Vobi Wants to Update Conference Calls for Mobile Workers

Mobile devices and Wi-Fi mean that we really can work anywhere. But we’re still pulled into an office setting when it comes to conference calls and other meetings with colleagues.

Austin, TX-based Vobi says its cloud-based technology, which is being released today, can set those gatherings free. Think of it as the next generation conference call, says Wes Cole, Vobi’s CEO. “We’re moving video conferencing from a room-based interaction to a virtual collaboration,” he says.

Users plug their mobile number into a web browser to get access to the Vobi dashboard where subscribers can initiate what the company calls a “collaboration” and invitees can join in.

A screen pops up, most of which is dedicated to material related to the reason for the meeting, say, a PowerPoint presentation. (That document is not static; each participant can scroll through it on their own.) Along the bottom are small video screens of each person participating in the meeting, which looks and feels like a Skype call. On the left-hand side is a chat function with conversation bubbles among the participants. (This could come in handy if you’re on a plane and want to avoid annoying your neighbors with work talk.)

But perhaps the most useful feature on Vobi is the ability to switch devices—laptop to tablet to smartphone and back—during a conversation without officially logging out of the device you are currently using. “People want to work how they want to work,” Cole says. “We help them do that.”

During a recent demonstration, Andy Abramson, an outside spokesman for the company, stepped out of his home office in San Diego and walked along the beach behind it. The call was transferred without interruption from his laptop to his smartphone and we continued the conversation unabated even as he switched devices.

Vobi is tapping into what it says is a $20 billion market in real-time collaboration tools. The company says that market will only grow as employers increasingly support a “Bring-Your-Own-Desk” ethos for employees who prefer working and attending meetings via smartphone and tablet.

The company, which has 10 employees, raised $1.5 million in a Series A round in December 2012 from Trailblazer Capital, a Dallas-based venture capital firm that specializes in telecom technologies. Cole says Vobi will start fund raising again next month. The startup offers customers a 30-day free trial and charges $5 per user per month afterwards—a tenth of what legacy systems cost, Cole says.

Other companies offer parts of Vobi’s solution—there is IM on WhatsApp or video calling on Skype. San Francisco-based Sqwiggle seems to come close to Vobi’s product, offering what it calls “instant tap-on-the-shoulder” discussions for remote workers. The startup raised $1.1 million last year and charges $9 per user per month.

Vobi was founded in 2011 and spent 2013 revising its product following conversations with potential partners and customers, Cole says. He took over as CEO in January when co-founder Mark Castleman, who remains a shareholder, resigned for personal reasons, he added. Cole had previously worked at Alcatel-Lucent in New York in various roles.

Vobi better reflects the ways that we already interact with friends, family, and co-workers in conversations outside of business, Cole says. “A lot of what people are using in social media has impacted workplace and the way they communicate now,” he says.

As such, it allows meeting participants to drag-and-drop in YouTube videos, Dropbox documents, Outlook contacts, and other documents to share with the group.

And, unlike conference calls or in-person meetings, which are seldom recorded, Vobi archives each collaboration, so that users who missed all or part of a conversation—or who are bad note takers—can go back and catch up. “We make it easy to work efficiently,” Cole says.

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