StartupCamp8 and the View from Perch: Is the Virtual Water Cooler in Your Future?

By Peter Bernstein August 28, 2013

One of the delights of ITEXPO is having the ability in real time to marvel at the ingenuity of established players and entrepreneurs. This goes not just for the exhibit floor but in particular listening to the visions and ambitions of early-stage companies seeking assistance in creating the future. 

With a tip of the hat to my bosses here at TMC and Larry Lisser, a partner in EMBRASE Business Consulting and co-founder of StartupCamp, this year’s eighth edition of StartupCamp featured four early-stage entrepreneurs taking five minutes to pitch to veteran, successful entrepreneurs and a highly engaged, large audience of industry professionals to vote them best in show. It really got the juices flowing. In fact, each of the presenters convinced a tough crowd that their product or service has outstanding commercial viability, which made voting for the best a difficult decision. 

My colleagues at TMC did a great job in covering the pitches. The winner was ALICE Receptionist, a solution that is precisely as named i.e., a replacement for lobbyist receptionists with compelling and informative interactive video. Indeed, it has the potential to do for the enterprise lobby what word processing did for the elimination of what we use to call secretaries. It has the potential to be transformative.

That said, and with all due deference to the other presenters, the one that struck me as both novel and needed was Perch. Danny Robinson, CEO and his crew have devised a solution that they say “Bridges the corporate culture gap.” What they mean is that as a result of modern technology we have lost the stimulation that used to come from casual office interactions. We have not replaced the water cooler where people would congregate to exchange not just shared personal experiences like last night’s TV show or sporting event, but also engaged in intense debates about what they were working on. In short, we short circuited a critical part of the innovation process.

What Perch does is provide an app that can go on your smart device that literally is a virtual video water cooler. It is real-time video that when you are in camera shot and start to speak it allows you and remote colleagues to interact as naturally as if you were standing by that old physical water cooler. The nice thing is depending on where physically deployed in a building (citing will be an interesting challenge), it adds a level of virtually water cooler ubiquity that in many ways is an improvement as a stimulus to conversation that can lead to better collaboration and hopefully new ways of looking at things and solving problems. 

Image via Shutterstock

Robinson calls Perch “Polite technology.” It is always there literally ready for action. In fact, because it is designed to only step into high gear when voice are recognized and people are actually interacting it is not the bandwidth hog you might suspect. It is also non-threatening since it does not record conversations. It fulfills the vision of video communications that has been the promise of the industry for almost four decades. Perch is not about surveillance it is about immersive conversations that give everyone the experience of being there.

The beauty is that remote workers can pop in and out of conversations by using the app. In addition, while designed for enterprises, it also provides a personal touch in that the system can be used for interactions with any place meaning you can have a real-time window on what is going on at home. Some might say this could prove to be a distraction, but what about the Internet Age does not have its distractive elements, and for working parents for example this could be a God send down the road as the technology becomes more extensile. 

What was fascinating about the event is that the pitches were preceded by a wonderful keynote by Jeff Bonforte, Communications Platform SVP at Yahoo. He walked the audience through his 12 steps for building an organization of driven by innovation in an era where the mantra must be to innovate or perish, and oh by the way do it fast.

Step #3, “Share Everything,” was the one that Perch is addressing. It also happens to be the one that set off a firestorm of debate when then new CEO Marissa Mayer ordered the remote workers back to the office or else. While the action may not have been artfully launched or spun as well as it could have been, the point Mayer was making and that Bonforte articulated well is that, without really personal interactions where ideas are passionately explained and challenged, the innovation process is – to be polite – sub-optimal. That used to be the function of the water cooler and in theory is the function of open space offices and well-stocked cafeterias that have replaced the water coolers as gathering places. Unfortunately, people go to those defined meeting spaces to “take a meeting.” The value of casual and spontaneous interactions that were the reason to wander down to the water cooler has been lost. 

Whether or not physical proximity is a good substitute for that old watering hole remains problematic. Wander through any major enterprise today with open space work space and what you see, much of it generational, are people with headsets on, faces buried in screens sending text messages and emails in many cases to people within eye-and or ear shot. 

In many ways physical conversation has become both a default way of interacting and as a result a lost art. It is for this very reason that the view from the perch is going to be consequential.

Edited by Alisen Downey
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