Most conferencing systems cost thousands of dollars regardless of whether they are proprietary hardware solutions or software-based systems. As a startup in this age of affordable real-time communications, we didn’t want to pay that much.
At the same time, we understood that the bring-your-own-device (#BYOD) trend is changing how employees interact with the office. Workers bring their own devices into the office and rely on these personal devices for much of their productivity. They also work outside of the office more as a result, and functionality like attending a conference during business travel is a key consideration.
Here’s how we did it—and how you can, too.
Our Conferencing Needs
Our business faced three key challenges when it came to conferencing.
1) Globally Distributed Teams
We have team members spread throughout the world; our people work in the U.S., Europe, India, China, and Southeast Asia. These team members work closely together due to shared resources, strategies and market needs, so we needed a proper collaboration tool with real-time interaction that guaranteed reliable, quality communication no matter the Internet connection or the geographic location.
2) Rapid Growth and Expansion
Like most startups, we started from humble beginnings: just a couple founders with a great idea. Also like most (successful) startups, we quickly outgrew our first headquarters in Palo Alto and moved to a larger space in Santa Clara. Now our Shanghai office is bursting at the seams and we’re looking for a new home there, too.
With so much growth and expansion, it is hard to keep up with installing and then moving conferencing gear. So we needed a conferencing solution that was simple to set up and easy to move as we grow.
3) A Mobile Workforce
Our sales and business development teams are constantly on the road. In order for them to stay productive, we needed a way that they could easily stay connected with colleagues and access subject matter experts in real-time no matter the location. So our conferencing solution had to extend beyond the walls of our offices and support a range of smartphones, tablets, laptops and web browsers.
In addressing these three challenges, we looked at a number of real-time communications solutions on the market today. None of them delivered the flexibility, quality of experience and cost we required, however. So being a company that focuses on real-time communications, we rolled our own conferencing solution.
How We Built Our Conferencing System
Making a flexible, bespoke conferencing solution actually is quite easy with the Agora.io communications-as-a-service (CaaS) platform.
The Agora software development kit (SDK) and video chat API let businesses plug into a cloud-based, global real-time communications infrastructure in minutes and include functionality like voice, video, and whiteboarding in apps and websites with just a few lines of code.
Our team used the Agora.io SDK and built Agora Video Call for our personal conferencing needs. The app we made delivers HD voice and video conferencing for one-on-one and group video calls with up to 2,000 participants and five active speakers. It runs on iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows, as well as any modern web browser capable of WebRTC (which is most of them). Even when team members are participating from areas with poor network connectivity, calls are high-quality, clear and without much latency.
Such as…calling from a plane. Our team smoothly made a video conferencing call while one of them was on a flight from Orlando, FL., back to San Francisco using United in-flight wifi.
Many airlines today, including United, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Virgin, Hong Kong Airlines, Etihad and others now offer in-flight Wi-Fi for free or a nominal charge. That being said, now our employees and partners can attend important meetings not only at the airport but also during the flight itself!
Equipment for Our Conference Room
You can easily set up conferencing with equipment already in the office. We used the following kit:
- Mac Mini ($450)
- Logitech Webcam 930e ($85)
- Jabra SPEAK 510 Wireless Bluetooth Speaker ($100) (Though we upgraded our speaker to Yamaha YVC-1000 USB Conference Speakerphone, which costs $1,000)
- A computer monitor we had lying around the office (free)
Putting it together, we simply loaded Agora Video Call onto the Mac Mini, added a large display, the HD camera, and the speakerphone. In minutes we had ourselves an easy, flexible, portable conferencing solution for the office.
The total cost for the conferencing solution was $1,535, although it easily could have been under $600 if we had used a different speakerphone and a computer we had lying around the office.
Developing the conferencing app took less than 3 weeks as a side project, and we set up the conference room in just an afternoon.
We’re proud to say that we use our bespoke conferencing system on a daily basis for internal communications. Best of all, it is easy and cost < $650…which is not that much. It runs smoothly and gives us tremendous flexibility and reach whether our staff is in the office or on the go.