How a retreat to the arctic inspired a best-selling text-to-speech app

After 10 years as a software company executive, Winston Chen was ready for change. What sort of change, however, was not entirely clear, and so he journeyed — along with his wife and two young children — to the small Norwegian island of Rødøy.

It was there, on a year-long sabbatical, that he started a small iPhone programming side project that eventually became his new job.

Voice Dream started as a way for Chen to relearn some programming, he told me recently, as well as to give his day a sort of routine.

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“I intentionally didn’t set out big goals for my sabbatical,” he said, adding that if it had just sold one copy a day of his app, he would have been happy and would have learned something.

But something strange happened: The app, which was built to read text for busy executives on the go or at the gym, found an unexpected life of its own.

Users with sight disabilities or who work with sight-impaired communities embraced the application. E-mails started pouring in — as did sales of the $9.99 application.

At one point, it ranked as high as number eight in the education section of the iTunes app store, and it currently ranks a respectable 55th.

Chen said that equates to about 500 to 700 sales a week.

A math teacher wrote in to tell him how the app had helped a brilliant, dyslexic student finally reach his potential on written exams, while another user wrote in “I just downloaded your app and love you very much.”

The feedback was inspiring to Chen.

“I’ve got say it was one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done in my career,” he said. “After I started working on the app, and I started getting feedback from customers, I found I couldn’t get away from it.”

So when Chen came back to Boston after his sabbatical, he continued to work on and develop the app, even while working as an entrepreneur in residence at Matrix. And there’s lots of work left to do: Text-to-speech in other accents, which are sold as extra in-app purchases, and continued polish and refinement.

“When it comes down to it technically, it’s the 80/20 rule. Getting it to 80 percent accessible is really not that hard, and everyone should do it,” he told me. “The last 20 percent is hard and that’s what I’m focusing on.”

With an active fanbase, some of whom select the assistive software for entire school divisions, Chen can now pursue a project he’s passionate about while making a tidy profit in the process.

You can read Chen’s entire story, including his work adjusting to a sabbatical in the arctic, at his blog, Arctic Dream.

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