Today we have a treat for you. Cutting edge attention monitoring software, Attently, is just hitting the market and is revolutionizing how we analyze audience engagement for live events. Robert Tucker met Eric Solie, CEO and co-founder of Attently, at the Juneau Economic Development Council’s 2017 Innovation Summit. Eric was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview and tell us a bit more about his incredible technology and his experiences in starting his own business.
Tyson: Hello Eric and thanks for joining us today to share a bit about your company. To start, tell us about Attently, what it offers and who your target audience is.
Eric: Attently is an analytics platform for determining the engagement of live audiences. We monitor the crowd, and our algorithms calculate the engagement and emotions of each audience member. We use this information to provide the presenter with detailed feedback on how their presentation affected the audience, and point out areas for improvement. Our early work has been with public speakers, but the technology is being developed for anyone who finds themselves in front of an audience, and wants accurate and objective feedback on how they impacted the crowd.
Tyson: The concept is rather unique and something the market hasn’t seen before. What inspired you to create Attently and how did the original idea come about?
Eric: Vincent (my cofounder) and I met at a Google Startup Weekend, which is essentially a weekend-long hackathon for businesses. I’ve always enjoyed public speaking, and Vincent had been fascinated by computer vision and machine learning for quite a while. So, we started thinking about how the exploding field of computer vision, a subfield of artificial intelligence, could be used to help public speakers. From my own experience, and in our early conversations with public speakers, lecturers, and politicians, it became pretty clear that no one has a really great handle on how their audience felt. It usually comes down to how much they clapped, how hard they laughed, and so on- maybe you ask a couple people afterwards what they thought, and of course, if you get invited back- that’s pretty much all the feedback most people get. It’s totally subjective. And then later, looking back, our perceptions of how we impacted our audience often changes. So we started thinking, there has to be a more objective way to do this. So that weekend we cobbled together a really rough prototype, just a simple face detection filter running as a web app, and did some market research. Winning that competition gave us the momentum to keep moving forward.
Tyson: Fascinating stuff. From what I understand, Attently was also the winner of an other entrepreneurial contest and you pitched the idea to a group of judges, similar in style to Shark Tank. Tell us about that experience and what you learned.
Eric: Totally- the first contest was the Startup Weekend that I mentioned. But winning that made us automatic semifinalists among twenty other teams for a larger contest, the Arctic Innovation Competition, with tens of thousands of dollars in prize money at stake. So we kept at it, refining our pitch, determining who the target market is, talking to them- ensuring they felt the pain points we’d identified, talking to them about pricing, etc. The more research we did, the more supported our initial idea appeared to be. So we felt pretty good going into the contest, but there were some really great companies represented there, as well.
Pitching a business idea to a bunch of judges and a crowded audience is very much ‘public speaking’, so it was really cool to be able to pitch a product that is geared for that very situation. We were something like the nineteenth out of twenty contestants to take the stage, so the audience looked pretty tired by the time our turn came. We used that to our advantage, kind of calling them out for not paying attention, getting a laugh- and sort of using that as a segue into our product and what it’s for. Although I enjoy public speaking, I don’t have much experience with it (especially compared with most of your readers) outside of college, giving toasts at weddings, and of course I’ve checked out Toastmasters as well. But getting in front of a crowd talking about something we believe in, and that we feel can really help a lot of people, just came really naturally. It was a huge rush, and winning the competition was almost like icing on the cake.
Tyson: I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that. I bet the judges all got a kick out of the irony in presenting an audience monitoring technology in a contest environment where public speaking is mandatory. It’s too perfect really!
From an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, the share of people under age 30 who own a private business has reached a 24-year-low. Obviously you’re an outlier to this trend, but I’m sure it wasn’t easy and I expect you hit some bumps in the road. What sort of hurdles do you feel are currently in place that restrict or prevent millennials from starting businesses and pursuing entrepreneurship?
Eric: One factor that people bring up a lot is student debt, if a good chunk of a twenty-something’s income is already spoken for, they may feel less excited about cutting back their hours at work in order to get a business off the ground. However, I feel like the sociocultural surroundings of an individual may play an even larger role. If no one your age are starting businesses, if none of your friends are doing it, it just looks that much more risky or intimidating. When I spent time in Silicon Valley, it seemed like everyone was either starting something or talking about it- it just seemed like the thing to do. Where I’m from in Alaska, though, it wasn’t nearly as common. That’s changing here, though, in a big way. We’ve got a thriving entrepreneurial community and access to capital. That didn’t even exist a few years ago. So what I’m saying is, hopefully the tide is starting to change. With the passage of the JOBS act, especially Title III (which opened up crowdfunding for equity), it became even easier for bootstrapped startups to access capital.
Tyson: What’s on the horizon for Attently in 2017?
Eric: We’re opening up our beta to new customers in the first half of 2017 at attently.io, and are currently wrapping up a research project at the local University where our system was used to compare quantitative and qualitative methods for measuring audience engagement. The early results are looking very good. We’re also continuing to refine our machine learning algorithms, teaching them to better understand the nuances of human facial expressions. We’ve also got some new features that are under wraps right now, but we’ll be releasing them in the beta soon!
Tyson: Any advice for those interested in starting their own business or looking to turn an idea into reality?
Eric: Learn your market. Talk to customers, and always remember that you’re solving a problem, not building a cool gadget. Iterating on your business model is cheap and fast early on, and teaches you what people respond to, so that you can better serve your customers. Take advantage of that. Don’t be too afraid of talking about your super secret idea early on, it’s better to know how your market feels about it than to waste time building something nobody wants.
Tyson: For those interested in learning more about Attently and yourself, what’s the best way for people to get in touch with you?
Eric: Our website, attently.io, will be launching any day now. Anyone interested in joining the beta to check out our product and provide feedback on how we can serve you even better can sign up there. In the meantime, readers can feel free to drop me an email at email@example.com.
Thanks again, Tyson! I really appreciate the opportunity to chat with you.
Tyson: The pleasure is all ours, Eric. We encourage everyone to keep up with Attenly and check out their website once its live. I can already tell that this software is going to have an immediate impact on the speaking industry and we look forward to incorporating it into our own efforts.
Appreciate your time, Eric, and we hope to have you back some time soon!
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