Sqwiggle and MSLGroup

Today, we had our first meetings here in sunny San Francisco. (Seriously, after not seeing the sun for the entire five days in Seattle, it feels like a religious experience to go out for a bike ride in shorts!)

The first group we visited this morning was the PR firm MSL Group, where we met with Bryan Scanlon. Before going in to this meeting, I knew almost nothing about what a public relations firm really does (besides, you know, public relations).

MSL Group is in the top five global PR firms, so they obviously have some pretty big clients. The biggest client that Bryan works with is PayPal, so it was pretty interesting to get a glimpse into what he and the rest of the MSL Group staff do.

One of the things that stood out to me is when someone asked Bryan what kinds of stuff he does when he starts a new campaign or signs a new client. He said that coming up with cool ideas and PR stunts is relatively easy. The hard part is figuring out what effect a particular action has on the customer. Does it help their brand? Does it (accidentally) portray them in a poor light? Does it do anything at all?

Bryan clearly loves his job, and it really came out in his enthusiasm in talking to us. He says that as a PR exec, he has to really learn to know a customer forward, backwards, everything. He has to completely understand their business, their market, their target audience, their challenges, and their image. What this means is that he gets to do wildly different things all the time, and he is always getting to learn new things. One day, he might be writing a blog post for the PayPal corporate blog, while on another day he could be researching the genealogy services market for Ancestry.com.

We also met with Eric Bieller, co-founder of Sqwiggle. Sqwiggle is a startup that’s focused on a telepresence solution that’s aimed a businesses that want to support remote workers.

Sqwiggle allows a business to have a “room” that everyone is connected to during the entire day. Each person is represented by a black-and-white still image from their webcam, updated every ten seconds. This provides an at-a-glance check to see if the user is busy, available, etc. From there, it’s a matter of clicking on one or more users in the room to start a quick video chat with them. The aim is to replace the action of stopping by a co-worker’s cubicle or office to ask them a quick question.

I was a little skeptical at first, but after seeing some impromptu demos, I think I’ve been convinced. At a couple of points during our meeting, one of Eric’s co-workers pinged him on Sqwiggle. He just said he was busy (or in one case introduced our group) and moved on. The interaction felt really natural and seamless.

Sqwiggle is doing some pretty sweet stuff technically. Their existing product is based on WebRTC with peer-to-peer connections. That stack supports a call with up to four simultaneous users. (The limitation is bandwidth in a P2P setup – each user has to have a full video stream to every other user). They are working on a federated server model, where they run infrastructure that allows for a conference with more than four users. That system will be based on a Node.js backend.

It was pretty cool to talk with someone as knowledgeable and passionate as Eric. He gave us a lot of really interesting information on the process of forming a tech startup, getting funding from various sources (including AngelList, something I’d read about but didn’t know a whole lot about), and how (not) to hire early employees.

Apparently, Sqwiggle might be open to hiring interns…I might just send them an email!