HomeUnstoppable: Wavio Founders Greyson Watkins, Spencer Montan, & Brandon Marin are helping...

Unstoppable: Wavio Founders Greyson Watkins, Spencer Montan, & Brandon Marin are helping to inspire future generations of Deaf people to found their STEM ventures and bring that Deaf perspective to solving the world’s most pressing problems

We are a Deaf team trying to solve sound/audio related problems, pardon the irony. We just understand how much impact it is when the world is smothered with sound and there is a large population that is limited to options to have surgery to attain hearing, unable to get/retain jobs, and just simply feel equally accessible with everyone in the world. We hope to educate everyone that we should not take sound for granted, in a hearing-centric world.

In addition, it’s so hard to find a Deaf-led startup team in the STEM field. So, we hope that our future success will inspire future generations of Deaf people to found their STEM ventures and bring that Deaf perspective to solving the world’s most pressing problems.

As part of my series about “companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing The founders of Wavio, Founder and CEO, Greyson Watkins; COO and Partner, Spencer Montan; and Chief People Officer and Partner, Brandon Marin. Wavio was founded at Rochester Institute of Technology by a group of students in June 2015, led by Greyson Watkins. Greyson Watkins wanted to develop a product that identifies sounds and notifies users of such in the house, after experiencing a life-changing moment… when his friend’s daughter fell down the stairs in his house, and cried for his help. In late 2017, the company started to offer sound recognition software development and implementation services to make it easy for any company to add sound recognition technology to their products. The team pushed for acquiring strategic partnerships to ensure the longevity for all products they work on, successfully securing partnerships with ID R&D, Area23, Emorphis, and several others. Currently, Wavio is heavily invested in developing the See Sound product as part of collaboration with Area23 to make the product available for the Deaf & hard of hearing market, before partnering with distribution programs across the United States to make sure that each Deaf household will have sound recognition features, so that every Deaf citizen can see sounds. Area23 is an FCB Health Network company, an award-winning, full-service creative agency that has dismantled barriers that stand in the way of true innovation. They are the hardware + product lead in bringing the See Sound product to as many deaf homes as possible. Wavio has recently come off the heels of winning this year’s top innovation award the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Wavio has been awarded the coveted Grand Prix for its “See Sound” project.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Spencer, Brandon, and Greyson! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Spencer: I worked in the corporate world and lived in a nine to five lifestyle working with Human Resources and sales/ distribution departments with companies in Los Angeles during and after college. I made a massive leap of faith by moving to the East Coast to pursue my MS at Rochester Institute of Technology. I dove into entrepreneurship and innovation to feed my creative side. I began collaborating with people who are passionate about solving problems on a global scale and like to think bigger. I was hooked on innovating to solve the issues that I face every day as a Deaf person. Instead of encountering alone, I teamed up with my Deaf colleagues to tackle these challenges head on. I had been looking for a career that would inspire me to get up early every morning and work on something meaningful. And I found it.

Brandon: I began my career in clinical psychology, working as a clinical therapist for 5 years after receiving my masters. During this time, I was following a several colleagues involved in their own startup ventures. I was fascinated by their journeys, as I’ve always wanted to start up my own brewery. After a while, I realized two things: not enough Deaf people are doing startups, and that I want to change that myself with the right group of people. So, I dove headfirst into the startup field, transitioning my experiences as a UX researcher and people’s person. And oh boy, the best decision I’ve ever made to date.

