A new breed of collaboration software will finally solve our meeting problems

Meeting-first software with the potential for a future unicorn

Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash

Meetings are a paradox.

People value meetings as a vital medium in a business context. It’s a highly effective way of decision-making (budgeting, prioritizing features etc.), relationship-building (regular 1:1s as a case in point) or know-how sharing (retrospectives ftw).

At the same time, people frequently complain about meetings. We all know a co-worker who loves to point out how productive he/she would have been without the meeting.

  • 55% of employees stated that they are spending more than 2h per week in unproductive meetings (2019 survey by Korn/Ferry)
  • 71% of senior professionals said meetings are unproductive and inefficient (2017 survey by Harvard Business Review)
Dilbert on meetings

Even though people find it very easy to criticize meetings, there is some undeniable truth behind this criticism. Often poorly conducted and organised, meetings are riddled with fundamental problems. All of us have probably experienced many, if not all of the following problems:

Before the meeting:

  • Unclear agenda of the meeting
  • Too many items on the agenda
  • No preparation of participants

During the meeting:

  • Late arrivals
  • Unclear role of participants
  • Going off-topic / too detailed
  • Noninclusive conversations

After the meeting:

  • Ambiguous takeaways
  • Lack of ownership
  • No (easy to find) documentation
  • Irregular feedback on the process

As a consequence, companies lose billions each year due to meeting-related inefficiencies and ineffectiveness. And meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, to the point where for example executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them.

All of the listed problems occur regardless if you are sitting together in an office or virtually. Switching to remote meetings via Zoom, GoogleMeet etc. neither solves nor aggravates these problems. However, the current period during which many teams have switched to remote work might be the period during which technology helps us to finally tackle these fundamental meeting problems.

Firstly, virtual meetings force us to already use a piece of software, thereby lowering the threshold for using technology in the meeting context.

Secondly, the introduction of remote work represents a trigger for organizations to reevaluate their overall processes and tools around collaboration.

Thirdly, the immense success of “Future of Work” software firms such as Zoom, Slack or Notion provides entrepreneurs and investors with the tailwind for more entrepreneurial success cases.

“It is the period of invention, with all its high flux, that gives rise to this “value moment,” offering the potential for traction in both market size and Power.”

— Hamilton Helmer, 7 Powers

Meeting-first software

We use all kinds of different tools for our meetings: Calendar tools such as Outlook or Google Calendar for scheduling them (b), communication software such as Zoom or Slack for conducting the meeting (d) and data & knowledge management solutions such as Airtable or Confluence to capture learnings, results etc. (a). Furthermore, we rely on document tools (e.g. Office Suite) and project & task management solutions (e.g. Trello, Jira) (see chart below). All of these software products are effectively supporting our meetings, yet, none of them effectively tackle the aforementioned problems.

Meeting-first software, a new type of collaboration software which is based on the following success factors might be able to accomplish this goal:

  • 🤝 Improving meetings as the dominant product focus: The UX needs to excel as your intuitive end-to-end companion for meetings.
  • 👨🏻‍🎤 Opinionated on how software elevates meetings: I’m a strong believer in opinionated productivity software. Even more so for meeting-first software. Clear guidance is needed to answer questions such as How should we create a meeting agenda? How to store meeting notes?
  • 🔗 Interoperability across tools: The meeting-first software must seamlessly connect to the relevant productivity tools (see chart below) and thereby become a meta-layer on top of your productivity stack.
  • 💡 Day 0 value to the user: The product needs to be useful from Day 0 — not at some point in the future. Easy onboarding and inviting of co-workers, strong single-player experience and an overall highly intuitive UX are key.
Software used for meetings

Why is there the potential for a meeting-first SaaS unicorn?

  1. Significant market opportunity: Meetings are the nucleus of workplace communication. Fixing fundamental meeting-related problems is not a vitamin pill, it’s a painkiller for the organization — and one which works across industries, thereby addressing a sufficiently large market.
  2. Revenue lock-in based on high switching costs: The value loss expected by a customer that would be incurred from switching to an alternative supplier (e.g. loss of accumulated notes, breaking deeply embedded processes) empowers the company through lower churn.
  3. Favourable timing: Firstly, the increasing number of SaaS tools which we use on a daily basis serves as an argument for a “productivity meta layer”. Secondly, outlined in the first part of this article, the current rise of remote-work is optimal for the success of meeting-first software.

There is no blueprint for how a meeting-first software looks like. It can be crafted coming from different angles. Macro, Hugo and Huddl.ai are three examples of interesting startups, which take the meeting-first approach from very different angles— from the video-call, the note-taking and AI angle, respectively.

Macro — the meeting interface built on top of Zoom

Founded in 2018 | US-based | https://www.macro.io/
Funded by FirstMark, General Catalyst | Last round: $5M in July 2020

Macro is a tool built on top of Zoom to give your meetings various “superpowers”. An exemplary superpower is the Airtime Map — a live overview on the talking time to point out who speaks the most/least (thereby enabling inclusiveness). The integrated notepad which instantly categorizes your notes (action item, question, take-away or general note) and syncs them with a GoogleDoc is another example for a superpower.

Introduction to Macro

Hugo — centralized note-taking for meetings

Founded in 2017 | US-based | https://www.hugo.team/
Funded by Google’s Gradient Ventures, Slack Fund | Last round $6M in April 2020

Hugo keeps teams in sync by centralizing meeting insights and automating outcomes through smart integrations to other best-in-class collaboration tools (more than 20 apps integrated, incl. Asana, Jira, Salesforce, Slack and Zoom). It‘s based on the conviction that meeting notes are the next interface for teamwork.

Introduction to Hugo

Huddl.ai — the intelligent all-in-one meeting tool

Founded in 2017 | US-based | https://www.huddl.ai/
Funded by Bain Capital, Bloomberg Beta | Last round $6M in July 2020

Having only recently come out of stealth, Huddl.ai provides a more intelligent approach to meetings by for example leveraging machine learning. Huddl.ai bundles notes, instant chat, document sharing and video meetings into the same convenient environment. Huddl.ai eliminates the problem of collaboration information overload with an all-in-one approach. The software works as a substitute to Zoom (vs. Macro/Hugo as complementary solutions).

Other players in this nascent meeting-first space are for instance Docket, Workshop, Fellow and Navigator.

My motivation for writing this article stems not only from the painful experiences of going through poorly organized and poorly conducted meetings but also from the peculiar ways companies handle their meetings. I will never forget my time as a consultant where one client introduced me to the “Yellow Cards”. A meeting participant is allowed to show another attendant a yellow card if this person went off-topic. The client was a traditional bank and as such harboured a traditional company culture, therefore you can imagine how often the card was shown to managers that rambled or strayed off-topic… never to be precise.

Stepping up the meeting game is far from rocket science. It is fundamentally about changing habits. As a technology-optimist, I’m convinced that meeting-first tools have the chance to become a major category by finally guiding and nudging us in an effective way towards better meetings.

If you liked this article, I would be happy to connect and exchange thoughts (Twitter/Linkedin).

Expert generalist | Tech, VC & entrepreneurship | Ex BCG & Rocket Internet | Based in Germany | Twitter: https://twitter.com/SFelixxx