Sayspring raises $1.5M for software that lets designers prototype and test voice apps without coding

Sayspring, a startup that enables designers to create voice-enabled apps without code ahead of handing over projects to development, has just raised $1.5 million in funding for its efforts, the company is announcing today. The round was led by Compound (formerly Metamorphic Ventures), with participation from strategic angels including Scott Belsky, Alan Chung, and Peter Stern.

The startup is filling a gaping void in the still nascent world of voice computing.

While visual designers today use software to create and visualize their applications ahead of launch, as well as to create prototypes, and run user tests, those tasked with building voice applications don’t have similar resources. Instead, voice apps have to be first coded by developers, and generally end up being tested in the wild in the hands of end users who enable the voice application on their Alexa-powered speakers, like the Echo, or Google Home.

The end result is that many of today’s voice applications have effectively been created by developers, not designers – and they have the feel of those who have approached the project with an engineering-first mindset, rather than a fuller understanding of what a voice app’s interface, interactions, and overall flow should be like in order to better engage the app’s users.

This is a problem that Sayspring now aims to address.

The idea for the startup comes from founder Mark Webster, who previously sold his prior company, a marketplace for activities called SideTour to Groupon, where he worked for a couple of years before leaving to create Sayspring.

He had realized the potential in voice computing, but also saw the issues with the way voice apps were being built today – that is, they were often lacking designers’ input ahead of their creation.

“Almost every company already does voice design, they just call it training. Salespeople, customer service representatives, retail workers, and nearly everyone who interacts with a customer is trained on how to figure out what a customer needs, how to be helpful, and how to represent their company well,” explains Webster.

“As voice assistants become pervasive, companies will now need to make sure those voice experiences are effective and enjoyable as well,” he adds. “That starts with the voice design process.”

With Sayspring, Webster says the goal is to bring designers into the larger process of creating voice applications – something he feels is necessary for voice apps to reach their potential.

To fulfill this vision, Webster is joined by CTO Scott Werner – the second engineering hire at SideTour who later worked alongside Webster at Groupon to lead engineering.

The team recently participated in the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator, a program in New York where Sayspring is based. ERA also participated in Sayspring’s funding through its follow-on fund, notes Webster.

To get started with the platform, non-technical users can sign up for a free account and create a project. This involves mapping out some user commands the voice assistant would recognize and respond to in the voice app. These projects can then be tested using a Sayspring Alexa Skill or Google Home Action. These tools basically offer a way for designers to try out a prototype of their voice application before sending it over to developers to code.

For example, you could launch your project’s prototype on an Alexa device by saying “Alexa, ask Sayspring for {ProjectName}.”

You can then interact with the voice app in a natural way – just as users would – by talking with either Alexa or Google Assistant. The platform has also integrated Amazon Polly (text-to-speech) so designers can preview their text and hear it how sounds, as they are working.

In addition to allowing designers to create a visualization of their projects and a way to try them out, Sayspring also allows the projects to be shared with anyone. After doing so, they’ll receive a transcript every time an end user speaks to the app. This allows for rapid iteration on the app’s design – again, ahead of investing the time and resources into development, explains Webster.

Sayspring launched with a free plan in December, and will introduce paid plans for agencies and teams a couple of months as it pursues its software-as-a-service business model.

The startup already has dozens of companies using its service, including one of the largest mutual funds in the country, a well-known branding agency, major tech firms, publishing companies, digital agencies, event ticketing providers, hospitals, financial services firms, and even a power tools manufacturer and a popular chain of breakfast places. (Webster is not allowed to disclose Sayspring’s customers by name at this time.)

In addition to making the design and development process easier, Sayspring has the related benefit of allowing larger companies to design their voice apps for multiple platforms at once. For now, that includes Amazon Alexa-powered devices and Google Home. However, the company recently finished the technical work for supporting Cortana, and plans to roll that out to customers in about a month.