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About this episode

San Francisco, Austin, Denver, and other major cities are known for being tech hubs, but there are lots of other small and medium-size businesses out there that provide goods and services we all need; dentists, local grocers, and even regional call centers.  One of the ways that SMBs can up their game and meet the Fortune 1000 is by leveraging the same technology, and in the case of customer service-centric businesses, transcription is foundational to unlocking insight.  Matt Bugisin, CIO, and Darren J. Ascone, CEO and Co-founder at Hover Networks recognized this need and are helping to bring Silicon Valley to the plains and prairies.  Tune in to find out how smartly-built cloud communications are helping small and medium-sized businesses across the country to level up to enterprise-grade experiences.

Sam Zegas: Welcome to Deepgram’s Voice of the Future podcast, also known as Our Favorite Nerds. At Deepgram, we’re obsessed with voice, and this podcast is our exploration of the exciting emerging world of voice technologies. I’m your host, Sam Zeegis, VP of Operations at Deepgram.

And today, I’ll be talking with Darren Ascone: Escone, CEO at CoverNetworks and Matt Busygan, CIO. Welcome, guys. 

Darren Ascone: Thank you. Hey. Thanks, Ryan. No, sir.

Sam Zegas: Awesome. That’s great to have a year. So this is our favorite nerds after all. So why don’t you tell us a bit about yourselves and specifically what kind of nerds are you?

Darren Ascone: So, Matt, if you don’t mind, I’ll go first. I think I would refer to myself as a closet nerd.

You know, the bulk of my life I’ve sort of been associated with athletics and that was a competitive division one wrestler. I’m a pretty experienced triathlete. So at the bulk of my life, I’ve always had this sort of comparison or association with athletics. 

But deep down inside, I’m a massive technology fan. I’ve been a technology entrepreneur for over 25 years. I’m a programmer at heart no longer. They don’t allow me to touch code anymore. 

And, you know, I’m a huge Star Wars, Marvel, multiverse, you name it. We are into it.

Totally geek out to that kind of stuff. So that’s kinda something that a lot of people don’t know about me.

Sam Zegas: That’s great.

Matthew Busigin: Darren is definitely a huge nerd, and it’s not so closeted. 

We’re actually kind of both into everything. You know? There’s there’s a, I think that the thing that most characterizes nerdery in general. We call it nerdery.

And, you know, at some point in the office, there is a phrase, there is nerdery a foot, and that usually means that somebody’s getting into something.

I’m a software engineer.I also have a background in finance.

I did macroeconomic modeling before I got to Hover and I’ve tried to merge those worlds and, you know, the most number of times that I possibly can. But at this point, it’s mostly just software engineering and AI.

That’s why we’re here. Right?

Sam Zegas: Yeah. Well, some other thing that I know about both of you is that I would call you upstate New York nerds in a way because you have built a very passionate regional business up there that is really focused on that local community. So that’s gonna come up, I think, in the course of the conversation today.

Matthew Busigin: That is true. We’re Western New York boosters.

I didn’t, I’m actually not a Western New York native. And Darren’s actually an upstate native?

Darren Ascone: I’m a yeah. I’m a transplant for sure. I did high school in Albany, New York, which is upstate New York but I was born and raised in Staten Island, New York, which is outside the city. 

You know, some people always say to us, oh when you tell people, when you travel, you’re from New York, they immediately think New York City. Oh my gosh, it’s so lucky you live in New York City. But, you know, when you say Buffalo, New York, they don’t understand that, you know, we’re a stone’s throw from Canada, and it’s as flat as can be here, and there’s no tall buildings. So yeah. I am a transplant as well, but we are huge, huge, huge proponents of Buffalo, New York.  

The bulk of Hover or 30% of Hover Networks’ business is not-for-profit business where we provide telephony messaging, communication services to not for profits. We have been a massive proponent and give where you live since we started the company almost 14 years ago.

So, yes, it is fair to say that we are upstate or Western New York nerds because we do believe very heavily in this community, and this community has been very good to us.

Matthew Busigin: It’s a fabulous business community too. It’s a fabulous little technology community. You don’t really think about that you know, when you think about Buffalo, of course. And, you know, coming from, you know, the West Coast, you know, it probably appears quite quaint. I’m from Toronto. 

So when I came to Buffalo, I quite honestly didn’t have a very large expectation for the tech community here.

And the first company that I worked for here was actually the company the last company that Darren started, which was Synacor, and I couldn’t believe how many smart people were here. 

And all of those people have actually, you know, that that era of Synacorians has gone on to found, like, the next generation of tech companies in Buffalo and and and, you know, the 43 North Business Plan competition, which is the largest business plan competition in the United States, which is, of course, largely technology focused. So this is actually a wonderful place to live and a wonderful place to do business.

Sam Zegas: Well, you’ve really added yourselves as Upstate and Western New York nerds now because I can just see you light up when you talk about it. You talked a little bit about Hover in that description, but why don’t you go a little bit deeper? 

What does Hover Networks do? And how would you describe it to someone who might not be familiar with your space at all? 

Darren Ascone: Yeah. We’re a cloud-based telephony provider. You know, most people in our world are gonna know the RingCentrals, the Nextivas, the 8x8s of the world. That is what we do. 

We’ve shifted from a long time ago being just a pure telephony provider and only providing essentially you know, dial tone and IVRs and voice mailboxes to more of a communications platform, which has just been, you know, an adaptation and a shift in the way people are doing business now, including pre-pandemic. I mean, we saw the changes happening then post-pandemic. It is certainl – 

Matthew Busigin: It’s an accelerant. 

Darren Ascone: –accelerated. Yeah. You know, there has been some boy scout juice thrown on the fire for sure to force us into evolving and building the company. But unlike the large big box providers, we are a very boutique concierge type provider.

For years and years and years when we’re pitching potential customers when we’re talking to community members, I always use the analogy if you’re familiar with the American Express credit card in most specifically the Black Card. The Black Card is a very unique card. Only few people get it. And the service you get with that card is unparalleled. So you get you get a full time concierge. If you have a problem, you call the same person at American Express, you’re not dialing into any crazy number and getting a different person every time. They know you. They know your profile. That is the same thing about Hover Networks. So when you call Hover Networks, you know, we’re a 22-person team based in Western New York. We’re in all 50 states and 9 countries, but you get the same team that has sold you, provisioned you, onboarded you, and supported you every single time. 

The team, the way we’re set up in our office, is built so that everybody can interact with everybody at all times. So everybody sort of knows about all of the customers, especially during the onboarding process. There’s enough buzz in the way that we provision people that when you call in and have a question people are very, very familiar. And I think, you know, we have worked very, very, very hard to get there. 

And our, I think our Google reviews are proof in the pudding, but that’s what really makes us unique. We’re not, you know, we’re not just a phone provider, we’re not just a cloud-based phone provider. 

We are a boutique concierge phone service provider, and we really stress the service. 

Matthew Busigin: And that really extends to all facets of the service to be provided. It’s not just the onboarding process or the support but we also do quite a bit of boutique concierge, custom software integration. We do quite a bit of work with making our phone system play well with the other pieces of software and services that they have. And, you know, it’s it’s very difficult. I suspect to get the CIO of Nextiva on the phone so that they could help you, you know, connect up your dental CRM. 

Sam Zegas: Yeah. It’s an interesting point. It seems as though the niche that you’ve really found a home in is one in which you’re responding to pain points around the responsiveness and the customizability of the solution that you’re you’re putting out. Did your understanding of this pain point evolve over time? I think I mean, imagine it did, but what do you really see as the main pain points for people who were using big box alternatives to you? 

Matthew Busigin: Well, they’re cookie cutter. And if it works for you,  then that’s great. But if it doesn’t work for you, there’s not a ton of flexibility to you, you’re going to be the one who has to be flexible. 

Sam Zegas: Mhmm. 

Matthew Busigin: Whereas what we found is that when we’re the ones that can provide the flexibility that that removes the pain when you’re asking the customer to be flexible. That’s a pain point for the customer.

Sam Zegas: Yeah. Makes sense. 

Darren Ascone: Yeah. I agree a hundred percent. I mean, I think just the ability for us, you know, one of our core values in the hover networks core values that we review every year as a team is agility. 

So there’s no task that when presented to us that we ever just say, it’s never a hard no. I guess that’s what I’m looking to say. When somebody calls us up, we always give it, you know, it’s full attention. We investigate. And if it is something that we can do, you know, honestly is a huge part in our business, especially with the customers we deal with. 

