Ride the tailwinds, and go straight at the headwinds with earnestness. – Nitesh Sharan, CFO, SoundHound, Inc.
When Nitesh Sharan exited Hewlett-Packard after 15 years of diligent career-building, he assumed—like many seasoned finance executives have done—that his finance skill set would be applicable to just about any industry or company.
However, Sharan recalls that when he stepped into a senior IR and treasury role at athletic footwear titan Nike, Inc., this assumption was tested.Read More
“I had to relearn finance in a way because it was not just about the science or about your gross margins, profits, and cash—it was about the art and the science together,” observes Sharan.
“At Nike, the IR function was a very strong partner with communications and the brand, which was a wholly different element of IR that I came to appreciate,” comments Sharan, who back in 2016 executed the intrepid career segue from HP, a company known for its engineering and maniacal focus on product, to Nike, a company known for its marketing and maniacal focus on brand.
Still, Sharan says, the two companies shared something very much in common: iconic founders and the cultures that they had built.
“At HP, we had a founder’s culture in which Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were embedded in everything. Even with the mergers and divestitures that the company has seen, HP is still the iconic founders’ company of the Valley,” remarks Sharan, who adds that Nike founder Phil Knight’s imprint is similarly part of the company’s culture today.
“When I went to Nike, I felt one step closer because Phil Knight’s footprint is still so deep there—so much of the founder’s culture has been embedded,” notes Sharon, who reports that his experience in working at the two founder-led companies has influenced his thinking when it comes to businesses at large.
“I really believe that the most dominant companies are founder-led—you can see it in the markets,” explains Sharan, who last year opened his latest career chapter by stepping into the CFO role at founder-led SoundHound, Inc.
Concludes Sharan: “I just became attracted to the founder’s culture, and, in a way, this is what catalyzed my transition to SoundHound.” –Jack Sweeney
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CFOTL: Tell us about SoundHound … what does this company do, and what are its offerings?
Sharan: Let me first describe the company, which has been around since 2005, 2006, led by three Stanford graduates. It’s a conversational voice AI leader and really an innovator, a disrupter, in really what is creating the next horizon of human computer interfaces. If we back up a little and consider just the history of technology, we think of the ’80s, when PCs became prominent and Microsoft really disrupted the incumbents. Then you think of the ’90s and the Internet revolution and how this created all of these iconic companies. Then came the mobile revolution. We believe that voice and conversational interaction are going to be the next horizon of how humans interact. We’ve seen bits of it, but the technology really hasn’t gotten to a place where it could be more mass-adopted. It’s about natural language conversation.Read More
I’m learning a lot of this as I go along, by the way. It’s part of my education, and I’m diving in. This is definitely not my deep background, but I’m coming to appreciate that this is a hard AI problem. Natural language processing and understanding is difficult work. Not coincidentally, two of the cofounders have PhDs in electrical engineering and the other has a bachelor’s in computer science, all from Stanford. So, SoundHound has really been about bringing together electrical engineering and computer science to develop technology that works and advance the research. Keyvan Mohajer, the cofounder CEO, started this journey at Stanford. He did his PhD in machine learning and speech recognition, which really was ahead of the curve.
They built differentiated tech that’s more accurate, faster, and better than what you might be used to in some of your smart speakers at home. This AI allows you to do complex compound queries so that you don’t have to say, “What’s the weather?,” “When’s the next ‘whatever’?” It allows you to talk in a way more natural to how we speak. It allows for negation, for example. If you ask for Asian restaurants, excluding Chinese, most of the existing products will answer you with Chinese restaurants. We have technology that enables comprehension of a natural conversation—just as you and I are having—and this is really the essence of it. For 10 years, in stealth, this company built amazing technology. This is hard to do in the Valley, by the way—to have capital that sticks with you for that long in the venture community, but we were able to do it.
Along the way, we actually got a bit of notoriety out of a music recognition app, SoundHound, which was ahead of the curve because you could get a song identified by humming it rather than by putting it in front of a radio, as you had to do with other products. We were able to commoditize this and attract over 300 million users, so we proved that we could build a great product that worked—but the long-term vision was always this voice AI space. So, we spent 10 years of really harnessing the tech. This is part of what attracted me to SoundHound. There are a lot of companies out there that do a lot of great things without a great tech foundation, but I really believe that what catalyzes opportunities for generational change is indeed having one. I saw this at HP, which was able to generate decades of success from a great foundation of solid engineering, and this is what we are built on, too.
In 2016, we launched our Houndify platform, which is the voice AI platform that brands can work off of to build their own conversational voice interfaces. We started launching this back then, and now we’re in major enterprises like automakers Hyundai, Kia, Stellantis, and Mercedes-Benz. We’re partnering with MasterCard, Deutsche Telekom, and Vizio smart TVs, as well as on apps like Pandora and Snap. We’re now at a place where we have proven technology and proven adoption, and we’re now scaling. I was excited when I learned that they were looking for a CFO. For me, this was just a perfect opportunity to come in and help this company to scale to the next level. It’s really built on a tremendous foundation, and we’re seeing great momentum. It was just a very attractive opportunity to be with a great team, a great set of leaders, a great foundation of technology, and now a market adoption that’s happening very quickly.
SoundHound, Inc. | www.soundhound.com | Santa Clara, CA