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Sam Liang, CEO & Founder of Otter.ai – Interview Series

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Sam Liang is the CEO & Founder of Otter.ai, Otter.ai provides automatic meeting notes for virtual meetings, remote work, and in-person meetings, to improve collaboration, communication, and productivity. Otter created its proprietary speech recognition and NLP technologies and has processed tens of millions of meetings and served millions of users.

What initially attracted you to study computer science?

I always loved physics, and my older brother studied computer science, so I was influenced by him when I saw him coding on computers. I started programming and loved it, so that’s how I started working on computers.

You worked at Google for four years to build out Google Maps, what did you learn from this experience?

I was the lead for the Google Map Location service. We started this team in 2006 before the first iPhone was released. In 2007, when Steve Jobs demonstrated the iPhone live for probably the first time to the public, one of the apps he showed was Google Maps and the blue dot that shows your current location. To see where you were on the phone was a big deal at the time. Through this experience, I learned the power of big data as our work building this impacted billions of people.

You launched your first start-up in 2010 which was later acquired by Alibaba, what drives your entrepreneurial mindset?

I was inspired to be an entrepreneur and founder early in my career. When I was pursuing my Ph.D. at Stanford University, I was surrounded by people who were inevitably going to change the tech space, if not the world. This helped me recognize my own passion. Every day I saw other people doing big things and I started to think: “Okay, why can’t I do it someday?”

Could you share the genesis story of your latest start-up Otter.ai?

When I build a startup, I think about what problem I am trying to solve. I was struggling to remember everything that was discussed in all my meetings — 30, sometimes 40 meetings a week — and created Otter to accurately capture and save the information. With Otter, I realized we were tackling more than the practical problem of storing information. We were also addressing a technology problem with the advanced speech-to-text software we built. How do you teach a machine to understand different accents or differentiate words with similar pronunciation? As a computer scientist, I’m fascinated by this challenge, and as a business owner, I’m eager to make meetings more productive. In 2021, we found that the average length of meetings was an astonishing 81 minutes and included 3.45 people. Technology like Otter can help reduce this cost and give employees back their time.

With more than half a billion daily virtual and hybrid meeting users, and an increasing shift to permanent hybrid work models, millions of professionals and a growing number of organizations are exploring tools like Otter to increase collaboration, accessibility, and productivity at work.

Because of this, Otter.ai has experienced tremendous growth over the last year, with a 400% increase in total minutes transcribed – up from 3 billion minutes transcribed to 12 billion.

We see the future of work as defined by hybrid modalities and the way we communicate in meetings, whether it’s virtual or in-person, is a vital part of an enterprises’ success. That’s why we launched the new Otter.

Can you discuss how Otter’s speech recognition and voice recognition works?

Using artificial intelligence, Otter.ai makes information from voice conversations instantly accessible and actionable by generating real-time meeting notes and audio that is secure, shareable, and searchable. Otter specifically thought of business professionals who are running from one meeting to the next, while juggling multiple projects with various teams.

We built our own transcription engine that uses AI Natural Language Processing (NLP) to create a more accessible and productive meeting experience. NLP helps Otter develop a better understanding of ever-changing physical and contextual environments (language, meanings, context, etc.) so that it can record and transcribe meetings with industry-leading accuracy and provide Otter users with AI-generated insights including summary keywords, customer vocabulary, and speaker identification.

What is Diarization and how does it enable the system to recognize the identity of a speaker?

Diarization is a technology that separates one person’s voice from another speaker’s voice. The technology is built for conversations and can distinguish between speakers, generating a unique print for each person’s voice.

Otter enables analysis of all of the audio that a user speaks and hears, what types of insights, suggestions, or reminders can it then share?

The new Otter is designed as a one-stop for meeting the needs for the half-billion hybrid work professionals and takes Otter from a single-player transcription service to a full-fledged, multi-player AI meeting and collaboration tool. It streamlines your communication for smarter, more collaborative, and more productive meetings —the first use of conversational AI to turn meetings into an actionable workflow. Here’s a look at what’s new.

