The collaboration market has been picking up steam for years, fueled by enterprises’ need to augment internal productivity and facilitate better communication among employees. At the end of 2019 when we had no idea a global pandemic that would completely change the way we work was looming, the global enterprise collaboration market was projected to grow from $31B USD to $48.1B USD by 2024. One year (and one historical pandemic) later, Zoom's market cap is valued close to $100B USD alone.
Even before COVID, agile teams often struggled with frequent misunderstandings, breakdowns in communication, constant interruptions, and friction during handoffs between different team members. The platforms offered on the enterprise collaboration market lacked Deep Collaboration—that is the ability to offer a highly-interactive, highly-focused approach for teams by empowering them to work intensively together on a joint project without distractions and artificial hurdles. The gap between traditional tools and deep collaboration tools’ capabilities were seen and felt early on in the pandemic as engineering productivity dropped by at least 17%.
Long before we imagined a global pandemic would force the majority of people to work remotely, Till Pieper, co-founder and CEO of CoScreen, was working in a skunkworks team exploring the future of collaboration at the German enterprise software company SAP and thought, “Why can’t I simply move windows from my computer to my team member’s computer by drag and drop, so they can help me?” He imagined a world where a coder having an issue could send the window to a coworker who could take a look at it, fix it, and send it back. Realizing he was onto something, Till enlisted the help of his future co-founders, Max Andaker and Jason Thomas, and the three began tinkering with dozens of prototypes of what would later become CoScreen. They announced the product on Hacker News at the end of 2019 and received incredible reception with over 1,800 signups over the span of a couple of days. Confident with the reception the product received, they decided to take the leap full time to bring their vision of deep collaboration across the enterprise to life.
We recently sat down with Till, Max, and Jason to discuss their vision for CoScreen, how the COVID pandemic has shaped their product, and more.
Unusual: Can you give us a little background on yourselves?
Till: I’m originally from Germany and joined SAP in 2007 as a consultant for some of their newest products. In this role, I was mostly focused on Nestlé in Switzerland, one of SAP’s largest customers. It was there I met my friend and co-founder, Max. We skied and hiked a lot while working together and always discussed startup ideas and career plans. In 2013, I moved to the US to work at SAP’s R&D labs in Palo Alto, where I led several skunkworks projects, such as how SAP software and systems might change over the next 5,10,15 years through machine learning, natural language understanding, VR, AR, and new collaborative technologies. SAP is a highly distributed organization with large development hubs in China, India, Germany, as well as Palo Alto. That’s why one of the prototypes that we worked on was actually the spark that eventually led to CoScreen. After the team had to move on to other skunkwork initiatives, we negotiated a setup that enabled me to take the idea, team up with Max and eventually, Jason, and really iterate on CoScreen until we decided to take the leap full-time in early 2020.
Max: I’m originally from Sweden and moved to Switzerland in 2008 on somewhat of a whim after my studies to work for Nestlé. On my first day there, I met Till and ended up working in various different roles. In 2016 I moved to the Bay Area to be an early member of Nestlé’s Silicon Valley Innovation Outpost (SVIO)—a unit focused on discovery and prototyping of digitally enabled technology for the group. My primary roles were focused on leading an internal innovation boot camp and initiatives in conversational AI and AR/VR. At this time CoScreen was very much a side project, but late in 2019, we had built a prototype to validate the concept. After putting CoScreen on Product Hunt and Hacker News, we received affirmation that we weren't the only ones who thought this was a game-changing idea. You have to remember this was right before COVID hit and interest only got stronger after the pandemic started, which gave us confidence to quit our jobs and work on CoScreen full-time.
Jason: Early in my career I worked at a company called iBAHN, a hotel internet provider, where I invented and patented a technology called iMedia, which was an early remote application streaming platform. This was a product they sold for a long time and really made me believe that one day computers would become thin clients and that video codecs would be used for streaming complicated applications and games from more powerful backend hardware. After this, I went on to Sorenson Communications where I worked on the first mobile VRS solution. From there, I became the first full-time engineer at a video interviewing startup, HireVue. There, I helped build the core platform that was acquired by Carlyle Group and they still use today. I went on to found my own telehealth startup with a serial entrepreneur, Will West, that later was acquired by Mingle Health. While working at that telehealth startup, I saw CoScreen on AngelList and thought it seemed like the cloud based application streaming platform I had imagined years before. Beyond just a single application streaming they also had this concept of streaming multiple applications for multiple users. CoScreen seemed like this fundamental missing aspect of computing just waiting to be discovered. When I first met with Till and Max, there was this cobbling together of various plugins and applications to generate this effect to demonstrate that such a thing was possible. They needed someone who had the technical background to bring it into a cohesive reality and so we started exploring this new collaboration paradigm, CoScreen, on the side. It wasn’t until we made the front page of Hacker News that we realized how big this idea really was and how many other people believed in it. We founded CoScreen officially in early 2020 and have been working for the past year or so on building a piece of software we’re all really proud of.
Unusual: Walk us through your “aha” moment that led to the formation of CoScreen.
