MOO on Skype in the Sunday Times

Say hello to the virtual boardroom

Big advances in software mean you can get to meetings without having to travel

THE biggest step many businesses can take to slash their carbon footprint is to ditch unnecessary plane journeys.

The good news is that it’s never been less essential to belch out tonnes of aviation fuel en route to pressing the flesh of a business contact thanks to giant leaps in video-conferencing technology.

Even better news is that the process has become far more cost-effective – and often free. Skype has just released version 4.0 of its popular internet-communications software and this promises greatly enhanced video quality for conference calls.

Though video conferencing has been around a while, it has been slow to take off because of the outlay required on cumbersome equipment. Jerky pictures, dropped connections and annoying time-delays made things worse. Talking to a contact on the other side of the Atlantic resembled watching a badly lip-synched film.

When times were good, and reducing carbon emissions was barely even on the business agenda, video-conferencing seemed like a poor relation to a personal visit.

Now, as the global recession sinks its teeth into so many firms’ bottom lines, it is an idea whose day has come. This growing necessity has coincided with forward leaps in technology. Faster connections thanks to greater internet bandwidth, better video compression and higher-quality cameras have all helped, along with some neat new technical tricks (see graphic), but the most important change has been the price.

Whether you need to keep in touch with partners and clients based in other countries or people stranded by bad weather, it is now cheap and easy to make a conference call using not expensive specialist equipment but a standard broadband-enabled computer and webcam.

These days you can negotiate mano a mano on your laptop’s screen as you sup a latte in a café that has wi-fi. Thanks to new software, you can even project a fake backdrop onto the image so your contact sees you in a bustling office or against a city skyline. With the click of a mouse, you can swap that industrial estate in Soli-hull for the London Eye.

Tech-savvy firms are employing video-conferencing tools not only to slash back on their travel needs but to create an entirely virtual office.

Karen Hollands runs a global language school from her house in Weybridge, Surrey, using Skype’s free video-conferencing service.

“Our business is entirely virtual. We have over 30 native-speaking language teachers in 14 countries teaching hundreds of people globally,” she said.

Her time-pressed pupils can brush up on their Mandarin Chinese from a teacher who is nearly 6,000 miles from the UK in Guangdong province in China, no matter where they happen to be that day provided they have access to a suitable computer with a decent webcam and a proper broadband connection. The lessons are recorded so students can practise pronunciation later. As the audio and video calls are free, her business overheads are kept to a minimum.

Other innovations include a webcam that lets you and the person you are talking to see each other on-screen in 3-D so long as you both wear coloured, 3-D glasses.

A traditional problem with most video-conferencing set-ups is that because the camera is at the side of the screen you can’t maintain eye-contact and see the person you are talking to at the same time. The EyeCatcher videophone (www.greeniii.com) resolves this conundrum by the cunning use of mirrors. At the moment, the EyeCatcher is a pricy piece of equipment that costs £5,500 per unit and is not portable, but like most innovations will eventually become cheaper and more compact.

According to a recent survey of small and medium-sized businesses by IDC, the analyst, the global video-conferencing market has grown from around $1.1 billion (£7 74m) in 2006 to $2 billion in 2008.

Richard Moross, chief executive of Moo (www.moo.com), a contract-printing business that offers customisable stationery, is convinced.

“Skype video is extraordinarily helpful to our business because we have 40 employees who spend a lot of time on the road visiting clients. We put a laptop with built-in webcam on the table and include people in our weekly meetings.

“The video quality isn’t brilliant but it’s good enough for us, simple to use and very cheap. We often show our international customers our designs over video link as well. And as we deliver to more than 180 countries that’s pretty important.”

Aside from quality, the main drawback of Skype video for businesses is that it is designed for one-to-one communication rather than a full business meeting with several participants. You can also only see one location at a time, whereas rival video-conferencing services, such as Sightspeed and Oovoo, enable you to see several people on screen simultaneously, even though they are in different parts of the globe. Both of these services offer basic video calling for free, though you must pay for advanced features.

The perception among many small businesses is that top-quality video conferencing is exorbitantly expensive, yet the hardware costs have plummeted. For example, Polycom (www.polycom.eu), one of the leaders in video-conferencing technology, sells a system that claims to deliver “DVD-quality” video even at low-broadband connection bandwidth of 256kbps or better for £2,500. This buys you a tilt-and-zoom camera, a fancy microphone and a dedicated computer. All you then need is to add your choice of screen.

If you want to go the whole hog, Cisco, the telecommunications giant, offers Telepresence – a life-size video-conferencing suite that can accommodate up to 16 people in each location and makes it look as if they are sitting opposite you in the room.

