If this year has taught us a lesson about the world of work, it’s that collectively, we weren’t very well-equipped in terms of the technology we use to translate the in-person experience seamlessly to a remote version. That’s led to a rush of companies launching new services to fill that hole — cloud computing and data warehousing startups, collaboration platforms, sales tools and more — and today one of the latest startups in the area of videoconferencing is announcing a round of funding to see its business scale to the next level.
Wonder, a Berlin startup that has built a platform for people to come together in video-based groups to meet up, network and collaborate, while also having a bird’s-eye view of a larger space where they can more serendipitously, or more intentionally, interact with others — not unlike in an office or other business venue — is today announcing that it has raised $11 million (€9 million) in a substantial seed round.
The funding was led by European VC EQT Ventures, with BlueYard Capital — which led a pre-seed round in the startup when it was previously called “YoTribe” — also participating.
It comes on the heels of the young startup seeing some impressive traction this year.
Wonder now has 200,000 monthly users from a pretty diverse set of organizations, including NASA, Deloitte, Harvard and SAP, which are using it for a variety of purposes, from team collaboration through to career fairs. The company will use the funding both to add in more features as requested by current users, as well as to hire more people for its team, co-founder Stephane Roux said in an interview. Those features will include sharing files and other technical services, but they will not be piled on quickly or thickly.
“We think of this less in terms of content and more about people,” he said. “The core experience is about live interaction, not just repositories of stuff. We want to build a place for collaboration and communication. Interesting ways to carve up a group virtually.”
Now, you may be thinking: another workplace video app? Hasn’t this $14 billion space race already been “won” by Zoom (which some of us now use as a verb for videoconferencing, regardless of which app we actually use)? Or Microsoft or Google or BlueJeans, or whatever it is that your organization has inevitably already signed up and paid for?
But it turns out that for all the growth and use that these other platforms have had, they are sorely lacking in their overall experience, as it pertains to what it’s like to be in physical spaces with other people. One of the key points, it turns out, is that a lot of solutions are not really built with the user experience of the larger group in mind.
Wonder is built around the idea of a “shared space” that you enter. That space comes not from a VR experience as you might expect, but something much simpler that takes a tip from more rudimentary but very effective older game dynamics. You get a single window where you can “see” from an aerial view, as it were, all of the other people who are in the same space, and the areas within that space where they might cluster together.
Those clusters could be designed around a specific interest (such as marketing or HR or product) or — if the product is being used at a career fair, for example, at a list of different companies taking part; or — at a conference — different conference sessions, plus an exhibition space.
You can move around all of the clusters, or start your own, or sit in the margins with another person, and when you do come together with one or more people, you can join them in a video chat to interact. In the future, the plan is to do more than just join a video chat; you might also be able to access documents related to that cluster, and more.
The clusters can be “public” for anyone to join, or set to private, as you might have in a physical meeting room. The overall effect is that, without actually being in a physical space, you get the sense of a collective group of people in motion.
The startup was originally the brainchild of Leonard Witteler, who built a version of this last year as a coding project at university before showing it to friends and family and getting positive feedback.
As another co-founder, Pascal Steck, describes it, he, Witteler and Roux, who all knew each other, had been looking to build a startup together, but around a completely different idea — a portal for photographers and other creatives in the wedding industry.
Given how drastically curtailed weddings and other group gatherings have been this year, that didn’t really go anywhere at all. But the three could see an opportunity, a very different one, with the software that Witteler had built while still a student. So in the grand tradition of startups, they pivoted.
Wonder had previously been called YoTribe, which sounds a little like YouTube and also plays on the idea of groups of friends who come together around special interests.
And from how Steck and Roux described it to me in an interview (over Wonder of course), it didn’t sound like the initial idea was to target enterprises at all, but people who found themselves a bit at a loss when music festivals and other events like that suddenly died a death because of COVID-19.
Indeed, they themselves were all too aware of the state of the market for videoconferencing apps: it was very, very crowded.
“The space is very busy and some great products are already out there. But as soon as you zoom into this space” — no pun intended, Steck said — “when it’s about large group meetings, these other tools do not allow for serendipitous conversations or bottom-up gatherings, and the list gets very thin very quickly. Our focus is around improving presentations, but in the case of large groups, there is just not a lot out there. Especially something building an association as we know it to how we do things in the offline world. We think we have a unique spot in the market.
“A meeting for three people can use Zoom or Teams perfectly. There is no need for anything else, but for larger groups, that is not the case and it seems like the market is really open for something like Wonder.”
The name “Wonder” is an interesting choice when the startup rebranded from YoTribe. Wonder’s main meaning is surprise and discovery, but it has long been thought and assumed that “wonder” is also connected to the word “wander”. (In fact, the two are not related etymologically, but have often crossed paths and wandered into each other’s territories over the centuries.) Similarly, the idea with Wonder the app is that you can “wander” around a room, and find who and what you are looking for in the process.
Wonder is not the only upstart video app that has picked up some attention in the last several months. In fact, there has been a wave of them launching or announcing funding (or both) in 2020 to try to address the gaps — or opportunities — that exist as a result of the features from the current leaders.
Other launches have included mmhmm (Phil Libin’s latest startup that adds lots of bells and whistles to make the presentations more than just a talking head); Headroom (founded by ex-Google and ex-Magic Leap entrepreneurs, using AI to get more meaningful insights from the video conversations); Vowel (which lets people search across video chats to follow up items and dig into what people said across different calls); and Descript, Andrew Mason’s audio effort, now also has video features.
But if anything, a lot of these newer tools fail to address the shortcomings of what it’s like being a part of a big group using a video app. In fact, many of these newer entrants highlight another set of challenges, those of the speaker, who is thus graced with better presentation tools in mmhmm, or given way better insights into the audience with Headroom, etc.
In any case, Wonder has found, serendipitously, a lot of traction from people who have identified and lamented the problems with so much else out there today. The app is still free to use, and the plan will be to keep it that way until some time in 2021, Roux said. Ironically, he pointed out that many of its current customers are asking to be charged, not least because it lends using it more credibility, which is important with IT departments and so on. All that might mean the charging plan gets pushed up sooner.
In any case, even if companies are also using something else, they are also adopting Wonder, and that has in turn piqued the interest of investors who are interested to see where it might go next.
“Throughout COVID-19, real-time video has become the default for both private and professional interactions, and hybrid working is here to stay,” said Jenny Dreier, investor at EQT Ventures Berlin, in a statement. “No other video tools come anywhere near as close to replicating real-life interactions as Wonder, so the product has explosive potential, already foreshadowed with the platform’s stellar organic growth. It’s incredibly exciting to be working with the team and to be part of the journey; I can’t wait to be a part of their next chapter.”