Greyson: I was a recovering computing security engineer. After a few years on this career path, I realized that I had too big of a heart and passion to stick around so I reached out to entrepreneurs at Rochester Institute of Technology asking them all about how I could change the world for the better, they told me it all starts with an idea and don’t get too personal with the idea. I went through so many ideas until I found THE idea that made my insides tingle. This was Wavio and the rest is history.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Greyson: When we developed our first prototype, we had it trained to listen for various sounds. While we initially focused on sounds that presented as primary use cases for Deaf people such as alarms, door knocking, water running, etc.… I decided to train it to listen for meowing just as a gag joke. I brought the prototype to my home in North Carolina, and plugged it in at nighttime. That next morning, my phone has just exploded with over 250 notifications of “There’s a cat meowing nearby!”. I was dumbfounded at why I had so many notifications, then I realized that we forgot to let our cat named Shadow inside, and he was meowing ALL night by the door, hoping to get in. That moment, I realized that the use cases for sound recognition became endless… Wavio listening to pets at door, and automatically open if they simply meowed or barked.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Greyson: Obviously, we are a Deaf-led team, so we rely on American Sign Language interpreters to make sure we give 100% accessible communication to the hearing people we meet with. Early on, I was working so fast and never thought about how I worked with interpreters. One time, I was meeting with an investor and made my pitch through an interpreter. I had my two engineers call in through Zoom and watched me pitch, while listening to the investor and interpreter talk as well. The investor then asked me about the target market Wavio was working. I signed, “Let me pull up my deck and find the target market slide for you”. The next thing that happened, the investor just stood up and walked, leaving the room without saying anything. As a young entrepreneur, I thought that was a typical behavior, so I just wrapped it up and went back to the office. My engineers came up to me, and said that the interpreter “fucked up royally” by accidentally interpreting my response as “Let me Google that up for you and find the target market for you.” Oh my dear goodness, my jaws just completely dropped. From that moment and on, I knew I had to vet and prep every single interpreter I work with. Looking back, it was funny for me but also a harsh reality that I need to be extra cautious and methodical in how I communicate through interpreters. As much as people may view this as a mistake by interpreter, I still OWNED the meeting and I had to work my way through this.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We are a Deaf team trying to solve sound/audio related problems, pardon the irony. We just understand how much impact it is when the world is smothered with sound and there is a large population that is limited to options to have surgery to attain hearing, unable to get/retain jobs, and just simply feel equally accessible with everyone in the world. We hope to educate everyone that we should not take sound for granted, in a hearing-centric world.

In addition, it’s so hard to find a Deaf-led startup team in the STEM field. So, we hope that our future success will inspire future generations of Deaf people to found their STEM ventures and bring that Deaf perspective to solving the world’s most pressing problems.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?

It’s so hard to pick out a story in particular… We have heard so many stories about where individuals missed out on sounds, and it cost them their dear ones, homes, and nearly their lives. Even each of the co-founders has their own stories that inspire them to solve this problem. If you ask one of any 466 million Deaf people in the world, each of them will have a story for when they missed on certain sounds and how it created a problem for them.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

1. Community: Continue to share your stories, and how sound recognition can solve your problems. We also feed off these stories as they are what motivates us, and create more visibility for everyone to better understand what barriers we need to eliminate in the future.

2. Society: It’s nice to challenge the status quo by asking this question: Can we program machines to listen to sounds and notify us of such, and accelerate response/communication to stakeholders such as police, firefighters, caregivers, etc.? Because often nowadays, Deaf people are stigmatized in a way that they must “normalize” themselves to the society’s expectations by relying heavily on hearing aids, cochlear implants, reading lips… which is okay, but never ever was the best method for listening to sounds. We, as a society, need to understand that these stigmas create unnecessary weight on diverse communities, especially the Deaf community in particular, and that our solution is aimed at reducing this stigma by doing all the work for Deaf people.

