This is the latest in a series of founder interviews from abroad from our roving international reporters Roy Malkin and Don Oparah
Much time and effort has been expended over the past decade or more into making online meetings easier and more efficient. Now one Norwegian startup believes it has cracked it: appear.in can be integrated into a web browser (it currently works with Firefox, Chrome and Opera) and allows you to instantly have a meeting by just entering a URL – that’s it. No software downloads, no logins, no setups.
The latest challenger to take on Skype, appear.in was incubated with the help of Telenor, Norway’s largest telco. Silicon Allee caught up with Ingrid Ødegaard, co-founder and product manager at appear.in, at the Le Web conference in Paris last month.
SILICON ALLEE: What’s behind the appear.in product?
INGRID ØDEGAARD: It’s a new browser-based video conferencing solution that lets you sign up for video conferencing with just one click. You don’t have to install any plug-ins or log in because everything just runs in your browser. And the basic concept is that you create a video room by typing the URL appear.in and whatever room you want, and whoever types the same URL will come directly into the same conversation. It’s a new WebRTC, which stands for web real time communications; it’s a new web standard that has been worked on mostly by Google and Mozilla for the past two years to three years. This new standard basically lets you set up peer connections between two browsers and you can also do lots of cool stuff like send files and a lot of different things that work on the webpage without having to install anything. It’s basically a huge step forward for the web.
SA: So this is new technology?
IØ: Exactly, we were one of the first players to launch a service like this, although there were some others that have also been experimenting with it. And the product came to be because we have been working with the WebRTC for some time.
SA: Is it a big disadvantage not to have your product on the ‘out of the box’ bowsers, Internet Explorer and Safari?
IØ: Of course it’s a challenge because there are a lot of people using Safari and IE, but at the same time, I see that more and more people are moving to Chrome and Firefox. I think that supporting WebRTC will become a competitive advantage for those browsers because they’re starting to come out with a lot of cool new services built on WebRTC and hopefully that will push Apple and Microsoft to also implement it on their browsers. At the moment, there’s not really anything we can do to make our services work on their browsers, so if we want to keep the service the way it is and avoid using Flash and those old technologies, then there’s not really much we can do to support Safari and IE. Hopefully time is working in our favor.
SA: What would it take to get adopted into those browsers? Could you negotiate directly with Microsoft and Apple?
IØ: There’s not really anything we can do as a startup because this is a much bigger industry-wide issue. So WebRTC is a new web standard and Google and Mozilla are pushing really hard to make it widespread in all browsers. I think what’s going to drive Apple and Microsoft to adopt it, is that they see that not supporting it is going to be a loss for them.
SA: Moving on from the technology itself, how are you going to compete against the giants of the online communication tool space, the likes of Microsoft’s Skype and Google’s Hangouts?
IØ: It’s definitely going to be a challenge. Those are large competitors. They have huge global user bases and huge engineering teams. I don’t think that’s going to change but I think there is always going to be room for other players and we are not trying to make another Skype. We are trying to make a product that solves different user needs and solves the pain people have using Skype and Hangouts today. So for us, we see that it’s a huge barrier to entry that you have to set up an account with either Skype or Google because you don’t want to do that, especially with Google. You have to exchange usernames if you want to start a call and make the other person download the application or install the plug-in, while with us, you can just send them the link and they click it and they enter directly into the conversation. So there are a lot of these cases where that works better – for example, if you have to have a lot meetings with a lot of new people that you don’t have an established contact with.
SA: That’s a usecase we can definitely agree with. With that in mind, would you say that the entrepreneurial community is one of your early target markets? How would you sell it too them?
IØ: Absolutely, I think small and medium businesses and maybe especially tech businesses are the target segment we are trying to reach right now, because they are often looking for solutions that just work really well and are also free or cheap, and they are usually into exploring the latest technology. And our service supports two different usecases for them. We talked about the external meetings – with investors or potential customers or clients, partners and people you meet in general – and the other is for internal meetings. We use it ourselves and our team for daily stand up meetings. We have a team room where everyone knows the URL, it’s appear.in/ our team name, and everyone just comes in there at 9am and we don’t have to exchange links or whatever.
SA: Is the room password-protected?
SA: But surely if somebody knows the name of the room, they could just come in and sit in your meeting?
IØ: They can but then we’ll see them so we’ll probably ask them to leave. It hasn’t happened so far. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem before we start getting a lot of users and the competition for room names increases, but that’s why we also recently launched the feature where you can claim ownership of a room name so you will essentially own the URL and control the room. Then you will be the only one who can lock it and set a custom background. It will make it possible to personalise the room a lot more. It will make it a part of your daily work life.
SA: There’s now eight of you working on appear.in, but how does the management structure work?
IØ: We’re part of an incubator inside the biggest telco in Norway, Telenor, which has 150 million customers globally.
SA: So what challenges are you facing in 2014?
IØ: I think the main challenge is understanding how users use it and tweaking it so that it fills the need in a really good way, and also differentiating it from the other products that are out there, including Skype and Hangouts. And also making the brand known, or becoming the go-to brand, for doing this kind of video conferencing and making people remember us and come back to us over time, not just try it out one time and then forget about it. So that’s what is most bothering me at night: how are we going make the brand something cool that people want to associate with?
SA: Are you also looking at different verticals? How can businesses integrate what you guys do into their everyday tools?
IØ: We want to make it as easy, to invent a click-to-talk button or embed the actual room on the site as it is the first version of an API that lets people embed rooms on any website. So that opens up a whole lot of possibilities which frankly are not very possible with any other services as far as I know. For example, if people in the education sector need some form of video conferencing for homework tutoring, they can allow people to come to their website and click a button that says, “I need help with my homework,” and the student is then launched into a video room where he meets a tutor and can get help. So that’s one specific scenario that we’re working with now to develop the API and the embed function. Another one is the medical sector for people to talk to doctors if they are in a remote village or town.
SA: What unusual usecases have you seen for your platform?
IØ: Anything from people talking to their dogs over video, getting engaged over video, people monitoring their sleeping baby while they’re in the next room coding. A lot of people are also gaming so there’s a whole range of things that we would never be able to think of ourselves.
SA: How are you looking to grow the company?
IØ: Right now the main challenge is to prove that this is actually something that people would want to use over time and that people come back to. If we’re able to do that, then I think the company that incubated us will hopefully at least be interested in expanding the team. And then we would also look into moving to other platforms, especially mobile and tablets, and that would take quite a bit of work on the engineering and marketing sides. We would need some more resources because we’re a born global company; so far we have been used in 175 countries.
SA: How many active users do you have right now?
IØ: We don’t really want to comment on that yet.
SA: Finally, then, you guys are based in Norway – what makes that country, and perhaps Scandinavia as a whole, a good place for innovation and entrepreneurship?
IØ: I think we’re a very tech-savvy market, so in terms of understanding how people use technology and what it takes to make a successful product, it’s a very harsh market because everyone uses the latest apps, everyone has an iPhone and everyone has very good PCs. It’s a very good market to test out things on early adopters. Also, I think in the Scandinavian entrepreneur community, people are very efficient and productive, so we generally work normal hours from 8 or 9am to 5 or 6om, so it’s not very long days compared to the US at least. But at the same time, we’re very efficient when we’re at work and then we’re able to relax and take some time off in the evenings, which I think is good for creativity and understanding.