Ice-T uses it. So does Pink. Actress Amy Poehler praised it in a recent interview with late-night TV host Seth Meyers; professionals like busy ICU doctors and Realtors have turned to it to get work done during this prolonged quarantine period.
“It” is Marco Polo*, a six-year old video-messaging application that is having a real moment amid COVID-19. Built by a husband-and-wife team who originally created the app to stay in touch with family overseas, the California company saw a big uptick in usage earlier this spring, making it one of the lucky, consumer-focused technology startups that appears to not to be negatively impacted, at least so far, by the economic fallout from the ongoing health crisis.
“It was March 13 when we started to see pretty major increases to our business,” says Vlada Bortnik, the CEO of Marco Polo parent Joya Communications. By late March, she says, signups for the app were up more than 1100% and activity had risen 145%.
“It was pretty crazy,” adds Bortnik, who is currently holed up with her family (her husband, Michal Bortnik, is the company’s president and chief product officer) in their Palo Alto home. The company’s 38 employees were already working remotely before the pandemic started.
Marco Polo is in some ways hard to define: It’s really a hybrid of text messaging and video chatting sometimes described as “video Walkie-Talkie.” (A story in Forbes recently noted it’s like “Snapchat for old people.”) People who download the app can record quick video clips and then send them to individuals or groups, who open them when they want—not, as is the case with live video messaging apps like Facetime, during the same, synchronous session.
That time-delayed setup is appealing for people who may not have time to schedule live face-time online with groups of people, particularly right now, and want to converse in a way that’s more similar to quick text messaging—but with video. Marco Polo has traditionally been popular with family groups, church groups, teachers and friends trying to keep in touch.
“It’s harder than ever to find blocks of overlapping time to talk to people, with the kids being home, being in small quarters,” says Bortnik. With the app, “you can have that intimate face-to-face connection in smaller chunks. And it feels more real. It’s not this carved-out portion of the day. You’re seeing me as I’m doing laundry, as I’m cooking dinner, as I’m helping my kids with homework.”
Which has made Marco Polo a welcome communication tool for the pandemic, when many people are anxious to stay close to friends and family members they can’t see in person. The company doesn’t pay celebrities to endorse its product, though many of them have done so recently on social media and elsewhere, which represents free marketing for the app. In addition to Ice-T and Pink, actresses Gabrielle Union and Kristen Bell, among others, have praised Marco Polo publicly.
I’ve been using a Free App called Marco Polo.. It’s a ‘video walkie talkie’ to communicate to my close friends and family.. I was on it way before Quarantine. But NOW it does the job.. FYI: I’m NOT getting paid for this plug, though they should! Lol
— ICE T (@FINALLEVEL) March 28, 2020
Bortnik doesn’t have a lot of statistics on who else is using her product because “we don’t collect any personal information” about users. The app is free to use and free of advertising; there also aren’t any “likes” or other metrics that Bortnik feels don’t promote authentic interaction with people. Marco Polo just launched Marco Polo Plus, a new membership plan which includes extra features for users, and is experimenting with a new business line focused on serving people like business coaches, leaders and podcasters.
The company is carefully monitoring the app’s usage to make sure its internal systems can scale to meet any spikes in demand. Bortnik keeps her team motivated through daily stand-up meetings, sharing video testimonials from users and twice-weekly “celebration” meetings. There, employees laud everything from coding milestones to scoring toilet paper at the store. She is also focused on taking time for herself to meditate or go for quick walks, so she can stay focused.
The fact that the company is mission-driven has helped keep the team motivated, Bortnik says. “Our purpose has always been to help people feel close . . . What I’m seeing now is our team working harder than ever, and I am blown away by their productivity. And it’s because of that purpose. Even with kids at home, even with additional challenges, I’m so proud of our team.”
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