Cliff Weitzman – Founder & CEO of Speechify

Episode 35

Speechify is an app that reads books, emails, texts, and more out loud to it’s users. The app started as a software that Cliff built for himself because he has dyslexia. It was easier for him to listen to books rather than read the words on a page. Just a few years later, Cliff has turned Speechify into an incredibly user-friendly app that’s great for anyone. The company is growing quickly, and Cliff has been named one of Forbes 30 Under 30. We talk about how Cliff built this app, the most valuable things that he has learned as an entrepreneur thus far, what his hiring principles are, and much more.

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Kara Goldin: Hi everybody. It’s Kara Goldin at Unstoppable, and I’m here today with Cliff Weitzman of Speechify. So thanks so much for coming by the hint offices.

Cliff: Thanks for having me, Kara. I’m so excited to be here.

Kara Goldin: Very psyched. So long story, so Cliff, his family grew up in my little town in Marin County and Ross, and so I’ve sort of secretly followed him along the way in all of his journey and sort of getting to Speechify. So I’m super, super excited that he’s here, it’s so great. So, Cliff, welcome. I want to hear just a little bit about sort of, I started out by saying that you came from Marin, actually even further. So you grew up in Israel-

Cliff: That’s right.

Kara Goldin: And you got to Marin, and so take it from there. Tell us a little bit about sort of where you got started.

Cliff: Yeah, well, thanks for having me, Kara. This is super exciting. In the same way that you’ve been kind of seeing what I’ve been doing from far away, I’ve been able to see what you’ve been doing from far away, even from when I was four feet tall.

Kara Goldin: Awesome.

Cliff: So it’s always inspiring to have other people around who you’re like, “Wow, I want to do that when I grow up.” But my story is I grew up in Israel and I moved to the United States right before I started high school. At the time, I was kind of learning English, I went to public school, and it was really difficult for me to cope academically, because I have dyslexia. So dyslexia impacts different people differently. For me, basically, it takes a lot of energy to read. Reading a sentence takes about as much energy as doing a four digit multiplication in my head.

So if you try to read a page, it’s pretty exhausting, if you try to read a chapter, you’re guaranteed to fall asleep. About 5% of kids in public schools are diagnosed with dyslexia, 17% of the population has it, but most people don’t know. So, I kind of figured out how to work the system and make things work my way. I found audio books very early on. Actually, just as I moved to the United States, I found audio books of Harry Potter in English, and I listened to that 22 times in a row.

Kara Goldin: So how old were you when you-

Cliff: This was when I was 12 and a half, is when I started listening to audio books and moved to the US. I learned I was dyslexic when I was in end of third grade.

Kara Goldin: Okay.

Cliff: Yeah, and before that, I just couldn’t figure out how to read. So no matter what I tried, I couldn’t crack it. But figuring out that there was a reason for it, was really useful, because now there was an explanation and I can work to try and solve it.

Kara Goldin: Did they figure it out in school? Or sort of, what was the path that you-

Cliff: It was really tough, because when I was young, I was the most precocious school in my middle school. I was in all the plays and I sang all the songs and I wanted to be a pop star, a billionaire, and the Prime Minister of Israel all at once. When I got to first grade, I just couldn’t figure it out. My teachers thought I was stupid, my parents thought I was lazy, and there was really no solution. Dyslexia, especially even 10 years ago, was not that well publicized. So my mom just read a lot of books about topics of kids who are not succeeding and developing academically.

One of the topics she read about was dyslexia. She was like, “You know, Cliff does mix up his left and rights. You can’t read his handwriting, he can’t spell, even his own name. Maybe this is what it is.” So she got me tested and I checked all the boxes.

Kara Goldin: Wow.

Cliff: So that was my case. I ended up going to school at Brown University in the East Coast, which is still my favorite place in the world to this day. I studied renewable energy engineering, which is a mix of physics, engineering, computer science. It was an independent concentration, independent major. But I built about 36 products when I was in school. Everything from 3D printed attachable breaks for long boards and skateboards that I patented. I built a biotech supplement, a payments company, a bunch of different apps and websites. I built this fire extinguishing device when I was in high school.

