Business

Former Apple, Google, Yahoo engineers combine forces to make SMS smart — and helpful

texting

One led Google Voice for mobile, built Siri, and spent a few years at Apple after Apple bought Siri. Another led Yahoo Messenger and then redesigned TechCrunch. Together, they’re trying to reinvent SMS and make the text-based communication platform — whose single biggest innovation in the last decade is adding pictures — smart.

And helpful, by adding a seamless personal assistant right into your texting.

“There is technology that can make great assistants, but we tend to make dedicated assistants with it,” cofounder Gummi Hafsteinsson told me yesterday. “Really, it should be woven into apps … and we quickly came to the conclusion that if you’re having conversations, and that’s where the information is, why not have the assistant be part of the conversation?”

Enter Emu:

Emu understands what you’re saying and adds what the company calls “smart buttons” to your text messages. That means that as you discuss times, you can automatically set up a meeting in your calendar. As you look for a movie, you can buy tickets. When you’re chatting with a friend about a restaurant, you can reserve a spot with OpenTable. And when you’re desperately looking around for the person you’re texting with, you can share your live location with a feature called “Marco Polo.”

The app is constantly listening and watching, looking for an opportunity to be helpful, without you having to engage with it all the time. And, critically, without you having to jump in and out of five apps simultaneously.

“Technology is a labor-saving device, supposedly,” cofounder Dave Feldman says. “But it doesn’t always feel like it’s saving labor.”

The duo didn’t start off wanting to do a messaging app. In fact, they wanted not to. Because, after all, you want your assistant to be part of everything you do, not just in one app, and not just in a messaging app that will have to compete with dozens of other top messaging apps that are already topping the Google Play leaderboard on a monthly basis.

But essentially, they were forced to.

“You can’t just build a plugin for most of these services,” Feldman says.

What the team did do was architect a solution that does not require — as many messaging apps do — that your friends belong to the same network as you do, which is a great competitive moat when your app is a leading contender with plenty of users, but awful when you’re a startup. Instead, Emu works even if just one of the parties has it, which is sheer genius — born, naturally, of necessity.

“You don’t have to use Emu to get the benefit of the app,” Feldman says. “I can use it, I don’t have to tell my friends, and it doesn’t spam my friends.”

header-logo@2xClearly the team has something interesting here. Not only are both cofounders all-stars, the startup has received $1.5 seed funding from an all-star list of VCs: Kleiner Perkins, TriplePoint Capital, Menlo Ventures, and DFJ. Yes, you just read “seed funding” and “Kleiner Perkins” in the same sentence — typically, Kleiner would not get involved in anything so early, so small.

But there’s something interesting here, and it could get a lot bigger than just a messaging app. In fact, that’s the vision of the team.

“First we have to prove we have something,” Feldman says. “If we become interesting, then there’s all kinds of interesting conversations we can have.”

That’s in the messaging world, certainly, and with the messaging titans of the market. But it’s also likely in other apps as well … helping them all to be smart, to know what we’re saying, and to know how to help us intelligently.


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