No one has yet created a real-life Babelfish, the brain-translation creature from the English classic, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But Alex Qin is determined to try.
The co-founder of Timekettle Technologies, based in Shenzhen, believes he and his team will break more and more language barriers with their real-time AI translation headphones. Founded in 2016, the company’s focus so far has been to help visitors to foreign countries communicate better with locals. “If you only listen to the tour guide when you travel to another country, you don’t get a first-hand experience. I’d rather use a translator to chat with any locals, and I find it really fascinating,” says Qin.
It’s known in the industry as a “wearable translation device.” The award-winning WT2 Plus sold more than 1,500 units in less than 12 hours on Amazon Prime Day recently, priced at US$239-249 (RMB1,999), taking top rank among digital translators. The company is expected to generate about RMB30 million in sales revenue this year, mostly from Europe, the US and Southeast Asia. Timekettle is also a supplier for more than 50 consumer electronics retailers globally.
Customers’ needs come first
Qin says the company has never been intimidated by the prospect of taking on AI giants like Google and Microsoft. The small tech startup, with a team of only 26, has something to boast of now, having invented a product generating more sales than Google’s Pixel Buds.
Qin attributes this success to the consumer insights they have gained. “On the one hand, we do the best in what we can do. On the other hand, we explore customer demands and help them solve problems with our technologies,” he says.
Timekettle began in the US with a crowdfunding effort, during which they discovered that many customers like to use translators not only for travel but also for simple business communications. “In the beginning, our customer group was quite small, but as we began to satisfy their specific needs one by one, we found that a small group of committed customers can drive trends for the wider population,” Qin says.
Since then, the customer base has widened. Now it includes people in cross-cultural marriages, international organizations, and airport staff.
The company’s financing trajectory is pointing upward. The angel round raised RMB3 million in March 2018, and now the company is preparing for a pre-A round, which is expected to raise RMB10 million.
It hasn’t all been easy going, however. Timekettle focused from the start on a “wearable” translator and struggled at first with “multichannel voice technology”, a Bluetooth platform that allows two Bluetooth devices to be connected to a third device. Users would have to share one of their earbuds with a stranger operating from an app on only one of their mobile phones.
February to April last year was a challenging time. “Many in our company were advocating for hand-held translators, but our CEO said no,” says Qin. “Many had made these, but we thought it was not really a valuable technology. We already have translation apps on our phones. And this type of communication still requires two people to pass the device to each other, which is very awkward.”
The team finally overcame such difficulties in August last year and moved on to the mass production phase in December. Timekettle is now the only company using this particular Bluetooth-enabled tech, and it continues to upgrade its product to suit more communication models. The latest version designed for business people allows four people to talk together at the same time. This helps in situations such as small meetings, cross-cultural families, and international gatherings. There is also a mode designed for talking in noisy environments.
“We received so many thank-you notes from our customers, because we solved their problems,” says Qin, “You need to keep a dream in mind to develop a product. Even if our product didn’t go well, we would still be happy.”
Practical needs come first
After developing a high-quality hardware product, Timekettle had to work on its translation quality. Instead of building a database on their own, Timekettle cooperates with a large number of translation companies from native regions of the spoken languages.
“The best machine translation always comes from the native region of the language, because they always have the largest vocabulary database,” Qin says. WT2 now supports the translation of 35 languages, and is expected to reach 40 by this September. The company developed the Chinese-English translation technology on its own.
Qin believes that this model of cooperation is a strength of Timekettle’s, which gives it an edge against large companies like Google and Microsoft.
The company started with translation technology provided by Microsoft and Google, but received negative feedback from users about translation accuracy. “In fact, the translation technology is practically the same worldwide, but you can make a difference in a specific product,” Qin says. “Timekettle chooses the best providers of audio speech recognition and machine translation around the world and puts all the best features in our product, so our product is better than those who use a single translation provider.”
WT2 says it can achieve 90% translation accuracy at the moment, with 1-3 seconds of time lapse. Qin doesn’t worry too much about this, however. “In real life, the translation accuracy is not the most essential factor in communication.”
The thirty-year-old has some experience to draw upon: he spent two years in Zambia before joining the company. He particularly remembers the case of an Indian company he dealt with there. “I went to their base three times before I finally could understand what they wanted,” he says. “Our conversations were full of grammatical mistakes, but it didn’t matter, because daily communication is always based on context.”
The topic of a conversation can also have a big impact. “Your brain is very smart,” says Qin. “It will get the point, and you can give the right answer to the wrongly-worded question. If you give the wrong answer, the other person will ask it in another way so he will get the answer he wants. Real users don’t worry about the accuracy too much. Critics are mostly those who do not really use the product.”
A practical problem Timekettle encountered was hygiene concerns of people using the earbuds. Although WT2 comes with a pack of replaceable earbuds tips, skepticism has been understandable. However, Qin has not seen this as an obstacle. “In real life, when two people cannot communicate in the same language, almost no one will say no to our product. There are always trade-off, just like you shouldn’t worry about oil consumption if you want to drive off-road with a SUV.”
The company has been mainly focusing on the hardware development and improving its phonetics algorithm. It has upgraded 28 versions of the current product in just one year. Consumers constantly download upgrades on their app after purchase. “This is another value of the product. It’s like purchasing the membership of a video streaming-platform. You pay now but you can enjoy the future movies and TV dramas.”
Product development is crucial, of course. The company now has 60% of its employees in its tech team, most of whom have experience studying or working overseas. Timekettle is also developing another three translation products while it continues to upgrade the WT2.
Qin is confident that the market for digital translators will expand to US$ 2 billion in five years, and he expects the company’s revenue to grow 50%-200% next year. He doesn’t see many competitors in Timekettle’s space. “Many companies think that the market is not large enough, or think the product is too easy to make,” he says. “But in fact, it’s not.”
Attracting talented staff has always been the biggest challenge for Timekettle. “I believe the best talents deserve higher salaries, even though we are a start-up,” he says.
Most of the company’s senior staff come from Shenzhen, and Qin says he is satisfied with the business environment for start-ups in this city. “Everything is marketized here. The government doesn’t bother you, but provides some support. At the end of the day if your business cannot grow, you will be eliminated in the market. So it is most important to build a strong team and enhance the core ability of the company.”
Qin has greater ambitions in the longer run. “In the future, Timekettle might not only be a consumer electronics company,” he says. “Maybe one day we can be a pure AI company.”