When I graduated college, I was trying to figure out what to work on full-time. The entire time when I was in school, I actually only had about one internship. I worked as a product manager at a tech company that had just IPO’d, and I knew that I wanted to do my own thing once I graduated. There was a lot of kind of work that I had to do to make that possible, but I made it possible. When I finished, I actually went to teach, I taught computer science and entrepreneurship, and it’s a big story of how I got to learn how to code to begin with.

But around that time I read this amazing paper about the application of deep learning to text to speech. Deep learning is a subcategory of artificial intelligence and you can use it to create really high quality voices that sound like humans. So I had built this app for myself when I started college that let my computer read out anything to me. I’d highlight the piece of text, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Chrome or text message or email, and it would read or a PDF or Word document. Then I build an iPhone app that let me scan physical books and instantly turn them into audio books.

So I added the software to that, that made it easy for the voices to be really high quality, that made the conversion from pictures that are static text to digital text, and really smart kind of natural language processing to clean up the text. People started to use it a lot. I kind of stuck into a couple of dyslexia conferences and jumped on the stage when no one was looking and started presenting, and about 12 schools offered to fly me out to teach the kids how to use it. I made a couple of videos that went really viral. It’s funny, because when I built the first version of this, it wasn’t a product, it was a hack that I was using for my own productivity. There were a lot of things that I built as product, it’s intended to be as businesses. This was not a business to begin with. But after I had graduated, I was trying to think, “What is the type of business that I do want to do full-time?” That was … I had criteria. The criteria was it needs to be something that creates real value in the world. So, not making money off of ads and really not Snapchats, for example.

I wanted something that was a simple app or website with a clever business model, and I wanted something that ideally would impact people similar to me. It was really difficult for me to figure out what that thing would be. I thought, “You know, I’d be great if I build something like Audible,” because I listened to a lot of audio books, and other than my parents, they’re the things that impacted my life the most. But Audible is a pretty great service, I couldn’t think of how I could make it better. But this text to speech thing was.

So I built that, more and more people use it, now it’s used really all over the world. That’s how I ended up starting this business.

Kara Goldin: That’s so cool.

Cliff: Yeah.

Kara Goldin: So, where is Speechify today? So you mentioned it’s being used all over the world.

Cliff: Yeah, now we have millions of people who use it. People consume more than a hundred million words on the platform every single week. So more than 3000 books of material are consumed with Speechify every seven days. Our team is about 20 people now. We started off from my dorm room at Brown, and then we moved to San Francisco and now we’re in Palo Alto. Yeah, we are growing super fast, and it’s really exciting for me, because when I was 10 years old and sitting in the back of the class just trying to cope, the thing that I wanted the most was some magical device that I could point at my book and it would read it to me, and that didn’t exist. So my mom would sit with me in my bed and she would read my books to me.

Now I have the device, it’s in my pocket every day and I can use it to read everything. But I’m not the only person who can, everybody can. So every week we get between kind of 15 to 25 messages of people who say, “Hey, I downloaded your software and I started crying, because it’s the first time in my life I’ve actually been able to finish my homework by myself. I got promoted recently and I couldn’t keep up with my emails, and now I can.” So that’s really, really satisfying.

What’s cool is, from a growth perspective, if you look at how people listen, it’s completely shifted over the past few years. 166 million Americans listen to podcasts every year, 74 million listen to podcasts on a weekly basis, 124 million Americans listen to audio books every year. That rate is growing at about 30% per year. So huge shift in how much people listen. 20% of people listen at accelerated speeds, which reminds me, I should talk a little bit slower.

At the same time, the algorithms that we use, deep learning algorithms, become more and more efficient. So we’re able to create a better product over time really easily that impacts more people and more people. Not only people with dyslexia and ADD and low vision and concussions start to use our products, but also normal people who are studying for grad school or elementary school or in finance, or machine learning, really anything.

Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. What was the kind of the biggest learning curve in sort of starting this? So, I mean, I think, when I look at the best entrepreneurs today, I always say it’s the people that are actually starting. Oftentimes they don’t even know if this is a company, they view it as a product, that actually is helping, maybe it helped them, maybe it helped somebody in their family. But then actually taking that to a market where there are actually lots of people that are identifying whether or not this is actually worthwhile. I mean, what do you think was kind of the biggest epiphany? I guess, you were sitting in your dorm room at Brown through this and-

Cliff: There were many, many along the way, and I’ll kind of highlight the most important ones. So the first one was actually not about the company itself, it was about me and my life trajectory. So there’s a lot of pressure, especially if like me, you had a lot of loans when you went to college, to go and get a job after college. I remember telling my mom that I was not going to do that, and I remember a phone call when she was crying, because she felt stress from me. No mom wants to have her son kind of jump two feet in and not figure it out. At the same time, I have two of the most supportive parents ever, 100% behind me the entire way. That really helped me figure out what I wanted to do.

So I was like, okay, “100%, I want to do this by myself.” So, I had to figure out how to pay for college. So the first thing that I did is I hired 10 freelancers in the Philippines to find and apply to scholarships for me full-time. That helped me pay for college. Then I built a couple of other businesses, to the point where I could pay for my own life and I could pay for school and anything else that I needed. I was like, “Okay, well, I want to start a company. I don’t even know what company I want to start.”

Kara Goldin: Yeah.

Cliff: For me, the most useful classes I took in college, even though I took a lot of classes in engineering and computer science and graphic design, were actually philosophy classes, that made me read a lot of really good material and figure out what my life values. So my last assignment in school was this 40 page paper that I wrote about my worldviews, and I summarized it into 22 bullet points, that are the beliefs that I hold that are different than other people. Those beliefs helped me make difficult decisions, and one of those decisions was not taking a job.

So, okay, now I put myself in the situation where I have to figure out what I’m doing full-time. I found a job teaching in the meantime, and then I started to work on this project. Then the next thing that is more company related, that I figured out over time that was a big epiphany, the first one is that people would actually use a product like this. Because I used to think, “I’m just weird and I have this thing with my brain that works completely different than other people. Though I know I’m smart, I just can’t do this whole reading thing.”

So I built a thing to solve that problem for me. Now most people just suffer or they use another tool like Kurzweil, which is super old and clunky and not fun to use. I instead just decided to learn how to build my own thing. So I had a big challenge to [inaudible 00:11:11] How did you learn? How did you grow? Learning how to do computer science. Because if you’re dyslexic and you write a variable one way here and then you misspell it a different way here, the program’s not going to run.

So, my brother Tyler built 30 iPhone apps before he was 17, and I couldn’t do that, because I couldn’t code. So I built physical products instead. When I decided, “Okay, I have to figure out this computer science thing,” I stand up for the intro computer science class at my school when I was a second year student, a sophomore, and the first assignment took most people about three hours to do, it took me 15 hours. So what I would do every day for the first month and a half of that class, maybe two months, is I would go to the dining hall, I’d find a bag of bread, make eight peanut butter sandwiches, stuff it in my backpack, go to the computer science lab at 8:00 in the morning, code, code, code, eat a peanut butter sandwich, code, code, code, eat another sandwich, fall asleep code, code, code, and I would stay there until midnight.

At a certain point it got to the place where I could tell the difference between a bug that was caused from a spelling mistake and a bug that was an actual issue with the software. At that point, I started getting good at building my own products. So that was issue number one that I had to solve.

Issue number two is finding the thing I wanted to work on. So the big epiphany is that the idea about creating value is really important to me. That came from a philosophy paper, an essay by Emerson called On Wealth, where he talks about this concept and it really resonated with me. I was like, “Cool, I want to build something that really improves the world, and is not just a shiny new thing that makes money off of ads or anything like that.” I was like, “Well, what is that thing going to be?” I didn’t think anybody would pay for a better screen reader technology, because some existed already, and I thought, people with disabilities probably don’t even have money to pay for this.

So I built a rudimentary thing and I started giving it to friends, because friends would ask about it. I was so passionate about this, because it improved my life so much, I wanted everyone to know. So I would sneak into conferences and jump on the stage when I was not supposed to, just tell people about it. I remember my mom would call me for dinner and I made a video on how to use this and post it on YouTube, and 70,000 people watched that video. The realization was, I’m actually not alone. There’s so many people who have dyslexia, like 250 million people with dyslexia-

Kara Goldin: And this is not just for people with dyslexia either, I mean-

Cliff: Yeah, 360 million people with ADD, 250 million with low vision acuity, nonstop, and all the normal people who just love to be productive. So that was another huge realization. Then as an entrepreneur in general, I think that as a CEO, your number one job is to learn. You have to start by learning how to identify a customer problem. Then you have to learn how to code, if you’re building software product and how to do graphic design. You have to learn how to recruit people, you have to learn how to market, you have to learn all these different things. There’s a lot of conventional literature around how you should do these things.

