Zoom has in many ways “won” the mindshare game when it comes to video conferencing: whether you’re actually using Zoom, or another service that’s wrapped into another platform like Google or Microsoft, and whether it’s for work or fun, the standalone Zoom is the one that people reference, the one that has claimed anthimeric status.
But for those who use Zoom, or Google’s Meet, Microsoft’s Teams, or something else, you’ll know that they still lack in certain scenarios. Today a startup called Venue built to plug one of those gaps — larger team meetings — is setting out its stall to compete, with a video conferencing platform that brings in a host of personalization and other features from consumer communication apps to make it more engaging. These include emoji bursts, the ability to set background music and backgrounds, easy tools to share videos and other media, gifs, and multi-functional control panels that mimic those that appear in streaming platforms like Twitch.
“Our clients have told us that if Slack made video conferencing for team meetings, this is what it might look like,” said Jason Goldlist, who co-founded the company with Frank Poon, in an interview with me (which took place, naturally, on Venue).
The Toronto-based startup has been in private beta for the past two years, first as a bootstrapped business and then as part of the Y Combinator Winter 2022 cohort.
In that time, it’s picked up some very interesting traction. Its customers include Yelp, Shopify, and PwC; and it’s so far hosted more than 5 million minutes of meetings and 250,000 participants in aggregate.
And now it’s announcing $4 million in seed funding from an impressive list of backers: led by Accel, the group also incudes Stewart Butterfield, the CEO and co-founder of none other than Slack (he is investing directly, the investment is not coming from the Slack Fund, and this is the video pitch, in Venue, that Goldlist used to pitch him); SquareSpace founder and CEO Anthony Casalena; and the founder and CEO of Remote.com, Job van der Voort.
Venue will be using the funding both for more product development, and also to scale its infrastructure to work with more customers.
Venue’s basic pitch is that it’s not another video conferencing platform. As Goldlist told me the other day, the aim is not to replace Zoom, Meet, Teams or the others, which are perfectly serviceable for one-on-one or small group virtual gatherings.
“We see Zoom as the Craigslist of video conferencing,” he said. “You will always have people who will use it.
“Our role is not to out-Zoom Zoom,” he continued. “It’s to pick our niche and to execute really well. There is a specific set of use cases and venue is the best at and no one focuses the way we do on the all hands, the town halls the AMAs, especially for remote or highly distributed companies.”
Borrowing from the wider world of consumer apps, its aim is to give users more control and thus make video meetings on the platform less abstract. Emoji reactions, background music, dynamic backgrounds, video bubbles, and a wide set of chat tools are among the bells and whistles that Venue believes will keep users interested, and keep organizations on board as customers.
Winning people over with bells and whistles seems to have worked so far. The startup says that there have been over 2 million emoji reactions “blasted to presenters” and that more than 30,000 one-on-one connections have been made between users on Venue to date.
Venue’s emergence from private beta is coming with some momentum for sure, but also — for the video call weary among us — maybe some malaise. Much of the world has inched away from many of the trappings of life in the throes of Covid-19 — local authorities are imposing less rules about face masks, travel and being in groups; offices are opening up again; and some of our e-commerce habits are tailing off in favor of shopping, eating out or doing other things in person.
Video conferencing hasn’t exactly died in recent months, but we are definitely entering a more sober phase after the heady months of 2020 and 2021. Even Zoom has felt the pinch. Although the company met analyst expectations for revenues and beat on earnings in its last financial quarter, it’s been feeling the pinch of a tough market for tech stocks.
Most recently, Citi downgraded Zoom’s stock in the face of growing competition from bigger platforms (Microsoft being especially aggressive with business customers, picking up some interesting partners in the process such as Workplace, the enterprise version of Facebook from Meta), and Zoom itself has been working on a new strategy to double down once more on its bread-and-butter enterprise base after finding that monetizing all those dinner parties and calls among friends was going nowhere fast.
All of that means not just a trickier climate for all video conferencing apps, but also a lot more competition for smaller players among those bigger companies with the resources to build in the tools they lack today.
But although many work practices, including remote working and virtual meetings, definitely opened up in the last couple of years, Goldlist points out that the use case for better, larger team meetings is not something that materialized during / after Covid-19. He points specifically to the costs and clunky nature of traditional video conferencing systems.
“The price of running an all-hands [for a company with employees in more than one place] is extraordinary,” he said. Doing “back of the napkin math”, said Goldlist, the cost for a meeting for 1,000 people for an hour is upwards for $50,000. That is not equipment investments per se. “it’s a huge cost to interrupt people in the middle of the day to have a meeting,” he said. “These are expensive things. You need to make them unique.”
The fact that there are still so many moments when video meetings don’t feel ideal is likely a strong enough reason for investors to place a bet on one in an early stage that has picked up some users, and is seeing some momentum with the wider startup community.
“Too often all hands and large meetings are inefficient and costly. Historically, it’s been hard to produce highly engaging meetings for large groups – the tools and technology hasn’t supported it. But Venue is now making top-tier production value simple and accessible,” said Sara Ittelson, a partner at Accel, in a statement.