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We Speak With Washington DC 500 Startups, Startup: Speek

Speek,DC startup, 500 startups,startup,startup interviewWhile a lot of people are talking about TechCrunch Disrupt NY Battlefield winner UberConference when it comes to conference calling startups, another conference calling startup has been brewing in the Washington DC area. We first got to check out Speek back in May at the Capital Connection and TechBuzz conference in Washington DC.  After carefully checking out both UberConference and Speek, Speek seems to be the simplest, most easy to understand conference calling solution out there.

It’s no wonder that Speek has everything together, it’s founded by John Bracken the founder of e-vite and Danny Boice who attended Harvard  and is a former executive with The College Board.

More importantly though is how easy it is to setup Speek and get started with your own special url.

Speek is working out of AOL’s Fishbowl incubator in the Washington DC area, along another great DC startup CONT3NT.  But Boice and Bracken were on the road to startup success even before that.

As Boice tells us in the interview below, Speek was created when two internet entrepreneurs attacked the group calling problem with startup vigor. Both Boice and Bracken had come from big corporate jobs and were always on conference calls. It was the clunkiness that is typical of big conference calls that drove these two to create Speek.

Check out our interview with Boice below:


What is Speek?
Speek is a web and mobile product that is disrupting the conference call.   Rather than having to use an obnoxious dial-in w/ phone number and PIN our users use a simple link like speek.com/danny to do group phone calls.
Speek launched in June 2012.
In layman’s terms, how does it work?
It’s super fast and super easy.
I want to do a conference call with my co-workers John and Virginia.  I register speek.com/danny for free and then send John and Virginia a calendar invite using my calendar of choice (I like google calendar) with “speek.com/danny” in the where field.
At the day / time of our call John and Virginia simply go to speek.com/danny in their web browser or mobile browser and hit a button to join my conference call.
John and Virginia don’t have to register.  They also don’t have to download or install anything.   They can join the call using any phone OR they can use a browser-based VoIP client to join with just their computer mic and speakers.
Once users are on the call they have a simple user interface where they can see who’s on the call, see who’s talking, mute / hangup, and even “raise their hand” if they have something to interject.
We also have a new feature that lets you join a call via SMS.  John or Virginia would simply text “danny” to 571-814-5471.  A few seconds later Speek calls them back and puts them on the call.
Who are the founders and what are their backgrounds?
Danny Boice
  • Founder of Jaxara (Acquired in 2006)
  • Attended Harvard
  • Former Exec at The College Board
  • Speek’s co-founder and CTO
John Bracken
  • Founder of E-vite
  • UVA undergrad, Berkley (Haas) MBA
  • Former Exec at AOL (AIM & Patch)

Where are you based?