So as someone who loves books, I listen to two audio books per week, usually 100 audio books per year. I’ve read everything, and what I found is that’s a great starting point. But at a certain point, I’m a different person than you are, and you are a different person than my brother, Tyler, and each one of us has their own style. So I’m very dyslexic and I’m very ADD. So Inbox Zero is just not something that I can do. I tried to do it, I forced myself, I got physically ill after a week.

So, I developed my own systems that work really well for me. One of those systems is I got really good outsourcing, and we have a 15 person incredible team throughout the world, who are amazing and I couldn’t find talent like that where I live, personally, and bunch of different small tricks like that. So that learning was really important, that you need to pick up as much advice as you can, synthesize it, and then trial and error, trial and error, figure out what works the best for you.

Kara Goldin: So as a founder, can you ever imagine yourself not being passionate about a product, now that you’ve started? Right? I mean, you’ve got such passion for this. I mean, it’s great. I mean, you’re solving problems, right? For people, which is awesome and motivating.

Cliff: The cool part is before Speechify, I built 36 other things, right? It started with, I love riding long boards and when I got to college, I lent someone my long board, and they fell and they tore their lip and bruised their knee. So I thought, “Oh, it’s ridiculous that there’s no break for this thing.” So I built one. Every time I built something new that I was excited about, the problem is there’s always be something shiny in the corner and the grass is always greener. So I had switched from project to project to project, and what I always do is I’ll ride the momentum of a new project. I just will not sleep that night and I’ll build the website and design the cards, and close a customer, but then I’ll move onto the next thing.

What I realized, is you have to have focus. If you don’t focus on one thing, you’re never going to make progress, and the real value is created when you hit that brick wall that everybody hits at a certain point when they work on this project. You’ve got to pick yourself up, go backwards and slam yourself at the wall 500 more times until the wall crumbles.

Kara Goldin: Yeah.

Cliff: With Speechify, what I did that was different, is I committed to this is the thing I’m going to spend the next 15 years of my life on. Luckily, it’s a big enough problem where it will … my goal is, in the next couple of years, to get it to 100 million people using this tool on a regular basis, on a daily basis. Of course, I’ve never worked on something that I’m not passionate about, but also, the path towards finding the problem was really, really important. That came from a lot of thinking and reading.

Kara Goldin: Did you raise money? We were talking about this earlier on.

Cliff: You know, what’s funny and great with Speechify is, number one, I was able to self-fund it in the beginning, because I built previous projects. But number two, I had this doubt that people would be willing to pay for a screen reader. So before I built the product, I made a video that faked as if it was perfectly done. I used I think Final Cut Pro, and I put it online. I pasted it in five Reddit groups and five Facebook groups, and I said, “Hey, I’m building this product. I think it would be useful for people in this group. If you would like to use it, here’s the link to pre-order the product.” I coded a thing where you could pay me 100 bucks to get the product, and a bunch of people paid for it. I was like, “Great.”

So I built it, because I had validation that people would be willing to pay for it too. Very quickly people kept paying and paying and paying, and at a certain point, I didn’t need to charge anymore, because I made enough money for me to cover my expenses and expenses of a couple of other engineers.

Kara Goldin: Then you just wanted to get it out there.

Cliff: Yeah, and then my goal was just blitz sprint as much as I can, because my goal with this company is to solve dyslexia. The 10 year old kid sitting in the back of the classroom, that should never happen. Reading should never be a barrier for learning for anyone.

Kara Goldin: That’s awesome.

Cliff: So that’s what we’re doing now, yeah.

Kara Goldin: That’s so awesome. So what do you think is the key thing that what know now that you didn’t know then-

Cliff: Oh, so much.

Kara Goldin: In starting this?

Cliff: So one rule that I live my life by is, within any human-ran system there is always a way to circumnavigate an obstacle. Usually it requires you to go to the person at the top of the governance structure and ask for a special exception. That’s been the motto by which I’ve ran my life for a long time, both within the company, but also outside the company. We talked about times when you actually did this for your business earlier.

The second one is, in any situation when there’s option A and option B and you have to choose between the two options, there’s always option C and option D, that most people don’t realize exist. But you do have access to, they just take way more work to get to and way more luck to achieve. Usually you won’t get them, but the expected-

Kara Goldin: And sometimes you have to identify them.

Cliff: Exactly, which is super, super difficult on its own. So both of those rules kind of play to the point of perseverance is really everything. So that’s one key thing that I learned. Obviously, surround yourself with the best people possible. The one other thing that I would say is, when I came into this in the beginning, I thought that I needed to surround myself with a bunch of people who were very experienced. A lot of people think you should go and work at a big company before you start your own company, because you’ll get experience. So when I started and once I had the means, I hired a senior engineer from Apple and a senior engineer from Snapchat.

At the same time, this random kid from Bulgaria messaged me and he was like, “Hey, I use your product all the time. I love it. Can I help?” So, he started helping me with projects. The first thing he did is he built this scraper that helped us find people on Twitter who mentioned dyslexia or audio books. Then he built an early version of our Chrome extension, then he taught himself iPhone app development and started helping me on the app, while the Apple and Snapchat guys were working. Eventually, I got him a Visa, flew him out to the United States, and in two and a half months, he became a better developer than the Apple and Snapchat guys.

Kara Goldin: Wow.

Cliff: Him, me and a couple of other people who I hired who came from hackathons that I worked with and them, became just way more efficient. So eventually we let those two guys go, and this guy from Bulgaria, Simon, now leads our engineering team. He was in college at the time, he had no experience. So my conclusion was, I don’t care about experience. What I care about are three things. I care that people have a deep fire in the belly for the product, I care that they have high loyalty to the team, and I care that they have the ability to learn quickly. Doesn’t matter if they have experience, especially in computer science. If you’re smart and you can learn fast, that’s all I care about. So that was a critical, critical shift in my thinking about how to recruit teammates on our team.

Kara Goldin: Yeah, well, I always say passion trumps experience. I mean, in the beverage industry as well, I think it’s basically people that are thinking differently and people who are trying to solve problems around something that they’re really passionate about, are completely valuable. I mean, somebody with 10 to 15 years more experience is not necessarily the one that’s actually going to win that race.

Cliff: There’s one caveat on the passion, because passion alone is not enough. You also have to match it with the ability to execute. Because I’ve made the mistake of hiring people in the past who were very passionate, but didn’t get it done. So what I always do is someone will approach us, and for me, I have a very strong presence on Medium and YouTube. So we’d get maybe one or two requests per day of people who ask if they can work with Speechify. Usually I’ll say, “Hey, great to meet you, blah, blah, blah. I’m working on this thing, why don’t you see if you can help me here?” I’ll give them a mini task, it doesn’t matter what the task is. 60% of the people don’t do it, 40% do. Of those, 20% do a pretty good job.

So I continue talking to those 20% of the people, and maybe I’ll give them another task and another task. At the end of the day, maybe 2% of the people have, on three consecutive tasks, knocked it out of the park, and then I want to hire those people. So everybody was passionate in the beginning, because they reached out, they talked a big game.

Kara Goldin: But can they actually-

Cliff: Yeah, and will they do it?

Kara Goldin: Yeah. No, I think that’s super important. So, just a couple more questions. What makes you unstoppable? I think I have a good idea, but I’d love to hear it from you.

Cliff: This is a good question, and I don’t have a good answer for this. I think that a couple of things go into it. Clearly, I just don’t give up. Partly, it’s actually due to dyslexia, because most people don’t have to as an eight, nine year old, negotiate with Mr. Bloom at Ross school, to let them come early every day and verbally recite the chapter, because they can’t write and they’re not good at reading. That’s what I would do every day when I got to the United States, and I had to really build up my confidence, internally, and not get external validation for it.

I got unconditional love at home, but I didn’t have all my teachers telling me I was a genius when I was young. So, I built that internally, which is just a lot of self-love, which is really important. Number two, is just this really high level of resilience. Number two, I just read a lot of books. We talked before about how lucky I was to grow up in a place where, for example, you were, and I’d be like, “Ah, going and starting your own company is the thing that I can do, and if I want to build a drink and sell it to people, I can do that too.”

