Great startup idea!

As our business continues to expand, we have been facing some interesting new challenges and opportunities.  One that has been on my mind a lot lately is cross-site collaboration.  But no good solutions exist that enable us to feel a little bit more like we are in the same room.   I am tired of seeing startups attack geeky problems that no one cares about.  Virtual team communication tools pose a problem for a lot of folks, and I know that many of us are willing to spend good money on a solution.

Cross-site collaboration is hard.  Lots of things about that really bother me.  First, it’s 2010.  This shouldn’t be a problem in this day and age, but it is.  And I am no stranger to virtual teaming — I have been doing it for nearly 10 years (before it was cool).  What I have found over the years is that many of the very typical challenges with virtual teaming are actually surmountable.  Things like timezone, language barriers, and even cultural differences can be managed.

But the thing that no one seems to have a great handle on is collaboration.  Most people will tell you that they have no problem collaborating in their virtual teams — but they are wrong.  They aren’t collaborating in the way I am talking about.  Anyone can sit in a chat room, use a wiki, and contribute to a Google doc.  But those of us who have done as much ‘real life teaming’ as we have done virtual teaming will tell you that it’s just not the same.

And here’s why: the secret to great collaboration and teamwork lies in the unplanned interactions.

The amazing thing about being in the same room as some group of people is that you can just walk over to someone whenever you are struck with an idea.  And you have a clear sense of ‘presence.’  When you need someone, you can just look over to their workspace and quickly see if they are engaged with someone else, not at their desk, or on the phone.  Wikis, chatrooms, and the other standard virtual fare don’t get you even close to that sort of connection.  You lose the power of that ‘instant-on’ communication.

Ok, fine, so it’s frustrating and hard to collaborate virtually.. particularly when you are spoiled by great ‘same room’ interactions.  But that’s not what kills me.  What kills me is that there is a real business need, and the market is wildly underserved.  All the while, I feel surrounded by a number of geeked-out companies that are solving technical problems that don’t appear to be worth money to me.

As a funny aside, it turns out that I am not the only one who notices the ‘overgeekiness’ of startups here in the bay area.  While I love being a geek, I have come to learn that solving geeky problems is not always the best way to build a real business.  Anyway, a well known and well respected VC recently called these businesses “boys building bigger toys for other boys.”  Haha, I love it.

Ok, back to the point.  This collaboration and cross-site communication thing is a mildly geeky problem for which I’d actually pay money for a solution.  And no one has done anything about it!  Ahh!   Maybe the problem hasn’t been framed well enough.  So let me quickly build the case for why someone should really take a stab at solving the collaboration problem:

  • The knowledge worker economy is becoming more global every single day.  Companies are able to acquire a lot more talent a lot quicker if they look outside their specific geographic region.
  • People really want better communication tools.  Every virtual team I have been on has complained about how difficult it is to communicate and collaborate virtually.
  • The alternative (travel and getting in the same room) is very expensive.  Any solution that is reasonable in cost creates serious value.
  • In a lot of cases, for virtual international teams, it’s not even a money problem — there are logistics and long wait times associated with acquiring visas.
  • Internet connectivity, which used to be a big barrier to high bandwidth communication, is getting better everywhere.
  • The timing is good right now.  The companies that failed in the past were just a bit too early.  Collaboration wasn’t mainstream yet.

So, in some ways, the stars are aligning for a good collaboration tool for virtual teams.  Ugh, I don’t really like the term ‘collaboration.’  It sort of lumps this into the same category of SAAS web apps like Basecamp and ProofHQ.  That’s a whole different kind of collaboration and team management.  But that’s not the kind presence, instant-on, better communication tool I am talking about here.

The tool I am thinking about, of course, centers on video as the medium.  It’s something that helps groups and teams in different places feel as close to being in the same room as possible without actually being in the same room.  That’s what we need.  (And we can’t be the only ones who need it!)

Here are some thoughts on what would make a decent product:

  • Video is crucial.  Resolution is less important, but adapting to the internet connectivity conditions would be nice.
  • Another device is fine, and probably preferred.  People have enough to do with the limited screen resolution they have on their machines.  Another device with another screen that is separate from your existing computer would be great, for this reason among others.
  • Hardware and software that play nicely together would be convenient.  It can’t be that hard to choose one or two ‘core models’ of hardware that the software works perfectly with.  I’d even buy them as a package deal.
  • One-to-one communication is NOT ENOUGH.  (*cough cough* Skype.)  Really?  You think one-to-one video is enough to serve people’s needs?  I could write a whole different blog post about the silliness of this.
  • Open standards would be great.  I am tired of closed systems like Polycom that only play nice with other systems of the same brand and cost a fortune.  One single standard that worked across brands would be fantastic.
  • $83,000 is probably too much.  I know Cisco has great telepresence solutions, but I have a really hard time coughing up $83,000 per solution.  Someone has to be able to provide a solution for a more reasonable price point.

So that’s it.  That’s the end of my rant.  I hope that VCs and entrepreneurs alike wise up to the opportunity here.  The need to collaborate is not going away anytime soon.  We are in the year 2010.. and I still feel like we’re in 2000.

I have to believe someone out there can be crafty and combine commodity hardware with open-standard software to create a really exciting and affordable solution.  Whoever does is going to get a lot of orders from me!

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