Finding Meaning in Video Chat — Why I’ve joined Marco Polo
In 2017, I sold Babajob, my baby of 11 years and the endeavor I deeply believed was the best use of my potential. The last year has been one of identity seeking; it was a chance to be a better father and better husband, to write, to spend time with a few organizations whose work I admired (Jaaga — including BeFantastic.in and Dara.Network, Unifize, Harambee, and iSpirt) and figure out what new gig would give me as much meaning as Babajob did.
During those two weeks, I narrowed down what I desired next in work:
Positive Impact — I sold my house to fund Babajob because I felt it was worthwhile to build a digital tool to help low skilled job seekers earn more money. There are so many important problems that need our attention and I want my job to address at least one of them.
Power & Resources — If I hope to make large change in the world, I need to work at institutions with resources. This usually means money and power. Given its more socially aligned mission and our decision to not partner with governments, Babajob may have moved too far away from business models with high profit potential that are required to attract large resources. I don’t regret those decisions but frankly, we were outgunned by players like Quikr who did a better job of attracting capital and executing against a larger market — horizontal classifieds vs entry level job marketplaces.
World Class Peers — We all want to learn from our peers in our job; the problem with being CEO is by definition you don’t have many peers in your company. Plus, my expectations of peers have increased as someone who built a company with 9 million users, raised multiple funding rounds and led hundreds of people.
Digital Scale — I studied Public Policy and Computer Science and then chose to work at Microsoft because it made products that even when they crashed, affected hundreds of millions of people in big and small ways. The scale that’s possible with software has always been exciting to me.
Fun — I felt so proud of our mission and what we accomplished at Babajob but unlike Microsoft Research India and the incomparable Anandan, I don’t think I made our company fun enough. And like Owen Wilson and everyone else, I do my best work when I’m having fun.
And so why Marco Polo?
For those of you who have not tried Marco Polo, you’ll likely hear of it as a Snapchat for Adults. I gotta be frank — this feels dismissive and something I don’t get because I’ve never really understood Snapchat. I find apps like SnapChat, ShareChat and YouTube nice to watch random videos when I’m bored. The videos are occasionally funny or odd but I keep asking myself “Who are these people?” — only to never see them again. The communication aspects seem confusing and secondary to the competition for notoriety.
Marco Polo is nothing like Snapchat. It’s video chat for the busy people you love.
Its user interface is dumb simple:
1. Click on the face of someone important to you
2. Tap Start to record a video of yourself
3. Tap Stop to send the video
That’s it. Suddenly, you are watching little video clips of people you love and in one tap, you are responding via video too.
In my first week with the app, I cried or witnessed my close family members cry twice. That’s never happened to me in an app. We don’t realize how few times in life we have an opportunity to tell a story to someone we love without being interrupted and confident that no one else will see that story.
This is such a simple and yet powerful way to be heard — not by the world, who is not always kind and often does not care about us — but by our best friend on the other side of the planet that we miss like hell but rarely find the time to schedule a call or FaceTime. Timezone differences, kids, crazy work schedules, etc. conspire to make finding a mutually convenient time to connect damn hard.
Marco Polo is not a tool you will use with everyone you know. We don’t have the patience or time to actually listen and bear witness to most people around us and we’d rather speed-read their words. But we do want to listen to those we love and care about — our siblings, parents and family, our most trusted co-workers, our direct reports whose livelihoods rest in our hands, the people who share our particular struggles and our childhood best friends. This is who Marco Polo is for in your life.
I think this tool is ideal for most adults everywhere but truly amazing for two groups in particular:
People who prefer not to type
About half the world learned languages with Roman scripts — English, French, German, Spanish, etc. These happen to be the places where keyboards were invented and hence keyboards — including mobile keyboards — work reasonably well for writing those languages. Now imagine growing up with a language like Chinese and its thousands of characters. Keyboards suck for non-Roman script languages and hence is it any wonder that a billion Chinese people exchange voice clips on WeChat everyday? Voice is just a more natural, expressive and faster way to communicate. The same is true for video chat — but it’s better because emotion is conveyed in faces.
People that live far from home aka Migrants
The history of civilization is a flow of people to cities — it’s always been where the money is. In India alone, 139 million mostly men, leave their villages at non-harvest times to work in the low-end jobs that Babajob specialized. They often only read and write in the vernacular language of their home state, sleep with 9–12 people in an urban, two bedroom apartment and work 12 hour shifts as guards, drivers, waiters or cleaners. They miss their families and often send money home. In the last few years, cheap smartphone and data plans have given personalized entertainment to 400 million Indians and created an explosion in India’s data consumption. But working noon to midnight does not allow for many overlapping times to call family back in one’s native place. Marco Polo offers a real answer to this problem, with free, simple asynchronous video chat. This population’s needs and time incompatibilities with their loved ones are shared by billions of workers in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and economic hubs throughout the world. It’s also shared by me personally as someone who’s built a new family in a timezone 11.5 hours away from my own family. Marco Polo has been a welcome tool for me to feel closer to my loved ones in America.
We have lots left to do. The app’s sign up and invite experience needs work and you are likely going to tell your friends a few times that you are not spamming them in asking them to install another app (Please know we are working on making this better too).
But the end result — when you can instantly express yourself at any time to just those you love and they can too — is amazing. It really will make you feel the love and less alone.
And so, I am joining Marco Polo to head international growth because I really want everyone to have that feeling of closeness with people they love, even if those people are far away and asleep right now or at work when someone is ready to talk.
And that criteria?
Marco Polo stacks up well. Michal and Vlada are kind, mission-drived and incredibly smart founders and their focus on our culture and user retention is an inspiration. My 25 other colleagues combine excellence with a dedication to bring this feeling of closeness to everyone. The team is also entirely remote and distributed across the US, Canada and now India and hence every employee joke, meeting and demo takes place online (so many pet videos!). I expect that Marco Polo’s positive impact will be emotional and enhance connection to the people we care about most — which I’ll concede is different than the more UN-style SDG impact metrics that Babajob and other social-impact companies usually pursue. In terms of resources, It’s backers are among the best and most connected VCs in the world. And I’m overjoyed that scaling of Marco Polo beyond the States falls to me and the team we’ll build largely in India.
And so download the app at MarcoPolo.me and share it with your parents and those old friends you never get to talk to enough. Or if you want to experience binge watching in a whole new way, create a group called “Cousins” or “High School Superfriends.”
And if you are super-excited to work on product-led, super-linear growth to make this app ubiquitous, drop me an email at sean @ marcopolo.me.