Catherine Winchester, Co-Founder & CEO, Soliloquy,
Our special guest today is Catherine
Winchester, Co-Founder and CEO of Soliloquy,
Inc., an innovator of speech recognition systems. This
technology enables natural language front-ends for database
systems and two-way dialogue through the Web, with a
focus on e-commerce and customer service solutions.
Catherine was most recently the President and CEO of
Wanderlust Interactive, a New York-based company which
she founded in 1993 with $9 million in start-up capital
and saw through to the initial public offering in March
1996. Before Wanderlust, she lived for seven years in
Hong Kong where in 1989 she founded InterOptica Publishing
Ltd., one of the world's first interactive multimedia
Catherine has a BA in Computer Science from Barnard
College, Columbia University. She spent the first four
years of her career as a systems engineer.
And now please welcome Catherine Winchester!
Moderator: Hello Catherine. We are so pleased
that you could join us today.
Catherine: I am
thrilled to be back again on GirlGeeks. And it is a
lovely day in New York.
Moderator: It's beautiful in the Bay Area
too. Before we take questions from the audience, would
you tell us a little bit about what motivated you to
founding two companies and being an entrepreneur for
nine years, I didn't know how to do anything else!
Moderator: Could you tell
us a little about the previous companies you founded?
Catherine: My vision
was that in the future everyone would interact with
the Web by speaking in their own words rather than the
non-intuitive way of clicking around. Right now we allow
shoppers to hold conversations with Web sites by typing
in natural language, but our technology also supports
voice, which will be ubiquitous in a couple of years,
especially. Because broadband and wireless are becoming
guest-Jackie asks: What inspired
you to get started in the tech industry?
Catherine: In 1980
when I started at Columbia, it was the first year they
were offering Computer Science as a degree, and I thought
to myself, "Hey, I bet computers are going to be really
big and important in the future, so maybe I should choose
this as my major." Just a lucky hunch.
guest-Elizabeth says: Did
you look for a mentor when you were an engineer or did
you look for one when you started your first business?
Catherine: I would
have loved to have had a mentor, but I never really
did. I ended up learning a lot by doing, and by making
a lot of mistakes. It would have helped a lot to have
had someone to turn to, but in 1989 when I started my
first company, I did not know anyone else who had a
company or was an entrepreneur. It was extremely unusual
then. Now of course we have a different world.
Moderator: At GirlGeeks,
we realize the importance of mentoring. Are you currently
Catherine: Not formally,
but I would love to do so. I love helping to the extent
that I can. My email is email@example.com if
anyone wants to contact me.
Moderator: Thank you for sharing that information
with our audience.
guest-Jill asks: What advice
do you have for young women who are just starting out
about the fact that you are a woman. Just do the best
job you can. Gender is irrelevant unless you think otherwise,
and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy glass
ceilings and all that. Why are there so few female CEOs
and CTOs? No good reason, except for women placing limits
Moderator: That is so true.
What direction are you planning for the future?
Catherine: I set
up Soliloquy to be a long-term venture for myself, and
I surround myself with people I love working with and
socializing with and generally hanging out with. We
are like a big family here, so I want to build this
company into a major operation. I am having fun every
day (ok, most days).
guest-Wanda says: Can you
describe your average day at Soliloquy, if there is
such a thing?
Catherine: We have
about 60 people now, and we are in a big loft on Park
Avenue at 20th Street.
The engineers (including 12 PhDs) work long hours designing
and coding while the business and market people run
around frantically doing deals.
Never a dull moment! Almost every night there is a business
dinner or Internet party that I have to go to, or rather,
that I want to go to. So work and play are all rolled
into one. As we say, Soliloquy is not just a job
it's a lifestyle.
Moderator: Sounds hectic, but rewarding.
Catherine: No doubt!
guest-Petulia asks: When
will voice recognition be good enough to allow me to
stop typing (slowly!) these messages?
recognition works well now as long as you limit the
knowledge domain to, say, gardening or wine or Greece
That way the system knows what to expect and can be
much smarter. When you try to be very general purpose,
it is much weaker. That's why dictation software doesn't
work at 99.99-percent because you could be talking about
any topic in the world, and that is too difficult a
problem to solve. That's why we are creating specific
products - PC Expert, Stock Expert, House Expert, etc.
which allow you to ask questions on specific topics,
and it does a much better job than if we tried to be
Moderator: That's very interesting... and
leads us into our next audience question.
guest-Flanders says: IBM
was pushing voice technology heavily a few years ago.
How was this enthusiasm received by consumers?
