If you've ever done a conference call, you know all of the ways in which communication can break down. I know I do. My recent call with the founders of Highfive, a new video conferencing startup launching Oct. 7, took 15 minutes to start because no one could hear me on the other end. (A coincidence? It's hard to say.) In any case, I was more primed than usual to hear a pitch about solving conference call snafus. 

"This happens all around the world, so we basically said, let's try to fix that," CEO Shan Sinha told me when we finally connected. General Catalyst Partners, Google Ventures, and Andreessen Horowitz, as well as angel investors Drew Houston and Inc. entrepreneur of the year Aaron Levie have invested $13.5 million in Highfive (formerly known as Parlay Labs) so that the startup can do precisely that.

Of course, Highfive is entering a highly competitive industry. On the high end, there are multinational companies such as Cisco and Polycom, with deep pockets and manpower worldwide. And on the freemium end of the spectrum, Skype presents an easy-to-use service that Highfive will have to trump with its own hardware. Does the world really need another video conferencing technology? As more people are working from home and looking for ways to connect with the office, Highfive is betting that now is exactly the right time for something new.

The Technology

Highfive's set-top box, which resembles Apple TV with a cube-shaped camera, seems easy enough to install, and the $799 a room price point certainly beats that of competitors Cisco and Polycom. And let's face it, your garden variety starfish intercoms haven't changed since the mid-1990s. The technology's clunky, baffling to use, and most of all, no one enjoys it.

"The biggest challenge," said Sinha, whose enterprise startup DocVerse was acquired by Google in 2010, "is just getting a presentation going. You run into all kinds of hassles."  

Highfive uses Wi-Fi and mobile technology via iOS or Android devices. The service sends a link instead of a dial tone, which then shows up in your calendar. Click that link and it drops you into a video call. "Whenever you walk around you always happen to have some device on you," said Sinha, so "instead of making some new interface you would have to learn, we decided to let you take advantage of the new way we're working." 

Transforming Office Culture 

Up until now dedicated video conferencing set-ups have been relegated mostly to the wood-paneled C-suite. Maybe some employees jump on free online servies such as Skype or Google Hangouts, but that's often on more of an ad hoc basis. With Highfive, Sinha sees video conferencing becoming a bigger part of everyday interactions in the office. "Five, 10 years ago, you saw people invest in video with the hope of saving on travel. What we're seeing now is the CEO wants to be connected to all of his office and maintain that culture," he said.  

Companies such as Warby Parker and Shutterfly signed on early to try Highfive's service in beta. But even if more corporate headquarters are enthusiastic about an easy way to get more face time with remote employees and are willing to pay for it, there's another group that might require some convincing: the telecommuters themselves.

"I think video conferencing works when there are groups of people," Penelope Trunk, founder of the career website Brazen Careerist and an entrepreneur who's worked from home for several years, said by phone. But, she adds, "When we have the option to be visual or not, people at home choose not to be." 

After all, a video chat might give away that you're working in your pajamas or multitasking on an important conference call.

Sinha, for his part, begged to differ with that assumption. "People want to bring their whole selves to work" and connect with colleagues in a deeper way. "There's a bigger trend toward that than wanting to segment work from personal life," he said. "The always-on culture is promoting that." 

Published on: Oct 7, 2014