Leeds-based international entrepreneur Sean Gilligan is on a mission to change how teams and businesses communicate.
Called Sound Branch, his new startup is a voice-based communication app that lets people converse by recording and sharing voice messages of up to 10 seconds in length.
Conversations begin with an initial ‘seed.’ Replies (or ‘branches’) can be recorded by participants at a time that suits them, allowing exchanges to grow and potentially veer off into multiple directions.
By adopting this approach, removing the need to meet in person and at a particular time, companies could reduce the frequency of their meetings by half while cutting email by up to 40 per cent, claims Gilligan.
With Sound Branch, the most pressing challenge for Gilligan is one that some founders would envy: picking the app’s killer use case from a forest of possibilities. Sound Branch was initially developed as a voicemail service for another business with geographically disparate teams.
“My Chicago and Katowice teams are seven hours apart, so the Americans have a window of only a few hours to catch up with the Polish ones after waking up,” says Gilligan. “Using Sound Branch, they’re able to communicate much more efficiently across different timezones.”
The app’s wider potential became apparent after the founder surveyed the state of social networking and noticed a gap in the market.
“Social media is mass-market these days, but there’s nothing for voice,” he says. “Text-based messaging is catered for, and those who have jumped on the video bandwagon forgot about audio.
“I spotted that nobody had done short-form voice of around 10 seconds, and that’s where the opportunity lies.”
Such is Sound Branch’s versatility that Gilligan believes its potential spans a number of roles. They include journalists (to gather quotes); recruiters (telephone interviews); telephone and live chat operators in call centres (customer service); brands, marketers and celebrities (audience engagement); and HR teams (incident reporting), among others – such as the blind (for social networking).
According to Gilligan, voice messaging could bring multiple organisation-wide benefits if ingrained into company culture.
“Voice messaging can engage employees and increase productivity, and it expresses emotion which gives management more visibility,” the founder says. “If somebody is about to leave the company, they won’t talk as much; conversely, they’re much more visible when praised.”
It’s this emotion piece which Gilligan says is missing from Slack. “If Slack is for the introverted keyboard warriors, then Sound Branch is Slack for extroverts,” he says. “Plus, introverts can always listen in – even if they don’t want to contribute.”
In addition to helping management gauge employees’ moods, Sound Branch could help them save time (versus reading text) by integrating voice messages into CRM systems, allowing for quick-fire listening.
“A global CEO could know how their top 100 managers are doing in minutes by listening to short clips,” he says. “It’s about getting rid of Chinese whispers and discovering the customer truth. You can’t beat face-to-face interaction, but it really helps if you’re pressed for time.
“Plus, managers won’t have to worry about poor quality of conversation, as people must think about what they’re saying.”
A second CRM-related benefit of Sound Branch could be felt by sales teams, which are a specific target for the startup. Gilligan envisions a situation where sales reps will listen to audio to prepare themselves for meetings, recording audio messages on Sound Branch post-meeting before logging them into a CRM. This would prevent them for having to type up written notes.
Despite its clear potential in the B2B space, Gilligan predicts that Sound Branch will become popular with consumers first due to its ability to facilitate “massive conversations”.
“My theory is that we’ll end up with ‘beanstalks’ containing maybe 1,000 branches – multi-faceted conversations and tangents on things like the iPhone X, Trump, Brexit and football – leading to the mass market media picking up on it,” he says. “The strategy is to do both (B2B and B2C), but we think the latter will hopefully give us insight.”
The issue of privacy hasn’t evaded Gilligan, who believes that voice-controlled personal assistants have already made people more comfortable in talking to their devices, and more accepting that their data could be collected.
“Most business meetings aren’t confidential, and I’ll take a bet on the fact that most aren’t recorded – but there’ll be an implosion point where most are,” he says. “It’s already happening in the consumer space with Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. Voice controlled IT is coming next – and it will be here very soon.”
“For the record, we store people’s data in AWS with HTTPS security,” Gilligan adds. “And accounts are private – we can’t access them.”
It’s perhaps inevitable that Sound Branch will be seen as ‘Twitter for voice’ by many. Much like the ubiquitous microblogging service, it feels like it will embark on a path that not even its founder knows where it’s headed.