Prezi vs Microsoft. The Battle Is On.
This is a repost of the original article published in the Summer 2015 issue of CoFounder.
Budapest-born Prezi has become the tool for presenting rockstars.
We have all been there. You need to make a kick-ass presentation. You put the content together and then try to find an artist friend to help you make it beautiful.
It’s painful. It will take time and also money, especially when the friend is travelling or busy with his real work.
As a result many engineers’ presentations tend to look like slides from their PhD work – possibly fantastic content, but most of us would never understand them.
The main tool for presentations, Microsoft’s PowerPoint, does not help either. It was originally created in the 1980s for note-taking at business meetings and it is still best suited for exactly that.
“If can get people to think more visually it’s just great for everybody.”
In the early 2000s upcoming visual artist Adam Somlai-Fischer was struggling to use PowerPoint for his presentations so he made himself a simple presentation tool with pieces of code which created a kind of “zoomable canvas” which he modified for each presentation. There was no fancy user interface, no compatibility challenges or client support. For the first few years he was the sole user of the software, but soon friends started to ask for the tool and he started to share the code.
Péter Halácsy, a computer scientist who was to become one of the cofounders of Prezi, saw Adam’s presentation at a conference where he was using his personal tool of course. Péter walked over to him and said: “I want to have this, can I?” He saw the potential in Adam’s presentation “code”, but at the same time he understood there was also a need to simplify it for people to actually use it. So the two teamed up, created the new media lab, Kitchen Budapest, and started to work during their spare time on refining the code – without knowing at that point whether it would be a product or just a plugin to make presentations more visual.
Prezi was still far from the slick product it is today, but the creators started sharing it early on with more users and the feedback helped to focus on making it. Also the first potential investors contacted the team, offering to invest. “We went to Wikipedia and looked it up. It looked very complicated,” Adam remembers, smiling.
After a while Adam and Péter understood they needed a third cofounder who could help them with the product. At the same time Péter Árvai, a Hungarian born in Sweden, tried to poach Péter and offered him a job. Árvai mentioned the zooming canvas idea in the discussion, something Halácsy in turn found very exciting.
He had experience in user experience and in company-building – he was keen to build a successful company in his native country and saw an opportunity with Prezi. To start the road-trip the three met at a cafe in Budapest just as the economies started to sink.
“When we met we just talked for 2 days – about life, about the future, not necessarily the product. We just saw it would be great to do it together. We understood it could be amazing because we really compliment each other, we are really curious about each others skills and have things others don’t have. It was a great start,” says Adam.
Since the team met and launched Prezi 6 years ago the company has been cash flow positive. It charges for more advanced features while the basic product is free to use on the web for anyone. Prezi’s 55 million users have created 180 million prezis. The take-up and interest from the sector have attracted $71.3 million of investments from Accel Partners, Spectrum Equity and Sunstone Capital. Today Prezi employs around 300 people in Budapest and Silicon Valley.
With a positive cash flow the Prezi team was able to have long talks with venture capitalists.
“They became partners, they are not just financing the company.”
SHOOTING FOR THE STARS
Before reaching success the trio started to build Prezi for marketeers, but quickly noticed there was demand from anyone needing to stand out – for example in the United States teachers picked it up fast.
“At first we looked at the people who really really care about standing out as a presenter… people who need to be better than others. For them having an alternative was a great delight. There was the buzz – people started using it,” says Adam.
The success of Prezi has also been feeding into the rise of the Hungarian startup scene as own examples are crucial to inject courage into young entrepreneurs. “Many people are encouraged and think ‘if those guys could do it, I can do it too.'”
“You need examples. Even if you believe in yourself, your parents would not believe in you.”
Adam admits a few times after launching he has thought Prezi could die. Prezi launched in early 2008 just as the economy turned dire. The Hungarian economy was slowing and shrank up to 8 percent in the worst quarters in 2009. “Luckily our users always loved us,” says Adam and remembers an incident from the early days of the company when at one point no-one knew where the clients’ data was and the team was looking for it on servers in Berlin and Paris.
“For three days we could see the shit slowly coming our way. We were very transparent and even during those tough times we got a lot of support from our users.”
Adam says founding Prezi has been “an amazing journey of personal growth” – figuring out how the organisation works, learning how to raise money etc. and for perspective he quotes O’Reilly: “money to a startup is like gas to a car – you need it, you need to stop to get it, but its not about stopping at gas stations.”
From the founders’ perspective it’s a lot about letting it go.
Growing the organisation has clearly been a focus for the team. “We always knew it was key – so we went to training and we read books on how to build a great company. From the founders’ perspective it’s a lot about letting it go. At the start I did everything visually, now we have fantastic UI designers who know much much more than I ever knew. Two years ago I resigned from management because it’s not what I am best at – I am best at coming up with new things, working in a small lab.”
He does not want to name any books as such, but says one crucial area of learning has been in giving negative feedback. “This is really important. Normally you say: you are slow, you are stupid, – and only thing the person can do is defend themselves. It’s much better to comment on behaviour – what you did made me really sad – and then the other can say: I did not know, I will change.”
To make Prezi a good place to work the founders looked in the mirror. “We wanted to make sure it would be the place where we would also like to work – that essentially meant we would be attracting people that are as interesting as those we would simply be friends with. We always make sure when we are hiring, we have very little fluctuation.”
The first hires are still with the company. No 2 left briefly for Ubuntu, but came back. Before leaving Adam to work on his computer, probably on his next Prezi, one has to drop the obvious question: “So, how long will it take until you beat Microsoft?”
Adam says that in a market of 2 billion potential customers there is a lot of room for growth.
“They are still much bigger. There are many many years of road-trip or cruise – with 300 people its more like a cruise – ahead of us.”
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