On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Todd Embley, Senior Startup Advocate for Agora. Todd and I talk about the new technologies and trends from no-code tools to embedded audio and video platforms, that affect how we see, hear, and interact with each other. We also explore how companies are tapping into startups and startup ecosystems to enable founders to build and impact the world more effectively. Let’s get started.
Inside Outside Innovation as the podcast to help new innovators navigate what’s next. I’m your host Brian Ardinger, founder of InsideOutside.IO. Each week. We’ll give you a front row seat into what it takes to learn, grow, and thrive in today’s world of accelerating change and uncertainty. Join us as we explore, engage, and experiment with the best and the brightest innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneering businesses. It’s time to get started.
Interview Transcript with Todd Embley, Senior Startup Advocate for Agora
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today, we have Todd Embley. He is a Senior Startup Advocate for Agora and a formerly with China Accelerator. So welcome to the show, Todd,
Todd Embley: Thank you, Brian. It’s good to be here.
Brian Ardinger: I’m excited to have you because we’ve met a while back early in my startup days when I was running NMotion. You were in China. And we met at some global accelerator network conference. I think it was in San Diego, perhaps. So, you spent a lot of time in Asia, as I did. And recently moved back to the states, working for a interesting company called Agora. We had a chance to run into each other again in Lincoln.
Todd Embley: Yeah. Thanks very much. I actually did come back from China and moved to the U.S. but now I’m back in Canada. I am Canadian and I’m living in Western Canada.
Brian Ardinger: I wanted to start the conversation with the most recent company that you’re with is a company called Agora. It’s an interesting company for a couple different reasons. And it’s a real-time engagement platform that a lot of popular companies are using to build on top of like Run the World, which is something that we’ve used for our IO Conferences and that.
And some of our IO Live events. I think you guys provide like the SDKs and the building blocks to enable these types of startups to build off of. So, I I’d love to get your take, not on just Agora, but you’ve got an interesting role there as a Startup Advocate. So, what is a Startup Advocate?
Todd Embley: It’s a great role, for those of us who aren’t necessarily adept at selling. And we fall under marketing. And the role is really, if I were to compartmentalize everything that we’re about and our ethos and thesis. Is go out into startup land and be as helpful as possible. Try to integrate. You know, we sponsor. I run workshops. I meet with lots and lots of entrepreneurs all the time, and we’re just out there trying to be as helpful as possible.
And the great thing that the company and the founders and senior leadership have all gotten behind is just be out and be as helpful as possible. And wear the t-shirt while you’re doing it. That’s almost the be all and end of it. And for those that are really interested in what Agora is and what Agora does, then we can get into that. But essentially, we’re not trying to put it in front of everybody and not trying to blast everybody with, with Agora specifically.
The team is comprised of people who have been entrepreneurs, been in startups, been in VC, run accelerators. And who have just a lot of empathy for startups and that’s kind of where it begins and ends.
Brian Ardinger: We see a couple of different companies use this approach of startup advocate type of program to help build their business. Walk me through like, what are the benefits and the reasons why a corporation would want to put together some type of program around this.
Todd Embley: You know, I think AWS and what they’ve been doing for as long as they’ve been doing it are kind of the benchmark. And they were, I would say the pioneers, at least the most famous pioneers of running programs like this. Our senior leadership had an opportunity in China to talk to the heads of AWS Activate in China.
And they divulged some interesting statistics, which I think were the precipice of Agora wanting to build their own startup team as well. That was that after 15 years of them having a program, they will now attribute up to 65% of AWS revenues today to the activities, you know, over the last 15 years, of their startup program.
And what we’re trying to do is invest in our future huge customers. Knowing that the world’s next billionaire companies, trillion-dollar companies. The unicorns of the future are still just startups today. And if we want to align ourselves correctly with what it takes to build a startup and how hard it is, let’s maybe try to get out of their way at the early stages while they’re trying to cross the early chasms of, you know, and the difficulties of what it takes.
So, from a revenue perspective or from a cost perspective, let’s give our stuff for free. You know, until you, their revenue. You can’t get blood from a stone. So, while they’re still searching for product market fit and revenue, let’s let them use our software for free until such time as they are then finding product market fit and then able to start generating revenue. And only at that time, should we then start to talk to them about actually paying for the service?
Brian Ardinger: That makes sense. And obviously it seems to be working. I think I read on your website, you’ve got over 50 billion minutes of engagement on the platform. Probably going up as we speak. I don’t know if you can speak to any specific use cases or specifically what you do when it comes to helping these companies get up and off the ground.
