Interview with Spencer Lambert (Present.Me)
Present.Me allows you to use your webcam to record yourself giving presentations.
I interviewed Spencer Lambert, Present.Me co-founder to find out more. This is the hundred and nineteenth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Spencer!
For those that have not come across it, how would you describe Present.Me in under 50 words?
Think YouTube meets Slideshare. Whether it’s a presentation, pitching for business, updating your team or applying for a job, Present.me allows you to record your ideas online, simply and cost effectively. Upload your content (slides, images, or document), record yourself using your webcam then publish and share, publicly or privately.
What was the motivation behind founding Present.Me?
The idea evolved out of a side project I was working on to move my presentation design consultancy online, and a need that some of our clients had at the time. We were looking at how we could run a ‘Speaker Idol’ contest where we could audition presenters and their slide decks being presented together online. We looked at the tools that were available and discovered that however we looked at it, there was no simple easy way to put a presentation online. At the same time we were charging our clients a huge amount of money to video the presenters and then merge the slides into the background so they had something that had the same impact as a live presentation but could be watched on demand.
The idea for an online tool evolved, but we weren’t doing anything with it until Richard (Present.me co-founder) called me one afternoon and said ‘webcam’ to me. As soon as he said it I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibilities for where we could take it, and that was the spark that really ignited the journey we’ve been on for the last couple of years..
Who is the team behind Present.Me? How did you all meet?
Unusually, there are four founders behind Present.me. I’ve known & worked with Mike Marshfield on and off for the best part of 20 years, a little known fact is that we were once in a band together called ‘The Love Sharks’!! Mike introduced me to the web in the mid 90s, and he’s been involved in building websites and web technology ever since. Richard Garnett and I met when we were both working for a senior executive of KPMG, helping him on a career defining speech. Richard was helping on content and performance, and I was helping with slide design. Charlie Simpson is Richard’s business partner in Garnett & Simpson, their communications consultancy. Because of our complimentary skills, Richard, Charlie and I have been working together since that time on helping our clients with a full spectrum of presentation / communication services.
What technologies have you used to build Present.Me?
The whole infrastructure sits on Amazon Web Services. Our recorder is built in Flex, with a Wowza 2 backend which is being upgraded to Wowza 3 as we speak. Presentation playback is in Flash or HTML5 depending on device. The rest of the site is built in Railo, an open source CFML, with MySQL & Heroku databases. We use a whole host of external services for added functionality such as Pandastream, Pusher, Sendgrid etc. It’s a real mixed bag of technologies, driven by 3 basic questions, what’s the best available? How long will it take to implement? Can we afford it?
What was technically the most challenging part of developing Present.Me?
One of our biggest challenges was finding a developer who had the necessary skills and knowledge in a pretty narrow field of web technology. A high end Flex developer with a deep understanding of video is hard enough to find, but then finding one who would agree to build a prototype for something that hadn’t been done before on a pretty tight budget proved even harder! We found the right man, and we’ve been working together ever since. The biggest technical challenge was the realisation that we’d need to include some method of editing into the recorder before we launched. Adding this functionality was a four month project as it took what was a pretty simple application and made it extremely complex, both client and server side.
How long did it take to put together Present.Me?
It took about a year to get it into beta from initial idea. It could have gone faster, but we were self funding and working on it part time. From beta to launch in May of this year was another 12 months, and that involved listening to all the feedback we were getting and basically rebuilding everything from the ground up. Things always take longer than you want them to, and that can be frustrating at times, but I’ve learned it’s not a race, it’s about making something amazing.
Do you have any new features in the pipeline? Any plans for live meetings?
We’ve decided not to go for the live meeting market for now, it’s a crowded place with plenty of big boys with deeper pockets and bigger marketing budgets than we have. We are launching the multi user version of Present.me in September, and that will have a massive impact on how & who we can sell this service to. Other cool features in the pipeline are ‘downloadable’ Presentmes, for offline playback and full Google Apps integration.
What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?
That’s a deep question! The biggest thing I regret (and I really don’t regret much in life) is that I didn’t capitalise on my early experience of the web. I’m going to go a bit further back than 5 years to explain. I was building very basic websites for people back in the late 90s, and had a real chance to extend and develop that knowledge if I’d had more confidence in my technical ability. A bit later on I founded an e-commerce website just as the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. I learned a massive amount in what is now a huge market, but left that after a couple of years and then did nothing with the experience I’d gained.
Has Present.Me got the feedback and growth you expected since beta launch?
Feedback from users has been phenomenal – lots of cool ideas, some of which make it on to the next week’s iteration. I’ve been disappointed with feedback from the tech media, the general consensus has been ‘presentations – that’s boring and old hat’ – or ‘I don’t get it, I’d just do a screencast’. None the less, nearly everyone we show it to that has an office based job, within minutes of seeing it will start telling us how they could use it in different ways. We just did an event called The Startup Games run by UKTI & Start Up Britain, which involved pitching to 100 other startups – everyone I spoke to had a use case they could think of straight away.
