How two students took the journalism world by storm

By Shauna Bowers

André Bastie and Mark Assen from HappyScribe. Credit: The Irish Times

It all started six months ago, in a living room in Dublin. André Bastié needed to transcribe twelve interviews for an academic research project on Social Entrepreneurship for his masters in e-commerce in DCU. He quickly realised that transcribing just a single one hour interview could result in up to five hours of work for him. Considering he needed to do 12 of them, this required too much time that he really just was not able to spare.

He spoke to his roommate Mark Assen about the begrudgery he had for this transcription process he was about to undertake. It all began as a joke, complaining about the fact that he had to do this assignment. However, a few days later, when the laughter and the satire died down, they soon realised that they could very easily fix this issue and make life a lot easier for both themselves and many others.


Assen learned to code at a very young age so he used his coding abilities to come up with a website that provided a transcription service. Bastié is from a very entrepreneurial background, with many of his family members undertaking entrepreneurial endeavours. Seeing other people building their own businesses inspired him to do the same so he used this drive and inspiration, alongside Assen’s coding ability, to end up where they are today.


What just began as a small project, to aid their individual studies, has now become a profitable transcription service called HappyScribe, which attracts the attention of a huge number of journalists, researchers and lecturers.


The programme quickly soared in popularity, especially after an American journalistic agency wrote an article on it. So far they have transcribed 300,000 minutes of audio and have over 4,000 users in more than 65 countries; but they’re not planning on stopping there. Their numbers are growing constantly and they are continually evolving.


“We really wanted to create something efficient in a really short amount of time. We also wanted to liberate people from the pain of transcription, a pain that I have now had firsthand experience with. We never intended to start a business, we never had this ideation process, it just came to us,” Bastié said in relation to the creation of his business.


The website utilises Google Speech API to transcribe the speech to text. In the beginning it had difficulty deciphering different accents and understanding punctuation. Now though, they have honed the algorithm so that the transcription is much more accurate, and that is an improvement that they said is constantly ongoing.


They also have an editor mode so once the audio has been uploaded and transcribed, you can listen back while looking at the text it extracted from the audio and can then make any changes and fix any errors. This ensures that the output is the most accurate it can be.


In order to survive in the business world, you need to constantly adapt and improve, Assen said. As a result of that, they’ve made a lot of changes since their creation back in May. You can now submit many more file types, whereas originally it was only MP3s. This is extremely useful as many people record interviews on their phones and iPhones often don’t record in MP3 format automatically. This meant users had to upload the file to their laptop or computer, change the format and then upload to the website.


They also made the website responsive, added over 119 languages, and most importantly they changed the infrastructure of the site so that it can withstand up to a thousand users. When the company’s popularity soared, the server crashed because it wasn’t equipped to deal with so many users at once.


They went from receiving approximately 20 customers a day to hundreds, maybe even thousands and their system couldn’t handle the traffic. But they have since solved that issue and the architecture of the site can now adequately handle the mass amount of customers that they receive on a daily basis.


While the company has continually improved in the past 5 months, they still have some issues they want to address. They’re currently working on establishing an account system so that you don’t need to resubmit your information every time you want to utilise the programme. They are also working on improving the software’s ability to deal with longer interviews. Currently, they do not recommend that you upload anything over 80 minutes because the programme may crash during transcription if you do.


Another useful improvement would be if they made it into an app format so that you could have all your information already inputted, you don’t need to go on Google to find the site, and then it could store all your previous transcriptions.


Measuring the growth and success of the company is very important to the pair. Bastié doesn’t just want an influx of new customers, he measures their success by the number of people who find the service useful enough to prompt them to return to it.


“We look at the number of users, and the revenues, but the revenue isn’t our main concern. Our main concern is how many times the same users come back to our services.


You want recurrent users, you don’t want someone once off. The problem is that some places can’t retain users so that is our main priority to ensure we can,” Bastié said.


Bastié attributes much of his success to the fact that digital media start-ups are relatively cheap to establish. In fact, HappyScribe didn’t need any capital to get up on its feet. However,  Assen and Bastié are currently the only employees, so they are hoping to source funding in the near future so that they can hire more people and expand the company even further.


Bastié and Assen didn’t charge people for the service when they first set it up, but after the US article went viral they put up a paywall of €0.09 per minute. The company’s profits are steadily increasing, especially after the journalism industry discovered the product, but they think that investors might be the best way to move forward.


“We are already a profitable company but now we can either continue as is or the other strategy is to take investment and accelerate our growth by injecting more money,” he said.


HappyScribe have already aided many journalists, researchers and lecturers but the future plan for the company is to expand into other markets. Their current aim is to develop more enhanced technology that enables them to target market by market, and become indispensable to many other industries.


The article on Poynter, attracted a huge international audience but the pair also market their product across all social media platforms, which is a key reason their success is continually growing, Bastié said.


Speaking of their success, they said: “It’s funny. Some people try for years and years to try and set up a business. Sometimes though, it just comes to you. That’s what happened to us and it’s one of the best things to ever happen.”