Till: The idea initially came to me as I was sitting in our open workspace at SAP in Palo Alto. I had a team of super creative and passionate interns and we constantly found interesting things that we sent around via email and/or chat to use as inspiration for what we were working on, researching, prototyping, etc. One day, we thought, “Let’s explore how we could project what we wanted to share intuitively onto a big wall in our team space.” I thought, what if we just take my window and move it to another device or space without having to call anyone or go through any additional steps? We wanted it to be like we were all sitting on the same computer. It was actually an idea for when we were co-located, so not even remote. We iterated over this idea and I came up with this concept of designating your secondary screen—assuming most developers have two or more displays—as your collaborative space. So, anything you moved to that secondary screen, you were sharing with your peers. We thought this could be a game changer for people who were co-located like we were at the time, but even for those who were remote. We, the founding team members, have all been part of remote teams—some of them spread across eight different time zones—and we had to use extremely arcane tools that, to be frank, many companies still use today. So, we know those pains first hand. That’s why I actually think CoScreen has huge value even for people that are co-located and therefore, our future is bright. Not just today when everyone is remote, but also once a subset of us goes back to the office.
Unusual: You had a big launch the other week. What did you launch and why is your team excited about this milestone?
Unusual: The video and screen sharing space is very crowded. What was some of the push back you received pre-COVID and perhaps still even receive?
Max: A common concern we’ve received from skeptics who haven’t tried the product is whether people will start messing with each other’s windows to try to control them at the same time. Does the concept behind CoScreen really work if you don’t have guardrails in terms of whose turn it is to do something? Here’s the thing—as humans, we’re very good at taking turns. We’re having a conversation right now and we’re not trying to talk at the same time. You’re listening to what I’m saying and before, when Jason was talking, we were listening to him. I think people get hung up on the concern over who’s controlling what in terms of CoScreen and think it will just be a big mess. Turns out to not be such a big issue after all. Think about it: if you’ve been using a walkie-talkie your whole life and then all of a sudden you get placed in a phone call it won’t take long until you realize that the imposed turn-taking you were used to did little good but to create friction. We don’t necessarily need tools with guardrails, dropdowns, and systems to help us take turns. And that’s what’s special about CoScreen— we enable that human component that current screen sharing platforms lack.
Jason: To build on that, CoScreen moves away from this presentational video and screen sharing approach. Like Max said, it’s more like a telephone than a walkie-talkie. It’s not just you push and then you’re over and the next person goes. Instead, CoScreen eliminates those barriers and lets people figure out for themselves how to coordinate in the shared space you’ve given them.
Unusual: You often hear the glamorous side of entrepreneurship, but what about the flip side? What has been the hardest thing about being entrepreneurs and leaving cozy jobs like Google, Nestle, and SAP?
Till: CoScreen is a very unique story in that it’s the first time in many years that SAP allowed a previously small internal project to become an independent startup. Getting an agreement in place that ensured an upside for all parties took over 10 months to negotiate and that was just the beginning of a long and exciting journey. Later, when we pitched CoScreen to investors, we had strong interest, but we also faced a lot of doubts about the relevance of remote and with regards to our focus on developers. Of course, the pandemic changed everything, but people like John Vrionis from Unusual Ventures didn’t need that to see promise in what we were doing, and we’re thankful for his early support. I also don’t think we realized how important resiliency would be when we started. The project had a couple near-death experiences at the beginning, and yet, we kept going and developed it into the full-blown business that it is today. We’ve quickly learned that entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster, but a stellar network of investors and advisors and our relentless conviction about our view of the world helps us overcome whatever we’re facing. There are days when things are working great and you just feel like you’re on top of the world. But, there are other days where a customer or another stakeholder might have a whole new challenge for you. I think the best way to put it is there are a lot of high highs, but also low lows. The thing that got us through the lows is that the three of us have been well aligned and have a strong conviction that we’re onto something big that will be helpful for thousands of teams around the world. I truly think CoScreen wouldn’t be where we are without any one of us three not being here.
Jason: I’m a serial startup person. With HireVue, I started with the lows before we had almost any sales and when 50% of customers complained about issues with the product. I think for me, it’s a difference of perspective. I always felt a huge amount of ownership in these other startups I worked on, but now I have way more skin in the game. The biggest struggle is what Till touched on—the big ups and the big lows. This is not a normal job where you’re so insulated. You don’t have one role and one thing you’re focused on—you’re a lot more exposed. You’re dealing with shifting priorities on a day-to-day basis that can change quickly, all while trying to keep your team insulated from these changes and make sure the ship stays on an overall path. We’re a small business and if we don’t succeed at every step of the way, we won’t succeed at all. So, it’s perilous to be an entrepreneur, but it’s also a lot of fun and I much prefer this over working for a larger, “more stable” company. There’s a lot more risk, but there’s a lot more reward. And like Till said, we’re all in this together. The three of us are good at taking criticism, we’re good at taking praise, and we’re good at changing things when we need to. This is honestly also the best team of engineers I’ve ever worked with and we’ve been incredibly lucky in terms of the talent we’ve been able to attract. No matter how this turns out, I know I’ll have been enriched as a person by having worked on this company and with this team.