Growth has been good, but not yet what I’d call fantastic. We’re building up momentum, and signing up more new users every day – they in turn are creating more presentations, which then makes Present.me a richer place to visit for content. That content drives new sign ups, and then we are on a virtuous circle of growth.
Where do you see Present.Me in 5 years time?
A big question! My hope is we are successful in whichever way our path takes us – things move so fast and often in unexpected directions. I do know that nearly everyone could use Present.me in some way or another as we have such a wide scope of uses. I’d like to see Present.me as part of the everyday suite of applications that are used by the millions of us that are knowledge workers, alongside Microsoft Office, Skype, Yammer or their future equivalents.
How many users upgrade to the Plus account? What’s your philosophy on converting free members?
I can’t give you numbers at this stage, but during the beta period when there was very little difference between the paid and free accounts, the numbers were disappointing. Since the launch in May, our conversion rate is exactly where we thought it would be. I’m not sure we have a philosophy on converting free users, but we do have an email campaign we take them through to point out to them all the lovely features they could get if they upgrade. We also have various touch points in the app that again nudge them to upgrade to get shiny new features that they might find useful. My honest opinion is that most free users will remain free users and will never upgrade no matter what you entice them with, but there are some that need that little prod, and that makes the effort to convert them worthwhile. Most of those that find Present.me and find it useful and need the extra features will pay up front anyway.
Who would you say is your biggest competitor?
There are a number of companies that have similar technology to us, companies like Looplogic or Knovio, but their approach to market and product vision is very different to ours. I would say that Brainshark are the nearest thing to competition, in some ways they’ve validated part of our potential market, but because our application does more and is easier to use, our market potential is greater.
I’ll be keeping my eye on Slideshare & LinkedIn to see what happens there, but my guess is they are thinking and working hard to integrate both platforms further. There are screen-casting platforms that some would say are competition, but I don’t think the average office worker would find themselves using that type of technology. We can’t ignore the live presentation platforms like Webex and GotoMeeting, but my guess is they are working hard to re-engineer as more lightweight live platforms to compete with the web 2.0 players who are stealing market share rather than thinking about launching an on-demand service.
You’ve worked on hundreds, if not thousands of presentations for large blue chip clients. What’s the worst presentation experience you’ve ever had?
There have been a few, but I’ll tell you about the one that could have had the biggest impact. I can’t name names as I signed an NDA at the time, but it was over 12 years ago now so I think I can tell the story….
I was working for a huge multi-national carbonated drinks company, and they were pitching to a huge multi-national burger chain to replace the incumbent carbonated drinks company as the drinks supplier of choice throughout Europe, the Middle East & Africa. In terms of value, the contract was apparently worth the GDP of Lichtenstein or something like that – anyway, it was a big deal, and the numbers were huge. We worked on the presentation for about a month (yes a month!), and then flew out to the International HQ in the USA for the presentation. The morning of the presentation we were making last minute changes in an adjacent office, and with minutes to go we ran to the boardroom and set up. In the rush I hadn’t had time to set up the backup system that we always carried in case of emergencies. Just as the team being pitched to walked in, my computer flashed the blue screen of death and the whole thing crashed. I grabbed the bag with the backup, opened the laptop lid, and luckily it was only on standby. I flicked it on, opened the presentation and plugged it in to the projector just as they’d finished their introductions and were sitting down to start the presentation. Up popped the first slide, and they were none the wiser. I, however, was a nervous wreck!
What is the biggest hurdle you, personally, have faced or are still facing?
I’m not young any more – it was much easier to start my first business at 26 than it is now, because I had nothing to lose. I’d just got back from travelling, and pretty much had the clothes I was standing in and nothing else. I’m 41 now, I have a partner and 3 children and I’d built a lifestyle that suited my income. Maintaining that lifestyle and the plans we had before I started this business has been impossible, despite the fact my partner owns her own successful business. The whole family has had to make sacrifices because of my ambition – that for me is the hardest part of this, although I’m sure if you asked my kids, they wouldn’t have even noticed!
You have bootstrapped 3 businesses. What one piece of advice would you give to new startup founders?
Don’t be afraid to seek out financing on your terms. I used to think it was ‘cheating’ to get investors, and that perhaps is was nobler to build a business from the ground up using blood, sweat and tears. I’ve suffered from under-finance and had to build something with a chronic lack of people and money, and that is frustrating because you can’t execute on your ideas. I’ve also suffered from over-financing (in this case with bank debt), and that brings different issues. With too much money, it’s very easy to say ‘yes’ to things you might not need right now, or ignore deeper issues within the business because they’re hidden by a comfortable bank balance.
Have a plan for what you want to do, work out how much it will cost, add a contingency for unknowns, and then seek out that amount of money and no more.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
Having a night out at the Theatre with my partner and leaving the kids with their grandmother for the night!
Can you convince the reader to start using Present.Me in under 50 words?
Has anyone ever asked you to send your slide deck, and you’ve thought, ‘There’s no point, I’m not there to explain it’?
Have you ever sent an email and it’s been completely misinterpreted?
Ever found yourself explaining the same thing over and over again to different people?
You need Present.me.
Finished reading? Check out Present.Me!