Ingenious Kiwi transcription start-up nabs funding
Founder and CEO of TranscribeMe
Provence: Born in the Ukraine, raised in NZ; divides his current worklife between TranscribeMe's offices in Auckland (at the Icehouse business incubator) and San Francisco
Education: Bachelors degreees in Commerce & Science, Auckland University; MBA from Stanford University, California
Previous roles: Busines Analyst, NZ Trade & Enterprise; Gazprom carbon trading consultant
I’ve used an online transcription service before. I thought it rather radical, hiring someone based in the Philippines for a one-off job via the so-called “people cloud” (or at least Freelancer.com, where people bid for jobs). It didn’t go that well. It was cheap, but also slow, and the transcriber complained she couldn’t understand my Kiwi accent.
TranscribeMe is a New Zealand startup that ingeniously gets around the problems I encountered.
A customer uploads an audio file to Transcribe Me, which then chops it up into 30-second bursts and sends it out to an army of transcribe it in parallel.
There are 2700 Transcribe Me “microworkers” based all around the world. Some transcribe microbursts of audio during ad breaks as they watch TV, some process on their iPad as they take the bus, TranscribeMe founder and CEO Alexei Dunayev told NBR ONLINE.
Some might do just minutes of work at a time, others four hour stretches. Either way, the 2700 – many of them students – get to monetise their downtime.
The microworkers are paid based on their accuracy, and how quickly they work.
Their profiles, plus GPS information if they’re on a smartphone or tablet, allows Transscribe me to farm out files based on geography, or knowledge of a particular industry – helping overcome the accent problem.
The transcribed microfiles are then returned from around the world and assembled into a single document.
The technology behind chopping up an audio file into microbursts is TranscribeMe’s secret sauce, and what sets it apart from competitors.
TranscribeMe, fostered by The Icehouse business incubator, has just closed a $1.2 million angel investment round which drew funds from New Zealand, Silicon Valley and Singapore.
Mr Dunayev says the company, which employs 16 full-timers, aims to break even by the end of next year.
It has 100 business customers, and counting.
TranscribeMe’s simple website (there's also an iPhone app) offers transcription services for $US1 a minute for a single speaker, and $US2 a minute for multiple speakers.
If the audio is good quality, a job can be turned around in “single-digit hours”.
Humans required for last mile
The company uses automated transcription software developed by Auckland University for some of its work, but 80% of the time it’s grunt work by that army of 2700 humans.
Most of the tech genius is in managing the process of chopping up the audio and managing the micro-tasking.
Mr Dunayev says while automated audio-to-text software is pretty good but “no matter how accurate computers are right now or will be next five years, there’s always going to be this human component required to get to 100% accuracy”.
He notes that any situation with two or three or more speakers – with different accents, and people talking over each other – completely defeats software.
New tech, old school sales
TranscribeMe won the StartUp Weekend competition in September 2011 and commercially launched in March this year.
It recruited its first 100 microworkers in about four months. It was a hard-going, word of mouth process, Mr Dunayev says.
But then it hit a tipping point, and the second 1000 signed on within 30 days (the number is capped at around 2700 for the time being).
The microworkers are rated through an internal system and their work crosschecked by others for their first nine transcriptions.
Mr Danayev's spiel is the service is cheap, fast and accurate. Usually, you have to sacrifice one of those three.
To get their first customers, TranscribeMe’s sales staff used a low-tech technique.
They worked the phones, contacting those who often need voice-to-text work, including phone survey companies, conference and events organisers, and medical and legal practices.
The company is also working social media (find it on Twitter here), but so far its presence is modest.
Microsoft, LiveScribe tie-ups
The company has also landed a couple of good partnerships.
Startup Weekend sponsor Microsoft NZ has put TranscribeMe on its BizSpark One programme; essentially, giving it publicity, and a corporate stamp of approval that it’s got its technical act together.
And, intriguingly, TranscribeMe is also integrated with LiveScribe’s latest product, the LiveScribe Sky – a fat-looking pen with a built-in audio recorder, plus wi-fi for uploading your recordings.
LiveScribe uploades audio to the online service Evernote – and if a TranscribeMe users is registered with Evernote, TranscribeMe can directly access the customer's audio.
Although it doesn’t have a local agent yet, I’ve already seen a few LiveScribe pens around the place. It’s a very hot company with the US tech media.
And as good luck would have it, TranscribeMe’s San Francisco office is next door to LiveScribe. As ever, geography is destiny.