I co-founded a software company in 1993, and over the following 20 years we built the business to become very successful, and my partner and I ultimately sold the company in 2013. I was retired at that point, and a few years later I received an Amazon Echo for Christmas and fell in love with it. I hooked it up to all of my smart home devices, got about 6 more of them and put them around the house, and started using them all the time.
I quickly learned that the Echo (actually Alexa) could be programmed, and since my background is in programming/software, I began writing skills for the Echo around 2015. I started thinking about ways Alexa could be used in business, rather than just for consumers, and came up with an idea to connect Alexa/voice to business information systems. I started a company called “Voice Metrics” in 2017 which provides a platform to “voice-enable” business systems.
My initial motivation for writing skills was just to see what I could make the Echo do – to play with it and make it say things, have a basic conversation, and play sounds. My first skill was called “Hockey Goals”, which allows you to hear the “goal celebration song” of every NHL hockey team.
I then wrote a few fun skills to demonstrate programming for voice to my son’s computer class at his middle school. But then I wanted to build a “platform skill” that allows ANY BUSINESS to connect their business data (KPI’s, metrics, etc.) and “just ask” for their key numbers – answering the question “How’s Business?”. I wanted to give businesses an EASY WAY to connect their data to voice – Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, Siri, etc.
I see a ton of growth in the Voice B2B space over the next 2-3 years. The challenge right now is adoption of the devices themselves in business (most people just have them in the home, not the office – and there are still a lot of people that don’t even have them in the home yet either). With the right “use cases” for businesses, the adoption will come, and voice capabilities will be used not just with traditional “smart speakers”, but also on smartphones (ala Siri and Google Assistant), in the car, with Bluetooth headsets, on PC’s and laptops, etc. If businesses can save time and get information or perform business functions easier and faster BY VOICE, then the adoption will increase and there will be astronomical growth - but it will take time.
We use 100% AWS and serverless. Everything is done using Node.JS and the AWS stack. We have built our own framework that allows data to be pushed in by business systems, and then users can “just ask” for the data by voice – using our Alexa skills, Google Actions, and Siri. We do not use many 3rd party tools other than some testing tools from Bespoken and Applause.
We have 2 main products right now. The first is “Alexa for SaaS” that allows SaaS companies to get up-and-running with voice in literally a day – they get a custom-branded Alexa skill (and Google Action and Siri) by simply posting data to our API and setting up a few voice briefings. SaaS companies purchase a license for the platform and voice apps.
Our other product is a fully-functional voice interface to Slack called “Zipline – Talk to Slack” which allows you to get your new Slack messages by voice AND REPLY BY VOICE. It also allows you to hear Slack messages from any channel and post messages into any channel, all by voice. It even plays emoji’s! It’s free and can be enabled at: www.talktoslack.com
I think it’s important to plan out what you would like your skill to be able to do, to design everything out on paper and with flowcharts, etc., before you start writing code or building the skill.
Although we do not use Storyline and other tools like that, I think they are great for starting out and being able to learn how Alexa and voice skills work overall. A lot of how you would build a skill/action will be based on where you want to go with the skill – is it just something you want to put out into the store and have people play with, or do you want it to be a useful utility for either consumers or business? If the latter, talk to them about what might be useful and beneficial, and then design it out.