Fitting this deluxe service will set your firm back a sobering £125,000 a year, but many serviced offices are equipped with it. You can rent a swish one for a Telepresence video meeting that looks out over the London Eye for between £200 and £600 per hour. For example, Tata Communications (www.tatacommunications.com)has rolled out this type of facility in hotels throughout London and California. Other providers include Intercall Europe(www.intercalleurope.com), which has a database of 9,000 video-conferencing rooms around the world, and Eyenetwork(www.eyenetwork.com), which has 3,500.

The video element is only one aspect of the evolution in the way business is conducted in today’s virtual office. It is easy to find business partners in countries you have never been to and then collaborate on documents that are stored online, no matter where your new colleagues are based. Indeed, you can set up and run a successful international firm with your virtual colleagues without any of you leaving your own postcodes. Just think how you could save on the office Christmas party!

How to set up your virtual office

Get the hardware
For video conferencing you need a computer with a dual-core processor, broadband of at least 400Kbs (2Mbs is better). Most laptops have a built-in webcam and microphone, but it is best to buy a quality package, such as Logitech’s Quickcam Pro 9000 camera and headset, which costs £75.

Get the software Once you have the right hardware, you can download the free video-conferencing software from Skype (www.skype.com), Sightspeed (www.sightspeed.com)and Oovoo(www.oovoo.com ). Whichever one you pick, you and all the people you video conference with must register with the same service.

Find cyber employees
You can hire staff to perform office tasks, such as answering phones and receiving post. Virtual Office (www.virtual-office.co.uk)and eReceptionist (www.ereceptionist.co.uk)both offer this service.

Generate customers
Several business networking sites enable you to find customers that are looking for your services or products. Linkedin(www.linkedin.com )and Ecademy(www.ecademy.com )are the best known of these. You can also pitch for a specific contract at Elancer(www.elance.com)to see who bites.

Collaborate online
Some services allow several people in different locations, anywhere in the world, to work on documents at the same time.Try Google Docs (documents.google.com)and Webex (www.webex.co.uk)

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Guardian Newspaper Interview

Guardian Newspaper

Jemima Kiss interviewed me a few weeks back for yesterday’s Enterprise section of the Guardian Newspaper.  You can view the article on the Guardian website here.

Leader in their field

From a back room in Kentish Town to the dizzying surrounds of ‘Silicon Roundabout’, Moo.com has seen many changes. Founder and chief executive Richard Moross takes time to reflect on the company’s growth to date

Moo.com is at the heart of London’s start up scene — normally being passed from one techie to another in the form of a small and very distinctive business card. From new offices at “Silicon Roundabout”, in Old Street, east London, founder and chief executive Richard Moross explains how it all happened, what he’s learned and where he’s going next.

How did all this start?

For the first two years it was just me in a back room in Kentish Town — operating on a shoestring in a shoebox. I’d raised a few hundred thousand pounds from the Accelerator Group, but that was beginning to dry up and it was clear that I needed to make a step change. I needed to find a developer that could get photos on to the card, and my dad mentioned a strange guy that had pitched to him a few days before. When I met Stefan Magdalinski at Pret a Manger he started finishing my sentences: “We could do cards … for Flickr!”

We were really down to nothing and everything was going on my credit card; with what I had left I booked a ticket to ETech [an emerging technology conference in the US]. We met Cal Henderson from Flickr and he liked what we were doing. Eventually, we presented to the venture capital (VC) guys and got a second round of funding in 2006. Now we have 34 full-time staff.

When we went to ETech I still didn’t really know Stef very well, and we had to share a room in a gross little hotel. I remember rolling over in the morning and seeing Stef’s exposed buttocks. “It has to get better than this,” I thought. We can afford our own rooms now.

Where did you write your first business plan?

I produced a horrendous 200-page PowerPoint presentation — about 196 pages more than it should be. I designed every slide in Illustrator and it took me about a month.

How important is mentoring in the tech community?

One thing we have really lacked in the UK is a real physical hub. You can’t run a business virtually, and you can’t do mentoring by phone. You need to be local, have a drink after work and talk off the record. Some of the smarter VCs put local businesses together and pair companies up. I’d never run a business before I started Moo and being exposed to other people who have started companies two or three times has been a fantastic help. You minimise risk by surrounding new people with experienced people.

How different are the UK and US tech scenes?

We don’t have the models for success in Europe, although that is changing. London is the hub of Europe: look at Skype — developers in Estonia, registered office in Luxembourg and headquarters in London.

Do you use social media to recruit?

