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SA video-conferencing start-up takes on Zoom, Microsoft

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South African video-conferencing Web application room.sh has gained traction in the past few months, growing to more than 50 000 monthly active users worldwide.

The Cape Town-based start-up says it is making inroads into the video-conferencing tech space to compete with the likes of Zoom and Microsoft, with its user base making more than 100 000 video-calls a month.

Room.sh was introduced in early 2019 by co-founders of e-learning platform SkillUp Tutors: Matthew Henshall (CEO), Andrew Cowley (head of product), Federico Lorenzi (CTO) and Kent Hawkings (engineer).

It was initially a free platform developed to test the software used on its e-learning tools and to engage with customers.

Throughout 2019, the app largely had a South African user base of about 5 000 monthly active users, a number which has since increased tenfold, with the majority of users based outside SA.

Thevideo-conferencing platform is designed for recurring team meetings, providing users with collaborative note-sharing tools to help them get the most out of their meetings, according to the founders.

The impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has led to a rapidly growing video communication service market, as tech giants battle it out to introduce new remote working services or expand their existing offerings.

Video software providers such as Microsoft, Cisco, UberConference,Google and Zoom Video Communications have reported a dramatic surge in demand for their work-from-home services, as the impact of COVID-19 has resulted in an urgent need for remote interactions across industries.

Henshall points out that the key feature which distinguishes the application from its competitors is that it is more than a video-calling app – the video-calling aspect of room.sh comes second.

“Zoom and Google Meet are utilities – it makes no difference which of the apps you use, they do the same thing, which is video-calling.

“What sets room.sh apart is that there is a collaborative environment that has the ability to improve the quality of a team's online meetings more than that of competitors. In one service offering, team members can easily collaborate on document editors, take minutes, use the whiteboard to upload pictures, create drawings and brainstorm ideas. Most importantly, these tools are persistent, like a Google doc, they don't disappear,” notesHenshall.

Room.sh provides users with both free and paid-for services.

In 2018, the founding team received investment from local venture capital firm Knife Capital as SkillUp Tutors, with the investment thesis at the time being to expand their offering of online education technology.

Henshall emphasises how pivotally important it was for their semi-remote team to become experts at online meetings.

“A good meeting can move a company forward and over the last three years we’ve needed to get really good at meetings. We initially started building software for students and teachers to conduct live, online lessons, and almost by accident, we started using this software to conduct our team meetings. That’s how room.sh was born; now we’re on a mission to ‘make meetings better’.

According to Cowley, the room.sh continued to steadily grow until March 2020, when everything changed as the world’s businesses and schools adopted remote working policies.

“In the space of a week, we had companies, schools and individuals around the world looking for a solution to keep their businesses alive, looking for a way to conduct their meetings.

“I’ve heard us being referred to as ‘South Africa’s Zoom’, which we’re proud of, but the reality is that we’re serving customers in just about every country on the globe. We’re really grateful to be able to grow a business during this time. More than ever, we’re leading with empathy towards our customers, to serve them as best as we can during this change.”

Going forward, the company says it is working towards increasing investment, giving it the chance to scale and truly compete with listed video-conferencing companies.

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