Your phone buzzes. You look down and see you have a new audio message. You hit play, but instead of a nagging "Hiiiii, call me baaack," you hear the voice of a long-lost friend telling you a story, or perhaps unloading some of the things he or she has been thinking about lately.
Maybe there's a musical intro/outro to bookend the recording, or a personalized image to accompany it. You don't have time to respond right away, but the next time you're out walking your dog or passing time on a long commute, you record your own message to send back.
That's what Menlo Park resident Jessica Taylor and her colleague Elisabeth Boonin hope their new startup, called Rolltape, will offer people.
Rolltape, which launched its app in November, helps users create personal audio recordings intended to facilitate in-depth, audio-based, "asynchronous" communication.
Ms. Taylor, a former blogger and author of the "10 to Twins" column at Embarcadero Publishing, said she got the idea for Rolltape in 2014, when her best friend moved away. That friend also a co-worker at Google had worked at StoryCorps, a nonprofit that records, preserves, and shares stories. Ms. Taylor said that her friend had a rich storytelling voice and style, and she missed those qualities.
It was also around the time Serial took the podcast world by storm, revealing what Ms. Taylor described as an ineffably intimate and imagination-provoking quality of stories told via audio.
A self-proclaimed "relationship junkie," she explained that none of the options to communicate with her friend felt satisfying. Facebook felt too curated, enticing people to share only the good things in their lives, and texting felt too "transactional."
Phone calls well, they were nice when they happened (which was rarely), but with friends living numerous time zones away, she more often than not found herself being cut off by voicemail, she said. "Voicemail is kind of a terrible experience on either end. It's not designed for human beings."
So Ms. Taylor approached Elisabeth Boonin about the project she had in mind: an "asynchronous" audio message app for people to use to communicate with close friends. Ms. Boonin has worked in the software industry for more than 25 years, and worked in product management as a director at Microsoft before taking what she called a "swan dive off the career ladder" to begin writing code for a living.
Ms. Boonin said she had an "ah-ha moment" that Rolltape could fill the time she had been reserving for podcasts, and came on board. "For the first six months, I did almost all of the work to build the platform and the mobile app," she explained.
"Rolltape sets the expectation that what you're getting isn't an action item, isn't something that you need to do, but it's a way of corresponding on an authentic, connected level with people you really want to communicate with," Ms. Boonin said.
"It's a bit like snail mail," she added. "If you get something that looks like a bill, you aren't excited and it's just one more thing to deal with. But if you get a thick, colored envelope, hand-addressed, probably with an interesting stamp, you think: 'Oooh, I wonder who sent me this card?' You open it at your leisure and possibly stick it on your fridge, because it makes you feel happy to look at it and think about the person who sent it."
Meanwhile, Ms. Taylor was back at work at Google after taking maternity leave for the birth of her twins. Her husband is a novelist and professor, and she considers herself the primary breadwinner of the family. She began to think about what it would mean to leave her job there. After much consideration, she decided in April that she would try, giving herself a year to see if the startup could work.
Now, they've received some funding for the project from angel investors, are working at an office in San Francisco, and have several new employees. At present, they're focusing on growing their user base before looking into ways to monetize the app, possibly through "integrating unobtrusive, relevant audio ads," Ms. Taylor said. In the meantime, she'll be fostering storytelling among friends through the intimacy of an audio recorder.
Visit rolltape.com to learn more.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Ms. Taylor's friend was a volunteer, rather than an employee, at StoryCorps and said Ms. Taylor left her job at Google after, rather than before securing angel funding.