Like so many other great ideas, it all started with a conversation among friends - why not incorporate voice messaging into our widespread social networks? The founders of uWHISP were quick to understand that, as Einstein once wrote, "imagination is more important than knowledge." To this formula they added a substantial amount of motivation. Indeed, their first proposal for the international contest HackU (February 2011) was only the beginning of an adventure. Within a year and with the help of government and private funds, theirs became a booming business that has now spread from Spain to France, the UK, and Latin America, and is known as uWHISP. Awarded the World Technology Network Prize for Marketing Communications on October 2012, these young entrepreneurs follow the motto - “free access to all users”. E&M talked to them to find out more about what it means to be a pioneer and how they view innovation in Europe.

Photo: uWHISP
Joan, Michel, Miquel and Iury met at university and founded uWHISP

Less than a year ago, Joan Casas (28), Michel Puig (28), Miquel las Heras (24) and Iuri Aranda (24), four computer gurus who became friends during their studies at the computer science faculty of UPC, Barcelona, laid the brainwork for uWHISP. Since its inception, uWHISP has amassed over 30,000 users and is compatible with Firefox, Chrome and Snow Leopard, as well as being an App for iOS (Apple). But what makes it different? Its creators have emphasised their aim to humanise online communications in the existing social networks through the use of voice. Another issue is that of maximising celebrities' and media companies' social profiles by providing a more "real" exchange with their audiences. This is what they say.

E&M: How did uWHISP come about and how would you explain its quick success?

The concept was born out of the realisation that you could not record your own voice in social networks, and this was seen as a shortcoming. Then our team took part in an international competition organised by Yahoo! (HackU) containing entries by different universities – that was how it all got started.

E&M: In your view, will the World Technology Network Prize increase the impact of uWHISP across the globe? What are the implications of such awards in a world of unstoppable technological development?

Truth be told, since we received the award we have seen an increase in all domains, commercial but also at a user level. We hope that this prize will boost our task of internationalising our product. As a matter of fact, we are still somewhat unaware of the magnitude of these awards, but we believe they serve as a stimulus to anyone daily employing his or her efforts to launch a project.

E&M: uWHISP's website addresses online surfers in a direct, informal, almost buddy-buddy tone. Rather than pure marketing, there seems to be an ongoing concern at stake here, related to your goal to revolutionise and humanise social networks. How would you describe the effects of having voice on the net and how do you foresee that this will change social norms?

This project has shown us the extent to which people are consuming content an average of 90% of the time they spend on the internet. Which has made our task twofold: on the one hand, to get users to develop their own content (voice), and on the other, to operationalise the tool knowing that users still have to grow accustomed to hearing their own voice. Many user habits have crystallised in the internet and its social media, so it is a great challenge to design something disruptive enough to change user behaviour. All the while, we offer the option of consuming any kind of content in audio form. And we have strategically targeted radios, journals, TV channels, music bands, sportspeople, etc.

E&M: As a tool, uWHISP could enable people who have difficulty typing to participate more widely in online social media. Do you think that your application may serve, among other things, to expand the breadth of digital communications?

It is certainly an issue that we have considered, in fact, we are in touch with organisations like ONCE (National Organisation for Spanish Blind people), because we think that our platform can help bring information closer to people with some kind of disability.

E&M: On a different topic, you have referred to the monetisation of social networks (obtaining economic benefits), and you suggest that uWHISP could facilitate this. How would it work?

First, we need to remember that online both celebrities and the media cope with huge volumes of followers, and yet it is extremely difficult for them to get a monetary return from these audiences. Our tool would allow them to maximise the potential of their social profiles, besides providing a more real form of communication. It's very simple: if your audience is used to listening to your audio files (whisps), and you have interesting internet metrics (tools used to measure and analyse internet data in order to optimise web usage), then the next step is to sponsor your sound player. And this could be sold separately or as part of a package.

E&M: One of the company's founding principles is free user access, and you expect to get benefits from your Premium accounts, which add the use of personalised sound players to the basic free application. Can you elaborate on this principle of offering your service free of charge?

We believe that a model in which the user has to pay in order to publish content is not sustainable, which is why we intend to live on our Premium accounts, focused on people working on a more professional level who need additional functions, or need to monetise their audiences. At uWHISP we believe that business models have to evolve as do our surroundings and you certainly have to avoid stagnating with an obsolete business plan.

E&M: uWHISP took off thanks to official state funds (ENISA, National Business of Innovation SA) as well as private investment. Having benefited from state subsidies, how do you perceive the current cutbacks on innovation and research and what pressure does this exert over young entrepreneurs like you?

We were very lucky to count on the help of ENISA and several business angels who believed in our team and the project. All uWHISP team members agree that one of the key mechanisms to help the country overcome the crisis is to promote an entrepreneurial and innovative attitude from an early age. The earlier we understand that our labour is more expensive than in other countries, the sooner we will concentrate on being innovative. Without a doubt, the state plays a very important role in this process through financial aid.

E&M: Is it easy to be an entrepreneur in Europe? What is your advice to ambitious young people who want to carry out an innovative project?

It is our most immediate environment which can enable or hamper our entrepreneurial drive, sometimes very decisively. For example, it is much easier in a context where the figure of the entrepreneur is commonplace. Our advice for young entrepreneurs is not to be afraid to embark on that adventure, because it is a truly amazing experience to see your company grow as you overcome obstacles. You learn so much, and it is so invigorating.

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