So having role models is really important. So for me, I listen to a lot of audio books, and so my number one recommendation is for anyone to become more efficient, more effective, happier everything person, is download Audible or Speechify and start listening to audio books.

Kara Goldin: What’s your favorite book right now that you’re … or what book are you reading right now, I should say?

Cliff: Oh, well, right now I’m reading a book called The Dyslexic Advantage about dyslexia, but I’ll put it aside. I just finished a book by Daniel Suarez, who’s my favorite science fiction author, and he wrote a bunch of great books, but the one I just read is called Delta V. It’s about a young billionaire who starts a mining operation in cislunar orbit, and is the first person, in this hypothetical world, to launch ships into space to mine asteroids. So that was a very interesting-

Kara Goldin: So you’re not always reading about dyslexia?

Cliff: No, not at all. I read about 25% fantasy, 25% science fiction and straight science, and then a bunch of psychology, business, stuff like that. But I would highly recommend biographies. So, the two biographies that I would recommend that don’t usually get recommended, the first one is a biography of Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you read it, he’s born in Austria after two World War defeats in a row, and he’s like, “I will go to America and be the best bodybuilder in history.” Everyone’s like, “Yeah, right, Arnold, calm down.”

Kara Goldin: Yeah.

Cliff: Then he does it, and he moves to the United States, becomes the biggest bodybuilder in history and he’s like, “I will be a star in Hollywood.” They’re like, “You’re freakishly tall and you have a ridiculous accent, that’s not going to happen.” He does that too, he’s like, “I will be the Governor of California now,” and then he does it. So that’s one really great book to read. The second one is the biography of Theodore Roosevelt, who was just completely unstoppable. He’s born, he has really severe asthma. He’s born early, very, very weak child. He just reads, reads, reads, reads, reads, and he’s super passionate and he goes and executes on all of the things.

So for me, reading biographies of people like that is really inspiring, because I was like, “Hey, if they could do it, I could do it too.” What’s your favorite biography?

Kara Goldin: So, Andre Agassi’s book, so I loved that book. I was a little late to the punch, but I just read Shoe Dog-

Cliff: Yeah, great book.

Kara Goldin: Which is such a great book and so inspiring. So, there’s so many out there. But I do, I love reading biographies, because I think if nothing else, it teaches you that no matter what the industry is, it just teaches you that if you really believe you can do it and you have the passion, and again, like what you said, it’s not just about passion, it’s the ability to do puzzles. It’s like, if you can do puzzles, it doesn’t matter if you want to be a pro athlete or if you want to run a company like Nike or whatever. I think the consistent thread is, is that people start out thinking, “I don’t even know if this is a company. I don’t even know that I can be a pro athlete or whatever.” But they set their mind to it and they just go and go and go, and-

Cliff: And don’t stop.

Kara Goldin: And not stop. So, how can we support you?

Cliff: Oh, wow. Well, number one, is if you know someone with dyslexia or ADD or low vision, or for any reason is struggling with reading, tell them to search Speechify on the App Store. Speech and then I-F-Y.

Kara Goldin: Okay.

Cliff: One thing that’s really important to know is most people read at 200 words per minute. I listen at 600 words per minute, so three times faster. Anyone can do that, people just don’t know that you could practice doing this.

Kara Goldin: Yeah.

Cliff: I’m sure that half of you are listening to this podcast at 1.25 or 1.5X speed. So if you recommend Speechify, also recommend to them that they should use the automatic speed ramping algorithm in Speechify that will coach them to listen faster. If you yourself want to listen to material more quickly, download Speechify, and tell more people about it.

The second thing I’ll say is find some awesome biography, if Kara has a biography online, you should download it and listen to it on Speechify.

Kara Goldin: Coming soon.

Cliff: But otherwise, download Shoe Dog on Audible and just start listening to audio books, because it’s really the thing that’s changed my life the most, and I’m sure it’ll do the same thing for everybody here.

Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. Very, very cool. Well, thank you, and keep us posted on this. We’ll definitely put a link on the podcast as well, just to make sure that people can see it.

Cliff: For Speechify, perfect.

Kara Goldin: Yeah. So, well, thanks again.

Cliff: All right, thanks for having me.