Step by step, digital agencies are making the world around us a little cleverer. This ‘smartification’ goes beyond bits and bites… It involves facilitating people and their needs. So how does this work? ‘The Smartifiers’ is a series of case studies in which Dutch Digital Agencies members showcase what smartification looks like in practice.
Friday after-work drinks behind the laptop was deemed unsuccessful by many due to the limitations, lack of atmosphere and the remoteness of Zoom, Skype and other digital meeting tools. This case shows how tech agency Q42 is competing with Zoom on a global level by making video calls fun again, including via an escape room on a virtual island.
The idea behind Mibo emerged at Q42 when everyone ended up being stuck at home due to COVID-19 in March last year, says Taco Ekkel, CTO of Q42 and co-founder of Mibo. “All of a sudden the Friday after-work drinks had to take place via video too. It was impossible; everyone stays quiet except the person with the loudest voice. It just doesn’t work for informal get-togethers like this as there’s too little connection between co-workers.”
Frustrated by the restrictions, absence of ambiance and detachment of Zoom, Skype, Meet and the like, Q42 decided to come up with something better. “We thought: how cool would it be to move around during the Friday drinks online? We’re engineers, why don’t we just build what we need?” A prototype was developed within a week with the main features being the ability to walk around and videoconferencing. The Q42 Friday social went through the roof immediately: “We hadn’t had so much fun in ages!
People can only hear each other when they are close-by
We launched online with a website featuring an image of the online environment and sign-ups for the waiting list. Within a month we had over one thousand companies listed, all via word of mouth. It was clear we had struck gold.”
More iterations and optimisations followed and within a couple of months Mibo – a play-on-words of the Dutch expression for Friday drinks – became the product it is today: software as a service, a combination of the webcam and microphone from videoconferencing, and strolling in a 3D world that feels like a tropical island. Ekkel: “Like in real life, people can only hear each other when they are close-by, while they can also see other participants who are farther away. This automatically generates groups in the same way as normal social events. Mibo can best be described as a type of ‘first person social’. Fortnite without the shooting, but with webcam video and audio, it makes remote gatherings of groups of people fun and casual instead of uncomfortable.”
First person social
Mibo works too. Last year saw hundreds of thousands of people from companies such as KPN and Unilever celebrating their Christmas social in a special festive environment in the Mibo app – without any marketing efforts from Q42. International popularity is increasing too, with companies such as Netflix, Google, Microsoft, Warner Bros, Nike and Intel subscribing. In fact, 15% of the users are now from the US. The app is expanding in Europe too: more and more people in Scandinavia and the UK are discovering Mibo as a charming and casual alternative for Zoom and Google Meet, even for work-related events such as stand-ups, brainstorms and workshops.
While it sounds fairly easy to build this type of success, that’s not the case in practice underlines Ekkel: “It was a real technical challenge to create a complete 3D game world and large-scale videoconference on a five-year old corporate laptop. Mibo runs on a 3D engine in a web browser, which means that everyone with a computer can easily use it and send a link to other participants. There’s no need for VR glasses. Underneath we used open source-frameworks to ensure Mibo works smoothly and safely. Video and audio are not reviewed, analysed or stored. In fact: all videoconferencing streams are encrypted. It took many hours of blood, sweat and tears to make this technically possible, while ensuring everything looks smooth and friendly on the front end.”
Not every aspect they developed was a success. “We placed a poker game at a table in a bar for decoration but didn’t anticipate that people would actually want to use it. We got feedback saying that everything was great but that the poker game didn’t work. Instead, we are now developing interactives here and there that do work. Sometimes it’s nice to have something to do during a social gathering.”
Life after COVID Mibo was developed during COVID as a countermeasure to the restrictions and enforced working from home. Isn’t Ekkel worried Mibo will fade away post-pandemic when everyone returns to the office? “On the contrary, COVID has changed many things definitively. The working-from-home genie is out of the bottle and companies are increasingly selling their real estate. A new hybrid way of working will come in its stead, one in which online will be a major component. People should ask themselves whether it is actually necessary to get on a plane to see colleagues abroad. In that sense we have a mission as we believe remote working really adds value.”
“COVID has changed many things definitively. The working-from-home genie is out of the bottle.”Taco Ekkel, founder Mibo
And that is why Mibo has raised the bar so high and aims to become as big as Zoom, although this ambition was preceded by an internal debate. “When you have a service that has a strong problem-solution fit, it is important – but difficult – to determine how best to market it . Big custom projects for the coolest brands, or global domination via an SaaS platform? We started to sell large events to big companies ourselves. That’s fine in one respect as it’s the only way to determine whether your product is market-fit. On the other hand, it sold so well that – in hindsight – we could have determined sooner that we could grow even faster as a global self-service product. We underestimated that every week matters in this world. It’s a lesson we have learned along the way.”
Mibo has since become an independent company with a fast-growing team that is still looking for more staff, including engineers, designers and sales professionals. “It may be a cliché, but making a good idea great is not easy,” confirms Ekkel. “Initially we saw some pretty cool things in our field made by other agencies, but many turned out to be fads. You’re so used to working for a client as an agency that you sometimes risk putting your entrepreneurial spirit to sleep. At Q42 our ventures have taught us to stop quickly when no progress is being made and to be persistent when we need to be; to identify opportunities at an early stage and give it our all. That’s the advice I would like to share with other agencies.”
And always make something you really believe in. “The goal of Mibo was to fix something for users. This is always the best starting point and it launched us on this rollercoaster; we are solving a problem that is relevant and pretty proud of our achievement.”
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Read the other Verslimmers cases
“The Smartifiers” (or De Verslimmers) is a series about the way in which Dutch digital agencies keep making the world around us a little smarter. All articles in the series have also appeared on Emerce.
The Smartifiers cases (English)
The Smartifiers part 1: Stories inspire Chicago residents to think about infrastructure (CLEVER°FRANKE)
The Smartifiers part 7: How Mibo revitalised the after-work Friday drinks online (Q42)
The Smartifiers part 9: Happi app gives patients greater control over their illness (E-sites)
The Smartifiers part 10: All the world’s Van Goghs online
Verslimmers cases (Dutch only)
De Verslimmers deel 1: Verhalen laten Chicago bewoners nadenken over infrastructuur (CLEVER°FRANKE)
De Verslimmers deel 2: Digitaal spelbord helpt jeugdhulpverleners bij besluitvorming (Greenberry)
De Verslimmers deel 3: Content op maat voor elke bezoeker (Snakeware)
De Verslimmers deel 4: Gamification helpt jonge gedetineerden te praten over morele dilemma’s (Kaliber)
De Verslimmers deel 5: App voorkomt lege binnenvaart (Swis)
De Verslimmers deel 6: Digitalisering van een 128 jaar oude drukkerij (Redkiwi)
De Verslimmers deel 7: Mibo videochatapp maakt van videobellen een interactieve ervaring (Q42)
De Verslimmers deel 8: Hoe NS de OV-fiets innoveerde (INFO)
De Verslimmers deel 9: Happi app geeft patiënten weer grip over hun ziekte (E-sites)
De Verslimmers deel 10: Van Gogh Worldwide: Data van ruim 1000 kunstwerken op één platform