Meetings that start on time? 'A staggeringly big goal,' Biba CEO says

Meetings that start on time? 'A staggeringly big goal,' Biba CEO says

Summary: U.S. startup Biba aims to be the Apple of business communication with $15 million in funding. We talk to its chief executive, Carlin Wiegner.

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The two-year-old San Francisco startup Biba formally "came out of stealth mode" this morning, as the Silicon Valley types like to say, with $15 million in funding for a mobile-first service that handles calling, messaging and conferencing with your coworkers.

The company's pitch: In the workplace, you can communicate a lot more simply than you do today; we'll solve your workplace communications issues affordably (for now, almost completely free), intuitively and across devices. 

That "i" word is important here; Biba's hopes its differentiating factor in this crowded market is ease of use. With a tight focus on user experience and design, the company says its consumer-inspired namesake service is easier to use than any other enterprise communications tool out there. (Paging Cupertino, ahem.) And a lot cheaper, too.

The money, by the way, comes from a number of notable investors, including InterWest Partners, Benchmark Capital, Trinity Ventures, former Symantec CEO Enrique Salem and Trapit CEO Gary Griffiths.

The young company is led by Carlin Wiegner, formerly of enterprise social networking service CubeTree (acquired by SuccessFactors, then SAP), Symantec, Brightmail and Oblix.

We spoke with him.

ZD: You're a serial entrepreneur. Why this space? Why unified communications?

CW: I got interested in this space awhile ago, when I was at Symantec. I was running a huge group and it was a joke. The pain points were obvious. We cycled through every [tool] we could buy; we tried all of these approaches. 

I had about 1,000 people [to manage], and a huge part of my job was running a variety of engineering centers. There was a choreographed site process, and you'd travel to all these locations. You'd get a list: these are the high performers, these are the people you should make time for, and so forth. It was like a presidential trip. And there was this idea that remote people were not first-class citizens—it was much harder to get noticed [working remotely] than if you were down the hall from me in San Francisco, at 2nd and Folsom. It was really dumb to read these articles about super-flat hierarchy—it's not true. I couldn't list the top 20 people at a site, but I could list the top 100 people in San Francisco.

And there's the basic stuff. How do you know how people are free? You can stalk people in a physical office, but it's a lot harder if they're not. And meetings not starting on time. Why don't conference calls start on time? Who said they have to start 10 minutes late? How come someone who's driving [in a car] has to direct the call, and has to be on mute? We wanted to help people who work remotely become better [office] citizens.

I have a burning passion for this, because we're still huddled around a conference call. I'm bringing my phone [to the conference room] to text people and my laptop to [instant message] people. It is literally ridiculous. I remember the day that I thought that.

So I decided to do this again, even with the known pain—the anxiety around raising money and all that. This is too unsolved. Into the void, my friend.

ZD: So, Biba.

biba-iphone-scrn-join-mtg

CW: We had a couple of realizations. If we started with mobile, we felt like we could tackle a lot of problems differently. As a design criteria—less is more—mobile isn't enough. We also had to tackle some significant number of technical challenges to really deliver the user experience we want.

There are other tools that will call you at the beginning of a call, but they're all expensive. We felt like we really wanted to build a conference calling product that calls everyone at the beginning of the call and doesn't cost anything. So you have to build a VoIP stack of your own and optimize it for low cost and work on phones and laptops, wireless data networks and not just wired networks, et cetera.

We were interested in getting meetings to start on time. That was a staggeringly big goal.

All the beta users loved the tool, but gave us another list of problems they had. So we set out to build a unified communications product.

Communicating easily, and well, is a really big pain point.

You have to do interop. But part of the problem in this market is because [companies] have stretched too far on interop and under-stretched on delivering a great user experience for free.

I worked in e-mail forever. SMTP was literally chains that tied us to the ground. It totally stagnated innovation. Our gut [feeling] is that we think people haven't seen the right app yet. And it's so cheap to build on Amazon [Web Services].

The world hasn't seen the right UC product. We could be wrong about that, but Skype did it on the consumer side. Still, these things people think on the consumer side are "done"—Skype, Facebook—are not. Otherwise, how do you explain these things—Snapchat or whatever—that pop up? Human communication is more complicated than people think it is, and the need is greater than people think it is. It's not always a zero-sum game. People build these heavy products, instead of these free, flywheel, network-effect products.