3. Politicians: Americans with Disabilities Act is a powerful tool for the Deaf / disabled community to pave their way to equitable standard of living. However, we still have a long way to go. The Wavio team is working hard to educate politicians on the importance of sound recognition solving problems not just for the Deaf community but for the nation at large. In addition, our technology relies heavily on Internet of Things, which is still resisted by many programs in the state of California due to outdated policies that focus on telecommunications solutions as the “ultimate” accessibility for Deaf people. Over time, technology will radically evolve, therefore ADA will need to evolve radically to embrace such technology, rather than being stiff and suddenly find Deaf / disabled’s technology 50 years behind. Politicians and the community can make a huge impact by taking the time to listen to what the community needs in terms of accessibility, and to ensure that the policies supported by ADA in their respective states are up to date, and relevant to today’s technology.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To our team, leadership is when we trust each other to own our tasks, and ask for help when we need. We carry the weight together, fail together, and succeed together. When problems show up, we make sure we perceive the problems as a separate entity, not the person themselves. We strongly believe in accepting our humility, weaknesses, so that we can become more transparent and complement each other. As Greyson would always say, “I want to work for people that are smarter than me, and that will learn every day.”

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. You don’t have to listen to your advisors, mentors, investors, or any people with more white hair than you ALL the time. Don’t be afraid to be bold, to stand up for what you want, and to follow your guts.

2. Don’t reinvent the cycle — find partnerships who will make your venture more effective, sustainable, and appealing to all stakeholders involved.

3. Listen. To. Your. Customers. Before, we were always listening more to investors, business coaches, than anyone.

4. Hiring the brightest people to work with your startup may be great, but when it comes to the bottom line, grit will trump brightness. After all, who’s going to be standing with you when you approach your endgame?

5. Don’t take the waterfall approach. Take the lean, agile approach. Minimal viable product is king. Basically, what Steve Blank has been preaching.

You are people of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Our team is a big fan of innovation. However, we believe that we, as humankind, have not yet to reach the pinnacle of innovation yet. We hope that one day, we will be seeing more founders from all walks of life solving their own problems that transition into solving customers’ problems, just like what we did! This will lead to a better world where businesses focus more on solving problems in the empathic sense, rather than capitalizing on people’s problems. So, we hope to instill the sense in people that they need to think twice about who to support — are we seeing enough diversity and representation in innovation? Not yet, so we need to start calling out on that. Once everyone starts thinking about this phenomenon, I think people will be surprised at how the landscape of businesses can change rapidly.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There’s so many words of wisdom we’ve heard in our life, but our team experienced so many failures to the point where we have truly embraced them. With that being said, we resonate with this quote by Drew Houston, co-founder of Dropbox: “Don’t worry about failure; you only have to be right once.”

Ironically, all of us “failed” instantly at birth because the doctors told our parents that we all “failed” the hearing tests. I guess we got started pretty early, eh?

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Brandon: Gary Vaynerchuk. There are many wonderful entrepreneurs out there, but Gary is one of the few who helped me reframe my risk-taking on a daily basis. He straight up challenges the status quo which is what I try to do every day. It would be a treat if I could buy him lunch, and thank him for all that he has done for the community. On some days, I feel like I’m insane for what I’m doing, and when I listen to Gary share his wisdom and experiences, I feel just a bit more sane. But hey, it’s always good to be a bit insane sometimes.

Spencer: Jason Fried, Founder, and CEO of Basecamp. This past few years, I received so much traditional advice on how to run a business that doesn’t ultimately work in this modern world anymore. At one point, I stumbled upon his book, Rework. The book gave simple, straightforward, yet fresh and insightful tips for entrepreneurs to navigate through the fast-changing business landscape. Through his writing, I learned that it is ok to be frugal since our startup is bootstrapped — that is how we remain lean and agile — and we can steer our company to a different direction easily. He made me rethink on how sustainability and profitability are more important than growth. He’s a successful startup founder for a reason. I owe him lunch of his choice.

Greyson: Richard Branson. I’ve followed his work closely and read all his books; the way he works with people is fantastic. He changed the way I perceive branding, and helped me understand how important it is to build a brand over time, and making sure all stakeholders win to ensure that they are in it for the long term. I’ll love to buy him a pint and thank him for sharing his wisdom through the books he wrote. Maybe, dig a bit deeper into his mind with a few questions!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/meetwavio/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wavio.ai/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/waviotech

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/company/hz-innovations/