After running in beta for a year, Nooks, a virtual workspace targeting distributed teams, has attracted thousands of users and millions of dollars in venture capital. The Stanford student-led newcomer has raised a $ 5 million funding round led by Tola Capital, with participation from Floodgate and investors such as Julia and Kevin Hartz (CEO and chairman of Eventbrite, respectively) and Julia Lipton, founder of Awesome People Ventures.
The funding signals another group of investors betting on a company in the virtual headquarters world, a cohort that includes dozens of startups who believe distributed employees are ready to zoom out and become built-in “metavers”. productivity and gamification in mind. This is Kevin Hartz’s second investment in a virtual HQ, along with his first in Gather. To date, Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Menlo, Battery Ventures, Index Ventures, Y Combinator, Homebrew, and Floodgate all have stakes in different virtual headquarters startups.
In other words: even with investors investing the money, Nooks has its work cut out for it.
Nooks was launched in May 2020 by Stanford students Daniel Lee, Rohan Suri, Nikhil Cheerla, and Andrew Qu from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Like almost everyone else unexpectedly thrown into the world of remote work, the trio experienced Zoom fatigue through school and class. They quickly saw the need to create space for top performing teams and like-minded communities to enjoy working together.
The co-founders first piloted Nooks within Stanford, giving it to teaching assistants to use as an engaging layer for virtual summer courses. Nooks’ initial use case was like office hours and homework nights, says Lee. Since the initial launch in schools, Nooks has grown to focus more on helping distributed teams work, but the ethics have remained consistent.
“There should be this persistent space where, instead of just being in a fleeting space like a meeting, you can go somewhere to make more spontaneous connections,” Lee said.
When a user enters Nooks, they are greeted by a Slack-like interface. Instead of a channel panel on the left, however, employees are invited to enter “spaces.” Each space can vary in its purpose, from a reception mockup to a beach hangout or a design group. Nooks has a space dedicated to denigrating bugs that appear in the code. From its first entry on the platform, the Nooks UX stood out as different from some of its competition. While companies like Branch and Gather look like video games with an element of productivity, Nooks completely ignores the avatar feel, moving closer to Teamflow or Tandem. The company uses a video API to allow each person to occupy small orbs of space and adds integrations from platforms such as Google Docs, YouTube, Asana, or GitHub.
Co-founder Suri said the company decided to go with a simpler aesthetic to promote conversation, not more clicks.
“We don’t really think that in order to talk to someone you have to be a video player, have your avatar around and go to them,” he said. “It should be as easy as seeing them in a room and walking into that room.”
Of course, the company strives to balance this simplicity with an engaging environment, and includes customization of spaces and background music. There is a “whisper feature” that allows peers to talk to each other during a presentation, virtual auction rooms where Nooks creates top seller rankings, and collaborative workspaces to promote cross-pollination of ideas.
Simplicity can come at the expense of spontaneity. While other virtual HQ platforms use spatial audio to create the feeling of a ‘kick-off’ – voices get louder when you are near other colleagues and quieter when you are standing by. walk away – Lee said Nooks promotes impromptu collaboration and casual conversations so that it’s just a “click to talk to anyone.”
While frictionless communication is an important feature, that can’t be Nooks’ only hook. Platforms like Slack, Hangouts, and even Twitter DMs only require one click (two at most!) For a user to communicate with someone. Not to mention that Slack is releasing a series of communication tools around spontaneity and live communication.
Yet Nooks currently has thousands of active weekly users from teams and organizations like Stanford, Embroker, and Workato. Teams using Nooks spend an average of six hours per day on the platform, the company said.
The virtual growing pains of hybrid labor
As the pandemic wears off in parts of the world, startups like Nooks will need to find ways to accommodate the return of hybrid teams after a long period of mostly remote work. The new challenge for these startups is to know how they position themselves to integrate well into the new work culture.
And the proximity bias could make that difficult to do.
Proximity bias is the idea that employees who show up in person are valued more than employees who work virtually. This is one of the realities that make hybrid work so difficult to do on a large scale: Fairness suffers when a group of employees are positioned as more important or prized just because they can get to an office. .
Virtual workspace startups, especially those looking to bring work culture online, might accidentally fragment those who work from home too much versus those who work in person. Fragmentation will have a disproportionate impact on historically neglected individuals, which include minorities and women. Notably, among the virtual HQs, most were built, managed and financed by men.
Asked how they combat proximity biases, Lee said that “more frequent, fluid, and informal conversations with remote employees help them form stronger bonds with the rest of the team.” Sure enough, there is an argument that many virtual headquarters startups have been launched to quench proximity bias by bringing everyone in an office to the same digital world.
Ultimately, leveling the playing field will require aggressive intent. How can a startup ensure that virtual head office employees have access to a spontaneous in-person stand-up in conference room A? How does a platform give any employee, regardless of location, the opportunity to give their opinion, disagree, or share jokes after the meeting? Can avatars, or floating video orbs, begin to give subtle physical clues beyond a clap or a thumbs-up?
I’d bet these features are moonstroke and the survival hack for long-term virtual siege startups.