what we were working on.  It literally came to me in the middle of night and when I woke up in the morning I still liked it, so that was good. And then the .ai relates to artificial intelligence. What we’re seeing is many companies that are using that url because it represents the new age of technology. Over time, I think we’ll probably get the .com but for now the .ai is working just fine.

Robert Bear:

I’ve used voice recognition software in the past and it just didn’t work.  How accurate is your product? I’m going to learn because for this particular podcast I’m actually going to use your software…does it transcribes everything accurately?

Jamie Sutherland:

No we don’t and we are very upfront about that.  Machines are just not quite there yet.  While we use our own proprietary algorithms to optimize the process and we also leverage some API’s from some big company to working on the technology to optimize the process and results. We just can’t get to the same level of accuracy as that is transcribing. It gets really close and if you have amazing audio quality then you will be amazed by the results. But what we see is not everybody is well-versed in capturing great audio and because of that you don’t get a perfect transcription.

My view is like you saw probably a few years ago,  the technology just wasn’t that good. Today is good enough and that’s what we’re seeing with many of our users. They’re impressed  with what we’re doing.  We can speed up the process. We can do at a more affordable price and then we’ve built this whole editing functionality right into the transcript which is very useful as well. So yes, it’s not as accurate as a human transcription but we have tools to get it to that stage and that’s what our users seem to like.

Robert Bear:

That’s good to know. Are there competitors in this space and how do you have a competitive edge with them?

Jamie Sutherland:

In the automated transcription space, we continue to get feedback that we are the most accurate. There was a recent review that you can see online done by Pop Up Podcasting that ranked us as the most accurate. We were still in beta at that point so that’s a good sign. There’s a few other things that we do in terms of the transcription. We identify the speakers so our users don’t have to go through every single bit of dialog to figure out who is  speaking.  The other big thing is that we are the lowest price that I’ve seen. We charge $8 per transcribed hour.

Robert Bear:

I watched your speech when you were speaking at Xero in Las Vegas where you said value is not connected to hours and yet your business model includes this. Why?

Jamie Sutherland:

That’s a great question and I do believe value is not connected to hours. For us, we do charge for value. That is the membership fee that we have for the software that surrounds the transcript. If you look at how transcription services have traditionally operated, you submit a file and get a transcript and that’s the end of it. That’s what I would call pure transcription and that’s a highly commoditized market. Knowing that, what we wanted to do a separate out that feature or that functionality and call it transcription. That is when that $8 per hour comes in.

When markets are commoditized, it’s hard to deviate from that kind of method.  Where we stand out is the software we’ve built around the transcription and that was the editing ability I was talking about.  It’s a workflow that’s built right into the transcript where you can edit, review, highlight, strike-through, polish, publish, share and collaborate. We also have more features rolling out every week. That’s where I think the value for service comes into play. For pure transcription, I believe that is highly commoditized  and will become more and more commoditized.

Robert Bear:

How do you decide on what features to add to it?  Do you perform market research?

Jamie Sutherland:

There’s two main ways we do that. The first is from user feedback. The focus on is his current users so we talk to them a lot. We ask for feedback a lot. We reward our users for feedback. This informs and prioritizes for us what we should be building next. I would say this is probably 70 percent of how we direct our road maps.

The other 30 percent, we think about where we want to be in the future and building the product in a way that’s going to service we think is the way the market will head. It may not be the user generated feedback, it may be some feelings we have.  It may be something we see in a different market that we think would apply to ours. So we apply that knowledge and what you get is a product that’s going to make you happy. It also meets the current needs our existing customer base.

Robert Bear:

It seems like it’s a really good market to be going after. I’ve looked at the podcasting numbers and it’s just absolutely exploding. Which social media is do you use for Sonix?

Jamie Sutherland:

We have a twitter address @trysonix. We’re are on it and will respond to anybody who tweets at us. We have a Facebook page but we’re less active on it. The Linkedin page is more a personal page of mine that I use for my professional network. I connect with anybody that wants to on Linkedin and answer any questions about Sonix.

Robert Bear:

What’s your strategy for educating the public about Sonix?

Jamie Sutherland:

We’re pretty early so we haven’t done a ton of marketing yet. In terms of education, what we’re focused most is the discussion around search engine optimization or SEO.  So we started to help podcasters understand why as SEO can help drive traffic to their site. I mentioned before the way that Google and other search engines work is they can crawl.  Text is much better to crawl than audio.  If Google can find and index it, someone searching for something that you may have spoken about will find your site much faster. We have a page on our website at Sonix.ai/whytranscribe that talks about some of these things around as SEO.

