For Nithya Thadani it all started with a soup. This ex-investment banker from New York and a mother-of-two spent a great deal of time in the financial sector before moving onto the world of voice AI and building her own business – RAIN – one of the leading voice technology firms that has helped dozens of Fortune 500 companies build best-in-class voice applications including Nike, Starbucks, Amazon, Marriott, and Blackrock.
“RAIN built one of the first branded voice experiences on Amazon’s Alexa platform for Campbell’s almost five years ago and the business took off from there. Before we knew it, we were the go-to voice tech partner to many leading Fortune 500 companies. There were so many early indications that voice technology was going to become ubiquitous – smart speakers were adopting quickly across generations (today, smart speakers have an install base of over 200 million globally). So, we went all-in on voice AI, and to date, we’ve built more than 70 custom voice assistant experiences for dozens of enterprises. Our portfolio of live assistant experiences averages about 15 million user interactions per month,” she shares with me in an email.
Her work in innovation was always about uncovering white space opportunities – and specifically, white space opportunities with measurable business value. That experience has served her a great deal in her technology role today; obsessing over how voice AI can not only drive customer experience but also improve operating efficiency.
A study by Accenture revealed that 52% of consumers trust intelligent devices to shop for food, while 49% trust them to shop for other items such as clothing and accessories. Furthermore, the projected $40 billion market for voice tech-driven purchases in the U.K. and U.S. by 2022 illustrates just how much this “instruct” relationship will continue to impact our everyday consumption routines.
The Growth Of Conversational AI Space
According to Thadani, there are two emerging trends that have brought RAIN to this point. The first one was a shift toward custom or “brand-owned” assistants. Think Bank of America’s “Erica” assistant or Walmart’s “Ask Sam”. Companies are investing in building their own assistants that live on their own channels – from mobile apps to drive-throughs to custom hardware. This is an evolution from recent years when brands primarily focused on having a presence on big tech platforms like Alexa or Google Assistant. Owned assistants provide greater control of the user experience and greater control of the data. For Thadani, this shows a maturation in the voice market that companies are now willing to invest in building assistant AI technology.
The second trend is a rise in enterprise or employee-facing voice solutions. We often think about voice technology through a consumer lens, but its adoption has opened up an opportunity to serve new audiences in the workplace. Voice is gradually being tapped to increase worker productivity across a range of fields, from retail associates to healthcare professionals. “Voice-led technologies have led to a 25% increase in productivity and a 50% drop in errors – a reason why half of the manufacturing companies are planning to expand their use of voice in the next five years. Putting these together, the opportunity to build customized voice productivity tools for workers, especially those out in the field getting their hands dirty, is clear,” adds Thadani.
“Early on, we recognized an opportunity to build voice AI solutions for the “deskless workforce” – the skilled workers in industries like agriculture, healthcare, manufacturing, construction, and transportation. Despite making up 80% of the global workforce, this audience has been drastically underserved by technology, a reality that has been emphasized during the pandemic. Have you ever tried to make a call from a ski lift with gloves on? Or attempted to reroute your navigation while driving? That’s more or less the technology experience that exists for these workers today, juggling devices, trying to read small text while wearing specialized gear, and often on the move. Not easy!” explains Thadani.
RAIN is building voice assistant productivity tools that are purpose-built to make these workers smarter, more efficient, and safer through assistive AI. Voice technology thrives in situations where hands and eyes are tied up. It excels at speedy data entry or retrieval, where simply saying a sentence runs laps around menu bars and keyboards. And its infrastructure is scalable – you can voice-enable a smart speaker, mobile app, or wearable. That’s why voice is an obvious fit for RAIN’s users, who are working with their hands, in complex environments where the quality of their work often rests on precision and sustained attention to detail.
“While we’re still in stealth mode with our product, the users we’re targeting fall within specific deskless industry verticals that we’ve prioritized on our roadmap. Speed and efficiency are essential to what these workers do, yet many of them encounter daily inefficiencies in their work. Inefficiencies frequently give way to compensatory behaviors or “hacks.” The field technician with the pencil in the ball cap (it’s there for a reason!) or the mechanic who writes down a quote on the back of his hand. This is the type of user we’re solving for; we want to help them work smarter and more efficiently.”
Today, only 1% of enterprise software funding each year has gone to deskless worker solutions. “This is astounding because, in our experience, there has not been a more compelling audience that’s ripe and ready for a technology to support the critical work that they do.”
Investing In New Spaces With Compelling Long-Term Potential
Thadani has raised $3 million in Series A funding (the round was closed in December) led by Stanley Ventures, the investment arm of Stanley Black & Decker. She also has angel investors from industries that touch the deskless workforce including retail, real estate, and automotive services. Fundraising during the pandemic was both challenging and rewarding for Thadani.
“As with most new relationships in 2020, meeting investors for the first time virtually posed its challenges – it’s simply not the same as a face-to-face coffee or drink where you can get to know someone. On the flip side, I found that investors were more available this year because of that very reality – rather than being at a conference or on a plane to San Francisco, most investors were hunkered down like everyone else, which made it easier to get on their calendars and move quickly through this process. We’re excited to have found strong partners who are investing in innovation, even in difficult times.”
Some of the company’s recent collaborations have touched on bolstering early childhood education and providing cutting-edge hospitality concierge services. For ABC Mouse, the popular digital education platform, Thadani’s team brought their language-learning curriculum to a voice-first format on Google Assistant. For the Wynn Hotel Las Vegas, they implemented a robust voice-enabled concierge experience for guests in their rooms, which also served to reduce call volume to the front desk and have seen more than 12,000 inquiries a month answered by voice, with an 84% satisfaction rate.
“Looking ahead, we’re focused on rolling out a beta version of our product later this year and testing the core use cases in-market. A large part of our success will rely on nailing the conversational model, and specifically the natural language understanding (NLU), the job of truly understanding what a user means with their words. The reason two professionals can quickly converse with one another about a highly specialized topic is because of their shared knowledge base. Our goal is to build a voice user experience that can interpret industry-specific jargon in the same way – one that professionals will want to interact with. We’ve been honing the best practices of good voice UX design and doing so within very specific niches, for a number of years now. Advancing this model is a big focus for us,” concludes Thadani.