mmhmm founder Phil Libin on the future of video meetings

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright February 22, 2021 Audio version
Former Evernote CEO Phil Libin talks about his new startup mmhmm and why video will change business interactions as profoundly as online changed commerce

Phil Libin mmhmm on Zoom call
Phil Libin, mmhmm (Screengrab by @philww)

One of the most unexpected effects of the pandemic on people's work habits a year ago was the sudden rise of video meetings. People who previously would never have dreamed of switching on video for a conference call suddenly had a visceral need to compensate for the lack of in-person connection. A year later, video calling has become the norm in business and many believe we'll never go back the old ways. Phil Libin, whose startup mmhmm was founded last May to liven up video calls and presentations, believes video has the potential to rewire business interactions in the same way that the dot-com era rewired how commerce is done. He explains:

Like the dot-com days, when the Internet came and embedded itself into the fabric of every business transaction, I think now video is going to be embedded in the fabric of every business transaction, even when people are walking around doing stuff in person ...

Over the next year-and-a-half to two years, video is going to become basically what dot-com became, which is completely ubiquitous, completely integrated into all of life. And that is a multi-trillion dollar opportunity for people who can figure that out correctly.

That's not a bad opportunity for a startup that Libin freely admits began as a joke — "We were just goofing around trying to make our own life on video a little bit more bearable." But Libin has a serious track record as an entrepreneur — he was the founding CEO of Evernote and mmhmm is just the latest offspring of All Turtles, the AI product studio Libin co-founded in 2017. The new venture has already amassed $35.6 million in funding, led by blue-chip VC firm Sequoia. Its Mac version has a growing fan base while a Windows version is in a closed beta, with general release due in the spring.

Video meetings with the look of a TV show

The app is essentially a video mixer that gives video presentations more of the visual style of a TV show, whether viewed over Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, WebEx or others. It can also be used to record video for later playback, using YouTube and similar. Presenters can appear on screen with their slides or other content, and resize or position any element including their own video image. A copilot mode allows an assistant to manage what's happening on screen or co-present. It's easy to use custom backdrops, and for meetings in gallery mode, the software highlights certain hand gestures, such as a thumbs-up or a heart, to make responses stand out.

The point is to go beyond simply replicating the experience of an in-person meeting on video — which Libin sums up as, "How do we get as close as possible to a bunch of boring people sitting in a boring room, on a computer?". Instead mmhmm helps reinvent meetings and interactions for an online, video-first world. He explains:

It's not about making it more realistic to what a meeting used to be. It's about saying, 'Well, what the hell was the point of the meeting in the first place? What can we get rid of, what can we change? How do we achieve the goals in a much better way? This is what's happening in the industry ...

A lot of 'Eyes of Sauron' have turned to this question, which is, 'OK, we know what first-generation video is like. We know that's not what it's actually going to be like in a few years. What is native-to-video experience?'

Blurring live and recorded, in-person and remote

One of the keys to understanding this change is summed up in a quadrant Libin brings up next to his image in our video chat (see picture). One axis runs from synchronous (or live) communications to asynchronous (or recorded). The other runs from in-person to distributed (ie, on-line). The rise of video and the sudden shift to distributed experiences has blurred the boundaries between the four quadrants. Libin elaborates:

In the before times, almost every experience in life and in business fit neatly into just one of these quadrants. Concerts were mostly live and in person. Doctor's visits were live, in person. University classes were live and in person. YouTube videos were online and recorded. So everything fit neatly into just one box.

The whole change in the hybrid future is that the boundaries between these quadrants melted away. We get to redesign every single experience in life, to be a combination, a re-mixing, of those four things ...

Everything is going to have a component that you do outside of the synchronized event, and some stuff in person, and some stuff on video.

He cites the example of doctor's visits, but the same principle applies to sales calls, job interviews, personal trainers and children's entertainers. Sometimes these encounters require a live appearance in person. But much of the engagement can happen in other ways that are actually more efficient and convenient than a conventional in-person appointment. He explains:

We're saying, take the stuff that's essential in person and keep it in person, and take the stuff that's better not in person and do it outside. The whole healthcare journey is a good example, there's some stuff that you need to do in person with a doctor. So do that. But all of the other stuff ... you don't actually need to be there in person 90% of the time, and you don't want to be, it's not like it's a pleasant experience for anyone. Then do that stuff separately.

The potential when video is ubiquitous

Now that we've experienced these alternative patterns of behavior, we're unlikely to go back to the old ways of doing things. That creates a huge opportunity for a venture like mmhmm, as he explains:

There's segments that video is going to play an important part in permanently, but the bulk of the value is going to be in person. There's other experiences and activities that we all do and work in in life, that are going to go 90% video, and only 10% in person, because they're better that way.

I think figuring that out, having the world make this transition the next few years, is going to be a giant restructuring of society, and business.

One example turns the old experience of emailing a Powerpoint deck on its head. As the four quadrants blur, it becomes absurd to simply send a Powerpoint without including a video narration. This creates another big opportunity for mmhmm, as Libin explains:

The PowerPoint deck isn't meant to be looked at by itself. You should do an interactive recording that the audience can consume as a movie or as a deck, as a hybrid of both.

We don't really think of ourselves as primarily about meetings. We think meetings are an important use case, but not the main one. We really think about ourselves as making you more effective every time you're interacting with the world through a video.

This is something most people are not naturally good at, he explains. It's a different skill set to be charismatic and captivating on video than it is in person. Alongside its software, mmhmm is building an ecosystem of consultants and trainers who will help its customers get the most out the platform, as well as extending into new techniques and use cases. Libin says:

We just want people and companies to be successful using mmhmm. So it's very much in our interest to learn together with our customers about how to make this stuff really good.

My take

I can hardly wait for the PC version of mmhmm to arrive. This is one of those apps that you want as soon as you see it in action — something that Libin says certainly helped when he was making his funding pitches over the summer. The reason is that we're all so much more reliant now on video for business communication. Yet despite all the efforts of the likes of Zoom, Microsoft and WebEx to make them more palatable, video meetings seem to suck all the energy out of the participants. They desperately need mmhmm's lively visual effects.

One way to reduce the drain of video meetings on all of our time is to add more automation around and outside of them — something all of the main video meeting platforms are working hard to do by linking up with an ecosystem of complementary apps. But that still leaves those moments of engagement when there's no substitute for seeing and showing in a live conversation. This is mmhmm's sweet spot.

Libin believes there will be a huge business market for this kind of app, even while the experience it delivers will have a strong consumer flavor. There are obvious use cases in sales pitches and investor roadshows, product showcases, education and training, even entertainment. I can even see this being a tool that customer service teams could adapt to liven up remote support calls and resolve issues faster.

The one big question mark is whether what mmhmm offers really is a standalone product opportunity, rather than a feature that the main video platforms will simply add into their own products as they continue to refine their own offerings. That depends on whether mmhmm's bigger rivals have the imagination to look ahead to where the category is headed. Libin's view is that the far-reaching nature of the shift to video provides plenty enough future roadmap for mmhmm to stay ahead of the game. Leaving our call on an intriguing note, he tells me:

What we've built now isn't the thing that people should be copying. It's what we're doing next.