PowerPoint to the People

A 2001 New Yorker essay entitled “Absolute PowerPoint” contained the stunning claim that over 30 million PowerPoint presentations were being given every day. The article attributed this statistic to Microsoft; it did not say how the company gathered the data. But whatever the actual prevalence of PowerPoint in 2001, it’s surely even greater now, given that many more people own laptops today than seven years ago. In fact, PowerPoint has become such a universal medium that it wouldn’t be surprising to see great fields of PowerPoint presentations blooming on the Web, alongside other forms of user-generated content.

And that’s just what is happening. BrainShark of Waltham, MA, today officially opened the world’s first repository for ready-made business presentations, complete with audio narration. Some of the presentations are free; others cost $15 to $50. It’s like YouTube meets Amazon for PowerPoint.

BrainShark, a nine-year-old, 110-employee company that’s raised a total of $23 million in funding from the likes of Flagship Ventures, Ticonderoga Capital, SI Ventures, and Citizens Capital, is known mainly for software that allows users (mainly executives at the large companies that subscribe to the service) to upload PowerPoint presentations to a Web-based authoring tool, then record an audio track over the telephone. Customers or employees can then access the finished presentations online as part of marketing, training, or “e-learning” campaigns. Over 700 companies use the service, including more than a third of the Fortune 100, according to BrainShark CEO Joe Gustafson.

But the company recently realized that there might be demand for a PowerPoint exchange—somewhere a company’s HR executives could go, for example, to find a pre-made but customizable presentation on workplace sexual harassment reporting policies, rather than having to build one from scratch. PowerPoint has long included an “AutoContent Wizard” that provides templates for specific situations such as “Employee Orientation,” “Project Post-Mortem,” and even “Communicating Bad News.” And the New Yorker exaggerated only slightly in saying that these templates are “so close to finished presentations you barely need to do more than add your company logo.” But not even the wizards at Microsoft can think of every business scenario in advance. Enough of the business world’s collective wisdom is now embedded in PowerPoint files (and perhaps nowhere else) that BrainShark believes the time has come for a rich marketplace for presentations.

“A couple of things happened recently that caused us to go to market with a content network,” says Gustafson. “The first is we are just a big enough company now to expand into an additional line of business. Also, in the marketplace you’ve got a confluence of things: a greater interest in multimedia generated by YouTube; a greater interest in user-generated content with blogging and Wikipedia; and people are more and more comfortable accessing information online. And over the years we’ve had customers come to us and say, ‘We bought BrainShark to create our own proprietary content, but we’re often creating content that we could probably buy off the shelves, as long as we could customize 10 or 20 percent of it to fit our needs.’ So we think the whole e-learning market is ripe for being turned on its head.”

Here’s how it works—starting with BrainShark’s existing presentation-authoring process, as explained by Gustafson: “You give us your PowerPoint file and it’s automatically uploaded to our secure servers. We process it to our format, and then we come back to your screen with a telephone number that you dial and enter a secure password. The automated attendant says, ‘To start recording, press this key,’ and from then on your phone is in control over your PC browser. You see your first slide in front of you. Just like with voice mail, you add some dialogue to that slide. Then you press a key on go on to Slide 2. You can stop, listen, edit, delete, and re-record. When you hang up the phone, we process it, put the audio file together with the visuals, and combine it into a link to a regular URL. Anyone who goes to that URL can play back that content on any system from any browser.”

What’s new is the BrainShark Content Network. Say you’re an expert on Sarbanes-Oxley reporting regulations. After registering with BrainShark as an author (which involves some pre-screening, meaning the network isn’t strictly equivalent to YouTube and other user-generated content sites), you can … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “PowerPoint to the People”

  1. neil greco says:

    This is a game changing approach that builds a sustainable business model with a social networking infrastructure. We’ve seen many breakthrough approaches that frequently require disruptive technologies to really impact a given market. This brings a great brand (PowerPoint)with major market penetration to new levels. Best of luck.