 The second thing is around capturing great audio which I’ve mentioned before.  The better audio you capture, the more accurate the transcripts will be and this is more automated transcription. We have a page where some of our users have contributed their insights into the devices and techniques they use to capture great audio. They’ve recorded called a quick podcast that we’ve transcribed that’s available on Sonix.ai/greataudio.

Robert Bear:

It seems like there would be a real natural fit for you to be a partner with like the recording industry and maybe even Apple. They might want to buy you out and put it on their phone or something. Is there some strategic partnerships that would be a good fit for you?

Jamie Sutherland:

There are logical people we would like to work with. We are always having conversations with interested people. In reality, we’re heads down and focused on creating a great experience for customers. If we do this well then conversations become easier. If we work with a larger entity, it’s really borne of the fact that we built something great that users love.

Robert Bear:

That makes a lot of sense.  Jamie, how do you manage your work life balance?  Are you able to turn it off when you go to sleep? I know a lot of entrepreneurs only sleep about four hours a night. I keep reading that that’s unhealthy but it just seems like super successful people don’t sleep much.

Jamie Sutherland:

Not entirely true. I know lots of people that can sleep really well who are very successful. But I do fit into the camp of I don’t sleep a lot. It’s not by design, it’s just who I am. The reality is if you’re working on something that is fun and interesting and you’re having a great time then it doesn’t feel like work. If I wake up in the middle of night and I’m thinking about something, it’s not stressed related…it’s because I’m excited about it. It doesn’t bother me and doesn’t affect my life, doesn’t impact my family. It’s just who I am and I am alright with that.

Robert Bear:

It’s better than waking up from a nightmare. If you wake up and you’ve got a great idea there’s nothing wrong with that. When you’re growing your business or maybe just any business in general, what do you think is the best use of time and money?

Jamie Sutherland:

So I don’t think there’s a single answer to that question because every business is a little bit different and have different things that need to be done in different points in time. I think the real key for anyone is to spend time on the things that are most important and it’s really easier said than it is done. I see a lot where people just get mired into their email inbox and they aren’t really focused on what’s most important for their business.

So even if you’re at a large company and you’ll hear this a lot more it’s like what are your top three things you should be working on this week, this month, and today.  Really be diligent about and focus on those things. I think that’s what’s most important and that’s sort of that’s the best use your time and that translates into you know how much cost you’re putting into it from a time perspective. I see it all the time it’s just you get you get sucked into the vortex responding to emails and lose sight of what’s important.

Robert Bear:

I see people doing that not only e-mails but just going on social media. What do you think is not a good use of time and money? What should what should new entrepreneurs or new inventors…what should they try to avoid doing when they’re trying to build their company?

Jamie Sutherland:

I think it’s almost corollary to the first question which is around prioritization. Again it depends the type of business, the type of market and what you’re doing. I make a simple thing is solving a problem and a pain for your customer. So whatever you’re building, talk to lots of customers and ask them is this painful thing for you?  Are we solving something that is painful? If the answer is no than you probably aren’t barking up the right tree.  Until you hit on that, I think you’ve got to keep asking that question.

Robert Bear:

I agree with you 100 percent.  What for Sonix is your biggest obstacle and how do you try to overcome it?

Jamie Sutherland:

The biggest obstacle for us is time management, focusing on the right initiatives to move us to the next gate.  I think thing are going pretty well.  I wish I had a better answer that is more interesting.  We’ve been able to move obstacle if their is something that gets in our way at least at this point.

Robert Bear:

That’s good. Thank you Jamie for being our guest today. I just have one last question and that’s the question you probably get asked a lot. What advice would you give to somebody who’s starting a business or inventing?

Jamie Sutherland:

If you are just getting started, it’s the simple directive of get started. It’s inertia that usually is the biggest blocker to doing something. You just need to start doing something. Talking to lots of people is the space you are pursuing.  You’ll be amazed how helpful people can be and want to help out if you just ask.  So personally I learn a ton from others experiences and I wouldn’t say it’s advice all the time.  It’s people telling you about their experience and how that relates to what you are building can go a long way. For me, that information can be invaluable.

For more information please visit www.sonix.ai

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Episode 19…Jamie Sutherland and Sonix

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