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As we plunge headlong into 2014, there are now more mobile devices on the planet than people. The disruption in telecommunications has been astonishingly rapid and far-reaching, and we are only now witnessing a fraction of it’s impact on humanity. Yet, astoundingly, conference calling is the one area that still seems stuck in 1950’s. It’s astonishing because many of us who are creating startups have to jump on these awkward party lines several times a week just to make our current ventures happen. Nothing has changed in conference call land since 1954. When Craig Walker, the inventor of GoogleVoice, told me this, he and his team were hot off winning the top prize at TechCrunch Disrupt for his latest venture, UberConference, which offers us all a path out of the time of ‘mother’s little helper’ and Elvis, and into the light. We theorized that perhaps we haven’t demanded new technology in this arena because we’re all spinning so fast, we fear that if we change the way we spin, we’ll drop the ball. It is odd if you think about it: The Civil Rights movement happened, the Internet arrived, we can’t recall not having cell phones and GPS, and still we are talking over each other in the dark.
What are we leaving behind? Few things in business are more frustrating than the old-fashioned conference call. First off, we can’t tell who’s talking, so we pretend; we inevitably talk over each other, then stop and apologize over each other; and when we want to say something privately to an associate, we can’t without other people hearing it. Danny Boice, the Co-Founder/CTO of a free conference-calling service SPEEK felt compelled to disrupt this archaic mode of functioning, “You dial a number, you dial a pin, you hear cheesy elevator hold music. It’s just this really crappy experience that people have just given up on and accepted. We’re competing with a habit that’s been entrenched in people for decades.”
With Craig Walker’s UberConference, you can load an online dashboard that displays photos of everyone on the call. Not only that, the software delineates who is talking and presents us with that person’s social media profiles while they are talking for context. During a call, you can privately speak with a team member without anyone else on the call listening and share screens – not to mention no more annoying PIN numbers to join the call. (Just think of how many less accidents we’ll have by removing this horrific step.)
Craig Walker has assembled a team of designers and developers who seek out big markets with antiquated technology, calling it Firespotter Labs, and UberConference is their first big offering. The Labs HQ is outfitted with a full bar, a game room replete with basketball hoops, and lots of smiling faces. Though obviously brilliant, Walker is an entirely unassuming, down-to-earth guy. I interviewed some of his top team members when Craig wasn’t in town, and found that they all regard him as family – an excited older brother to some, the ideal father figure to others.
Now up to 50 employees, UberConference has more than doubled their staff in the past two years, and raised $15 million in a Series B. While he didn’t grow up imagining to be successful entrepreneur, Walker is now living the dream of one, “To be in control of your own destiny and to be able to work on things you think up, and to be able to work with amazing people you’ve chosen to work with, I’m excited to go to work every day.”
During the 90’s tech boom, Walker was working in Silicon Valley as an attorney for startup companies and venture capitalists, which gave him a front row seat of the action, “It felt a little limiting to be the attorney working on these deals, because you kinda wanna be the guy working on the company. It was late 90’s, the Internet was going crazy, business models were changing and one of my clients was starting a venture fund.”
Walker jumped ship to become a VC just before the bubble burst. One of his investments, Dialpad Communications, flatlined and began looking for a CEO. Walker seized the opportunity: “At that time it looked like a hopeless cause, so I was just stupid enough, risky enough or naive enough to say I was willing to do it. I started running that company — it was like operating on a corpse at the beginning because expectations were zero.”
Yet, Walker miraculously brought Dialpad back from the dead. As CEO, his team took pay cuts across the board, and he guided the company through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Eventually, it was sold to Yahoo! Voice for an undisclosed amount. From then on, phone calls out of the Yahoo! Messenger client were built on the DialPad technology.
With one successful company under his belt, Walker was up for a new challenge. This time he wanted to build a company from scratch. He pitched a new idea for telephony to Founder & CEO of CNET, Halsey Minor, who had a venture fund. Walker wasted no time when Minor made an offer, “Halsey said ‘Look, I’ll give you a quarter of a million dollars so that you can leave today, and you can start actually working on this full time.’ So, the money hit the bank at 11AM on November 3rd, 2005, by 1PM I had quit and by 2PM I was in the office working on Grand Central.”
The idea behind Walker’s next company, Grand Central, was a master stroke. It combines your cell phone, your work phone, your home phone and streamlines them into one single phone number where you can be reached for life. The number never changes, just the underlying technology. The concept was a no-brainer, and the company was quickly acquired by Google for $60 million and rebranded as Google Voice. The search giant turned out to be a perfect fit for Walker and his team: “One of the reasons we sold to Google is that we thought if any company was gonna be fun and cool enough to let us do what we wanna do, Google would be crazy enough to do it.”
For Walker’s next act of innovation, he started Firespotter Labs and UberConference inevitably came into being, “I realized, ‘No one’s innovating conference calls at all, because they’re all innovating on how we do video conferencing – but out of 20 conference calls that I get on, 19 of them are a phone call, and literally nothing has changed in the last 25 years.” This is what the great serial entrepreneurs do: They see how something could be better and take action. And Walker is not stopping there as he guides UberConference in it’s development, “At first it was trying to get people to think this is ridiculously different, now we’re trying to say this is ridiculously easy.”
This year, UberConference plans to roll out screen sharing and offer a giant interactive web conference – effectively an unlimited number of participants in order to push the collaborative nature of conferencing. In the New Year, it’s time we hop several decades forward and do business better by embracing the disruptive innovation in this arena.