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How mmhmm cut its quarterly board meetings from 4 hours to 90 minutes

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright January 24, 2023
We talk to mmhmm founder Phil Libin about the right and wrong ways to use video in meetings and why VR business meetings are a stupid idea.

Phil Libin founder CEO mmhmm
Phil Libin (mmhmm)

We're doing video meetings all wrong. No one should be sitting through live slide deck presentations when it's much more efficient to view recorded video at a time of your own choosing. The same is true of in-person meetings. If it's happening live, it should be interactive. Phil Libin, CEO of mmhmm, says his company has a firm rule:

It should only be live if people are taking turns talking. If you've got one person talking and no one else is saying anything, something has gone wrong. It shouldn't be a live conversation. That's a lecture. It should have been taped.

Libin launched mmhmm two years ago as a tool to help liven up video meetings and presentations. It works with most mainstream video meeting and recording platforms and allows presenters to appear on screen with their slides or other content, and resize or position any element including their own video image. While the initial focus was on improving the experience when screen-sharing a presentation, that has been refined as customers have evolved their approach to distributed and hybrid working. Most teams that now use mmhmm are using it to save the time spent in meetings on conveying information. Instead, they pre-record video presentations which other participants can view at a time convenient for them. Then when the meeting takes place, participants have already viewed the information and can spend the time on coming to a decision.

Changing the meetings experience

This dramatically changes the meetings experience. Libin says that his own business uses the tool internally for board meetings. Each participant records a 5-10 minute presentation and sends it out a week or so in advance of the meeting. Using mmhmm means that it's not just a bland slide deck — mmhmm allows the speaker to be the focus of attention as they talk through their material. He says:

That's much friendlier for the presenters because it's much lower stress. You're not presenting live, you can get it right, the tool sets are good for that. It's much friendlier for the audience, for the board members, because they don't have to watch it all at the same time. They watch it when they can pay attention to it. They don't have to watch it at 1x speed so they go much faster, because it's a person talking at slides, usually you can view it faster, 1.5x. You don't have to take notes because you're not going to miss anything. You can rewind, you can watch it as many times as you want.

The meetings themselves can then focus on the decision-making. As a result of shifting the presentation element to asynchronous viewing, the quarterly meetings have shrunk in time from around four hours to more like 90 minutes, says Libin. He explains:

When we show up live on video, in mmhmm, we pull the slides up, but we're not doing the presentations again, because everyone's already seen them. It's only a Q&A, it's only questions. So the people who did the presentation will come in, and anyone can flip to any slide visibly and point to things and ask questions and explain it. So the actual live video interaction becomes not about conveying information, it becomes about making decisions, the interactive stuff.

In addition to the quarterly video meetings, the boards meet in person twice a year, but not to sit in a room showing slides to each other — these meetings are reserved for more social activities. It's all about using each medium for what its's best suited for. Libin says:

In person is great at establishing a connection, or a relationship. It's actually bad at conveying complex information. You shouldn't convey complex information in person. You should be using it to establish relationships. Recorded video is great for explaining and for conveying complex information, but it's not very good for making decisions. You should explain things but not make decisions. Live video is actually fantastic at making decisions. It's fantastic at quick Q&A, while you're referring to things — 'What about this thing?' [or] 'Well, let's move this button here.'

Rather than trying to cram all of these things into live, in-person, boring meetings, let's do them in the appropriate place, and everything becomes much more fun.

Serving hybrid teams - but no VR meetings

Since mmhmm launched, the mainstream video meetings platforms have all added similar functionality, but the competition doesn't faze Libin. Both mmhmm and its parent All Turtles operate as entirely virtual organizations, giving them direct experience of the needs of the market that may not be evident to product teams in more traditional organizations. Its sole mission is to lead the way in serving the needs of distributed and hybrid teams. He says:

What we're doing is creating a much more effective way for people to have more humane work lives and communicate better, and hopefully, that gets copied by everyone, because we want everyone using it. I think as a secondary goal, we want to capture as much of that value as possible for our company, for our investors. But primarily, I care more about getting healthy and humane and effective communication habits established ...

We're trying to make mmhmm the signature product for hybrid teams. Let them get rid of most of the things that undermine trust and productivity in hybrid teams, which is basically a lot of bad meetings, a lot of inefficient communication.

As an example of the contrast with other vendors, the notion of donning a VR headset to hold meetings in a virtual reality setting has no place in this vision. Libin is scathing about the work that Meta, Microsoft and others are doing to enable VR business meetings. He says:

We've had hundreds of millions of years of mammalian evolution around using our eyeballs and having situational awareness of what's around us. Who's asking for this to be eliminated? ... If I'm in a video call, I want to be able to see my co-workers. But I also like the fact that I can see where my dog is, and there's a bit of a window here. I don't want to obscure that. I don't need immersion.

This is a really, basic misunderstanding on Meta's part that people want immersion. People don't want immersion. The reason that most movies aren't 3D movies is not because we haven't had 3D movies for 50 years. It's because most stories are better told without full immersion ...

There are some VR games that are great, but there's a very particular design (where it works). For business meetings — absolutely asinine! Now some of the concepts they're working on are actually quite good. I think the idea that we can have a video conversation and we can interact with some common objects, of course. But you can do that on a flat screen. You can do that with mmhmm, you can do that with Zoom, all of the video platforms have versions of this. The Metaverse stuff is bizarrely stupid.

It's also physically impractical, he notes:

Mathematical proof that it'll never work — can't drink coffee with it. The coffee cup hits your headset, and you spill coffee on yourself ... I'm completely serious, that is the hill I will die on. I will not have a meeting if I can't drink coffee.

My take

Most people find video meetings an unsatisfactory experience — but maybe that's because most people are doing them wrong. The routine that mmhmm has established is very different from how the vast majority of organizations run their meetings, and it means learning a new set of habits. Recorded video that people view asynchronously is recommended as a time-saver by Slack, too, but it requires discipline to take the time to view the video ahead of the meeting. It's also probably true that the time each participant takes to compose the video presentation and then view everyone else's likely adds up to most of the two-and-a-half hours saved by not spending this time in the meeting itself. But there's still an argument to be made that the time is better spent and should lead to better decisions.

Certainly, there's a lot to be said for Libin's pyramid of video experiences — recorded for information sharing, live for interactive discussion and in-person for relationship building. This is a logical separation of activities, with each reserved for the medium that best suits it. There are other potential benefits, such as building up an archive of curated information in those recorded presentations, while the live video meetings can have AI tools taking automated notes and action points. All of these capabilities are gradually being exposed and explored as businesses and teams try out these new distributed patterns of work and begin to establish new habits better suited to a digitally connected world than the way things were always done in the past.

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