At the time of writing, the Mobvoi story is only six years old: “It started off as an AI voice recognition, software-based company. It was an app that was focused on Mandarin language in China. It’s also expanded into B2B business and enterprise, so that’s our core competency. In 2016, TicWatch 2 was the first product actually launched outside the Chinese market and that was as a Kickstarter campaign. Because of our vision towards human-machine interaction, we’ve got strategic investment from Google for AI wearables and Volkswagen for AI(HMI) auto.”
The CEO and founder of Mobvoi is Zhifei Li. He began his career working on a PhD within the field of language-related AI at The Johns Hopkins University, US, which is a world-leader in the sector. He then went on to Google as a Research Scientist in Mountain View, California, working on the Google Translate project. And then came back to China to build Mobvoi from the ground up.
It’s a dizzying success story, all underpinned by a simple, huge idea: “Our mission statement, in essence is: ‘To define the future of human-machine interaction through AI technology’. It pertains to how we view voice-based AI technology as a major method of control for devices in the future.”
Jason is highly focused on getting every detail right: “In the full cycle, from PR all the way to logistics and then after-sales care, DHL plays an important role. In that crucial leg of the consumer journey, if you mess up anywhere, you’ll just get a flood of customer complaints. They don’t actually care if the error was on the factory line, the company’s side or even the logistics side, they only care that they didn’t get their product, or it wasn’t shipped to them correctly. And that’s why the devil is in the details. Logistics can tear down all the brand capital you just built.”
Sometimes your target audience for funding is the same as the one for purchasing. “Crowdfunding was a big boost. These are forward-thinking folks, they want to be the leaders within their circles. ‘I’m more tech savvy, I have products you’ve never heard of’. It’s a simple story of knowing how to find the next niche, the next pool of people to help us grow further. We are lucky to have received strategic investments so it spurs our growth. I think the next round is really about being able to find the right places, to tell the right stories.”
Mobvoi’s team aren’t just creating an excellent range of products. They want to succeed without a huge marketing budget: “We’ve gone from the Crowdfunding stage to one of the best-selling smartwatches globally. We saw the first wave of smartwatches when we joined. Companies came and went. It’s been amazing and part of it is because we give people access to technology that helps them keep connected, stay connected, but stay in the present.”
Jason is passionate about delivering Mobvoi’s brand promise: “Be connected. Be present. The products we build actually help people keep off their phones, their apps that they might be slightly addicted to, more than just giving you information.” So how do you do it? “For instance, we put a lot of the audio controls right on the TicPods Free, right on the stem of the earbuds. We also believe that in social interaction situations your primary device shouldn’t be your phone – it should be your TicWatch. In your commute it should be your earbuds. We also make smart home speakers, which mean that you can just talk to your devices and control your smart home without pulling out your phone.”
Our relationship with our smartphone can be improved. Although we’ll always want what technology can provide us, how we receive it can improve. The sight of people walking around staring at their smartphones, staring down at them during social interaction situations, are examples of how we have lost some control in the human-machine interaction equation. Mobvoi is at the forefront of taking back some of that control for humans. “Although not everybody in China cares about keeping their phone in their pocket all the time, the US and UK consumer will roll their eyes [when they see a smartphone] at family dinner tables. When parents see other parents at parks, on their phones, instead of playing with their kids, these are all opportunities where we think that the primary device should be the smartwatch”.
“We have true wireless earbuds that allow you to control more of your audio, so that your phone stays more in your backpack and in your pocket. As you’re commuting, you don’t have to pull out your phone, thus risking cracking your screen, or putting pressure on your spine as you’re looking down on your phone.” Jason is keen to express the health benefit of reduced smartphone usage: “I was in Thailand last week. There were subway advertisements that were telling Thai users how much pressure on your spine you exert when you’re looking down as you’re walking. I think in the US, UK this is already pretty common knowledge, the health angle.”
What has long been clear to anyone involved in voice control is its natural affinity with the automobile. Since 2017, Jason has been excited by Mobvoi’s collaboration with motoring giant Volkswagen: “We believe that voice will have a very prominent place in human machine interaction." This view is shared by many. "We also work with Volkswagen as their voice partner in cars. A new energy car was released earlier this year, under a joint-venture of Volkswagen that houses our voice technology. And, moving forward, I believe Mobvoi will be in all Chinese-market Volkswagen cars that are smart enough to have voice.”
DHL is an important partner when it comes to bringing Mobvoi to the consumer. But what have been the most effective ways for consumers to buy the brand? “Amazon’s been great. We started off there as just a vendor but we’ve been invited to promotional waves that they create. We got a chance to launch TicWatch Pro exclusively on Amazon. Mobvoi is a global business. Our headquarters are in Beijing, we have offices in Seattle and San Francisco, and we ship our products to our retail partners in over 30 countries. I believe we are the most international AI seller in China, and the most customer-focused one too. Being global is important to us.”
So Mobvoi isn’t just a brand for certain occasions. It wants to be part of your day, from the moment you wake up to the time you go to sleep: “We believe it can be your daily companion, your fitness companion, your connectivity companion. Our earbuds are for your commute, for the times when you’re on the move or on the go. Smart home speakers (we even have a mobile version and a kids version) can stay in the home, or go with you.”