Volley’s voice games for smart speakers have amassed over half a million monthly users

The rapid consumer adoption of smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home has opened opportunities for developers creating voice apps, too. At least that’s true in the case of Volley, a young company building voice-controlled entertainment experiences for Amazon Alexa and Google Home. In less than a year, Volley has amassed an audience north of 500,000 monthly active users across its suite of voice apps, and has been growing that active base of users at 50 to 70 percent month-over-month.

The company was co-founded by former Harvard roommates and longtime friends, Max Child and James Wilsterman, and had originally operated as an iOS consultancy. But around a year and a half ago, Volley shifted its focus to voice instead.

“When we were running the iOS business, we were always sort of hacking around on games and some stuff on the side for fun,” explains Child. “We made a trivia game for iOS. And we made a Facebook Messenger chatbot virtual pet,” he says. The trivia game they built let users play just by swiping on push notifications — a very lightweight form of gameplay they thought was intriguing. “Voice was sort of the obvious next step,” says Child.

Not all their voice games have been successful, however. The first to launch was a game called Spelling Bee that users struggled with because of Alexa’s difficulties in identifying single letters — it would confuse a “B,” “C,” “D” and “E,” for example. But later titles have taken off.

Volley’s name-that-tune trivia game “Song Quiz” was its first breakout hit, and has grown to become the No. 1 game by reviews. The game today has a five-star rating across 8,842 reviews.

Another big hit is Volley’s “Yes Sire,” a choose-your-own-adventure style storytelling game that’s also at the top of Alexa’s charts. It also has a five-star rating, across 1,031 reviews.

The company says it has more than a dozen live titles, with the majority on the Alexa Skill Store and a few for Google Assistant/Google Home. But it only has seven or eight in what you would consider “active development.”

Unlike some indie developers who are struggling to generate revenue from their voice applications, Volley has been moderately successful thanks to Amazon’s developer rewards program — the program that doles out cash payments to top performing skills. While the startup didn’t want to disclose exact numbers, it says it’s earning in the five-figure range monthly from Amazon’s program.

In addition, Volley is preparing to roll out its own monetization features, including subscriptions and in-app purchases of add-on packs that will extend gameplay.

The company’s games have been well-received for a variety of reasons, but one is that they allow people to play together at the same time — like a modern-day replacement for family game night, perhaps.

“I think a live multiplayer experience with your family or people you’re good friends with, where you can have a fun time together in a room is fairly unusual. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t crowd around my iPhone and play games with my friends. And even with consoles there are significant barriers in understanding how to play,” says Child.

“I think that voice enables the live social experience in a way that anyone from five years old to 85 years old can pick up immediately. I think that’s really special. And I think we’re just at the beginning. I’m not going to say we’ve got it all figured out — but I think that’s powerful and unique to these platforms,” he adds.

Volley raised more than a million in seed funding ahead of joining Y Combinator’s Winter 2018 class, in a round led by Advancit Capital. Other investors include Amplify.LA, Rainfall, Y Combinator, MTGx, NFX and angels Hany Nada, Mika Salmi and Richard Wolpert.

The startup is currently a team of six in San Francisco.

 

Teacher in Ghana who used blackboard to explain computers gets some Microsoft love

Teaching kids how to use a computer is hard enough already, since they’re kids, but just try doing it without any computers. That was the task undertaken by Richard Appiah Akoto in Ghana, and his innovative (and labor-intensive) solution was to draw the computer or application on the blackboard in great detail. His hard work went viral and now Microsoft has stepped in to help out.

Akoto teaches at Betenase Municipal Assembly Junior High in the small town of Sekyedomase. He had posted pictures of his magnum opus, a stunning rendition of a complete Microsoft Word window, to Facebook. “I love ma students so have to do what will make them understand wat am teaching,” he wrote. He looks harried in the last image of the sequence.

The post blew up (9.3K reactions at this point), and Microsoft, which has for years been rather quietly promoting early access to computing and engineering education, took notice. It happened to be just before the company’s Education Exchange in Singapore, and they flew him out.

Akoto in Singapore.

It was Akoto’s first time outside of Ghana, and at the conference, a gathering of education leaders from around the world, he described his all-too-common dilemma: The only computers available — one belonging to the school and Akoto’s personal laptop — were broken.

“I wanted to teach them how to launch Microsoft Word. But I had no computer to show them,” he said in an interview with Microsoft at the event. “I had to do my best. So, I decided to draw what the screen looks like on the blackboard with chalk.”

“I have been doing this every time the lesson I’m teaching demands it,” he continued. “I’ve drawn monitors, system units, keyboards, a mouse, a formatting toolbar, a drawing toolbar, and so on. The students were okay with that. They are used to me doing everything on the board for them.”

Pursuing such a difficult method instead of giving up under such circumstances is more than a little admirable, and the kids are certainly better off for having a teacher dedicated to his class and subject. A little computer literacy can make a big difference.

“They have some knowledge about computers, but they don’t know how to actually operate one,” Akoto said. So Microsoft has offered to provide “device and software support” for the school, and Akoto will get a chance to go through Microsoft’s educator certification program (which has other benefits). When I asked for specifics, a Microsoft spokesperson added “Microsoft is committed to providing a full computer lab with initial support and training to the school and is currently in discussions with Ministry of Education in Ghana on the most effective way to deliver this.” How nice!

Obviously if this school is having this issue, countless more are as well, and could use similar support. And as Akoto himself eloquently pointed out to NPR when his post first went viral, “They are lacking more than just equipment.”

