The news-reading dog just lost his job.
Guide, the Miami-based startup creating text-to-video technology, started out with a consumer newsreader app that included avatars (humanoid and of the animal variety) that anchored videos of news reports. The free iPad app was popular, particularly out of the gate. But as Freddie Laker, Guide’s CEO, came to realize: The real market need was from budget-strapped publishers looking for ways to provide more video.
Now the company is razor-focused on the publishing market, providing a tool that allows editors and publishers to generate videos in minutes. Laker closed down the consumer app this week and launched the new website, gui.de, and new focus.
“We now provide technology to the publishing industry that instantly transforms existing text-based content into video. This solves a pain point for an industry that is desperately trying to keep up with advertiser and consumer demand for video,” he said.
Here’s how it works. Guide’s proprietary technology identifies key elements from online news posts and stories like people, places, things, quotes and data references to generate a video in minutes that can be embedded into any webpage or mobile application. Often it trims the story as well. Editors have final control over the finished product.
Laker points out the company always has been and still is a text-to-video technology company, and he had always planned to market a product to publishers. But over the months since launching the consumer app in July, the need for focus became crystal clear.
“As an entrepreneur you want to do everything, be everything, but it wasn’t fair to our users or our team,” Laker said. As he and his COO and co-founder, Leslie Bradshaw, were pondering the change, they began calling publishers, saying here are our ideas, what do you think? Between the two of them they made more than 300 calls. “It was one of the best things I have ever done as an entrepreneur,” Laker said.
Some big takeaways from those conversations: Editors and publishers want to keep people engaged on their sites rather than an app, which Guide’s new version does. They also didn’t want 100 percent automation — one customer put it this way: “The word editor is in my title for a reason.” So before the video is published, Guide allows them to have final say over the content choices in the video and how the story has been shortened. Also, the default setting for the videos is a computer-generated voice, but Guide is also offering human narration and has recently hired a team of voice professionals. Human-narration — which could even be the author of the story — adds about 30 minutes to 2 hours to the production process, but Guide is finding that the option is hugely popular with publishers. Accented voices and language options will come later.
“Freddie and I are both from the creative side, but what we’ve learned is in the product world it is not about creating awesome, it is about creating utility,” said Bradshaw.
Laker, born in Britain and the son of the late Sir Freddy Laker of Laker Airways, has always had entrepreneurship in his blood, quitting college to get started launching companies earlier. In 1996, Laker founded Laker.net, an Internet service provider and web design studio that he sold in 2006. He also founded and headed iChameleon before selling it to Sapient. He joined Sapient as a director of strategy, later becoming vice president of global marketing strategy.
Bradshaw, who came aboard in January, is a digital strategist and entrepreneur. Before Guide she was president, chief operating officer and co-founder of JESS3, a creative agency in Washington, D.C., working with clients such as C-SPAN and Forbes. She was recently named one of the most creative people in business by FastCompany.
In just three days, more than 140 publishers have begun trying out Guide, including Digiday and Cinemablend.com/GamingBlend.com. Some are kicking the tires, while others have already been using the videos on their sites, said Bradshaw, and include a mix on large players as well as very small newspapers and blogs.
“The big guys are obviously exciting, but there are 100,000 news sites and 146 million blogs out there, and most of them are tiny. When you put them all together it’s a big market,” Laker said. “We may be helping small guys more than we are helping big guys ... They are the people that are most resource-strapped.”
Guide's tool is still a work in progress as the team evaluates feedback daily and makes improvements. As for its business model, it plans to offer a revenue-split plan and a licensed option to publishers. It is working on partnership agreements to expand its archives and plans to begin serving up video ads in a few weeks.
Guide has received $1.5 million in seed funding from investors including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Sapient Corp, MTV founder Bob Pitman, actor and producer Omar Epps, and early Google employee Steve Schimmel. The Knight Foundation is supporting Guide through its new early-stage venture fund, the Knight Enterprise Fund.
Guide is now raising a second $1.5 million. “We will use that money to bring us to profitability and then go for a much larger Series A,” said Laker.
For Benoit Wirz, director of business consulting for the Knight Foundation, Guide’s new focus makes perfect sense. “What Guide is enabling publishers to do is to go from text-based content to video-based content ... From a revenue perspective, ad rates for video-based advertising are multiples higher than text. But for publishers video is much more expensive to produce,” he said, explaining that Guide’s solution doesn’t replace live video by specialized production teams but it “bridges the gap.”
The reason advertisers pay more is because users are more engaged with video — twice as engaged, he said. And it’s exciting for Knight because it’s providing an outlet for increased engagement of information, Wirz said.
About those avatars — they were too polarizing, Laker admits. Some people loved them, including Laker, but then there were the others. During a report and “power pitch” on CNBC this summer, host Mandy Drury described the avatar created for her as “really creepy.”
Will they ever be back? Not anytime soon, Laker said. The futurist with a collection of superhero figures in his offices thinks there is a place for avatars but the technology is just not there yet.
“While part of me is a bit sad at the thought of disappointing our nearly 100,000 users of our consumer app on the web and iPad, I know in my heart as an entrepreneur and innovator that this is the right move. We are going to be able to serve a larger audience and solve an even bigger problem, and that feels awesome,” Laker said in a note to his customers this week.
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg