Meet the Mavericks: The man who’s making apps hear your voice – here’s Slang Labs’ Kumar Rangarajan’s inspiring story
A maverick is a person of incredible vision, someone who challenges the norm and forces people to think beyond the ordinary. YourStory is going behind the scenes to uncover the inspirations and secrets of the ultimate maverick in the business world: the entrepreneur.
Meet YourStory’s Latest Maverick: Kumar Rangarajan, Co-founder, Slang Labs
Unorthodox, out-of-the-box, venturing into uncharted territories — these are probably few of the many reasons behind the successful entrepreneurial journey of Kumar Rangarajan, the Co-Founder of Slang Labs. His career spans from working for global tech giants such as Facebook and IBM to being a part of a firm that was acquired by Facebook to leading Slang Lab’s one-of-its-kind innovation, the in-app voice assistants.
Slang Labs provides a platform for adding multi-lingual in-app voice assistance. “The question was how to make a mobile app experience better? And we realised that a paradigm-changing aspect to that would be to add voice on top of your app, which will help you to do things in a better fashion,” Kumar told YourStory’s Shradha Sharma.
He further said it was Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa that prompted him to think of an innovation in this domain.
“When Alexa was launched in 2015, one would have thought ‘who’d want to talk to a speaker’ but the idea worked wonders. My four-year old daughter learnt to use it. Even my parents were able to use it and change their behaviour. That is when I realised that voice commands felt a lot more intuitive and were liked by both the generation before us and the ones after as well.”
Where does it work?
Today, Slang Labs has multiple use-cases ranging from a search tool to giving out voice-based nudges.
Apps can use the startup’s voice offerings as part of their search tool.
“Generally, it is a painful process to search on an app and limited to what you write or choose with your fingers. The voice element can help in refining the search for a user and even integrate local languages, which will help the app identify the product from its catalogue and add it to your basket,” Kumar explained.
Along with it, the technology can be of use in recording transactions through the day or over a certain period and help in settling of accounts.
“Another use-case is in the area of form-filling. One can just speak out the address on any online forms that need to be filled and it should be able to smartly extract the street details, city etc.” Kumar said, adding that the technology can also help in voice-based nudges. For instance, banners ads inside the app could read out any related offers on products, he said.
The startup has only gone on to take huge strides with its platform and added major and known names as part of its clientele. Some of the prominent names it is working with include bigbasket, the government of Tamil Nadu, the Madurai District Police and popular apps such as trainman.
Also helping the startup, is its supposed obsession with customer experience. It designs its product keeping its immediate customers and their clients as well. “We’ve indulged in research for end-users by going on to the field — design schools, on the street etc. So, a lot of filtering has happened at this level to help understand the needs of a customer,” Kumar said.
For its immediate customers, Kumar and his team like to put on the developer’s hat and think of solutions for them. “We are culturally ingrained towards reducing friction for immediate customers at every stage.”
Leadership and innovation
It is a combination of this work culture, along with fostering an environment of innovation that Slang Labs has sustained throughout its journey so far. While innovation is a constant in a company’s functionality, there could be days when the mundane routine takes over, he said.
“… So, we let our staff explore their creative streaks. We have a weekly demo day on every Friday where the team puts up a show about what idea/solution they’ve made. It goes beyond a point of just talking to actually seeing the plan into execution. We saw that some members of the team built their own games, using voice-based commands.”
Along with these, Kumar also highlighted how working and communicating with the team through their meetings helped boost productivity. The company had a work-from-home policy for two days a week before the COVID-19 situation and their meetings were not held on those days. But now, they are conducting team meetings everyday and the system has turned out to be more effective and productive as participants present their points in a concise and crisp manner, without taking up a lot of time.
The Maverick move
While Slang Labs’ story is one that of having a strong product/idea being put into execution, Kumar’s career has been full of such stellar moves and maverick decisions. He quit a cushy job at IBM, a rather well-paying one, in the United States to return to India, and join a smaller firm with a pay-cut. “My family was supportive of the move… my wife was pregnant at that time,” he recalled. Kumar wanted to be a part of a smaller company and be aware and instrumental in end-to-end operations of the company to reap the benefits of his hard work.
His venture of Little Eye Labs was the next maverick move in his journey as he boldly went on to pick a domain that was not touched upon much. People spoke about threats from open source and how the competition was a giant like Google, Kumar said, adding that the company later went on to be acquired by Facebook.
Kumar foresees voice platforms to be a major agent of change for apps, but with some riders. The experience of using voice must improve, he said, adding that even with Alexa, one has to say the keyword ‘Alexa’ for it to listen to you.
“We want to move to a system where the technology is smart to understand when you are talking to a human versus the machine.”
Along with this, voice technologies, to be popularly used across all apps and platforms, the cost involved must drastically reduce and only that will give it the required scale, he signed off.