Todd Embley: Sure. As you alluded to, there are some famous companies that have been using us, especially in the real-time audio space. There are a few NDAs in place. So, you could mention who those companies are. And by all means it’s pretty widely known. I necessarily can’t speak directly to who some of those more famous ones are.
But the nuts and bolts of the program essentially boils down to free minutes. So, my Director, Tony Blank. He and another friend of ours, Paul Ford, used to do this at SendGrid. And that’s where they were a big supporter of the Global Accelerator Network where you and I met in the beginning and then the Twilio acquisition of SendGrid. So, he was there. And they were doing a great job as well.
And leading on some of the data from their experience there, or Tony’s experience there, and then understanding our business and the data that we had over the years that Agora has been thriving. We positioned the amount of minutes at 1 million, we figured 1 million minutes of Agora should be enough for most companies to achieve product market fit and revenue.
If you haven’t achieved product market fit and revenue, after using a million minutes of Agora, you may have some underlying other issues that are getting in the way of that. But we really feel that upwards of 80%, even 90% of companies who do achieve and use up the million free minutes, should be at a position of having raised money and are revenue positive.
At which time we feel comfortable to say, okay, though, now we do have to, for our business purposes, need to, to work on something and we’ll hand them over to sales in a gentle way and work on getting them some discounts and start forecasting future usage and things like that. But those are the nuts and bolts.
In our world of real-time video, real-time audio, just the real-time engagement aspect of it. There are certain verticals that are really taking off. I think health is obviously a big one where you have doctors and patients or therapists and their clients. We’re seeing a lot in fitness, so for coaches training. Doing big group classes. Education is probably our biggest. I think that’s a pretty obvious use case of doing real time lessons with teachers and things.
But we’re also seeing a lot of activity in the area of gaming where people want talk to each other. They want to be on video with each other while playing games together. Live performances and experiences around online virtual concerts or comedy shows or things like that as well. There’s a lot of added context that you can get from engaging in real time, over video. That you couldn’t get at an actual conference.
You know, there are solutions coming around blending those where you might be at the concert, but you’ll also have on your phone different camera angles that are available to a viewer. And you can get other contextual information that is happening plus chats with other people at the concert or something like that.
And then, you know, a lot of multi-verse. A lot of VR stuff. I mean, I had a conversation with a startup out of New Zealand who was working in the overcoming therapy space, where if you had a phobia of dogs, you know, a psychologist would work with their client, and they would go to a kennel and slowly start to integrate and learn how to overcome.
But now we can do that in a VR environment, but overlay a lot of very interesting artificial intelligence, facial recognition. Stuff like that to really be able to measure the things that are almost imperceptible to the human eye, to understand like the dilation of their pupils when faced with a small dog versus a big dog or different breeds or something, just giving a lot more contextual information to help a psychologist really work with their client to overcome a phobia.
So, it’s fascinating to work with the startups because they are thinking of use cases that we even within Agora can’t think of.
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Brian Ardinger: Well, and that’s an interesting thing because the platform itself is really robust. You can do video calls and voice calls and interactive live streaming and real-time messaging and white boarding. And like you said, the toolkits are there. And I think this fits into one of those trends that we’ve been talking about, where it’s never been easier for a startup founder to find the tools they need. They don’t necessarily have to build everything from scratch nowadays.
They can find partners and no code, low code tools and things like that to get up and going and testing the marketplace a lot easier than ever before. And get to those use case scenarios that a platform tool provider may not have thought of originally. I’m curious to get your take on some of this accessibility to tools that founders didn’t have maybe, you know, 10 years ago when we started in this business.
Todd Embley: Yeah, it’s amazing. I think back to, I used to be with SOSV was the fund, and we were doing kind of an internal conference for all of our portfolio, all of our mentor network. Everybody that had ever been involved with us, including investors in Agora or LPs. And we had a guy named Dave McClure come and speak.
Somebody had asked him is your eight-year-old daughter learning how to code. And he said, let me rephrase that. I think what you’re asking me is do I think that it is important for very young people to learn how to code and essentially that’s what you’re looking for.
And he said, you know, coding is like learning any other language, you know, in the development of the brain and how that enables young people to really grow. But it is in his opinion, he said it is just kind of a commodity. He said coding is probably going to become a commodity. And we’ve seen that in the low-code no-code explosion.
