What makes Silicon Valley special

September 22, 2015, 3:30 PM UTC
A flower sprouts from the ground at the premises of the home of Mikio Watanabe at Yamakiya district in Kawamata town, Fukushima prefecture
A flower sprouts from the ground at the premises of the home of Mikio Watanabe at Yamakiya district in Kawamata town, Fukushima prefecture June 23, 2014. In July 2011, nearly four months after the massive earthquake and tsunami that triggered a series of catastrophic failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Hamako Watanabe returned to her still-radioactive hilltop home, doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire. She left no suicide note, but her husband Mikio, who discovered her charred body, says plant operator Tokyo Electric is directly responsible. A district court in Fukushima is expected to rule in late August on Watanabe's lawsuit, which Tokyo Electric (Tepco) is contesting. Picture taken June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Issei Kato (JAPAN - Tags: DISASTER POLITICS ENERGY) - RTR3XWES
Photograph by Issei Kato — Reuters

As a journalist I like to poke holes. Cheerleading is the job of corporate marketing departments. If I’m to add any value it’s to point out risks, expose hypocrisy, speak truth to power, and all that. That’s one reason I’ve been writing a fair amount about the excesses of Silicon Valley and the likelihood that the tech community is in a bubble that’s about to pop.

That said, a different joy of being a journalist is getting to meet people who lay bare your own misconceptions, myopia, and just plain wrong-headedness. I recently had such a joyous experience.

A couple weeks ago I wrote a piece about why I think the end is nigh for the tech crowd. In it, I took to task an Australian company called Zeetings for its funny name and apparent lack of ability to make money. It turns out the CEO of Zeetings, a charming 32-year-old South African entrepreneur named Robert Kawalsky, visited San Francisco last week. He dropped by my office, showed me his product, and ultimately reminded me what a special place Silicon Valley is.

Zeetings is a web and mobile app that lets users follow along with presentations like PowerPoint slides on their computers and mobile devices. It’s an ingenious and delightful app. Users can take notes in the app, respond to polls by presenters, pause the action and resume later, and connect with other users. The typical use case would be for someone to watch a presentation on their phone while the same presentation runs on a larger screen in the same room.

What seemed trivial to me reading about it made perfect sense when I saw it in action. This would be a great conference tool, a good way to follow along if you’ve got a lousy seat, and the perfect way to include a key participant who couldn’t make it to the meeting.

It’s also a genuine iteration of a well established format. Microsoft’s PowerPoint has been around for decades and hasn’t changed much. (I didn’t know until Kawalsky told me that Microsoft bought the company that invented PowerPoint.) It’s a one-to-many tool that’s become the butt jokes about corporate boredom yet endures because of its usefulness. Zeetings aims to enhance PowerPoint. “By putting slides on someone’s device it makes it a more intimate experience,” says Kawalsky.

Zeetings doesn’t currently charge for its product. The company makes decent money in the short term, however, by providing presentation services to corporate meeting planners. Next year it plans to begin offering premium services. These will include analytical data about how presentations are being viewed including polling results, most popular slides, who reached out to whom, and the like.

As for the name, Kawalsky said he just likes the sound of it, but he also has a cleverer explanation. Slides typically feature graphs that are presented on an x and y axis. The “z axis” represents three dimensionality, which is what Zeetings brings. Says Kawalsky: “It’s what connects presenters to users.” The company is tiny, by the way. It has eight employees and has raised a little over $1 million.

As for the value of Silicon Valley, Kawalsky, who lives in Sydney, schooled me on that subject too. (I’ve lived here since 1997.) “You can accomplish in a week here what would take three months in Australia,” he says. He marvels at the openness and willingness to help in the San Francisco-to-San Jose corridor. “There are three outcomes from every meeting,” he enthuses. Kawalsky says he was sitting in a coffee shop in Palo Alto last week and someone sitting near him was talking about his startup that makes satellites that can “sniff” mineral data on earth that would be useful to farmers. “Conversations like that just don’t happen anywhere else,” he says. His dream: To raise a proper round of venture capital funding next year and move Zeetings to Silicon Valley.

Here’s a video about how another startup survived with little funding:

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