PODCAST: Conversations with a growing startup

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PODCAST: Conversations with a growing startup

By: Dean Dorton | September 2, 2020

Want the inside scoop from co-founders of a growing start-up connected to the future of voice technology? Mike Lotz and Sam Tate, co-founders of Tango Legal, talk about their passion for the conversational AI platform, risk as a necessary evil, and what it takes to be a successful entrepreneurial duo.

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Episode 7

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Transcription

Justin Hubbard:
Today I have Mike Lotz and Sam Tate on the show. Mike and Sam co-founded Tango Legal, a startup from Raleigh, North Carolina. Tango Legal is a web and voice assistant platform for legal professionals and the public. Their technology uses natural language processing to convert plain language legal questions into actionable next steps. So, think legal assistance through Alexa or Google Assistant. Mike and Sam talk about their passion for Tango Legal’s mission, life as co-founders of a growing startup, and the future of voice technology.

Sam, Mike, welcome to the show. So, you’re all in Raleigh, North Carolina, I’m here in Lexington, Kentucky, so we are using the wonders of modern technology to make this happen. So, Tango Legal is your all’s brainchild and you’re coming right off the heels of winning the NC TECH Association Startup Showcase. First of all, congratulations.

Mike Lotz:
Thank you. Yeah, NC TECH, we’re excited to win that. A lot of good competitors that we were pitching against. Sam and I can talk to each other all day about it and think it’s the best service out there, but until you have your peers and different people out in public actually say, “Man, that is a cool idea, I’m glad you guys are doing this.”

Justin:
Now, tell us about Tango Legal. In a nutshell, what is this service that y’all are rolling out?

Sam Tate:
What Tango Legal is, we’re a conversational AI platform for the legal world. What that means is we offer voice services on Alexa and Google platforms for attorneys and the general public. So, if a user were to ask an Alexa a question, “How do I get my kids back?” “How do I file for a divorce?” “What’s the speeding law in Guilford County, North Carolina, or anywhere in the United States?” Right now, there’s not a lot of very good information that Alexa or these smart speakers provide back to that consumer, that they can actually stand on and actually go to court with, or at least understand what their legal situation is. With Tango Legal, we close that gap. We have a database and a system, a knowledge base that can interpret these questions that the general public are asking in their own plain language.

And, let’s face it, if you have a legal problem, we believe strongly that the solution, or at least one major step into getting justice with your legal problem, is finding an attorney. So, we really wanted to focus and create a service that helps people find local attorneys, not just an attorney that’s five hours away. So, we’re that connector and we use voice tech to do that seamlessly.

Justin:
How did the two of you meet?

Sam:
So, Mike and I met, I want to say … It’s over five years. So, five years ago, we both were project managers for the North Carolina court system and our roles were in tech, our personalities, it just clicked. We’re the type of folks that if we say we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it. No fanfare, we’re quiet, but we just knock stuff out. And project after project, it’d be Mike and Sam, we’d have a lot of success. And that relationship blossomed into us observing the problems that we saw within the court system that the public was having, trying to interact and understand the different hoops that they have to jump through when going to court. And one thing led to another and fast forward to today, that’s how we got to be Tango Legal.

Justin:
When we’re talking about going from working within the court system to now being startup focused, and you brushed off that risk element, so it makes me think that you probably have a high tolerance for risk, at least calculated risk. Is that consistent throughout your life?

Mike:
So, I’m a bit older than Sam; I’ve owned companies in the past, starting back in the ’90s or late ’90s, owned a website company outside Chicago, where I grew up, and had a consulting company, an IT company. So, I’ve gone through it a couple of times, the risk involved to me, this is just part of life to me. I like being my own boss. I like being in charge of what decisions I make, makes a difference in my life and in the company. So, I’m not numb to the risk, but I’m used to it, but I think Sam’s story is probably a little different.

