“I was born in a Deaf family. My parents are Deaf. My sister is Deaf.” This was the opening to Thibault Duchemin’s initial investor pitch for his company Ava, a real-time captioning product. Ava was originally created for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community and has recently expanded into the enterprise market. Thanks to his compelling storytelling, Thibault was first able to raise $1.6 million to go after his initial target market. As Ava has grown, the company has gone on to raise a “seed” and a Series A totaling $14.7 million to add a professional live-captioning solution for any meeting or classroom on top of its original AI product.
Thibault understands the compact between the storyteller and his audience of investors. As they sit down to hear a story, audience members expect a certain pattern. Think about the experience of watching a movie. You want to know who the protagonist is, what their motivations are and what’s standing in their way. If a story is muddled and those elements are unclear, audience members can become frustrated. Some film-makers are purposely oblique when they craft a story. Jane Campion’s Academy Award nominated, The Power of the Dog, serves as a recent example of a film that challenged its audiences with extremely subtle plot points that were lost on many viewers. Certain critics applauded this approach, but many viewers found it extremely aggravating, because they had to work too hard to unearth the story.
Innovators, like Thibault, have no interest in taking the risk of frustrating their audience. Thibault tells investors what they want to know, beginning with who is going to use the product. The first target customer should be the protagonist in the story. What challenges does the protagonist face and what specific problem are you setting out to solve? In story parlance, the audience will want to understand the intention of the protagonist and what obstacle is standing in their way. Once you’ve built this foundation, your audience will crave the payoff, the product or service you’ve built and the benefit it delivers.
If you get the set-up right, audience members will be on the edge of their seats waiting with great interest to hear how you’ve created a happy ending for your customer. If you then describe the product clearly, illustrate how it addresses specific user issues and explain how your customer will be better off than by using current solutions, you will have fulfilled “the storyteller compact.”
After Thibault’s opening about his family, he explained the struggles Deaf people encounter. “I know how painful it is to follow group conversations when you can’t hear well. You are so focused on reading the lips of the person in front of you that when someone else starts speaking, you turn your head and you miss the first words. But because you miss those words, you miss the whole conversation. But that wasn’t my whole family. There are four hundred million people who suffer from disabling hearing loss.” He expands on this narrative in his TEDxSoMa talk.
Thibault has given the audience the exact story elements it needs. The audience knows: 1) who the protagonist is going to be in the story — Deaf and hard-of-hearing people; 2) what they’re struggling with – keeping up with conversations in group settings; and 3) what’s standing in their way – the inability to read lips in different places around the room.
The innovation storyteller has told his audience whom it should root for and why. The audience doesn’t have to work hard to parse the information. It understands why Ava exists and now it’s just waiting for Thibault to get to the payoff: How does the product solve this problem?
Thibault and his team built a captioning mobile and desktop app. The app hears the conversation, transcribes what’s said, and attributes the statement in color-coded text to each speaker. A Deaf or hard-of-hearing person can reference the app at any time to see what’s being said and by whom. They are no longer left out of a conversation. The story ends well and the audience is able to follow what happened.
Recently, the Ava team brought the captioning app to enterprise customers for an enhanced solution (with one-click access to live transcribers) for business meetings. Thibault just announced a $10 million series A round to tackle this market.
The footnote to this story about telling a satisfying narrative is that the Academy Award nominated film that won for Best Film this year was CODA. CODA stands for Child of a Deaf Adult. It was a beautiful – and clearly – told story about a family much like Thibault’s.