Max: When the time came to leave my job to focus on CoScreen, it was a no-brainer. But the road leading up to that was a little different. The long period we had to endure that Till described was the tough part. And then last year the pandemic hit, which was horrible in so many ways, but it was also a previously unthinkable turn of events for us. Only months after we decided to put our prototype out in the wild, remote work was suddenly the new normal and that completely redrew the map for how companies consume these types of services in our favor. If we can’t make this company fly under these conditions, then we don’t deserve it.
Unusual: COVID impacted a lot of businesses this past year, but CoScreen faced an interesting dynamic where the pandemic actually helped your business in many ways. Talk us through how COVID has shaped CoScreen and any key learnings.
Max: The pandemic shaped us tremendously. It’s important to point out that we had a term sheet before the pandemic hit—I don’t know if John Vrionis knew something we didn’t. In any case, CoScreen would have happened regardless, but the journey would have looked very different. Of course, we would have thought differently about how to set things up. We would for sure have met up in person much more often and I think the company would have been shaped differently based on that—probably hiring with more geographical constraints. The prospects would have been different as well. Now, we’re riding this monster wave where work is changing at such a rapid pace and we are playing a key role in that transformation. Under other circumstances, we would have to sell our story in a different way and prove to people why remote collaboration matters.
Till: Before the pandemic hit, so many investors we spoke to questioned us about the market opportunity. Fast forward a few weeks later when the pandemic was in full swing: Zoom’s market cap alone was suddenly a multiple of the total addressable market that investors had doubts about when we pitched. The second phase of our fundraising process in the middle of the pandemic was almost surreal. We pitched to a VC that had just lost a close family member to COVID. We pitched to an angel investor who was a volunteer EMT (off-duty) in New York and his pager kept going off every few minutes, indicating just another critical case during their worst period. Internally, we also saw an increase in the sense of urgency—we had to be fast enough and deliver CoScreen earlier than we initially planned. Originally, we were planning to iterate for longer in a private beta and build it step-by-step, but it was clear that wasn’t an option. That’s when we hired the best people we could find, kicked off a collaboration with some of the best interaction designers in the industry, and got to work. And I think that has paid off and will continue to pay off.
Jason: I also think our team immediately needed our application to function in a COVID world, so we started dogfooding it after just a few weeks and continue to use it every single day for our meetings, pair programming, reviews, and team get-togethers. I think that the way we’ve designed and built it is really motivated by our experiences with the platform. I’ve worked in places where people weren’t really using their own product and instead try to take statistics on user bases and such, but we’ve been users of our product this whole time. And I think COVID unceremoniously acted as a forcing function for this. We’re also sourcing talent from all over the world, whereas before, I think we would have wanted to look for engineers that we could meet up with in an office. However, COVID made us feel comfortable with casting a humongous worldwide net for engineering talent, which has made our product better because we have other active development team members that are on another continent, or the other side of the country, and based on their very different conditions, have found different problems to fix. This just makes our product better for remote teams like ours.
Unusual: You’ve all touched on the rollercoaster of high highs and very low lows. What makes you push forward on days or weeks when you feel like you’ve hit every roadblock?
Jason: I actually feel more motivated by the lows. I think when you’re on a high, it’s less motivating—at least for me. My personality is very anxiety-driven, so if I feel like there’s evidence that there’s imperfection somewhere, it’s highly motivating to me. It pushes me forward. I’m not demotivated when I see negative comments about our product or when I see things haven’t worked out—these things actually motivate me a lot. I think, “Okay, there’s a problem that needs to be solved and I need to push my way through that problem.” I do recognize that this sort of mindset can lead to burnout, so I actively have to find ways to artificially decompress.
Till: We have a very strong founding team and when things get tough, it’s nice to know you’re never alone—there are two other people and the extended team ready to support and help you. I think this is another important point in terms of advice for entrepreneurs just starting out—build a strong team around you. This journey is a lot easier if you don’t have to face the various startup challenges solo. No matter the challenge or frustration, I know we’ll figure it out together.
Unusual: Okay, last question! What excites you the most about CoScreen’s potential?
Till: Simply put, I think CoScreen has the potential to change the way all agile teams work. This is the grand vision and long-term plan, but we think our platform will make the life of many people much, much easier and much more enjoyable. I truly believe we have built a very useful tool that folks can use to get work done quicker, more productively, and with less pain.
Jason: I also think we have the potential of changing the way people use computers. There’s been a few leaps in how people actually interface with computers. Take for instance, Figma. These programs are understanding that they need to be multi-peer interactive because we’re in the Internet age now. Why shouldn’t your whole operating system be multi-peer interactive? Why shouldn’t applications by their default not be this way? I feel like CoScreen is a step in that direction. Maybe in 20 years, people will be looking back and something like CoScreen will seem really trivial because our approach will be the norm. The prospect of that is very exciting to me.