Sam:
Yeah. I mean, it’s definitely something that weighed heavily on my mind before even starting this venture with Tango and just getting into the startup world. In my own career, in tech, I worked in the public sector, worked in the private sector. I have lots of success there, but I always felt like I could contribute more, especially into the legal space. When I started college, I wanted to be an attorney—my degree was in political science and then I got into tech, but I always just had a curiosity of just this system, that not a lot of people on the outside understand and know how to navigate. And for me, I think that’s just been an underlying theme of what can I do? What can I contribute to, not just to the US, but to the world and to my legacy, to make things just a little bit easier for someone who’s just stuck and they need legal help. So, there’s always risk with anything, good entrepreneurs take that risk, they take those challenges and they figure out how to get beyond those and how to keep moving.

Mike:
Risk is what drives you to make sure that company succeeds because you wake up every day and you … And I don’t think of it as a job. I like the risk part, I think that’s what we’re doing, that’s what we’re thriving on right now, is to make this company successful. So, risk is not always a bad thing. Yeah, it can be stressful, but I think in the long run, if it was easy, everybody would do it, right? So, I think that risk … You just have to accept it and think of it as a necessary evil as you move forward, growing your company.

Justin:
Talk to me about the dynamics of there being two of you. I mean, it seems like a lot of entrepreneurs are lone wolves, if you will. I mean, obviously they have some level of support, but with regards to Tango Legal, the two of you are pushing it, doing your thing. So, what’s that dynamic like in a partnership like this?

Sam:
There’s a gentleman who gave us this compliment, he was doing an interview with us a couple of months ago, and he just got done with us and he looked at how me and Mike just respond to each other. And he said, “I’ll boil it down into one word, it’s respect.” He was like, “Both of you have a tremendous amount of respect for each other and what you’re both bringing to the table.” And me and Mike, both, we respect each other enough and we also trust each other enough, that what we’re bringing to the table it complements … Mike’s strengths are my weaknesses and I think my strengths are Mike’s weaknesses and it just flows. I bring energy to the table, I’m younger, let’s go get it, let’s go, let’s go. Mike brings wisdom to the table.

Mike:
I got to take my boomer nap once in a while.

Sam:
That’s right. That’s right. Slow pace. But at the end of the day, I think it’s just, it works, it works, it works. And both of us are … We’re cool with that.

Mike:
A partnership in a business can be very difficult. I’ve had a venture before with another partner and it did not go well, and of course that company is not around anymore due to that partnership issue. I think a couple of things that are good is that one, I think we’re not on top of each other in an office 40 hours a week, 50, 60 hours a week, staring at each other, driving each other crazy. And two, I think we also give each other space. I mean, yeah, we may call and bug each other, but we know there’s some times where it’s just like, we still have our own lives where we need to go and do stuff and forget about Tango.

And I think it’s … You have to make sure there’s a balance between that. For some reason, Sam and I being … The age difference and background difference and everything, it’s just a weird click. I think we know our boundaries and we know our strength and weaknesses and once in a while we just say, “Yeah, you know what? I guess, yeah, you are right on that point.” So, it’s worked out really well so far.

Justin:
You don’t have a physical office. You’re not bugging each other all the time. Are there certain processes or tools that you use to keep each other accountable?

Sam:
We have office hours, essentially. We have times when we’re available and times when we’re not. Me and Mike also have daily standups, we talk at least once a day.

Mike:
It’s just the old school telephone call. Literally, sometimes it will be an hour, hour and a half call, just because you can get so much done instead of typing. It’s that one-on-one conversation. We’re most productive when we’re actually chatting. So, old school technology works, sometimes.

Justin:
All right. Let’s switch gears back to your service. The legal professionals are your customers, correct?

Sam:
Yep. That’s correct.

Justin:
So, if I’m an attorney, let’s say, I’m a young aspiring attorney in the Raleigh market, what are the benefits that I would receive?

