The Entrepreneur: Jesse Shemen, Papercup

Papercup's AI system makes the world's videos watchable in any language - using state-of-the-art machine learning capable of translating people’s voices with 100% accuracy. We interview the mastermind behind such industry-disrupting technology.

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Founder: Jesse Shemen
Company: Papercup

Papercup has created an AI system that can accurately dub pre-existing content into other languages. It can translate and generate synthetic voice-overs for hundreds of videos a month and has racked up millions of new global views for media companies like Sky News and Insider.

Jesse Shemen, founder and CEO of Papercup, speaks to Startups about business challenges, translating Sky News into Spanish, and how his platform is changing the traditional translation services market for the better.

The Business

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

People are watching five hours of video every day but not all video content is audibly accessible for everyone in the language they prefer. What people don’t realise is that 6.5 billion people don’t speak an ounce of English, making it impossible for them to consume quality English videos, and on the flipside, challenging for content owners to reach non-English speakers. Our mission is to make all of the world’s videos watchable in any language using state-of-the-art machine learning capable of translating people’s voices into other languages.

The media companies and corporates we work with are already reaping the rewards of our technology. The former by reaching audiences they previously couldn’t access – like Business Insider with Spanish-speaking audiences. The latter, corporates, can suddenly communicate more effectively with their non-native English speakers. We charge on the basis of throughput, e.g. per minute of the output video, or by a revenue share model. For either pricing option, we’re making voiceovers and dubbing accessible to the 99% of content owners who historically couldn’t even afford to localise their content.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

I’m going to cheat and give two answers, because the technical always blends with the commercial. On the technical side, we’ve had four papers accepted at prestigious machine learning and speech conferences despite being a young company.

On the commercial side, translating Sky News into Spanish every day has been an incredible achievement. It’s an iconic news source that never penetrated the Spanish market. We made that a reality and, in just over 18 months since launch, reached over 32 million people!

How did you fund your business?

Papercup is based in London and has raised $14m in funding from media companies Sky and The Guardian, as well as venture capital funds LocalGlobe, Entrepreneur First, BDMI, and Sands Capital Ventures.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

Our bank account, to make sure we don’t get hit with a random $25,000 surcharge for computers! I tend to look at the performance of content we’ve translated – either the raw metric of viewership if it’s media or education related, or engagement rates on content for corporate training or comms content.

To what extent does your business trade internationally?

We have never been restricted by region or country. From content owners who are looking to reach new, international audiences to companies that want to improve communication with their global employees through video content, we’ve found the desperate need to localise is truly global.

We’ve worked with and spoken to companies in North America, Europe, South America, Asia, and the Middle East. The more relevant question for us is – what languages do companies demand? It’s easy to forget that there are 50 languages with 20 million speakers, which means there are lots of untapped markets.

Where would you like your business to be in five years?

We’re achieving our mission in two distinct ways. Firstly, through incredible voices while we roll out new languages. Secondly, we’re educating and informing a whole new market that has never thought about localisation or dubbing before as historically the price point was prohibitive. As we progress on these two fronts, we aim to tackle more territories, languages, and content types to localise and make video content available to a global audience.

What software or technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

We wanted to introduce something into the market that didn’t exist – a voice translation tool for video; at the core of which is our patented synthetic speech pipeline which generates the voices. We’ve also developed our own human-in-the-loop tool which facilitates the end-to-end translation process. Combined, these two technologies allow us to translate video content at a level of quality, scalability, and price point that are very difficult to match.

Check out the video below to see how Papercup works:

Growth Challenges

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in business?

Two areas immediately come to mind. First – finding highly ambitious, talented, and humble people that we’d love to work with (if anyone reading this can find us someone for any of our open roles, we have a generous referral programme!).

Second – educating the market. The reality is that we’re creating a new category, a new product that is unfamiliar to people. People are mainly accustomed to traditional translation services, so the concept of using AI to translate video content at scale requires education. How do we generate highly natural voices? Can we ensure we hit a certain quality level? Where should I distribute the content? We have answers to all these questions of course, but the education process takes time.

What was your biggest business mistake and what did you learn from it?

Waiting to recruit people only when we needed them. If you hold off until the crunch point, it only exacerbates the issue. We’ve waited too long for a number of roles and felt the pain. Now we know to be more proactive and thoughtful of who we need and when, and we nurture relationships with people even when not in recruitment mode.

What one thing do you wish someone had told you when you started on your business journey?

The first few years of a business consume all the people involved and will likely mean everyone is at capacity. Constantly help people prioritise and focus wholly on the things that will move the needle. Even if you follow the mantra of focus, which I try to religiously, it still requires incredible discipline and foresight to say no and help others say no.

How has the pandemic affected the market you operate in?

Similar to many digital-first industries, the pandemic hasn’t shifted the focus and attention much. However, we have noticed a change in our target market. Prior to the pandemic, many companies realised the need to look beyond their home market in order to grow, but it wasn’t a prerequisite. Domestic markets are now saturated with competition, both in the world of content and digital goods, so the need to traverse borders and sell internationally is becoming existential for some. That’s where we come in – we make the process of taking content international seamless.

Personal Growth

Did you study business or learn on the job?

Both, and I still have a hell of a lot to learn.

I went to NYU’s Stern School of Business for undergrad where I was told I had to become an investment banker otherwise I failed at life. Thankfully I turned to Deloitte and co-founded their venture arm in the UK (an equity investment arm and internal incubator) and co-launched a wealth technology platform at Octopus.

That wasn’t nearly enough for launching and managing a startup. Every day I’m making mistakes and learning as I go along.

What would make you a better leader?

More feedback. It’s not enough to encourage feedback, which I do, I need to normalise it for people to feel they can give me constructive pointers. It doesn’t matter who it is – a colleague, investor, customer – I want to know what I can do to be the best leader for Papercup; to do that I need an outsider’s perspective on how I can improve.

One business app and one personal app you can’t do without?

Business app – I would say the classic Superhuman email platform, and Roam Research, which are both great. But I would really struggle without a hyper efficient to-do list app. I’ve relied heavily on ToDoist over the last 12 months but became frustrated with the lack of new features and keyboard shortcuts (which I swear by), so I moved to TickTick a few days ago. Let’s see where I’m at in three months.

Personal app – I’m going to go with Kindle. The highlighting feature for books means I can actually revisit and re-learn a book without relying on summaries.

A business book or podcast that you think is great:

One I often reference to the team is ‘Difficult Conversations’ by Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone, and Sheila Heen. We don’t realise how much better we could be at communicating. This book was very revealing and practically useful.

Finally, what’s the most important piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur starting a business?

It’s never as rosy as you see on LinkedIn. It’s painful, challenging, and sometimes lonely. But it’s also the most rewarding thing you can do and will make you the happiest person so long as you can fully embrace what you do even when it gets hard. Thankfully I do and wouldn’t change a thing.

Written by:
Ross has been writing for Startups since 2021, specialising in telephone systems, digital marketing, payroll, and sustainable business. He also runs the successful entrepreneur section of the website. Having graduated with a Masters in Journalism, Ross went on to write for Condé Nast Traveller and the NME, before moving in to the world of business journalism. Ross has been involved in startups from a young age, and has a keen eye for exciting, innovative new businesses. Follow him on his Twitter - @startupsross for helpful business tips.

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