Remote Always-On: Connecting Our Offices with Sqwiggle
In our previous startups, my co-founders and I have always had a desire to have a strong "always on" remote connection between offices. Back when we had DC & SF offices a few years ago, we tried setting up what we called "Project Stargate" using Skype. However, the connection would keep dropping, so after a few months we abandoned the effort.
The main lesson we learned from that experience was that reliability matters above all else. The best remote connection setup in the world will fail if it isn't rock solid.
With that in mind, when we sold Socialize to ShareThis, we were suddenly in a situation where our SF office was joined by offices in Palo Alto, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Texas, Boston, and others, so this remote connection issue became even more important to solve.
Luckily, there's a great startup called Sqwiggle that's working to solve this problem. They've taken an innovative approach: Instead of solving the vexing issue of having a reliable "always on" video connection, by default, users are shown in boxes together but as black & white thumbnails that update every 15 seconds or so, meaning the only thing that has to stay "always on" is an old-school web page. This always lets people be "together" while still having privacy, as there's no audio or video unless two or more parties enter into a conversation.
So I'm hopeful that this will solve the #1 problem, reliability. But there's a #2 problem that this approach doesn't solve: Having always-on connections gets really valuable when you can replicate those "tap someone on the shoulder when you have an idea" moments that happen when people work in the same physical spaces. To me, that's the big thing that gets lost in remote work environments: spontaneous collaboration.
So here's what we may try: We're getting microphones that have a big glowing "mute" button on them. So we're going to try keeping the main offices in a perpetual conversation on Sqwiggle, but with the audio muted. Then, when someone wants to "ping" someone in a different office, they can just un-mute the mic and say something to that person. I'm hoping that the action of just hitting the big "unmute" button will get us closer to replicating that "in the same room" experience.
We've lifehacked Sqwiggle a bit to have a dedicated machine & camera for each office (the first three squares above) which we call "NYC Stargate", "SF Stargate" and "Palo Alto Stargate". This allows us to always have the main rooms of our offices "on" and connected. Then, in the bottom right square below, you can see Paul, who is also in the NYC office, has connected to Sqwiggle directly from his work computer. This approach allows employees to connect directly if they want to, but at a minimum we always have the offices connected to each other even if no employees have connected directly.
I'll keep commenting in this thread on what's working and what's not. We tried a bunch of systems before settling on Sqwiggle: Skype (too unreliable), FaceTime (can't do more than 2 parties), Hangouts (times out after a period of inactivity), Fring, Fuze, Tango, ooVoo, Zoom, Vidyo and others. The thing I love about Sqwiggle is that it's a small, fast-moving team that's working hard to solve the exact problem we're having. The only thing I wish Sqwiggle did was a) have an option to enter into a larger fullscreen type experience when you're in a call w/ 2 or more parties, and b) that it worked on mobile devices, like tablets.
More updates to come! Please post your experiences trying to solve the "always on" remote connection issue as well.