The scene: You wake up for the workday, walk to your living room with your cup of coffee, and sit down in front of your laptop. You open your laptop and give an audible “good morning” to your team, and the five others in your virtual office audibly greet you back. And it all happens without pressing a button.
You and your team are using Tangle software, which employs AI to detect when you are speaking to your team and to whom, so there’s no need to press buttons or open any tabs. It’s an interactive virtual workspace conceptualized — and actualized — by Nathanael Ngbondo Koweda and William Mitchell during their MBA at Cornell Tech in 2020.
Koweda came to Cornell with a technical background, wanting to explore how to bring products to market; Mitchell came with a business background, hoping to learn more about technology. They met the first week of the year-long Tech MBA program, and have been tossing around business ideas ever since.
‘WHEN THE PANDEMIC HIT, WE DECIDED THIS IS THE PERFECT TIME TO FOCUS ON ONE THING’
Growing up, both Mitchell and Koweda recognized the problem that well-qualified people living in small towns are limited to jobs in their immediate radius. The two wondered why more companies didn’t operate remotely, especially with the advanced technology increasingly available in the 21st century. Remote workplaces, after all, allow companies to expand their talent pool, and workers to fulfill their potential and work from any location.
Then came coronavirus. Inspired by the need for workforce solutions as most physical workspaces faced abrupt transitions to virtual spaces, the colleagues pushed forward with Tangle. For Mitchell and Koweda, it was an opportunity to “double dip,” creating one solution for two problems in which they were interested: They could create opportunities for qualified people to work from any context, and they could help others who were transitioning to work from home due to the pandemic.
The main issues for those who transitioned from a physical workplace to a remote one was lack of accessibility to coworkers for simple things such as quickly asking their coworkers a question, or explaining a document as they would naturally in an office setting. Communication that was once quick and effortless now involved many extra steps, such as scheduling a time to speak or getting on the phone and calling a coworker. This is where Mitchell and Koweda saw an opportunity for improvement.
“If you could have the perfect remote work setup what would you have? You’d have the same sort of interactions you’d have in the office space, there’d be others around. I’d know they are working on their computer, and I could over my shoulder ask them about a calendar invite, or ask them to explain a document,” Koweda says. “We created a way in which people can still do those sort of things in a virtual environment.”
There are plenty of virtual meeting tools out there, of course; most are video conferencing applications. However, Mitchell points out, “The tools didn’t exist to facilitate remote work in a 40-hour-a-week scenario. You don’t have the same responsiveness or the same intimacy as you do in a physical workspace. We wanted to figure out how we could facilitate those same interactions, and discovered you can use AI to recognise audio cues to converse with the people you intend to. We connected in March and started discussing the possibility of actualizing this idea.”
EASY TO INSTALL & USE
“It was easy for us to crunch down on this,” Mitchell says. “When the pandemic hit, we decided this is the perfect time to focus on one thing.” In March, the two discussed their strongest business ideas and agreed on pursuing Tangle. They applied much of what they learned in their MBA and devised a business plan, then created a working prototype.
Users can easily install Tangle, and the small graphic won’t impede the user’s view as they actively use their computer. “This communication is happening in the background. I don’t need multiple computer monitors or tabs open for on the side communication. It’s like having your teammates in the corner of your screen or peripheral view. There’s a small table with avatars from a visual perspective,” Koweda says.
Mitchell describes, “I can speak through my computer to Nate without clicking anything and it’s only going to talk to him, unless we cue someone else in. The platform uses automation enabled by conversational agreement. I can ask, ‘Hey Nate can you send me a link to our FAQ?,’ and he could respond, ‘Yeah sure no problem,’ and that’s your authorization on the other side and that action will be taken. Many large companies lack access to tools that allow them to communicate virtually in a natural way. We see ourselves as an extension to people’s ability to use what’s out there and improve their ability to work virtually.”
Although they are now backed by many angels, it was difficult to convince investors to take their idea seriously pre-pandemic because American culture favors the physical office space as the dominant workspace. “If you were to speak to investors about this idea mid 2019, they would laugh at you but the pandemic really gave us an opportunity,” Koweda says.
‘ZOOM ISN’T OUR COMPETITION’
Koweda and Mitchell don’t see companies offering video conferencing as competition, but rather as potential partners to complement their product.
“We aren’t building a tool to replace video meetings,” Mitchell says. “Zoom isn’t our competition, but rather someone we could work with. They are offering users a different experience than we are. Much of what you see in remote work is some form of video conferencing, and that what sets us apart from the others, we aren’t a platform for video conferencing. They are competition in the absolute sense, but there’s room for all of us because there are going to be different solutions for different companies, it’s going to be a big space.”
They’ve adopted a user-centric approach to get the word out to potential Tangle users. “We want to take on early users in cohorts, and make sure each group loves it before expanding the user base,” says Mitchell.
Koweda says it has been challenging to prioritize tasks. “We are building everything from scratch. We have to decide what to build in house and what to outsource. We have to put in structure and processes in place.” Mitchell continues, “In school you learn concepts, but one of the hardest things is actualizing the concepts. Having structures in place has helped us succeed, because there’s an enormous weight of things to do.”
BIG SUPPORT FROM CORNELL
Tangle launched a few months ago and currently has “alpha” users; their website is up and running, and the product is working. They haven’t yet launched commercially because they have more tests to run and Koweda and Mitchell aren’t willing to cut corners. “We want to build a sustainable business, not just put something out in the market quickly,” says Mitchell.
Friends and early startups were their early users. Many were their Cornell Tech peers.
“Our classmates have been amazing,” Koweda says. “Our cohort continues to motivate and support each other. They check in on us, ask us where we are in the process, seeing if they can assist in any way with bridging connections or whatever it may be. They are very supportive.” Mitchell adds, “We have a weekly meetup for Cornell students who are doing startups to support each other and this has been very useful. We occasionally meet on Tangle with a few of them.”
Mitchell commends Cornell on supporting their idea. He approached a professor with the idea for Tangle a couple weeks before the pandemic. “I said to him, ‘Can you just tell us it’s not a good idea so we can stop thinking about it?’” Instead, their professor did the opposite, spending a few hours discussing the reasons why they should pursue this idea.
Mitchell advises prospective MBA students to think about what kind of problems they want to tackle. Koweda emphasizes the importance of building the right team.
“You are going to be spending a lot of time with those people so it’s important to choose teammates that can give each other feedback and push each other,” Koweda says. “The outcome of the startup is never guaranteed, but you can always grow through helping each other improve.”