How the founder of Iara Digital reinvented his career by building with Alexa

Arun Krishnan Jun 06, 2023
Alexa Skills

One of the most stressful moments in João Paulo Alqueres' life would also prove to be the most transformational. The educational institution Alqueres served as a General Manager went through a headcount reduction – at the time, Alqueres' family were mere days away from welcoming baby twins.

Fast forward to today when Alqueres is the CEO of one of the most successful voice-centered companies in Brazil. Alqueres' company, Iara Digital (Iara, pronounced "yara"), attracts hundreds of thousands of new users and 1.5 million interactions every month for its wide catalog of Alexa skills.

In addition to taking on cutting-edge projects for some of the world's leading brands, Iara publishes its own popular Alexa skills. Escolha sua Aventura, or "Choose Your Adventure," is a weekly choose-your-own-adventure-style game. In Olimpíadas de Voz, or "Voice Olympics," players use their voices to compete in three events against athletes from around the world.

"I've always been obsessed with technology and innovation," says Alqueres. "The opportunity to develop interfaces for users to get in touch with machines through voice was very interesting from the beginning."

Building a career on Alexa

Alexa's entry in Brazil in 2019, providing Brazilian Portuguese language support and hundreds of local skills, was a pivotal moment in Alqueres' career. Intrigued by the technology, Alqueres began to develop Alexa skills as a freelancer. He completed about 50-60 small jobs in about 3 months on Fiverr, a global marketplace for freelance services.

"I took matters into my own hands," Alqueres says. "Some people don't start because they think there's too much at stake. But you can start as a freelancer and grow from that."

Following his successful start on Fiverr, Alqueres went on to win a competition for Alexa skills developers in Brazil. Amazon awarded him a voucher for Alexa courses on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Alqueres became an AWS Certified Alexa Skill Builder, which validates a developer's ability to build, test, and publish Amazon Alexa skills.

As an outgrowth of his freelance work, Alqueres launched Iara Digital in 2020 and began to do projects for small companies in Brazil. "I made the transition from the corporate world to having my own company, and that worked for me," Alqueres says. "You can differentiate yourself in a crowded market, and you can make an impact even starting small."

Alqueres named his company after Iara, a mermaid from Brazilian Tupi-Guarani mythology. According to folklore, Iara lives at the bottom of the Amazon River, enchanting travelers with her voice as she lures them underwater.

"I thought that it was very suitable because we involve clients and users with the power of voice," Alqueres says. "I'm very proud of this name because it's very connected with our mission to create voice experiences that are unlike any others."

Creating cutting-edge sound design on Alexa

Iara builds skills for clients using an iterative process that often begins with a client's vision or interest in exploring an application using voice. Together, the client and Alqueres work to draft a voice experience for which the Iara team creates conversational flow in addition to coding the application. Sound designers help to create compelling sound effects for the applications. All told, the process typically takes about 8 weeks.

Iara Digital began to take on projects that spanned multiple industry sectors. The company created a voice-guided test drive that launched in BMW's first electric car in Brazil. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer engaged Iara to build a skill reminding Brazilians to get their COVID-19 booster shots. Iara Digital also created a Sonic the Hedgehog skill that had more than 4 million interactions and 600,000 game sessions.

In 2021, Alqueres became the first South American to gain recognition as an Alexa Champion, a program designed to honor the most engaged developers and contributors in the Alexa community. Alexa also named Iara to its list of Skill Building Agencies, agencies with expertise in planning, designing, developing, promoting, and optimizing Alexa skills.

"It was a really quick journey, but nevertheless a very rewarding one because I could do it on my own," Alqueres says. "It was pretty great to get in touch with the Alexa community and discover so many people like me who are pursuing this independence."

Incorporating conversational AI into Alexa Skills

Iara is working with customers to incorporate more conversational artificial intelligence (AI) into their skills. In December 2022, Iara developed a voice experience for business applications in which users talk to Alexa using conversational AI. Iara is also leveraging conversational AI in a project for Burger King, which has released the first wave of its voice commerce application in Brazil.

"The recent spate of announcements from Amazon about the company's continued innovations in generative AI is incredibly exciting," Alqueres says. "I can't wait to see what the Alexa developer community creates with these innovations."

Alqueres encourages new developers to take every assignment they can to diversify their skills, regardless of the fees they might earn at first.

"The fact that we didn't take on only lucrative jobs was game-changing for us," Alqueres says. "We took whatever we could from the beginning, and I learned something from every gig I was involved in."

"Whenever you can, just get your hands dirty and start doing it."

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