Why two Googlers left the company's top-secret lab to create an app that aims to change how people talk to each other

Cord FoundersCordCord founders Thomas Gayno and Jeff Baxter

Thomas Gayno had been working at Google for several years.

One day, while he and his wife were both at work, he got a text message containing an audio file from his 20-month-old daughter’s nanny.

When he finally downloaded the file as an MP3 and fired up his media player, he heard June, his 20-month-old daughter, say some of her first words: “I miss you, Papa.”

“It was beautiful. Her first few words — she’s saying she misses me,” Gayno recalls. “I was shocked by how I was going through all of these emotions, just because of a voice. This phone, this thing, is bringing tears to my eyes, even though I just had a miserable user experience — because, oh my god, how great is that? June can’t read. She can’t type. She speaks a mix of French and English. But she and the nanny left me this message.”

Gayno and his fellow Googler Jeff Baxter had spent a lot of time working with Google’s secretive project lab Google X, building products like Google Glass and Android Wear. They thought a lot about wearables, and how we interact with them.

“As we were digging into it we realised that Apple and Google and all these big companies were thinking about what’s the UI of a watch, what’s the UI of glasses. And they were thinking about Siri and ‘OK, Google,’ and talking to your computers,” Baxter says. “But no one was talking about how we talk to each other on these devices. We saw a huge opportunity to explore that area. How do we talk to each other on these things?”

Gayno and Baxter, who started working at Google’s New York office on the same day, then quit on the same day in April 2014. “We had a great meeting with our bosses at Google when we were leaving,” Baxter recalls. “They were like, that sounds awesome, we don’t know what to say. Good luck!”

When they left Google, all they knew was that they wanted to bring back the idea of talking to each other using their voices. They knew they wanted to build something that would work great on their phones, but that also had the longevity to work on wearables in the future.

“It really came down to, how do we create this atomic unit of short voice messaging? The idea was, people don’t talk on the phone anymore,” Baxter says. “And it’s not because people don’t like talking. People become so used to texting or snapping or whatever it may be, but it’s all so asynchronous. Even if you call someone you probably don’t leave a voicemail, you probably just hang up and send a text message.”

Gayno and Baxter quickly started working on Cord. The two raised a seed round of funding last summer with Google Ventures, Greycroft, Metamorphic Ventures, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Slow Ventures, and a slew of angel investors. They build out a small team of just more than half a dozen people in New York City. In September 2014, they launched a prototype on iOS, and in December, launched Cord on iOS and Android.

But what is Cord?

“It’s the Dick Tracy dream of the messaging watch,” Gayno says, holding his Android Wear-clad wrist up to his mouth and speaking into it. “It’s pretty cool.”

The Cord Project, or Cord for short, is Gayno and Baxter’s company. It lets anyone send 12-second voice messages to one person or several people at a time — 12 seconds, the two say, is the perfect length of time. Each contact on Cord appears as a circle, and a thin line around each contact’s circle counts down as the message winds down. You visualise a circle as a clock, in 12 parts.

Baxter and Gayno say the average length of a Cord message is 5 to 6 seconds. And, Baxter says, the limit keeps messages below the threshold of “Are they just going to keep talking?” like voicemail can be.

Voice messaging is already huge in Asia, due in part to WeChat, the ubiquitous messaging app that also has an app-within-an-app platform. While WeChat dominates the market in Asia, Cord’s founders are betting big on voice messaging stateside.

Cord also lets you favourite or save messages from other people. Eventually, they disappear if you don’t do either of those things. There’s more perceived privacy than other kinds of multimedia messaging, the founders say. You don’t have to show your face and your surroundings.

Besides its one-to-one and group messaging functions, Cord also just launched a “Channels” feature, which lets anyone create or join groups based on shared interests or geographies. The founders showed me a “Trump quotes” channel, featuring Cord users uploading themselves saying things said by presidential hopeful Donald Trump, and a “Beatbox” channel, which, appropriately, features users beatboxing.

Cord works not only on iOS and Android, but also on Android tablets and the iPad, in addition to Google’s Android Wear platform. Cord is launching on the Apple Watch this fall, too. Its founders say 80% of Cord users are less than 20 years old.

Cord has more than half a million installs since the beginning of the year. Since the start of 2015, more than 2 years worth of voice messages were shared through its servers.

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