To many small-business owners, effective videoconferences are still the stuff of sci-fi fantasy. Sure, the technology is in widespread use, but it rarely delivers a quality experience unless one shells out for an expensive system and a dedicated IT person to run it. "I've looked at most every video and desktop collaboration tool on the market," says Aaron Gutfreund, lead project manager at iPractical Computing, a Waterbury, Conn.-based consultancy. "I am amazed at how most of them are ineffective."
But Gutfreund needed to find a video system that worked in order to help a client build a tablet-based education platform that would integrate live video, remote student/teacher collaboration, curriculum and rich media. And, oh yeah--everything had to be easy enough for 3- to 16-year-olds to use. Not to mention the fact that the school was operating in Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic.
Gutfreund knew that a videoconferencing tool was the key component. But as he vetted options for his proposal, he kept running up against the same problem: The high-quality, expensive conferencing apps were often too complex for kids to use, and most were not aimed at tablets.
Eventually he came across Zoom, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based company whose mission is to bring affordable, high-quality, full-featured video meetings to small and midsize businesses and nonprofits.
The quality and breadth of services was attractive to Gutfreund, but Zoom's pricing structure sealed the deal. One-to-one video conferences are free, as well as the first 40 minutes of group meetings up to 25 people. Beyond that, prices start at $9.99 per month for unlimited meetings and minutes.
Value aside, Zoom has won over many users since its 2012 beta launch (and 2013 public launch) for its ability to sync participants seamlessly through iPhones, Android phones, tablets, Macs and PCs (whether they're hooked up via Wi-Fi or a cellular network).
According to Nick Chong, Zoom's head of product marketing, the company has hosted 350,000 online meetings with about 1 million participants. The service's quick adoption and global traction helped it secure a $6 million Series A funding round in January from Qualcomm Ventures, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and WebEx co-founder Subrah Iyar.
Flush with cash, Zoom has set its sights on expanding into education and becoming the go-to tool for small businesses. "If you look at the market, small businesses are not well served by enterprise or consumer products," Chong says. "At the low end there is Skype and Google Hangouts, which is great, but the quality is not that good. The goal is to bring high-quality collaboration to the masses."
Officials with iPractical's e-school client report that they expect to spend just several hundred dollars a year on videoconferencing fees.
For Gutfreund, the platform-agnostic solution "turned out to be the good answer for having a good meeting."