A beginner's guide to Zoom (from a total virgin)
If you’d asked me a month ago what Zoom was I would have probably said the 1982 hit song by Fat Larry’s Band (and I’d only have been half joking.)
Then along came coronavirus and remote conferencing firm Zoom became the go-to platform for millions of workers suddenly forced to work from home.
Zoom's shares have soared from $70 to $160 in the last two months and, inadvertently, become one of the few unwanted beneficiaries of the coronavirus outbreak.
As well as being the executive editor of BusinessCloud I also run by own business imeg Partnership and host events which, unsurprisingly, dried up as the magnitude of coronavirus began to sink in.
As a result I turned to technology to see how I could still bring people together without the need to be in the same room – and the answer kept coming back to Zoom.
Zoom has a reputation for being easy-to-use and able to handle meetings of up to 100 people.
I lost my Zoom ‘virginity’ to well-known tech face and media expert Dan Sodergren when he kindly gave me an idiot’s guide to the platform from his kitchen table and I felt sufficiently confident to hold a roundtable this week on my own.
There’s a free version of Zoom available that has a time limit of 40 minutes. It’s perfect for most people but you can upgrade to the pro service for £12.99 a month (£14.39 with tax). This increases the time limit for meetings to 24 hours, which is long enough even for me.
Both the free and pro version of Zoom can cater for up to 100 participants but it’s perfect for a roundtable of between 8-10 participants.
Scheduling a meeting and sending out email invites was really straightforward. Given the current travel ban to the US I decided to have San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge as my background.
One of the participants was Paul Squires, who is the managing director of the Manchester office of tech consulting firm Slalom, whose office overlooks the bustling St Peter’s Square. He chose this as his background as he sat in his home near Aberdeen.
Then at 11am all seven faces (including mine) taking part in the roundtable to discuss doing business in a coronavirus world appeared neatly in my laptop screen. The other six were:
- Kerry Sutcliffe is the alliances director at WiFi analytics firm Purple;
- Serial entrepreneur Martin Keelagher is a multiple non-exe director;
- Jake White is the managing director of Rochdale-based VR tech firm Alternate States;
- Paul Squires is the managing director of Slalom;
- Michael Mateer is the chief marketing officer of Virtualnonexecs.com, which helps businesses find non-exec directors without paying high recruitment fees; and
- Cameron Booth, a digital advisor at Redmoor Health, which specialises in showing the benefits of technology to frontline health and social care.
Zoom’s beauty is its simplicity. Participants are highlighted as they speak and they have the option of muting the microphones when they’re not speaking so you can’t hear a dog barking in the background for example – or worse in Michael Mateer’s case.
The ‘ginger Brad Pitt’ (his description not mine!) is the chief marketing officer at Virtualnonexecs.com and a proud father-of-four living in York. Last week he was holding a virtual board meeting and paid the price for not switching his microphone off. “My two-year-old son came bursting my office screaming ‘daddy, daddy, daddy, I need a poo,” recalls Mateer, who is a Zoom veteran.
Another thing I noticed was that the quality of the audio and video depended on how good your home WiFi was. It meant that one of the people taking part kept sounding a bit like the late comedian Norman Collier, who was famous for his faulty microphone act. (NB: I had to explain who Norman Collier was to the younger participants in the discussion!)
Three of the panel - Kerry Sutcliffe, Martin Keelagher and Paul Squires all used headphones or earbuds which can improve sound quality but I found the microphone on my Mac was fine.
At the end the 70-minute discussion Michael Mateer, who hosted the meeting on his pro account, sent me a link to the entire recording. It was perfect quality.
The theme of the roundtable was how businesses were coping with the impact of coronavirus and here’s what everyone said:
Kerry Sutcliffe, alliances director, Purple
“We took the decision very early to close all our offices worldwide. We’ve always had a company policy of working from home on Wednesdays so it meant we were prepared for it. We provide public WiFi software and we’re helping existing clients on things like drop-in webinars. As a company we’re in a good position because we have a great executive team and we’re planning for what’s to come. Speaking personally the work/life balance has changed forever. Nobody knows what’s going to happen so we have to take it one day at a time.”
Serial entrepreneur Martin Keelagher
“When businesses were planning for the worst case scenario they were probably most thinking about a terrorist attack as being the absolute worst case scenario that could affect their teams, business and wider community. Nobody was predicting a pandemic like the coronavirus, impacting on a global scale. As a result, we’re all having to change the way we work from a technological aspect, working from home and adopting new processes, but also, the human element is very much coming to the fore. The Government’s £330bn loan guarantee scheme is obviously welcomed but my concern is how easy it will to access and the timeframe for this, with appropriate credit stewardship; this must be made available to businesses in a timely manner. What coronavirus has taught us is the need for resilience in business models and to expect the unexpected. Going forward I remain an eternal optimist as an entrepreneur. In our group, we’re looking at the opportunity to invest in a number of businesses that we can support, while expanding others.”
Jake White, Alternate States
“We’re part of an accelerator group with other like-minded people and entrepreneurs and it’s really important to keep in touch with other people you know during this time to share advice and feedback. Sometimes they will know more than you. I’m also part of a WhatsApp group of Rochdale businesses and I’ve found that invaluable.”
Paul Squires, Slalom
“Our first priority is to look after for our people, our second priority is to look after our business. Operationally, we’re continuing more or less as usual – we often work as part of dispersed teams on global projects so working remotely isn’t anything particularly new. Having said that, we’re concerned about the wellbeing of our team and we obviously have specific worries around childcare and illness. We’re in regular contact with our people and our clients, to make sure they’re OK and to better understand the problems they’re dealing with, and how we might be able to help them.”
Michael Mateer, Virtualnonexecs.com
“I think the business community is going to lead the recovery. I’m hosting the Virtualnonexecs virtual SME conference on April 24; it’s the Netflix of disaster recovery for SMEs in the UK. Virtualnonexecs has exploded because people’s pensions have been wiped out and we’ve had a wave of people coming back to the workplace who never expected to. We have 4,000+ established non-executive directors on the platform and we’re organising free virtual board meetings for businesses who have been hit by the Coronavirus; these businesses need fast, expert advice and our vast community can give this for free.”
Cameron Booth, Redmoor Health
“Nobody could have predicted the coronavirus but as a digital healthcare agency we were probably better placed than most to deal with it. More than anything it’s about using the resources we’ve got at our disposal to make the best of the situation we face. We’re working really hard to get 100s of GP surgeries enabled with video in the next month and that’s crucial. As a business all the staff at Redmoor Health are working from home and self-isolating. Working from home all day, every day is a challenge but the real heroes are the frontline NHS staff.”