And then he thought, you know, design would probably not be that far behind. I mean, there probably will be a day in the future where our phones will know everything they need to know about us, where you won’t have to necessarily code or design the UI UX CX, of how an app works and feels. Because it can just deploy to our phone and our phone can tell the app how to develop itself as it lands on our home screen, in the way that we prefer it to be from colors to where the settings are or where our profile lives.
And we can navigate that so intuitively. It has been absolutely amazing. And I think, you know, as we go, we’ve launched our app builder where pretty much anybody, even without any coding experience can go on and within 20 minutes create a video conferencing tool that they can use for their family reunion. You know, that is super easy. So yeah, it’s been amazing.
Brian Ardinger: It is kind of crazy to think what are the uses. I’d imagine obviously COVID has changed the dynamic landscape for you guys, especially. And so maybe let’s talk a little bit about that. Some of the trends you’re seeing with the move to more remote and more virtual environments.
Todd Embley: Anybody who just watches the stock price of Zoom over the last couple of years would understand exactly where this industry has gone, but then factors like the quote unquote Zoom fatigue. And now we’re seeing people that want to have more control over the layout and the design and the backgrounds and the information and the chats and emojis and music and all these other things that you can build into it.
Because you know, now for instance, all our conferences went virtual, right? So we are now having to figure out how did you run a web summit or you know, like an East Meets West, that Blue Start-ups does in Hawaii or something. How do we now do this online and create a really great experience where everybody can still try to achieve those same outcomes for why they attended in the first place. It’s been a pretty amazing growth that has really kind of pushed the boundaries.
The work from home, I think has been the biggest thing where everybody’s now at home. So, there’s working with colleagues. There is collection of data. There is monitoring output and outcomes. And, you know, as a department or as a salesperson or marketing has changed. How do we do now market to people who aren’t leaving their homes anymore that has now all changed.
It’s been such a game changer just in the future of work. I wouldn’t say it necessarily changed course, but COVID has absolutely accelerated what we were already starting to think it would be. You know, it’s done some damage to the world of coworking spaces, right. Or in-person accelerators or incubators. It’s changed how we, even as a startup team go out and find partners and find startups to introduce them to Agora. So, it’s had a tremendous impact.
Brian Ardinger: You spent a lot of time ecosystem building for lack of a better term. You know, you go to different communities and see what the landscape is in the startup world. And then again, try to help founders navigate that. So, what are you seeing when you travel around to different startup communities and that. What’s maybe different than it was five or six years ago?
Todd Embley: There’s a lot of factors. Entrepreneurship and startup land, as we know it, just even in the last 20 years, let’s say since the .com boom and bust. And then, you know, Paul Graham kind of the Godfather of the accelerator starts Y Combinator in 2005. The way investors started investing, and then there was, you know, a lot of information and then Crunchbase and others started coming around. And then, then we had 10 years of data from Crunchbase, somewhere around 2013. That we’re now measuring how well people were investing, how well-performing that whole venture financial class was doing.
And we’ve seen things where investors are now looking more at timing of solutions versus not just team and problem, but they had so many investments that were either too early, too late. And they started to recognize that. A lot of funds are starting to look internally and seeing, trying to reinvest inside the value that they’ve created to capture more of the food on the table versus being so outwardly focused.
For our jobs, even in doing ecosystem development, how to startups find us versus how do we find them? If there’s no meetups. If we’re not able to do in-person startup weekends, then how are we able to find them, to attract them, to support them and to help them. How are investors doing their due diligence? You know, things like DocSend. Right.
Having that digital data room with a lot of analytics built into it. So that founders can now not only see who’s entering and who’s looking at their due diligence documents at, but where in the deck are they spending time? On what slides, what is important? Where are they stopping? Where are they looking at? There’s a lot of data and information that they can measure from that as well.
I’m not exactly sure if that answers the question, but it is so drastically different. And now we’re going back into, you know, web summit is in-person. I’m going to be going to that next week after we record this. That is going to be a different experience as well. And then there’s the hybrids that are kind of doing both. It’s changed a lot.
Brian Ardinger: It is definitely interesting. You know, it’s always been hard to find startup founders. A lot of times they’re heads down doing their thing. You know, over the last five or six years pre COVID, you started to have a different environment where things like coworking spaces and events like Startup Weekend and that, started to bring some of those folks out and started to get some energy.
And then COVID kind of slap that in the face to a certain extent. But now what I’m seeing at least is more collaboration across different communities. So even though I’m based in Lincoln, Nebraska, the network and our reach to different communities for the startups in our backyard, has increased and been beneficial from the standpoint of they’re no longer having to be in the middle of flyover country.
