Online conference calling software is a dime a dozen these days; BetaKit staff has encountered many different services, almost always offering very little in the way of differentiation. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see something new from Firespotter Labs, the startup founded by former GrandCentral CEO and Google Voice chief Craig Walker, that takes a completely different look at what conference calling can be.
UberConference, winner of the recent TechCrunch Disrupt NYC Startup Battlefield, is a web-based conference calling management tool that uses clever, usable design and slick programming to eliminate a lot of the pain points associated with traditional group calls. A clean visual dashboard shows users exactly who’s joined, for instance, culling from their uploaded or linked address book to put names and faces to numbers, plus they can click on participants to see information about them from LinkedIn and other social sources. Simple controls let users mute, kick out or even exclude from the conversation any participant they like, and there’s a visual indicator not only of who’s currently speaking, but also of who’s spoken in the past to eliminate asking “Who just said that?”
“The amount of collaboration, and conference calls and mobile workers [are all on the rise],” Walker explained in an interview about the opportunity UberConference is addressing. “The demands for this stuff is only growing, and the tools to do them well are still so rudimentary.”
That’s why Walker and his team took the angle of making their own conference calling solution incredibly powerful, with plenty of features at a user’s fingertips to control their call. But the key was really not about adding features on top of existing conference calling options, but making sure ones that should already be there are surfaced and easily accessible. Walker cites the recording feature, which is built-in at the bottom of the dashboard of any UberConference call and records to MP3 which can then be emailed or downloaded, as a perfect example.
“We used to use conference calling services at Google, and I think [recording is] a feature that a lot of them have, but it’s just so hard to use,” he said. “The problem with a lot of these things is that features exist, and they can do a lot of things, but no one can remember how to do them. Having a really clean interface is what we’re trying to do.”
So far, UberConference has been built thanks to $3 million in funding raised by Firespotter Labs (which also recently launched food and restaurant-focused Nosh and Nosh Lists) from Google Ventures, where Walker was entrepreneur in residence. To help drive revenue going forward, UberConference intends to offer some premium features on a paid basis, but Walker said they also want to institute ways to earn those services as rewards for free users, too, similar to how Dropbox offers members additional storage for sharing the service and getting friends to sign up.
The company’s competition is actually a number of services, but together they form a multi-headed beast with a single weakness: outmoded interfaces and complicated systems. And while UberConference doesn’t yet offer the kind of screensharing and videoconferencing services that could help it go toe-to-toe with WebEx and others of that ilk, Walker says that adding those in the future isn’t outside the realm of possibility. For now, though, the company is focused on delivering its current experience to as many users as possible, and that means expanding to the iPad and smartphones with native apps in the coming months.
Currently, people use teleconferences because they’re more convenient and cheaper than flying everyone to a central location, and because they have to. But if UberConference has its way, people will use them because they’ll actually provide an enjoyable, informative experience, not because they’re a necessary evil.