A Personal Story Of Working At Swell

I have been focusing my operational work over the last year in mobile. A big part of the reason is working with the Swell team and specifically Ram, one of the co-founders. There are short-term opportunities and long-term opportunities. Somewhere in between, technologists start building the future we will likely experience. In the world of venture-funded startups, folks are looking for technologies, products, and teams who could mature in a few years. This is something I’ve learned by getting to watch a serial technology entrepreneur like Ram operate. We were introduced while he was wrapping up his EIR gig @ CRV and I remember him asking to meet me. I also got to meet his co-founders Keshav Menon and Dominic Hughes. I wondered, why would this guy want to meet me? He was talking about mobile, his previous projects (including SnapTell, which was acquired by Amazon and integrated as “Flow”), and about his idea to use gestures as motion waves to control the phone while in the car. In the fall of 2011, this sounded like the future to me!

Ram and I would meet every few weeks and with each meeting, the ideas seem to slowly narrow. First, he was interested in mobile. Everyone is, right? And, rightfully so. He had deep mobile experience already having build SnapTell. So, he started diving into “what” specifically in mobile — thinking about the sensors, being an active or passive app, and so forth — Ram wrote a great TechCrunch piece on this, here.  Then, he was thinking about the consumer, their time. When could consumers use something, given all the apps available. He started to think about the time when people are bored, what he called “dead time,” the bits of the day when you’re maybe in line and look at Twitter or Facebook on your phone or play a game — for him, that became the car or train during a commute, when people are getting to work, running errands, or going away for business or a long weekend. How could a mobile app be useful, especially in the car. And, Ram keeps going…inspired by Pandora, Prismatic, and Quora, we started to have conversations around audio — people were working on text, and it’s a very competitive space, and with video, a large company based in Mountain View has a little bit of a head start :-)

Thus, Swell’s first product was born. I didn’t hear from Ram for a few weeks after that. He organized players from his SnapTell team back together, and this is the kind of team that could pick up new platforms and languages because they’re all polymaths. The real technology here — the value — is in classifying and cataloging audio information and matching that content to people, similar to how Pandora, Quora, and Prismatic match content with end consumers.

Seeing Ram and his team narrow down their ideas to what Swell is today is probably one of the greatest startup formation learning experiences I’ve had the pleasure to be involved with. As the Swell product entered Alpha, I grew more involved with the team, thanks to Ram’s invitation, and as we fanned out to a larger, extended Beta period, I became even more involved, going through product reviews with Ram, talking about the market, the position, and how to eventually get this into the hands of the right people.

While iOS distribution is critically important for any app, what I’ve learned most through this experience is how a product drives a company. People may say “it’s all about product” without really thinking about why that is the case. The product is really all that matters, and the work it takes to arrive at a public v1 is excruciating. In fact, USV’s Albert Wenger wrote an entire post about just how important product is vs anything else. The team is balancing every idea, differentiating from the competition, but also trying to build something new. And, for the end consumer, you have to provide value, even if marginal value. You want the consumer to say, “I like to use X when Y…..” And, after using the app for months, both in the car, at home, when I’m walking around, and so on, I am confident this team has delivered product value. As we look to next week, releasing on June 27, I’m really grateful to have been a small part of this product and journey. I use the app every day. It is a new product and now a part of my life.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus