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Siri co-founder and former CEO Dag Kittlaus discussed the company’s founding and evolution with a standing-room-only audience of Kellogg students on Feb. 20.

Siri co-founder and former CEO Dag Kittlaus

Making a Siri-ous splash

Siri co-founder Dag Kittlaus explains how an upstart company with an innovative product won over early investors

By Daniel P. Smith

3/2/2012 - The launch of any Apple product tends to send the Internet into a frenzy. But the Oct. 4, 2011 unveiling of the iPhone4s carried an extra punch, one largely credited to the presence of Siri.

An intelligent personal assistant, Siri’s voice-activated software allows users to send messages and schedule meetings as easily as they find weather information and buy movie tickets. Driven by the appeal of Siri, iPhone4s sales topped 4 million in the product’s premiere weekend.

Siri co-founder and former CEO Dag Kittlaus discussed the company’s founding and evolution with a standing-room-only audience of Kellogg students on Feb. 20.

Must haves for startups

Kittlaus shared highlights of the original pitch deck Siri used to raise capital. These elements were critical to Siri’s success and serve as general rules for any new venture.

  • Hire team members who complement each other. Siri’s first employees had a variety of skills that positioned the upstart to tackle challenges from many angles.
  • Be ruthless in assessing what’s being built. Kittlaus urged any startup to ask: “Are we fooling ourselves, or is this really better?” At Siri, Kittlaus and his team were confident that their product was groundbreaking and distinct — a “do engine” rather than a search engine.
  • Get to the point. Kittlaus advised entrepreneurs to approach investors with a short, direct and simple story. For Siri, that meant immediately and clearly identifying the software’s basic components: browsing, searching and solving.
  • Explain the business model clearly. Every funding pitch includes the obligatory left-to-right graph of rising revenues and profits. But Kittlaus said the financials are really the basis for a critical discussion about the business model, which is something investors will test and analyze rigorously.
  • Find high-level sponsors: In its earliest stages, Siri had vocal, senior-level advocates among its potential customers. Those advocates championed the project inside their own company, streamlined the selling process and encouraged Siri’s development. That support, Kittlaus said, gave Siri valuable momentum.

Kittlaus visited Northwestern Feb. 20 as the first executive-in-residence at Kellogg’s Center for Market Leadership. The new program will bring high-level executives to Kellogg for dialogue with students and faculty.

“We were absolutely delighted to have Dag as the center’s first executive-in-residence,” said Gregory Carpenter, the James Farley/Booz Allen Hamilton Professor of Marketing Strategy and director of the center. “In addition to the inspiring story of Siri, he shared powerful messages about the technological changes that will have a disruptive impact on current marketing practices.”

In addition to his talk to Kellogg students, Kittlaus met with Northwestern faculty from numerous departments, including marketing, engineering and computing sciences.