13 Conference Report #techonomy13

180° Shift: From Collector of Puzzle Pieces to Letting Go


  • (All photos by Asa Mathat)

    (All photos by Asa Mathat)

  • Techonomy 2013 - Tucson, AZ

Michael Smolens
Founder and Chairman; Collector of Puzzle Pieces, Dotsub

Michael Smolens discusses his startup Dotsub and the challenges of communicating in a diverse world of languages.

Read the full transcript below. (Transcript by Realtime Transcription.)

Smolens:  Talking for 180 seconds is a very, very difficult thing to do, to give one 180. I’m going to be giving two 180s. Because I’m going to be talking about what inspired me to do my business and change, and also how that had a personal impact on my life.

When I saw the movie “Fahrenheit 911,” in 2004, I left the movie. I had the ah-hah moment after eight other startups, which I’ll talk about, and I said one documentary film in English can change a Presidential election, perhaps. What would happen if we could create a technology that could make any video or any film available from any language into any other languages and viewable across all video-enabled devices and platforms for mobile. That was in 2004.

We launched in 2007, and it was so early that the players were out on the infield stretching. They hadn’t even gotten to the dugout yet. So as we’ve evolved the business to try to figure out how to use video to tell stories, to communicate, to inspire, to do all these things, we realize there’s 7 billion people on the planet Earth that speak 6,800 languages. And in the United States, people think that everyone speaks English or should speak English. But, really, only 6 percent of the world speaks English as a native language and only 19 percent speak it as a second language. And it is very well-documented that people get engaged with and like very much emotionally content when it’s in their native language. So brands can learn a lesson by communicating in other languages.

And as I was trying to do this early in the evolution of Dotsub, I was very stymied with people who didn’t understand this until finally one day about two and a half years ago in speaking to a senior executive at a Silicon Valley company. He said, “We don’t need to do that because all of the important people of the world speak English.” At that moment I said, “I need to stop doing what I’m doing and do something else.”

So I took the title Collector of Puzzle Pieces. I didn’t really understand what it meant. Hired a CEO. And after eight startups from Haiti when I was 24 years old to Mexico to the first American in Hungary to Azerbaijan to Pakistan to Jordan to Russia, I have a very deep and profound understanding. And here I was a collector of puzzle pieces. What does that mean? As I was evolving, if you see what Nelson Mandela says about this.

So as I evolved in this journey for myself, I realized that I had to let go. I was trying to control things that I couldn’t control. And as soon as I let go and allowed the power of the message, the power of the vision, the fact that 7 billion people want to do this. And coincidentally, when David spoke opening Techonomy this afternoon, he talked about all of these people being included when those bubbles were going up to the right. All of those people in that bubble, very few of them speak English.

So the opportunities to take media, which is what Cisco says in 2017 will comprise 90 percent of Internet bandwidth with video is something that I think is very important for everyone to learn in this room, a lesson. So for me the lesson personally was to let go. I’ve been doing that for about two years, and the results are wonderful.

As a company, it’s a matter of the fact that there’s 7 billion people in the world, and you need to be courteous to them and consider that they should be communicated with in their native language. Those are my two 180s, in three minutes.

Thank you very much.

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