By Andrew Patterson
While Skype might have become one of the internet’s most popular free downloads, allowing millions of users around the world to enjoy face to face telephony, the system does have its limitations when it comes to business users.
Enter home grown technology company Hitech Solutions which has taken the best of Skype and integrated a range of software technologies, including Windows applications such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint, to produce a cost effective video conferencing solution known as FaceMe.
Not to be confused with its more famous social networking namesake, FaceMe provides a seamless platform for business users wanting to hold meetings between multiple parties turning their respective computers into virtual meeting rooms with all the usual features that would normally be required.
The browser based software technology is the brainchild of company founder Danny Tomsett who began developing the product in 2007 after customers expressed frustration at the need for matching hardware and software to run existing video conferencing systems.
As Managing Director Mark Christensen explains, that led to one of those ‘eureka’ moments when it became obvious there was an opportunity to capture a decent slice of the market that wasn’t being properly catered for by existing providers.
“We thought to ourselves that surely, if I can make a phone call and it gets through, send an email and it gets through then why can’t I have a video call and know that it’s going to get through as well?”
“The simplicity of the system is that it’s all designed around the browser eliminating the need for software downloads. It’s also fully compatible with different computer hardware and software systems and participants can be located anywhere.”
FaceMe opens a world of possibilities, not only within a business context but also in areas such as healthcare and education and goes a long way towards removing the infamous ‘tyranny of distance’ issue, particularly when engaging with customers globally.
“We now have a very cost effective product that allows FaceMe users to collaborate in a very personal way with their customers that was difficult to achieve before now, short of jumping on a plane.”
But it’s not only traditional business customers that are using FaceMe.
Auckland’s Takapuna Grammar School is also utilizing the technology to allow students to converse in Japanese, in real time, with students in South Korea.
Deputy Principal Bryan Wynn says FaceMe is the way of the future for classroom learning.
“It’s very effective as a teaching tool and what I particularly like about it is the way students can manage the technology themselves. They just log on and away they go. For teachers that’s a real bonus and the students really enjoy the personal engagement and being able to share images and photos with each other so it brings the whole learning experience to life.”
Developing a technology solution obviously involves dealing with plenty of hurdles along the way, but Mark Christensen says it’s thanks to feedback from customers that has allowed FaceMe to rapidly improve its product offering.
“We’ve got a very scalable product now which has allowed us to take it to the market internationally and yes, it’s taken a lot of hard work to get it to this point but one of the advantages of developing a product like this is we’ve had a lot of customer validation and feedback along the way, particularly in terms of getting the user experience and interface right.”
Protecting the intellectual property the company has developed is also important for businesses like FaceMe.
“Users are going to see how we operate so you can only protect the actual interface so much, but in terms of the back end of the business we certainly have that securely locked down both in terms of hardware and software.”
As far as competition goes, there are two ends of the spectrum available for those wanting video conferring facilities including Skype and Cisco webex at the low end, through to top end products such Polycom and Cisco’s telepresence which offer high definition large screen options.
“FaceMe sits somewhere in between these two options but our technology integrates easily with other systems so we can bring their meeting rooms into ours which obviously benefits the end user.
The potential for FaceMe is only limited by the imagination of the user; something that Mark Christensen says becomes apparent when the product is showcased at international trade shows.
“You can see the excitement from resellers who want to get hold of the product to distribute in their marketplace. The real advantage we have is the width of the market we can enter, everything from government to education. However, it’s the health sector that we’re most excited about. Telemedicine is the way of the future as health providers continue to look for efficiencies in their service delivery and we can provide a key part of the platform to facilitate that process.”
For most businesses it’s the efficiencies that video conferencing offers, particularly when it comes to productivity, that makes the system most appealing. Avoiding the need to fly staff around the country with all the down time that can involve can be a significant cost saving in itself.
“Customers regularly share examples of being able to attend between six and eight meetings a day using FaceMe when previously they were limited to perhaps just three or four.”
Payment is on a monthly subscription model which means a basic three user option for a small business can cost as little as $200 a month through to $1000 a month for corporate plans.
As we’ve heard from other businesses in this series, being able to recruit qualified staff is an on-going issue for the company.
“The growth of companies like Orion Health and Xero have gobbled up a lot of developers with coding experience but the other category of staff we are always on the lookout for are effective international sales staff who are also successful channel managers.
The company must be doing something right on the HR front because in the last three years not one of its 40 staff has opted to leave.
“We’ve adopted a lot of the Silicon Valley approaches including a games room, flexible working hours and being very careful to ensure the staff we take on fit into our company culture. As we continue to grow I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to maintain this but at least it speaks volumes about the type of staff we’ve brought on.”
Last year, FaceMe won the inaugural BNZ Virgin Business Challenge which includes an hour with Sir Richard Branson himself, no less.
“He’s a bit of a genius in the marketing and promotional space and he’s got a telco business in his portfolio so we’ve got a bit in common. I’m looking forward to getting some insights from him.”
As to the future, FaceMe can only see blue skies and the possibility of an IPO listing somewhere down the track.
“We’re aiming to expand in Singapore, Canada the U.S. and the U.K. in the near term and as capital becomes more and more of an issue we could eventually list on the NZX. That remains an option.”
Watch this space. FaceMe might eventually be New Zealand’s answer to Facebook.
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