  • Home Feed & Calendar to Manage All Your Meeting Needs: The new Otter home feed centralizes all meeting needs for professionals – a one-stop for meetings and post-meeting actions. Use the home feed to easily access your important shared conversations, highlights and comments, and tagged action items.
  • Meeting Gems™ for Key Takeaways: Otter’s meeting notes have always been helpful, but now you and your teammates can turn meetings into actionable workflow using the new Meeting Gems™ panel. Meeting Gems™ can be generated directly from your meeting by highlighting snippets within the notes. Easily capture action items, decisions, and key moments of your meeting then use the Meeting Gems™ panel to assign action items, add comments, or ask a question, all with a single click.
  • Automatic Outline (Beta for Otter Business on web browser) for a Quick Meeting Summary: Otter’s proprietary AI will automatically create a meeting summary that’s curated and displayed in the Outline panel so you and your colleagues can easily access a summary of what was discussed.
  • One-Click Screen Captures for Visual References: With a single click, add a meeting slide or any other image presented on your virtual meeting directly to the Otter notes for fast, easy, visual references for yourself and your team (only available when using Otter Assistant which is now available for both Pro and Business users ).

What are some of the most popular use cases for the Otter platform?

Otter redefines communication to be more collaborative, accessible, and productive across the spectrum. A few use cases include Fortune 500 companies collaborating in a hybrid work environment,  journalists looking to accurately transcribe their interviews, students taking notes in virtual lectures, and the deaf and hard-of-hearing who need a better way to communicate. Our next goal is to break into more enterprise use cases where entire teams use and collaborate with Otter.

What type of growth in users was seen during COVID-19 due to the increase in use of Zoom and other work-at-home platforms?

Building on Otter’s growth in 2020 (where revenue grew by over 800 percent), we made several announcements in 2021 to continue to build and grow the mission of Otter.ai to redefine the future of communications to be more collaborative, accessible, and productive for all.

In February, we announced a $50 million Series B led by Spectrum Equity, with continued participation from Horizons Ventures, Draper Associates, GGV Capital, Draper Dragon Fund.

On May 19, 2021, we launched Otter Assistant for Zoom. Otter Assistant automatically joins calendared meetings to record, take notes, and share transcripts with meeting participants so users can focus on collaborating and connecting in meetings knowing Otter is automatically transcribing it, or they can skip meetings altogether and catch up on notes afterward.

On August 25, 2021, Otter Assistant expanded to support Microsoft Teams and Google Meet.

On September 23, 2021, Otter announced the Otter.ai Chrome Extension for Google Meet and Google Calendar. This enabled users to connect Otter.ai to their Google Calendar and transcribe meetings on Google Meet in real-time. Transcripts are saved to their Otter accounts for secure, shareable, and searchable access.

This year, with the New Otter, we’re advancing the future of meetings and communication to be even more collaborative, accessible, and productive by providing a meeting hub for teams, AI-generated outlines, and more actionable and collaborative features.

Is there anything else that you would like to share about Otter?

I believe that Otter will continue to thrive, even in a post-pandemic world. Otter’s value is applicable to workers who participate in virtual, hybrid, and in-person meetings.  Otter helps with knowledge sharing, communication, and team collaboration. We all spend too much time in meetings, and I am excited about the power of AI to make meetings more productive. The new Otter experience makes meeting collaboration easier and faster – making it an essential tool for business teams looking to improve their communication in today’s hybrid, in-person, and virtual meetings.

Thank you for the great interview, and I urge other entrepreneurs to also think: “Okay, why can’t I do it someday?”. To learn more readers should visit Otter.ai.

Antoine Tardif is a Futurist who is passionate about the future of AI and robotics. He is the CEO of BlockVentures.com, and has invested in over 50 AI & blockchain projects. He is the Co-Founder of Securities.io a news website focusing on digital assets, digital securities and investing. He is a founding partner of unite.AI & a member of the Forbes Technology Council.