Sam:
The short answer is, it’s visibility. We live in an age where attorneys not only have to practice law, but they also have to be digital marketing professionals, or they have to have enough money to pay somebody to be a SEO professional, or build a website or some type of marketing skillset. So, one of the things that made us come to the conclusion of our current product offering with Tango Legal, was talking to young attorneys, talking to solo attorneys, talking to these small and midsize law firms, and we really wanted to understand what their problems were. And one of those problems is that when you pay for SEO marketing, Google AdWords, they are really having a hard time to master it, because that’s a long-term strategy, to show up on the first page of Google and it’s really, really competitive and expensive to do.

So, they said, “There’s got to be an easier way for me to just turn on my advertising to get new clients in my door.” So, that was the first light bulb that went off. We said, hey, this is a big problem. It’s not going to get any easier just simply because the market’s getting more and more crowded. And another issue that we saw was that, from the consumer side, they’re not finding those local professionals who can help them out. They may live in Raleigh, but they engaged with a law firm in Charlotte. Well, if a family lawyer is two miles down the road from my house, and they’re one of the best ones in Wake County, why am I having to travel to Charlotte to sign some paperwork?

So, just thinking about the current landscape, thinking about the current user habits, how people were finding attorneys, we said, you know what? We’re going to make this process a heck of a lot better. We’re going to streamline it. We’re going to make it effortless for attorneys to get their name out there, but also for attorneys to be contacted and reached by people who are looking for them and they’re located where they are. So that’s the high level of what we do.

And then when you take in the explosion of voice, you have 90 million Americans now own smart speakers. What COVID-19 has done is it’s accelerated the usage of voice assistants. Everyone’s using that now because you can’t go stand in line at the courthouse or you can’t go stand in line at Walmart or all these different places. So, they’re relying on technology to accelerate that process. So, we showed up at the right place at the right time.

Mike:
We’re in that realm right now, we’re in that Wild Wild West for voice. It’s going to pop and it’s going to pop very, very soon. If you look at some of the big venture capital firms out there, I mean, they’re projecting that voice is going to be a trillion dollar market in the next five years. And I just have that same feeling I did when I was doing websites back in the ’90s, where we need to do this and we need to do it now, and be the first one who does it in the legal world, because it’s going to get to a point where voice is everything. And that’s why we’re getting our infrastructure ready to go, ramp it out in North Carolina, and then just expand from there.

Sam:
We’re in this evolution and it’s happening really, really, really fast with technology.

Justin:
Yeah. I had an interesting experience with my kids over the weekend. So, they’re looking to start school and my wife is getting my oldest signed up for a typing class and he has no concept of why he needs to type because he can do all his searching through Alexa or through Siri.

Sam:
There you go.

Justin:
He doesn’t understand why he has to know A-S-D-F-G-H-J. It’s just completely foreign to him and he thinks it’s and a total waste of time—and after I saw how expensive the class was, I agreed with him.

Sam:
Right. Right. I was thinking earlier this week that … I mean, this is something we all can relate to, but back to the acceleration of the smartphone, do you remember when the Razer and the Nokia phones first came out?

Justin:
We all thought that was the highest point of engineering that we’d ever see in our lives.

Sam:
That was it. That was it. And all you could do is, you could receive calls, you could do an SMS on it and you could play Snake. I remember playing the game Snake and I thought that was the coolest thing on there, and that was it. And if you look at voice technology right now, it’s a very similar pattern. People use it to answer basic questions, they use it to play music, check the weather, and that’s where it is. What changed the game with the cell phones was the acceleration and the improvement of the hardware, right? So that you could actually run applications on the cell phones. I mean, you can buy stock right now on your cell phone. You can do all of these different things that weren’t possible 10 years ago, on your smartphone.

