Founder Stories at 1871: Dag Kittlaus and personal assistant, Siri

Dag Kittlaus is a native Chicagoan and founder of Siri, the virtual personal assistant for mobile devices that launched three years ago last week. Last night he joined 1871 for their Founder Stories event where he shared his how he brought Siri, now a quintessential part of the iPhone, to life.

Despite a lack of background in engineering or even tech, Dag was able to bring the futuristic concept of Siri to market. “You don’t need to be an engineer to get exited about or understand technology. It’s a matter of will,” he said.

His journey in tech began when he read an article on airplane in 1994 and became obsessed with learning about Internet Protocol. When he learned about IP he realized it was going to ruin his current business. In an effort to say ahead of the curve he became an expert on the subject. “It’s smart to think out 3-5 years. That’s how you get your best ideas,” he said. Dag has followed this model for this entire career.

Before the iPhone, you used to buy a phone for the hardware: the software wasn’t great but users didn’t expect it to be. When the iPhone came out everything changed and the value proposition shifted from being hardware driven to software focused. It was during this revolutionary time that Dag was working to develop Siri.

“If you could talk to a computer and it understood you and could do things for you—we wanted to launch a product that took advantage of that,” Dag said, when explaining the original inspiration for Siri. 

Marketing a product that has never existed before is tough. At the time he was trying to get funding for Siri, search engines were all the rage. Dag knew that Siri could be a search engine but wanted to position it as something better: a personal assistant. He began referring to Siri as ‘The thing that comes after search engines’ or ‘A do engine.’

From the early days he knew mobile would be a huge market for the virtual personal assistant. And then one day he got a phone call from Steve Jobs and a partnership was made. As Dag said, “it was a pretty irresistible proposition to work personally with the most influential guy in technology.”

Here are some of the important entrepreneurial lessons Dag shared during the talk:

His advice for young entrepreneurs: “Learn how to tell your story. A quick, easy to understand pitch is the key to selling a business.”

On how to master the field you’re working in: Founders who are most successful really understand his or her space. Entrepreneurs should know more than anyone else about the topic they are working on. Meet experts in your field and compare your knowledge to them. Surround yourself with the best. “You want to take your idea to the smartest people around and have them poke holes in it.”

On finding the right co-founder: “This is the most important decision you can make. First you need to understand important pillars of business. Then, you need to find someone who can fill in what you don’t know.”

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