First, I do not know what an “office hour system” is exactly. I can guess it is something like the office hours that college professors keep, as opposed to the hours that a business is open. Sounds a little like a meeting scheduler.
What is Remotehour?
Novel products, that don’t fit neatly into an obvious category are intriguing. In this case, I have found a recent pitch and demo by the Founder to Superhuman’s CEO Rahul Vohra that helps explain things.
On the surface, this is looking like a cool idea. Remotehour is an online service that brings the ad-hoc physical office drop-in to the remote worker. The core idea is that freelancers want to make it easy for their clients to drop by to ask how a project is going.
Remotehour makes it simple for clients to knock (virtually) on the freelancer’s door and be let into a video chat faster than you can say “come in the door is open”.
Given the current COVID-19 crisis, there are many additional people working from home that might find such a tool as useful.
Customer & Problem Focus
The core customer of this product is a freelancer. Shun didn’t make that clear enough during his pitch to Rahul, which caused some obvious questions about whether this is for people communicating internally or across different organizations.
Note: Beyond freelancer:clients he identifies professor:students and investor:founders.
The problem he has stated is that it is difficult to schedule meetings for remote 1:many workers. He says that people on the many-side of these relationships could benefit from making it easier to interrupt the single person if the questions are quick. By using office hours, the freelancer does not end up blocking time on their calendar leaving flexibility in his schedule for such ad-hoc discussions.
I believe this problem statement needs to be refined a bit for now. Remotehour appears to be actually focused on the freelancer side of the equation. So the problem should not be viewed as a general statement about the difficulty in scheduling meetings. Rather, the problem statement should be more focused on the freelancer specifically.
Suggested Problem Statement: Freelancers want to make it easy for their clients to work with them but have complicated and dynamic schedules. Office hours are a great way to better manage their time, but there is no good way to let their clients know of their availability and immediately connect.
I reworked the problem statement because it is important to clearly articulate the problem you are solving if you want to validate it actually exists in the market and that it is valuable to solve.
Critically, I am focusing on the challenge of clients attempting to get time with the freelancer. I could also talk about the problem of freelancers trying to get time with their clients for quick feedback or approval, but looking at the current solution this is not the main priority and I think it is for a few reasons:
Getting a single freelancer to adopt is easier than many potential freelance clients. Focusing on the freelancer makes go-to-market activities more focused.
Freelancers are providing business services to their clients. Therefore, they have a more direct incentive to solve this problem although clients clearly benefit.
Designing the lowest friction solution for all involved parties is easiest to do by focusing on the one in the one:many equation. Setup and administration is done by the freelancer so that clients can have absolutely minimal steps and learning overhead to benefit.
Ok, given this refined problem statement, we now have clearer focus on what to validate. If a significant number of freelancers do not validate this problem exists and see value in solving it then it may be time to rethink everything.
Given the boom in freelancers, for now, I would pick them and ignore other potential customers at this stage. This will enable a better focus on problem validation and product design. You can always expand to the other types of remote workers later, either as a pivot or to expand validated growth.
The refined problem statement is partly an outsider view looking in at the current solution being delivered to the market. With a quick sign-up, I was able to set up my profile and a “Room”. After I share a link to my profile, my clients can see if I am online and available in a single click. If I am available they can simply knock.
The majority of other features appear to be focused on supporting this primary success path. Such a Subscribing to a Room, which alerts subscribers when you put a room online.
There is the paid room that is a bit of an anomaly. The idea here is that freelancers can bill for their time spent on these ad-hoc meetings. My hunch is that this is not a significant problem as most freelancers don’t bill in such a manner because there is too much overhead. Even granting that this is a real problem, it seems very secondary to the core problem this product is addressing. If there is no significant demand to solve the core problem, this additional instant billable hours solution will never get traction.
The skeptic in me thinks that this may have been introduced as a means to generate revenue for the product. Either to appease early investors with multiple revenue streams or because the core product was simply not selling enough.
Personally, I would defocus on this until the core problem/solution gains significant market traction. This should be saved as icing on the cake or another pivot option.
Rahul asked how this compares to Clarity.fm. I was not familiar with this product so I checked it out. Clarity, it appears is an on-demand service to connect startups with experts from the community through a scheduled conference call. This has nothing to do with solving the problem of freelancer availability to their clients.
However, there are plenty of other solutions out there that do relate. A little research unearths quite a few options for video chat. The main limiting factor to what is a meaningful competitor is — will most parties have easy access to it? For it to be viable, both the freelancer and a majority of their clients need easy access to it.
Slack, Teams, Skype for Business, etc.
There are a number of team messaging and collaboration tools on the market now that keep worker status and enable relatively quick discussions. Within Slack, for example, you just click on a channel or contact and click call for an instant meeting. The only obstacle is knowing they are available for this instant meeting which is easily messaged or you could have a custom status set.
So why aren’t these a competitive option? For now, these tools are designed to securely manage collaboration inside a walled garden. Since Freelancers and their clients are not in one universal Slack domain, this cannot be an effective solution.
It is rather unlikely that Slack and others will reconsider their strategy to solve this problem as the organizational collaboration problem is considered much more lucrative (at this time).
Zoom, Meet (Hangouts), WebEx, etc.
This is where the competitive alternatives get a little confusing. For the most part, these video conferencing solutions have always required the host to invite people and share specific meeting links.
This is somewhat inverted from the UX experience Remotehour is after. With Remotehour the client initiates the video call. So this puts the onus on the client to have the tool and know how to use it. Alternatively, they need to communicate out of band with the freelancer to request a meeting. Then the freelancer would initiate the call and share the access.
Just writing all that makes the interaction feel laborious. Yuck.
Further, some of these tools provide extra obstacles. Take Google Hangouts, or I guess now it is Meet. It seems that only if you have a G Suite account can you invite non-Gmail users to a meeting. So, a freelancer will have to pay a lot for G Suite to potentially just get the one communication tool they are looking for.
Generally, Zoom is the most likely to crack this nut. The reason is that they have the easiest onboarding and free use for time-limited meetings. The major remaining obstacle here is for the client to know about the freelancer’s availability at any given time.
WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype
WhatsApp, Messenger, and Skype all support instant video calls and status through their mobile apps. For some reason, WhatsApp limits video calls to mobile app. That said, these products are serious competition for Remotehour. Further, they are all mostly free.
What Remotehour has going for it now, is that the client does not need to have an account with the video call apps.
On the flipside, Remotehour, does work on both desktop and mobile (via wonky browser layout).
If Facebook or Microsoft wants to tackle this problem directly, it is hard to imagine how Remotehour can survive. The good news is that right now Remotehour has a clear advantage in providing the simplest user experience.
As simple as making a phone call, Facetime, in some markets is very widely available. Its main downside is that for those not on Apple devices there is no way to use it. With Android devices having around 40% of the market, no freelancer can reliably count on clients to have Apple devices (iOS, iPadOS, MacOS based) to support this great communication tool.
Facetime also does not give any indication of availability status so some out of band method for communicating this would need to be leveraged.
For now, as long as Apple is not making Facetime available beyond the Apple ecosystem, Facetime should not be considered a significant competitive threat.
Other Potential Competitors
Provided this is a problem that demonstrates itself to be worth solving, there are a few other places I would immediately think to look for future competitors.
LinkedIn – Extending further beyond connecting and into active work engagement
Trello, Asana, Wrike, etc. – Workflow tools might look to embed some of this functionality in the context of where business gets monitored.
Miro, Mural, Whimsical, Notion, etc. – Miro already added video chat and it makes sense to see more of this capability expanded right in the collaboration context.
Competitive Positioning Bottomline
The bottom line is that Remotehour has easy access to a very broad audience and live availability status as the core general differentiators. The ease of access is an effective moat against some players that depend on both parties to hold accounts and install local apps.
We know that UX can be a significant differentiator. However, the challenge for Remotehour is that it has a lot of close competitors that could leverage their scale and other features, like support for multiparty calls, to pose real future risk.
They are doing great right now by putting out a product and rapidly iterating. One area they need to double-down is on making access to their tool more universal and easy. Specifically, I would look at integrating or embedding status and access directly in more places than just a website.
How can Remotehour make it even easier for clients to know the availability of a freelancer? What about prospective clients?
I see that there is an integration with Twitter and Slack. I am not sure what problem these particular integrations are helping solve.
The Twitter integration sends out a single notification per day when you go online in a room. What are the odds existing or potential clients will see that specific Tweet in a timely manner?
The Slack integration sends a notification into a specified Slack domain/channel. Freelancers tend to inhabit many Slack domains. Possibly some are related to their client. I could see this only making sense if a single major client set access for these notifications but that would be of very limited value.
Better integrations I can imagine will be harder to do but more likely to yield real value. Here are some possible ideas where my hypothesis is that communicating your live availability status where people are looking for your skills will make it easier for them to contact you.
UpWork and similar freelance sites
The more entrenched you can make the simple experience of checking a freelancer’s status and making instant live conversations happen the harder it will be for a second player to do the same.
Remotehour is using a freemium business model where the Basic (free) tier is constrained by session time and to a single room. It is very difficult to assess such a strategy without seeing metrics of how it is performing.
My hunch is that these are two attributes that are really good to differentiate on. I hope that Remotehour is gaining a lot of free users and converting >5% to paid tier.
I know they are heads-down building more product features now but, the problem I see with the go-to-market is a lack of content marketing. Freemium models thrive on large numbers of users and the current website is bare.
I should be seeing a lot of content on how I can take advantage of the tool, how freelancers work, the cost of missed connections, and impossible calendar juggling. This should be promoted on their website and wherever freelancers are most likely to find it.
There is definitely a viable version 1 product running now. Time to ramp up usage and feedback to learn.
Remotehour is a very cool tool with a lot of potential to ease communication challenges in remote work, especially between freelancers and their clients. I personally use a mix of Facetime, WhatsApp, and quickly arranged Zoom calls to fill the gap here. Yet none of them make it dead easy for my clients to see my availability first then knock.
The great thing about this is my clients don’t need to adopt anything. They just need to know how to check my status then click a link.
A lot of my quick take analysis is based on a cursory assessment with no inside knowledge from the company. However, we can tell a lot from the marketing and product features they have already prioritized to understand much of their take on how best to address the market problem.
Frankly, my biggest concern is that the problem is not as big as it seems. Alternative workarounds exist that have a slightly inferior user experience. Moreover, I fear this could potentially create a negative client experience, by repeatedly finding I am not available.
Perhaps this is why they have already started playing with the idea of paid calls.
My Remotehour Room. https://remotehour.com/sean/ad-hoc. Feel free to check it out and Knock if I am available. I just need to remember to open my room up.
Shun Yamada on Hackernoon. He is truly following lean practices and shares some of his lessons in a couple of articles here. Including how he won Pioneer, a fully remote accelerator competition.