Conducting facets of our lives online was a trend that started years before the pandemic. As smartphones and cheap data became prevalent, we started ordering food and taxis online, Slacking and Zooming with co-workers, and playing multiplayer mobile games. As the pandemic hit, Main Street joined early adopters: consulting with doctors on telehealth apps, using eLearning tools, and watching live concerts and sporting events in a virtual online environment. All of these online experiences start by putting people into some kind of “Virtual Space.” We’ve witnessed this firsthand at PubNub, a company developing the core technology for applications that have a virtual space. We’ve seen the virtual world explode over the past year and I want to share three insights that all CEOs can take away to continue growing their business in this new normal.
1. Build or Buy Remote-First Products
The ability to collaborate with others within an app has transitioned from a “nice-to-have” feature into table stakes for any online app. Whether you’re using an internal IT app, a SaaS product, a smart home device or a consumer app or game, you expect it to sync with others in real time. No longer are people content to “reload” or “pull down to refresh.” Like Google Docs, when you type, everyone else should see it. When a doctor is managing a queue of patients online, it’s important they see, in real-time, when the patient enters the waiting room so they can optimize their time. Teachers want to watch in real-time when students are collaborating on a product or taking a test. This also means that your salespeople expect to see inventory and pricing changes in real-time. As much of our workforce remains working from home, the ability for each person to be in a virtual space, collaborating and sharing, can mean the difference between a productive or hobbled workforce. So it’s key that if you build apps, they must be “remote-first.” If you buy software products, don’t expect increased productivity or user engagement unless those apps you buy are remote-first.
2. Provide Customers Hybrid Experiences
The broad adoption of these online experiences has effectively “trained” the majority of the worldwide population on new ways to live. As people become comfortable with conducting more of their daily interactions in virtual spaces, the risk of existential disruption of “traditional” businesses dramatically increases, yet new opportunities also rapidly emerge. These opportunities exist for virtually any kind of company, from enterprise to consumer products, hardware, software, consumer goods and more.
Some of our customers have experienced exponential growth precisely because they saw this need and tapped into the new demand for virtual live interactions. For example, Peloton showed people that they can exercise in a virtual environment while maintaining a social connection. Clubhouse, a completely new experience that launched during the pandemic, allowed anyone to be the host of their own “radio talk-show” equivalent and companies like LiveNation invested to provide a compelling at-home experience for concertgoers. We can all learn something from their success. I believe our world will remain in a hybrid model well beyond the end of this pandemic, which means we must be providing products and services that allow customers the choice to be in the real-world or virtual-world version of the same experience.
3. Be Prepared for Massive Scale, Right Out of the Gate
It’s really hard to scale up a population of 7.9 billion people that have decided to conduct large parts of their lives online. Not long ago, many of our customers would declare victory if they had 50,000 users on their apps. Now, we see a more common expectation of 10 million or more users and that’s just at launch. This level of scale is going to become the norm and having the infrastructure in place that can handle this level of traffic will be critical to business success. CEOs need to be involved in choosing the technology platform to build upon as that is the first step to establishing a solid foundation for the business. As more companies create products that are anchored in a virtual space, I suspect that many will find that it’s no longer possible for teams to “build their own”, when even modest-sized IT-only apps can sometimes have thousands of concurrent people participating, generating billions of transactions that need to be synchronized in real-time.
Finally, there are the social aspects of virtual spaces to consider as we move into this new world. What are the expected social norms in these new online spaces? What kind of workplace HR considerations do we need to plan for with an ever more remote workforce? Should there be new social contracts between teachers, students and parents who interact primarily online? What about the doctor/patient relationship when much of the consultation happens in a virtual doctor’s office? Never before has society, and social interaction, shifted so drastically during a single generation. As more virtual experiences are created and used around the world, we have yet to scratch the surface of how these will change the rules, expectations, and norms from our real-world lives. These are questions yet unanswered, in a world where we still don’t know whether we should keep our cameras on during a video conference call. It’s a strange, but exciting, new (virtual) world.