But at least in this case there are a couple of hundred students who will be getting an opportunity they didn’t have before. That’s a start.

Airbnb makes service more accessible to people with disabilities

Airbnb has made some changes to its platform in order to make it easier for people with disabilities to find accommodations that suit their needs. The 21 new accessibility filters Airbnb has added enable people to find homes and apartments that have step-free entry to rooms, entryways wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, elevators, roll-in showers with a chair and more.

Airbnb guests were previously able to search for wheelchair accessible listings, but that was it. In order to determine the appropriate filters, Airbnb worked with the California Council of the Blind, California Foundation for Independent Living Centers and the National Council on Independent Living.

Airbnb’s willingness to be inclusive of people with disabilities comes in light of Lyft and Uber facing lawsuits over the lack of options available for people who use wheelchairs. Moving forward, Airbnb says it will work with its hosts and guests to ensure the filters are useful and accurate.

“The introduction of the new accessibility features and filters to all hosts and guests is just the first stage in our journey to improve accessibility at Airbnb,” Airbnb Accessibility Product and Program Manager Srin Madipalli said in a blog post. “We encourage everyone to use them and send through their feedback.”

Here’s why Spotify will go public via direct listing on April 3rd

Spotify explained why it’s ditching the traditional IPO for a direct listing on the NYSE on April 3rd today during its Investor Day presentation. With no lockup period and no intermediary bankers, Spotify thinks it can go public without all the typical shenanigans.

Spotify described the rationale for using a direct listing with five points:

  • List Without Selling Shares  – Spotify has plent of money with $1.3 billion in cash and securities, has no debt since it converted that into equity for investors, and has positive free cash flow
  • Liquidity – Investors and employees can sell on public market and sell at time of their choosing without investors shorting a lockup expiration, while new investors can join in
  • Equal Access – Bankers won’t get preferred access. Instead, the whole world will get access at the same time. “No underwriting syndicate, no limited float, no IPO allocations, no preferential treatment”.
  • Transparency – Spotify wants to show the facts about its business to everyone via today’s presentation, rather than giving more info to bankers in closed door meetings
  • Market-Driven Price Discovery – Rather than setting a specific price with bankers, Spotify will let the public decide what it’s worth. “We think the wisdom of crowds trumps expert intervention”.

Spotify won’t wait for the direct listing, and on March 26th will announce first quarter and 2018 guidance before markets open. It also announced today that there will be no lock-up period, so employees can start selling their shares immediately. This prevents a looming lock-up period expiration that can lead to a dump of shares on the market that sinks the price from spooking investors.

It’s unclear exactly what Spotify will be valued at on April 3rd, but during 2018 its shares have traded on the private markets for between $90 and $132.50, valuing the company at $23.4 billion at the top of the range. The music streaming service now has 159 million monthly active users (up 29 percent in 2017) and 71 million paying subscribers (up 46 percent in 2017.

During CEO Daniel Ek’s presentation, he explained that Spotify emerged as an alternative to piracy by convenience to make paying or ad-supported access easier than stealing. Now he sees the company as the sole leading music streaming service that’s a dedicated music company, subtly throwing shade at Apple, Google, and Amazon. “We’re not focused on selling hardware. We’re not focused on selling books. We’re focused on selling music and connecting artists with fans” said Ek.

Head of R&D Gustav Soderstrom outlined Spotify’s ubiquity strategy, opposed to trying to lock users into a “single platform ecosystem”. He says Spotify does “what’s best for the user and not for the company, and trying to solve the users’ problems by being everywhere.” That’s more shade for Apple, who’s HomePod only works with Apple Music despite customers obviously wishing they could play other streaming services through it.

By now being baked into a wide range of third-party hardware through the Spotify Connect program, Soderstrom says Spotify gets a more holistic understanding of its listeners. He declared that Spotify has 5X as much personalization data as its next closest competitor, and that allows it to know what to play you next. He cheekily calls this “self-driving music”.

 

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek giving the Investor Day presentation

Directing what people listen to turns Spotify into the new top 40 radio — the hit-maker. That gives it leverage over the record labels so Spotify can get better licensing deals and favorable treatment. Now over 30 percent of Spotify listening is based on its own programming through featured playlists, artists, and more.

There’s plenty of room for Spotify to grow. Only 12 percent of the 1.3 billion payment-enabled smartphones in the world have a streaming music subscription and Spotify makes up half of those. And with the free tier, Spotify has the best way to capture people tip-toeing into streaming.

Wall Street loves a two-sided marketplace, so Spotify is positioning itself in the middle of artists and fans, with each side attracting the other. It’s both selling music streaming services to listeners, and selling the tools to reach and monetize those listeners to musicians. That’s both on its platform, and using its targeting and analytics info to deliver efficient ticket and merchandise promotions elsewhere. Ek discussed the flywheel that drives Spotify’s business, explaining that the more people discover music, the more they listen, and the more artists that become successful on the platform, and the more artists will embrace the platform and bring their fans.

Yet with music catalogues and prices mostly similar across the industry, Spotify will have to depend on its personalized recommendations and platform-agnositic strategy to beat its deep pocketed competitors. Music isn’t going away, so whoever can lock in listeners now at the dawn of streaming could keep coining off them for decades. That’s why Spotify not raising cash for marketing through a traditional IPO is a strange choice. But with its focus on playlists and suggestion data, Spotify could build melodic handcuffs for its listeners who wouldn’t dream of starting from scratch on a competitor.

You can follow along with the presentation here.

For more on Spotify’s not-an-IPO, check out our feature piece: