Prezi shifts into social, but is there enough space?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on July 30, 2013

From The News Desk

Prezi CEO Peter Arvai

Prezi CEO Peter Arvai has an unusual deal with his employees. If they're willing to share their most personal dream, he takes them out for dinner. It's called the "dream dinner tradition."

Arvai sees it as a way of building authentic and meaningful relationships in the company, and opening the door for collaboration. "I hear stories of people saying they are dreaming of building a company themselves, and instead of it being an awkward confession, it's a way to bond," Arvai says. "It's a way for me to figure out how I can help make them successful in their future."

The "dream dinner tradition" is an interesting parallel for the new ambitions of the presentation company. Prezi's founders hope it will become more than just a cooler version of the static, stoic PowerPoint platform -- they are developing it into a hub for group idea workshopping. "I want Prezi to be the place where people go to be nudged to expand their ideas and their own horizons with the help of other people's ideas," Arvai says.

They've added to their software to allow up to 10 people to contribute to a Prezi, and up to 30 people to simultaneously watch a presentation live online. It's a natural step for Prezi given the inherent brainstorm-y nature of the platform, but the company may struggle to make its mark in the highly competitive space of collaboration.

Sample Prezi Sample Prezi

Until now, Prezi has been known for its visual-spatial presentation platform, where users can cluster chunks of information together in brainstorm-bubble style. Instead of a presentation going slide-by-slide, viewers look at the overview of the entire presentation map first, and then "zoom" into clusters of information. As a result, the presentation more closely mimics the way our brain processes related concepts.

Since Prezi now wants to move beyond just presentations and become a collaborative brainstorming platform, they're going to face a lot more competition than just PowerPoint. Consider all the avenues people have at their disposal to work together. They can chat on conference calls (the bane of my existence). They can edit simultaneously on Google docs. They can create wikis to hold different types of information. They can socialize as an office on Yammer. They can use HyperOffice, which lets you sign up for notifications when changes are made to different collaborative documents and projects. They could hang out on Google Hangouts. The list is seemingly never-ending, with each program offering a different way to collaborate.

But it's not necessarily a zero sum game, and Prezi brings a new strategy to the table: a way of brainstorming that previously could only be done on a whiteboard/piece of paper, or through a non-collaborative program like Inspiration. Prezi is like the virtual version of the team meeting where one guy holds the whiteboard marker and everyone else throws out ideas that branch out from certain concepts.

From an enterprise perspective, that's certainly a more natural and dynamic way for groups of employees to work together in a creative capacity, particularly when they're not all in one place. Mike Butera, the founder of a musical electronics startup called Artiphon, says his team, which have members in different cities, uses Prezi to build presentations, pitch decks, progress timelines, and map out patent claims for their IP attorneys. Says Butera:

We’re designing totally new kinds of musical instruments and reimagining markets, so there’s a lot of ambitious planning and scribbling going on. We throw concepts and designs at [Prezi], swoop in and out, take ideas apart and put them back together again.
Furthermore, with Prezi the team brainstorming can then easily translate into a presentation if need be. No transcribing scrawled meeting notes or google docs into a Power Point. In Prezi, it's all there already.

But as someone who explored Prezi before I started writing about tech, here's my concern. I spent six hours trying to learn how to create a decent presentation, and I gave myself motion sickness in the meanwhile. I was determined to master Prezi, because it looked so much cooler than PowerPoint, but I didn't find the technology to be intuitive.

In order for a team to use it for brainstorming, everyone would need to get fluent in the Prezi way, which might involve investing time in one of the company's virtual teaching sessions. That's not a scalable model, and Prezi CEO Arvai recognized that it was something the company needed to work on.

"We're at a very early stage of Prezi as a medium, and I think learning a new type of medium always takes time," Arvai says.