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Zoom, but for X: How startups are building for our new video normal

Is Zoom the next platform? Meet the startups building the next take on video.

Kids doing schoolwork on Zoom

The pandemic accelerated the adoption of video technology so that everything, from book clubs to bar mitzvahs to school, is now held on video calls.

Photo: Valentin Russanov/Getty Images

Trying to liven up the monotony of Zoom meetings, Phil Libin hung up a green towel behind his desk and started projecting images onto it, like Dr. Anthony Fauci hovering over his shoulder, just to make his team laugh. At first, it was a bit of a performance and a way to break up the monotony as Zoom fatigue set in a few months into the pandemic at the end of May. But then Libin, the former CEO of Evernote and founder of startup studio All Turtles, realized the "Weekend Update" style could be more than just a gimmick.

A bit of coding and a fantastic demo later, Libin closed a seed round of $4.5 million to launch his new company, Mmhmm. His big belief is that we're moving to a hybrid world where things don't fit neatly into boxes like in-person or online or live or recorded. Instead, it's all going to be a mix.

"This is permanent," he said. "This is going to be around forever, and the big changer happening is that everything is going to be hybrid."

Libin's not alone in spotting the opportunity. The pandemic accelerated the adoption of video technology so that everything, from book clubs to bar mitzvahs to school, is now held on video calls. Zoom has so far been a catchall for a lot of it but a wave of entrepreneurs is starting to build better experiences for our new online video world, both on and off the platform.

At famed startup accelerator Y Combinator's summer 20 Demo Day, there were pitches for GitDuck, a Zoom, but for developers; Here, a way to create different Zoom interfaces; Sidekick, an always-on video for remote teams; Together, a video chat app for kids and families; and Rume, a video platform meant to re-create the dynamics of a party. Startups are also raising funding at a fast clip for their takes on video.

Investors are plowing money into the space, too. In the last week, India-based Airmeet raised $12 million from Sequoia India for its "Zoom for events" platform that features speed networking and a social lounge, complete with tables you could sit at like if you were schmoozing at a conference. Bunch raised $20 million from General Catalyst for its video chat app for multiplayer games, and Outschool raised $45 million for its online classes and camps.

Even Zoom is in on the game. In May, it held its first startup pitch competition for companies built on top of Zoom's API. Docket, an Indianapolis-based note-taking app, walked away the winner, but Maven Ventures' Jim Scheinman believes there are multiple billion-dollar businesses that will be built on top of the Zoom platform in the next few years. As one of Zoom's earliest investors who helped come up with the Zoom name, Scheinman organized the pitch competition and already invested in five startups being built on top of Zoom, like a startup that helps people start businesses on Zoom to a social networking app called Glimpse that graduated from Y Combinator's W20 class.

"I put a stake in the ground a while ago saying that Zoom is going to be the next big platform for startups to build on, and I certainly never wished for or predicted the pandemic, but that's accelerated things dramatically," he said. "Where things might have taken two to three years to build, it's happened in two to three months."

Eric Yuan, founder and CEO of Zoom Zoom's founder and CEO, Eric Yuan Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The question — and massive risk — for a lot of the "Zoom for X" startups is whether Zoom or another video platform will throw hundreds of engineers at the same problem and build their own version of it. Scheinman said it's important to think about what's actually core to the business and a likely investment area versus other opportunities. As a consumer investor, he's less worried, but said, "I think those things that are so core to Zoom's enterprise revenue business would be potentially challenging to build an app business on."

Then there's the risk of choosing which video service to build on. There's startups that may end up building their own tech, but many are choosing to build on other existing providers like open-source alternative Jitsi or go Scheinman's preferred path of building on top of Zoom's API. But opening up to other developers can be risky for companies, and Scheinman cautions that Zoom is still relatively young. "They really have to be careful who they let into the app store and how much they open up their platform to developers," he said. "They could never let people impact the quality of the Zoom overall service."

For Rume, building on top of Zoom wasn't an option for the type of video app Ben Scharfstein wanted to create. His company pivoted from being an in-person social app that was set to launch in March to adding video chat and trying to re-create a social party experience on video. On Rume, people can break into side conversations while still seeing the whole group, or play games like poker together. Scharfstein and his team had to build their own video platform using a mix of open-source software to be able to re-create the party experience they were going for.

"Meeting software is built for one person to talk to many people, but it's really not how social interactions are structured," he said. "You might have 30 people at a party, and there could be five different conversations going on each, with a few people moving in and out."

While Rume is focused on hangouts between two and 30 people, Airmeet's gone with the opposite vision: building its own platform for events that it claims can support up to a million people. Webinar software has always existed, but events are more complicated with different objectives, said Airmeet's co-founder, Lalit Mangal. To re-create in-person event networking, Airmeet has "speed networking" for one-on-one introductions and a social lounge where people can join small virtual tables in between talks. Mangal started working on Airmeet in 2019, but has seen growth explode during the pandemic, and not just because already-planned events have moved online.

"There is this new category which has sprung up called digitally native events," he said. "We have seen communities or customers who started with just a single session event with 30 people in their first event, and they're now doing 3,000 people conferences in just a matter of six months."

It's this transition where Libin, Mmhmm's creator, sees the opportunity. The beginning of the pandemic was just about how do we move everything from school to church to book clubs online. He likens it to when the movie camera was invented, but the first "movies" were really just cameras capturing the plays that were already on a stage in front of a crowd. It took a few years before the idea of filming a movie as a movie, complete with multiple film angles, really took hold. That's the transition happening now with creators: They're moving from just re-creating their physical world experiences on video to building new software and new experiences for video.

"The first generation of these things after a dramatic technology shift is always trying to re-create the old reality with technology. It just kind of works, but it's always kind of stupid," Libin said. "It's really the second generation of things that are native to that reality that are reimagined."

He calls that future IRL+. It's not enough to just try to re-create the classroom, but better for professors to start from the place of what can they do now that they couldn't before, he said. Libin believes that everything from a church to a hospital will have some hybrid, online video component in the future.

There's still a question of whether we'll need a Zoom for every category or if Zoom (or Google or Microsoft or Cisco or any other company's video platform) will be able to serve them all. Or if Zoom or another video platform will lay the groundwork for the next Apple App Store-sized opportunity. Right now, founders like Libin believe it's too early to call what will be the platform and what will be the application.

That's combined with a question of just what the world will look like after the pandemic and how big of a role video will play in it. But founders like Libin don't see a world where it all goes back to normal. He's betting that video will play a role in everything from here on out.

"I think this is like a multi-trillion-dollar opportunity that obviously everyone's going to be going after," he said. "A few big companies will succeed in carving out a lot of value, and a few startups will become the next multi-billion-dollar companies in it, and it will be a complex ecosystem just like it was in the dot-com days."

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