If it is something that we can do, whether it’s tomorrow or if it’s gonna be 3 months, we’re honest with the customer. And I think that it’s really, really helped us build these long-term relationships with these customers. And it’s it makes it difficult. You know, our philosophy as an organization and my philosophy as a leader is the more we can do to embed ourselves in the customer into what they’re doing and helping them accomplish their goals, the harder it is for them to leave us long-term. 

So, you know, we joke and say the more hooks you can put in them the harder it is to leave. And there’s a lot of truth to that. Once they have spent all of this time getting their off colored or not off colored. That’s not the word I’m looking for.

Non-off-the-shelf dental CRM, you know, some custom application that they have built over years. it’s not just gonna work out of the box with a big box provider. So if we can integrate into that, the likelihood of them ever seeking another solution I mean, at the end of the day, telephony is telephony. Right? Phones or phones are gonna ring. There’s gonna be a voice mailbox. You’re gonna hit some buttons to get to certain destinations. It’s all of the other stuff that most people don’t see. which I think makes a cloud telephony provider valuable. 

Matthew Busigin: Yeah. Then there’s the commodity side of things. And what’s in the commoditized side of things and what’s been in the value-add side of things, I think, has, you know, shifts over time. Like, there’s a certain gravity whereby, you know, the the the value-add drips into the commoditized– 

Sam Zegas: Sure. 

Matthew Busigin: –and I think that what’s happened over time is we’ve seen a lot of that volume, that value-add volume drip into the the the commoditized bucket. And now we’re seeing the like, for the value-add side, we’re seeing a whole brand of new types of features and and and sub-applications. And, of course, that’s usually where Deepgram comes in.  

Sam Zegas: Sure. Yeah. Let’s jump in that direction. I’d love to hear what you see in that value-add bucket right now. And what are some of the things that are moving into that more commodified, commoditized category?

Matthew Busigin: So, I mean, Deepgram itself, I think, is probably one of the singular responsible forces for the commoditization of ASR.

Sam Zegas: That’s true.

Matthew Busigin: It is true. Before Deepgram, I think Graham called me when, you know, I was first acquainted with you guys. I think I couldn’t believe how good your pricing was compared to what we were paying for Google to do transcriptions of voicemails, and it was very expensive. And Google is a very difficult company to do business with, you know, from an SMB perspective.

You know, there’s no one you could, you can’t call anybody at Google ever. You can’t email anybody at Google ever. Their support systems are very obtuse and it feels to me like they’re largely designed around suppressing people from reaching employees at Google. 

Of course, we immediately go to Deepgram and, you know, we have access to you guys– we have wonderful access to you guys now and your partners and this. And so that’s combined with the democratization of and, you know, via the pricing, of high-quality ASR. I think that that’s been industry-wide trend that’s being driven, of course. I think everybody is now including just transcription as part of their offering, whether it’s an add-on or whether it comes, you know, embedded in the price of a premium user or what have you. 

But, of course, the next stage of that after doing transcriptions of, you know, visual voicemail and doing call transcriptions, which is excellent. That’s a lot of value is being able to do analytical work on that. And there’s just like there’s this gold mine of data here that we are, I think, just starting to really begin to tap where, you know, that I think in a few years, this is going to be very much more clear than it is right now. 

I think in a few years, this is going to be a scenario where it’s just expected that every call that you make on your corporate phone system is going to have quite a bit of intelligence applied to it that includes ASR and then post-processing afterwards.

Sam Zegas: Yeah. It’s a very interesting set of points you make. We definitely see that trend toward commoditization of basic speech-to-text as, you know, as you would expect over time, many of the different providers who give that sort of service or produce models that are products that you can buy, they are improving, and you would want them to improve. And that’s the way that the competitive evolution of the market is headed. 

That said, we’re really right at the beginning of a frontier of so much deep understanding, quote-unquote, insight, you know, the ability for machines to listen to this conversation and say, here’s a quick summarization of what they said that isn’t just a recapitulation of actual sentences that we produced or– 

Matthew Busigin: –It has to understand, it’s actually generated with an understand– a semantic understanding of the text. And you can and right now, this is unstructured data. 

Darren Ascone: And you think about the efficiencies that this provides, you know, we’ve used the word commoditization a couple times now.

 You know, there’s this race to 0 in our business, right, where all of a sudden a premium user for $29.99 back then, a premium user is $17.90 now, and you get more than you got 2 years ago– 

Sam Zegas: Right. 

Darren Ascone: –for less money. Right? 

Darren Ascone: –It’s the race to 0.