Catherine: A few
hundred thousand dictation packages were sold about
two to three years ago. Then the sales dried up or at
least plateaued because many people were frustrated.
Moderator: So now that the
technology is better, what in your opinion is the first
real growth channel for voice recognition?
and wireless devices, where there is no or little visual
screen real estate, so other input methods are required.
Voice is the obvious one. What we do takes it a step
further because voice recognition is the ears.
But we are the brain. We use the output of a voice recognizer
like IBM's, which gives us dumb text, but we figure
out the actual meaning of what a person is saying, and
we allow them to hold two-way conversations, so it's
not just simple one-way voice commands. That's easy
to do, but iterative dialogues are NOT easy!
guest-Jo says: Catherine,
would you share an overview of your product launch schedule
Catherine: We launched
Notebook Expert on ShopAcer in February. We launch on
CNET in two weeks. After that we have Hewlett Packard
and Hardware Street, but the dates are up in the air
for those right now.
Moderator: Sounds like you have a lot of exciting
things planned for the future.
a dull moment!
Moderator: We look forward to watching your
Catherine: I love
technology because it changes SO rapidly and is so exciting.
Moderator: Speaking of future developments....
guest-Flanders says: How
will the Microsoft break up affect what you are doing
with Soliloquy? Are you prepared for a multi-platform
Catherine: I think
it would be better for us small companies if Microsoft
were to stay together - a big behemoth that can't improvise
easily or compete with us. Whereas if they broke up
into lots of baby Bills, each would grow rapidly but
be nimble enough to compete with the smaller guys.
But a multi-platform future is definitely in the cards,
and we are helping to create that future here at Soliloquy
with our next generation user interfaces that allow
people to hold intelligent conversations with all those
different devices, as if we were talking to a real person
but in fact this is much smarter in many ways.
Moderator: That's an interesting perspective.
guest-EZGuest asks: The
hot topics for the Internet are personalization and
localization. You spent some time in Hong Kong, any
thoughts on the Asian market with regard to these topics
and voice recognition?
in Chinese is non-trivial, so voice recognition for
Asian languages is even more important than it is for
As for personalization, once people are allowed to interact
with the Web using their own words, saying what they
want rather than having to click around hoping to find
things, personalization takes on a whole new meaning
because we can learn so much more about what a shopper
is looking for when they are asking for it in their
Moderator: Other than online
shopping, how do you envision the use of voice technology
on the Web?
Catherine: We happen
to be focused on shopping because you have to choose
your niche, but I think all areas of the Web will use
So you can give simple commands like go to Viacom's
Web site, or open a new window, these are one-way voice
commands, but you will also be able to hold actual conversations
which makes voice even more useful.
Moderator: Another audience
member would like to know how voice recognition will
impact customer service reps. Will they become obsolete?
will save millions of dollars by using technology rather
than people to handle basic queries. However, they will
never get rid of all the people. Perhaps 80-percent
of all calls will be able to be handled by automated
systems, but the other 20-percent will still require
Moderator: Good to know that there is still
a place for real people.
guest-Emily says: What is
the toughest experience you ever had in your career
life? How did you make it through and what did you learn
is my third company. The toughest thing for each of
the previous two was knowing when to move along and
hand over the reins to the next guy, even when you know
that your work has been done and the business model
has changed or whatever and you need to go and figure
out the next brilliant idea and start a company around
The transition is very difficult. I have some real horror
stories, but I can't go into those in this public venue!
Suffice it to say that I have quite a few war wounds
to show for it all.
Moderator: It is hard to disengage, but I'm
sure that passion is what drives you to succeed.
guest-Petulia asks: Is it
documented anywhere that women or men more inclined
to use voice reco tech?
Catherine: I have
never read any statistics, but our surveys tell us that
women prefer our products and using natural language
over men by about 10%.
It's like the cartoon in the New Yorker last week where
the woman says to the man "You won't even ask the GPS
for driving directions!"
Moderator: That's funny and true! Catherine,
we are almost out of time, but we would like to take
a final question from an audience member.
Moderator: What do you think
it will take for Soliloquy's technology to become mainstream?
a good one. People love using natural language. It is
so much more intuitive for us all. That the more they
have the opportunity to use it, they will, and the sites
will see the demand and they will all eventually add
it in. Just like wallets and one-click shopping and
all the other features that were initially rare, but
have since become mainstream because people love using
them and come to demand them.
Moderator: Catherine, before
we go, do you have any final words of wisdom that you
would like to share with our audience?
great to be a woman in technology. Just forget that
you are one!
Moderator: Catherine, thanks so much for participating
in our chat.