They can access folks that wouldn’t necessarily in the past look outside of their own Sandhill Road area. So, I guess there’s pros and cons to this new environment, but I was curious to get your take on that as well.
Todd Embley: Constraints breed innovation. And COVID has drastically brought a whole new set of constraints just by not being able to meet in person as much. So, I think it’s the development and the investment in developing a different skill set. You know, you take one sense away, the other senses improve. And so, we’ve had to become better at being able to build relationships.
We have video and we have voice. But suddenly we’re tuning in to the video and tuning into the voice. We may not have the same social cues and we may not have the same physical cues to be picking up on things. We used to train entrepreneurs on how to pitch in person. You were on a stage facing an audience. You were standing in front of an investor at a meetup. Here’s how you do it and here’s how you talk. Here’s how you hold yourself. Be careful of your hands. Don’t shift your feet around.
You know, there is all these, you know, all this kind of training, which has had to change. Which has had to develop. And now we’re reaching out, we’re developing partnerships and I think I’ve seen a lot of ecosystems lean in on having silos or verticals that they’re starting to own to be seen as a place.
And accelerators are now going virtual, where they’re pulling from anywhere. Right. We have a focus. We’re vertically focused. And so even if you’re in Brazil or you’re in Russia or wherever, this is the accelerator that you want to join because the world has just been absolutely flattened. And now this is the best place. This is the best accelerator, and you don’t have to fly in and live here. Right? So now you’ve seen costs of living. People are moving out of the main centers. It’s just, it’s been a tremendous change.
Brian Ardinger: You’ve spent your life helping founders. And I’d love to get your input on for our founders that are listening to this show. Some of the biggest obstacles or barriers or things that you’ve seen or can help them overcome. Are there particular tips or tricks that founders should be paying attention to nowadays?
Todd Embley: I still think it all starts with the problem. And I still find myself having to talk about deep diving into the problem discussion. There has been a penchant for the snapshot. And of the landscape as it is today. But I think what we’re starting to understand. And what I’m seeing from a lot of questions that come from investors, is it’s not as much about what. It’s about why. And when you’re pitching or talking about what you’re doing, you have to start layering in the why.
This is our go to market strategy. Great. Doesn’t really matter, but why did you choose that? They’re being measured on the way they think. The way they process. The way they built. What data did you take in. Which did you keep? And which did you throw away and why? Then what decision and strategy did you make off of that data?
And why did you decide to strategize that? Why are you deciding to build this next? Why is this the next iteration of what you’re doing, this problem that you’re trying to solve? Anybody can Google and get a lot of data on a problem that exists today. But do you have a deep understanding of how we got here? You know, we have this Canadian kind of saying of the Wayne Gretzky, don’t go where the puck is, go, where the puck is going to be.
And as investors, we’re always trying to find the entrepreneurs who are good at figuring out where the puck is going to be. But the only way that they can figure that out, isn’t understanding just where the puck is, but how the puck got to where it is. Because only then do we understand the speed and the trajectory and are able to extrapolate off of that to know where it’s going with some reasonable degree of accuracy. But we’ll never get it right.
But that I think is always be factoring in your why. Nobody is going to be blown away by your what because you’re still early stage. Unless you have a hundred thousand downloads or a million MRR, you know, it’s just not that impressive. Because the only thing that matters is what people use and pay for.
So, knowing that. Now, we’re just trying to measure size you up as a founder. So lean in on all your why of everything that you’re talking about so that they can understand how you develop, how you price, how you see the world. Be unique, be different.
For More Information on Agora
Brian Ardinger: Solid advice. Well, Todd, I want to thank you for coming on Inside Outside Innovation and sharing your insights and your experiences from the many years of being in the trenches there. I want to encourage people to check out Agora and that. If people want to find out more about yourself or about the startup program at Agora, what’s the best way to do that?
Todd Embley: Yeah. I mean, if they want to connect with me, LinkedIn is great. Just Todd Embley. I will generally show up. That’s a great way to do it. And I’d love to connect. I love to meet with everybody. And then agora.io/startups is where the entrance to the startup program lives. But Agora.io is where most of the information about Agora lives. And we’re happy to talk to anybody, especially partners. Anybody doing events. Anything out there. We’d love to be a part of it. We’d love to sponsor. And try to add value.
Brian Ardinger: Well Todd, thanks again for coming on the show. It’s great to see you again and look forward to continuing the conversation in the years to come.
Todd Embley: Thanks, Brian. It’s been great.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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