The most important piece of social software is a person, so the first thing we hired was an HR manager; if you grow quickly, you need to. Most people we have hired have been friends of friends or ex-colleagues, and I have personally posted for jobs on Twitter, put stuff on Facebook, in my blog and I use LinkedIn every day — I’m not sure what I’d do without it. I’ve used a recruitment agency twice to recruit very senior people where we needed someone at the top of the organisation with several years’ experience.

Are you worried about the credit crunch?

It’s not affecting our business. It could do, but we’re providing a very low cost, affordable product that helps small businesses — it’s not a luxury item. When you’re trying to make an impression it’s the small things that make a difference, and we make the small things.

Is it important for brands to express some sort of personality online?

That depends on the brand. Companies don’t need to express anything, but if they do, it needs to be real, otherwise it feels like corporate bollocks. Our blog is written by Denise [Wilton, creative director at Moo.com] and it’s an extension of her personality; we couldn’t try to write the blog as Denise. I think that has crept into other organisations and it feels like a false one-to-many conversation.

How do you divide your work life and your personal life?

You just have to be yourself, both in business and real life. You do need boundaries sometimes, like with employees, but you have to be the same person. You can’t bring to work this weird, authoritarian character and be someone else in your personal life. My investors follow me on Twitter and I still write stupid stuff, but they know I’m a funny, stupid person.

What do Mooers use to communicate in the office?

Mouths and ears, predominantly. It’s not one of those quiet offices where people just talk on Backchannel.

How do you encourage staff to be creative?

We don’t fuel our staff with treats to make them creative and we don’t have innovation schemes. We hire creative people, so they just are. This was an architectural practice before, so it’s an open-plan, light space and it’s really important to make people comfortable when they work
so hard. We have lunch every Friday and then a social after work. And if it’s someone’s birthday, we’re allowed booze at lunchtime.

What would make your work life easier?

Concorde to San Francisco. I travel once a month, 12 hours each way, and it is draining. Any device that allows people to travel more quickly without timezones. A DeLorean would be good, or a jetpack.

Who do you admire?

Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large of Wired magazine. And Robin and Saul Klein, our investors.

What do you wear to work?

On my first day at my last job, at a company called Imagination, I turned up in a suit. I was the only person in a tie, let alone a pink tie. I was so embarrassed I went out and bought black everything: black socks, black suit, black shirt — everything. I wear black. I wear black to work, at home, to the beach. I’ve got 36 black shirts. I do like to accessorise with colour, but there’s something reassuring about black.

What’s the most important thing you have learned?

Just because you are the smartest person in the room, that doesn’t mean you should be the leader. It’s understanding where people’s real strengths lie and helping them understand that. The part I really enjoy is doing deals and having that relationship with another business — how you can put some things together and get something greater than the sum of its parts.

Where would you like to be in five years?

Working on my new business. In five years, I think my work here will be done and I’ll have taken this to a profitable exit. I will have taken my unique blend of sarcasm and laziness to some other organisation.

Guardian Newspaper

MOO (and Silicon Roundabout) on FT.com

Move over Silicon Valley. New York’s Silicon Alley is a Web 1.0 relic. And Cambridge’s Silicon Fen is just SO pre-crunch. Now Silicon Roundabout is staking its claim as the new tech start-up hub of the moment.

Previously known as the busy junction where London’s Old Street meets City Road, Silicon Roundabout is not the most salubrious of locations for budding entrepreneurs. But a coalescence of young web and tech companies in EC1 dates back to dotcom days. Alongside cheaper rents and a surfeit of bars, tapping into that experience is part of the area’s appeal for many of its newer residents.

Many will be hoping to follow the example of local hero Last.fm. The online music community was bought by CBS for $280m (£140m) last year, one of the largest UK web company buyouts of recent years.

“Old Street was a seemingly unlikely place to build a web company when we came here six years ago, but there’s no doubt it’s now becoming a hive of tech activity,” says Martin Stiksel, Last.fm’s co-founder. “The noise, vibrancy, and underground attitude of East London certainly rubs off on you, and inspires fresh perspectives – something I think all these start-ups share. It’s a million miles from sterile, air-conditioned Silicon Valley, literally and metaphorically.”

Right on Silicon Roundabout is Moo.com, which prints business cards based on photos from sites such as Flickr or Facebook, and other real-world products based on virtual content. One dotcom survivor is Moo’s chief technology officer, Stefan Magdalinski, who previously founded UpMyStreet, a local information site, and TheyWorkForYou.com, which helps UK voters find out more about their MPs.