And now it’s expected from everybody. Voice is the same thing. Whereas what we see today a novelty, tomorrow it’s going to be a full blown dependency to do business. If you’re not in on voice right now, or if you haven’t thought about some type of voice strategy … Well, Google’s created voice, they’re big on it. Amazon has created voice, they’re big on it. Apple has created voice, they’re in on it, with Siri. So, if three of the biggest tech companies in the world have invested so much time and money into building out these platforms, that’s a pretty good indicator that something’s on deck. Something’s coming where it’s going to disrupt and change the way we actually interact and interface with technology.

Mike:
It’s coming and it’s coming really quick.

Justin:
Now, what would you all say will voice technology lead to, so you mentioned the Razer, the Razer led to the iPhone, to the smartphone, the smartphone led to voice. So, what is voice going to be the herald of?

Sam:
A lot of people, when you think of voice, you think talking to a box, right? But the technology behind it is AI. It’s conversational AI. If you think about call centers today, you’re calling and you want to check your bank account or something like that. A lot of times, if you hear that voice, that’s like, “Say one, two, three, four, five, or type it in.” That’s AI, that is listening to what you’re saying and it’s giving you a response accordingly. So, I think voice is just going to be that door that accelerates the dependency on artificial intelligence. And I don’t mean that as in the bad AI, Watson’s going to turn red and take over the world. A lot of these day-to-day mundane tasks that we are doing, I think AI can be trained and it is being trained to respond in the best way.

What is the best response you can give a customer? What is the best response can give a client? I think AI is going to take a lot of that workload off of the individual and it will actually just do it seamlessly, whether it’s through a chat bot or again, whether it’s through a phone call and it’s an automated system, or whether it’s through speaking to an Alexa or Google, and I think it’s just going to be embedded in our lives.

Mike:
Sam was saying about talking to a box. I think it’s going to get to a point where it’s already embedded in your TV and now it’s going to starting to be embedded in your car. It’s going to be embedded in your refrigerator. It’s just going to be a point where you just say, “Hey …” You’re just in your house and you can just ask questions and get answers. And it’s just going to be … It’s just, almost just built in your surroundings. And even on that point too, you could talk about accessibility, with somebody with a disability to be able to talk and get answers back without a screen reader or some other type of device, it just makes their lives so much simpler also.

Sam:
We’re excited about this, right? Can you tell? Obviously we can talk about this forever.

Justin:
Yeah. I was wondering when y’all were going to get pumped up about something. It is certainly fascinating. I mean, it’s something so inherently human, just communicating one-on-one and now you’re using a device to connect something and it’s been done by two introverts, which is even more ironic.

Alright, here’s the last thing I want to kick around. So, you’ve known each other for five years. You’ve been doing this good work for a while. What would you all say to a younger version of yourself? Let’s say, early 20s, knowing what you know now.

Sam:
There’s a quote that one of my mentors always says, “There’s no such thing as failure, only feedback.” And I think part of where we are today, I can say for myself, has been a lot because of the lessons that I’ve learned in the past. Again, I mentioned me and Mike had a previous startup and if it wasn’t for those failures in that startup, we wouldn’t have pivoted and gotten into voice to where we are, which has gotten us further than we could have imagined with our old startup. I would just remind myself, hey, just trust your instinct and keep moving forward. Keep cracking at it.

Mike:
I think on that point, I think I would have told myself probably to be more aggressive, almost that cliché, just do it, don’t worry about other people’s opinion. And if you think this is what you need to do, and this is the guy you need to talk to, don’t be afraid just to do it. You may say something stupid, but in the long run, you may get the answer that you want.

Justin:
Alright. Where can folks find you if they want to learn more about your business?

Sam:
Yeah. They can visit us online at tangolegal.com.

Justin:
Well, guys, this has been a pleasure. Thanks for coming on and best wishes to Tango Legal and wherever voice technology takes you all.

Mike:
Yeah. This was great. I appreciate your time.

Sam:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Your Host

Justin Hubbard
Justin HubbardDirector of Accounting & Financial Outsourcing

With Guests

Mike Lotz
Mike LotzCo-Founder, Tango Legal
Sam Tate
Sam TateCo-Founder, Tango Legal
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