ZD: OK, so how are we working now? Are people more reliably starting meetings on time? I think about all the business communications tools I've used, and frankly, the most life changing one has been Apple's iMessage, because it keeps my conversations mostly in sync. And that's a consumer service.

CW: It's ironic you mention iMessage. The design [inspiration] for Biba Chat was iMessage, but across everything, including Windows.

The last Bill Gates-Steve Jobs interview at the All Things D conference was super fascinating. They're both talking about GUIs. In '93, '94, '95, until the moment Windows 95 shipped, people didn't believe in it. I think [unified communications] is like that. Any sane person—which does not include entrepreneurs and cutting-edge tech journalists—would say, "If it's good, it would have happened already."

Because our conference calling app helps people dial in, we know who joins and what time the meeting starts. It turns out, based on our initial data, that there's a four-minute difference between people who dial in and who get auto-called. That adds up to something.

If you look at the amount of messages sent on Biba Chat, it's interesting: we found that the number one issue, mobile-to-mobile, is that people don't have people's phone numbers. There's a huge hookup phase to texting. There are these things, little teeny things, you've got to do to get these tools running. I think UC vendors are missing it because they're starting from a different angle: how do I make my phone work with [other things]?

ZD: How do you change people's entrenched habits? How do you upend the status quo? No matter how many easy-to-use tools are deployed in my office, people still regularly pick up the traditional, 100-year-old handset and dial other people in an echo-laden conference call. People are stuck on that default, despite video chat and shared screens and other more robust tech.

CW: One of the two or three largest trend in the last decade, if not the largest, is software that's adopted, versus sold. You could have all this stuff sitting on the shelf, whether you pulled it in or it was given to you. But if it doesn't work for you on some level, it doesn't work. The most interesting products that people have—Twitter, Facebook—they all allow you to do things you couldn't before. History is what matters.

You have to build a product that does these things; it's not enough to just talk about them. Some apps are catching on. My fundamental belief is that there are little pain points to find that are actually 10 times more important to people than the ones [companies] think are important. That will drive adoption.

A huge part of the Biba design criteria is, don't make the entry point a massive behavior change, make it a removal of friction. Next year, you and I will talk about the really interesting stuff I want to do. But we can't do that just yet. This comes first.

ZD: How do you ensure that people don't make end-runs around your software in pursuit of the status quo?

CW: We have these conversations; we think about these things. It always comes back to the idea of early adopters and seeing the benefits, and you've got to give them these little psychological almost gamification things that feed them. It's like BlackBerry's blinking light. For us, it's the read receipt—sent, delivered, read—people love seeing that their message is read, because it gives them that face-to-face-like feedback. You've just got to find those little things: the moment you see a roster of people on the call; the moment you start a call on time.

The story that the [BlackBerry] guys tell is that they had two worries when they made the first portable email device. First, short messages, because at the time, people wrote long e-mail messages and shorter ones would be considered terse. Second, misspellings, because they didn't have correction technology. Nothing technical; it was totally behavioral.

What you're asking about is the thing that is the outcome of the UC market. It's off to the races, and business is changed forever.

ZD: You've had a couple attempts at business communications in the past. Respectfully, what makes you feel like this is the one?

CW: I've worked at five companies, startups. Four have gotten acquired and one has gone public. On the grand scheme of things, I feel good about life.

When you think about the variables that go into building iconic products, that fall into the verb category, it's like going to [Las] Vegas and going all in. We're in Vegas. We're going all in again. Getting Benchmark as our Series A investor [was key]—these guys are super network-effect, invested in Dropbox, Uber, SnapChat. The timing [is also important]: we got started a little before this was technically possible, but we're just now hitting the tech trends: 4G, LTE.

You've got to put a lot of variables together. Part of the thing that's special about this industry is that people are willing to try. I feel good about what we're doing, and I definitely wouldn't want to be anyone else. It's a huge unsolved problem, someone's going to solve it, and I wouldn't want to be sitting on the sidelines when that happens. 

Topics: Unified Comms, Consumerization, Mobility, Start-Ups

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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