Moo’s founder and chief executive Richard Moross also has a keen eye for a bargain – netting offices for a fraction of local rates because they’re due to be demolished in coming years – and “knows how to throw a party”, according to Matt Biddulph, a neighbour and CTO of Dopplr, a travel site. Indeed, Moo’s summer party last Thursday was abuzz with chatter about the newly anointed Silicon Roundabout, coined last week by Biddulph on micro-blogging service Twitter to describe the “ever-growing community of fun start-ups in London’s Old Street area”.

“For me it’s all about the community here,” Biddulph told the FT. “We moved in because our friends did too.”

He says Old Street appeals because it is away from the throngs of shoppers in Soho, where (for instance) Bebo is based, but near enough to the City and the West End for meetings with financiers or media types – as well as the cheaper areas of east London where shoestring-budgeted entrepreneurs may live. Plenty of hip cafés with free WiFi such as Shoreditch Old Station and Coffee@Whitecross Street are on hand to caffeinate developers.

“Critical mass comes from network of people,” says Biddulph. “There were some really interesting companies here in first dotcom boom, and a lot of the companies here are having their second time around. I’m at my first start-up, so it really matters to me to have people around who know how put a business together – and how to find cheap office space.”

The Dopplr CTO has plotted his fellow Roundabouters on (what else?) Google Maps to lend credence to the idea (see http://bit.ly/siliconroundabout). But Silicon Roundabout’s claim to be the heart of the London tech scene is already being challenged by Huddle, a provider of online collaboration software who is building a similar concentration of talent in Bermondsey Street, South London. Huddle, Moo and Dopplr are all involved in mentoring at Seedcamp, a London event which aims to foster the next generation of European entrepreneurs.

“There are two or three competing camps starting,” says Alastair Mitchell, Huddle co-founder and chief executive. “But competition is good. We’re all trying to grow this community.”

Reuters Interview

By Gina Keating

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A search for fun holiday cards yields a world of choices on the Web, where sites will personalize greetings, offering distinctive missives from elf aerobics to Santa wearing only a mistletoe sprig.

The sites range from the free-wheeling MOO.com and Zazzle.com, with thousands of user-generated images for Web savvy shoppers who demand to stand out, to the easy-to-use MyCardMaker.com, beloved by busy middle-aged clientele.

The U.K.-based site MOO.com has drawn more than 2,400 user-generated entries for a holiday card design contest it is sponsoring with a $2,000 prize.

The only rule governing entries is that designs should be “vaguely related to the holidays,” MOO.com founder and Chief Executive Richard Moross said.

“We want to be open to people’s different interpretations of the holidays,” Moross said. “It’s a very distinct alternative to the massive (greeting card) industry.”

Rather than shuffling through racks of spangle-encrusted greetings in card stores, MOO.com users can choose from thousands of contest entries or professional design images and write their own holiday messages.

The images, including personal photos, can be cropped and rotated and laid out in a variety of ways on card stock supplied by MOO.com. To complete their order, users choose the color scheme, font style and card size.

A package of 10 cards, assorted or all the same, printed on high-grade card stock costs $19.99, plus about $5 shipping, and takes five to 10 days for delivery, Moross said.

Although Moross started the site in 2004 for an Internet savvy customer he modeled on his 19-year-old sister, the breadth of the site’s users has surprised him.

“The world has kind of grown up and everyone is doing it now,” he said.

For consumers short on time or computer skills but long on ambition, MyCardMaker.com aims to take the frustration out of card-customizing by limiting their choices.

The process, which takes about three mouse clicks to complete, is especially appealing to the site’s main clientele: women, ages 35 to 60, said spokesman Tim Letscher.

“It’s rudimentary and simple. That’s the way our customers like it,” Letscher said.

Earlier this year, users complained when the company tried to remove suggested greetings from inside the cards, so they were reinstated, he said.

The site has a selection of about 180 cards designed by professional illustrators and artists, and 75 holiday-theme photo borders. Users can, and often do, use their own photos for cards, but the site does not have retouching tools — too complicated, said Letscher.

For membership fees from $3.99 for a day to $29.99 for two years, users can design and email or print on their home computers as many cards as they like. The membership fee also entitles users to discounts on professional printing jobs.

On the other end of the spectrum is Zazzle.com, which offers “an unlimited number” of images because its tools let users customize all four panels of a card, and the postage stamps as well, spokeswoman Amber Harrison said.

Zazzle is running a daily card competition featuring art and photo submissions by amateurs and professionals that are available for customizing.

The site’s design tool can alter practically any component of an image with hundreds of fonts, and text and color choices. Or, users can start from scratch with their own photos or illustrations.

Single greeting cards start at $2.95 with discounts given for larger orders.