Friday, April 6, 2012

Skype in a Small Start-Up

Back a few years ago, I was consulting for a small start-up company called WhatEver Productions.  The company ran its course and closed in 2009, but the experience was an interesting one that would grow into a CTO role for me.

Having left my job at Temple University where I was a Project Manager in order to eventually move to South Florida, I was looking for a part time gig to do while we were preparing the house for the move.  The house sold at the top of the market and in 2006 I moved to South Florida.

While I was doing that move, I was also doing some Webpage Quality Assurance.  Fancy words for you write it, I test it, and give you back my input.  We went back and forth with that and realized that we could eventually build this into a side business that would support the creation of a Musical.  Yes, a non traditional role for a traditional Project Manager.   This experience taught me some lessons of how to be completely flexible and how to build a technology base on a shoe-string budget.  Literally next to nothing.

As we assembled the executive team, we realized that there was only so much we could do on a collection of cell phones.  After all, if you want people to collaborate, you have to have a way to do the collaboration.  I came up with the solution.  Skype.

Skype is a number of things, but basically if you're a small business it puts a lot of power into your hands, and you could do it for the best price - free.  We were able to leverage the fact that everyone had computers, and while some had Macs, some had PCs, and yours truly even had Linux, they could all work.  It was the beginning of this Post PC era and we hadn't even realized that we had a name for it yet since Steve Jobs had not coined the phrase for another few years.

We used Skype to chat via text, make phone calls, make conference calls, whiteboarding, and even video calls.  Whiteboarding is just like in your conference room, you draw on your computer with mouse and the picture comes up on everyone else's computers, where ever they were.

The nice thing about it was that while it was free, it worked well.  Even back a few years ago when we had someone participating on a dial-up modem.  On cable internet speeds, you could get clean signals, on a dial-up line the signal was like an old school wired phone call. 

Using Skype, we tied together people here in Florida, Metro Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania hills, North New Jersey, and Manhattan into a cohesive unit.  It simply would not have been able for a bunch of people to hold meetings and rehearsals via cell phones. 

The software is still around.  Skype was bought by Microsoft recently and will be included as Microsoft Lync as a corporate product. Microsoft will be expanding the product and adding new features to try to win their market, but it already has the strength to do many of the things that you would expect a corporate phone system to contain. 

Another situation that Skype can solve is that of domestic or international calling via something then called "Skype Out - now called Skype Premium".  Skype Premium will allow you, for a fee of course, to be able to treat your computer as a phone.  The costs are much lower than the phone company for calls to specific countries, and there are limitations.  The upside of this is that you can also purchase the ability to run Skype as a phone domestically in multiple countries, including the US.  There may be cheaper alternatives for phone services, after all you have to keep some sort of computer or smart phone plugged in and turned on to the Skype network, but this one does allow you to do some of the things you'd expect from a phone service cheaper than most.

The Skype software allowed us to solve a very specific business need for a very small organization.  It let us do so for zero cost, and gave us the ability to progress past the two people we were for a while. 

Interesting experience indeed.

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