We are in the Washington, DC area.   Our headquarters are in AOL’s “Fishbowl Labs” incubator in Dulles, VA.
What’s the startup scene/culture like where you’re based?
The startup scene/culture is great in the DC area – albeit small.   There are some great entrepreneurs and startups that tend to stick together and support each other.  There are also some great incubator and co-working spaces popping up like AOL’s Fishbowl Labs, The Fort in DC, Canvas / WeSpace in  Reston and Uber Officers in Arlington.
The shortcomings in the area related to startups are really two-fold:
  • Lack of access to seed stage capital – case in point is that we went to 500 Startups in Mountain View, CA to lead our seed round and then got angels from the Bay Area and NYC to join them.   There are a handful of legit and active angels in the DC area but they are few and far between.   Luckily Virginia has CIT / GAP Fund which is fantastic and participated in our seed round of funding as well.  Fortify has also been active in seed funding in DC.
  • Lack of a safety net for risky endeavors – Jeff Ross from Treater actually observed this and I thought it was dead on.  In other areas, like the Bay area and NYC, entrepreneurs take risks and can be fairly confident that in the very worst case scenario they can get a job if their startup crashes and burns.  The communities there support their own and worst case you end up not working for yourself for a bit.  Contrast that with the DC area.  While at The College Board I actually saw folks there pass over candidates resumes making comments like “she spent too much time in ‘entrepreneurville’”.   How infuriating.  Unfortunately, those sentiments are indicative of many companies in the area which is quite sad.
How did you come up with the idea for Speek?
John and I were both at the tail end of stints with a large, bureaucratic company that LOVED to do very large, very long, traditional conference calls.   We would spend hours lamenting on the unnecessarily poor user experience that came with a traditional conference call.  Dial in phone numbers, PINs, leader codes, lack of a user interface, cheesy hold music – the list goes on.     John and I both came from an internet product background and both had actually spent some time on communications related products to boot.
We decided to do something about it!
We had a slue of ideas for how to apply an internet entrepreneurs brain to a group phone call.   We are both believers in The Lean Startup methodology.   We did many, many customer interviews, invalidated a ton of really bad assumptions and eventually built a minimum viable product that we released in a private beta that almost immediately racked up a few hundred real users.
How did you come up with the name?
We knew we needed a very strong brand for this product to work.  Since Speek calls revolve around a personal URL it had the potential to be inherently viral with the right name and domain.
It just so turned out that another technology company that is run by a friend of ours owned the Speek.com domain name and trademarks but was not using it.  They were a B2B API play that didn’t need such a domain name.   It was perfect for what we wanted to do so we worked out a deal to acquire the domain and trademark.
What problem does Speek solve?
Speek solves the problem that starting and joining a group call is neither fast nor easy.   Alternatives to the conference call, like WebEx or GoToMeeting (for example), require heavy downloads and installs that also make it neither fast nor easy to collaborate.
What’s your secret sauce?
I think our secret sauce is three-fold:  1) we are solving a painful problem in a very large market 2) we have a great brand that a great product is being built around and 3) we have a great team with a track record of execution consisting of decades of relevant experience.
Where do you guys win over products like UberConference?
Those UberConference folks are no slouches – I’ll give them that.  We have our work cut out for us.  They also have a solid team with lots of capital already.   I’m really interested to see how their product evolves over time.
At the heart of it I think the concepts are radically different.  Our approach revolves around a personal URL to do conference calls (example – speek.com/danny).  Theirs does not.
We feel that by sticking to our Lean methodology and using metrics, analytics and validation to make really smart decisions we can hold our own against anybody.  Our product has a great brand, great team and great technology behind it.  We also have tens of thousands of rabid fans in a short period of time.  Given our product’s inherently viral nature it will only get bigger and better from here.
What’s one dilemma you’ve encountered in the startup process?
People.   We have had several opportunities to hire talented people who simply weren’t as passionate as we are.   In building a company you have to look for BOTH talent and passion.   If someone comes to your startup looking for a raise and minimizing the value of equity in your company then don’t do it.  I don’t care who they are.  Luckily for us we managed to find some great people who are both talented and passionate about our mission.
What’s one challenge you’ve overcome in the startup process?
We had some challenges with the voice quality of our calls in the very early days.  This became especially evident as our user base grew quickly.  Luckily we have some really talented engineers on our team that worked some real magic in completely overhauling and upgrading our voice platform – which we own and manage in-house.
Who are some of your mentors and business role models?
Some mentors that have been with us since day one are Minh Nguyen (who co-founded Plaxo) and Jay Rappaport (Vonage Pres, AOL COO, etc).
500 Startups has been absolutely amazing for us.   They have been truly great and I am thankful every day that they lead our seed round.  Paul Singh was honest and forthright from the second we met him.  He made his decision very quickly (luckily it was “yes”) and moved even faster from that point forward.
We also leverage the 500 Startups mentor community shamelessly.  Here are some of the folks we’ve met and worked with thus far that kicked ass for us:
  • Steph Hay
  • Elliot Loh
  • David Shen
  • Hiten Shah
  • Rebecca Meissner
  • Justin Thorp
I’m going back out there next week so this list will probably double.
Last, AOL has been absolutely fantastic to us.  We have space at their Dulles campus which is far nicer than any seed round startup should EVER have (not that I’m complaining).   Bud Rosenthal, Fletcher Jones and Brian McMahon have also been great about personally being helpful with advice as well as connecting us with experts within AOL when relevant and appropriate.
What’s next for Speek?
We’ve got some really exciting features up our sleeve that will be coming out over the next few weeks and months.  If you register for Speek.com you’ll be the first to know when they get released!
We are also prepping for a Series A soon so more to come on that shortly.
Linkage:
Check out Speek here
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