The COVID-19 pandemic has kept us from interacting with one another in traditional office settings. While business communication tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack, Mattermost and more keep us talking and seeing one another, they fail to replicate the atmosphere of working together in a shared space. Massively multiplayer online (MMO) games such as World of Warcraft and RuneScape are popular because of their fun gameplay and sense of community, but obviously aren’t an appropriate venue for workplace communication.
What if you could combine the two into a platform for communication, culture building and more? Vishal Punwani thought about this question for a while, and the pandemic brought it into the forefront. With his cofounder Emma Giles, the two switched from from the edtech service they were building to create Sophya as it is today. Sophya has created the world’s first MMO workplace – the ‘World of Workcraft.’ Sophya is for teams to collaborate and build bonds in a customized environment representing your office and with individuals displayed as 2D avatars. The startup is based in Boston, Massachusetts.
Sophya cofounder and CEO Vishal Punwani.
Frederick Daso: Since the start of this pandemic, how have companies attempted to build and preserve their work cultures as they operate remotely?
Vishal Punwani: Attempted is such a good word here. To their credit, companies are certainly getting creative in how they build and maintain culture while remote. I say ‘while remote,’ but the truth is, remote is here to stay. This is new work. And by the way, the pandemic didn’t magically create remote work: we were already moving toward a remote work world. My generation (Millennials) and Gen Zs have thankfully kicked the notion of ‘9 to 5 til 65’ to the curb and increasingly choose to adopt remote working lives so we can prioritize life.
But guess what that means? It means that companies are going to have to work extra hard to build and maintain culture. Because not only is it harder while remote using today’s tools (we can talk about Sophya shortly), but also far more importantly, great culture is critically important in any person’s decision to join a company. Nobody wants to join a company with mediocre culture – especially not the folks you want on your team. Culture is everything.
But back to your question – I mean, you’ve probably seen it all. Backgrounds on your video chat, calling in improv consultants, or chefs, or mixologists – there are many ways that companies are trying to build their cultures right now. But actually, this is all just entertainment. It might help a little – shared moments of laughter with your team are always a good thing and should never be discouraged. But strong, enduring cultures are built when teams have organizational clarity and articulated values that are lived by and reinforced. They’re built when teammates get vulnerable and build trust with each other – these generally require a whole other set of activities that not too many companies do nowadays because they’re a lot harder.
CEO Punwani and COO Giles avatars interacting as they chat in Sophya.
Daso: How do popular communication tools like Microsoft Teams, Mattermost, and their competitors fail to reinforce a company’s culture?
Punwani: They’re certainly super handy tools that get their jobs done. It’s just that their job isn’t to build or maintain culture, and it just so happens that culture is the most important thing in any high-performing organization. One of the core reasons we built Sophya was that we recognized that our culture was slipping when we were relegated to using the standard communication tools. We went remote like everyone else, and it was tough for us because building a great culture was something we were proud of. We just always did it in person.
In addition to the serious culture-building activities designed around trust, values, and vulnerability, we used to go on amazing team retreats, celebrate deployments with team dinners and escape rooms, and in general have an excessive amount of hugging – the whole deal. When we went remote and switched to Zoom and Slack, we could just feel our culture slipping after a while. Like, these tools are great for start-stop, urgent communication, but when companies overuse tools like these and expect them to solve problems that they weren’t built to solve, especially when it comes to culture, unseen things are happening within their organization that is hard to change if left for too long.
Daso: The growth of the business communication services market is undeniable. Among the market segments, do you see the most growth, and how are you positioning Sophya to take advantage of them?
Punwani: It’s huge. Over the past year, the growth of this segment has been a treat to watch – the market capitalizations for the big players are just awesome. Of course, the surface answer is that most people like to see each other when meeting – that’s why everyone switched to video-calling rather than conference calling on our phones when we all went remote. Of course, that’s indicated in the skyrocketing market caps of the popular video conferencing apps. Same with the text chat apps.
But that’s just table stakes. We think the most exciting segment is the unseen segment – what happens to your business when you remove the human interaction piece? You can’t thrive as a company on just video and text. We’re excited to be tackling all of those ‘middle moments’ – the real glue that brings teams closer together. The body language, the emotes, the spontaneity, the transformation of energy from one activity to the next, the self-expression for both companies and their people – these are some of the things we bring to teams that make them smile. Sure, we’ve got video and text chat, with all the security and encryption that enterprises need. But that doesn’t bring people joy – we let folks express themselves and bond in the way they’d like, and that brings them joy. And when you bring people joy, they help you grow as a company, almost by default.
Daso: Between early-stage startups/SMBs and mature enterprises, which of the two has the lower barriers to adopting or piloting new collaboration tools? Walk me through how you identify the decision-makers and pitch Sophya’s value proposition to them.
Punwani: This is an interesting question. Startups and SMBs are always going to move faster than mature companies, for sure. But we see more and more large companies adapt quicker into the remote world as they realize how helpful remote can be for their companies. For example, unlocking a global talent pool as new hires rather than everyone who happens to live in the zip code their physical office is in (if they still have one post-pandemic) probably disproportionately benefits large companies. And while certain verticals are a bit slower than others to adopt remote tech (sometimes, for good reasons, financial institutions come to mind), we see these shifts in almost every industry. In my prior industry as a medical doctor, I’m seeing hospitals and clinics move faster than I’ve ever seen them move to adopt remote tech – and that’s one of the most ‘traditional’ verticals that exists.
In terms of identifying decision-makers and pitching – fortunately, one of the ways we know we’re onto something is that people generally come and tell us all of the problems that they have that we can solve for them. And we’re so happy to be able to do that for them. Much more to come.
Sophya team chatting in game.
Daso: What first led you to the idea of building Sophya based on concepts from popular massively multiplayer online (MMO) games like World of Warcraft or RuneScape?
Punwani: Well, as I mentioned earlier, our team is so bullish on great culture. And when the pandemic hit, like everyone else, we were like, ‘okay, I guess we’re gonna just go sit in our houses now.’ After toying with Slack and Zoom for four months, we got fed up. We knew there was a better way because many of my teammates and I met while playing World of Warcraft 17 years ago. We built and ran one of the best raiding guilds on the server, and we became best friends despite living on three different continents having never met. So, forget the gaming aspect for a second – we knew there was a better way to socially and productively connect online. It just had never been used in a mainstream business context before.
We had already devised plenty of mechanisms back in those days to coordinate large groups of people – up to 40-60 real people, with real lives and real jobs – to accomplish particular goals (killing bosses or ‘Alliance noobs’) that would sometimes take months. And if your team didn’t get along, or communication, project tracking, team hierarchy, leadership, or bean counting was poor, guess what? You lose. Nerdiness aside, this is what happens in business. So to us, it was clear as day. So we set out to make it happen, and it seems to be working. Our team has literally never felt closer, and we’re currently across five continents.
Daso: When we communicated in Sophya, the video conferencing feature was extremely smooth with low latency and zero audio stutter. What drove the decision to prioritize developing robust audio-visual communication functionality over all the other great features you’ve seamlessly have running in the background?
Punwani: To put this back into a gaming analogy, if your console, controller, or TV doesn’t work, you lose before you even see the ‘Ready Player One’ screen. In business, it’s the same way. There are table stakes capabilities you need to have in place before you can get out there and play the game, so that’s been our initial focus. People who have been into our World have no doubt seen that we’ve spritzed some mana on a few other things as well, but all things enterprise was our priority: video conferencing, text chat, stability, reliability, security. We use our World every day for our own business, making it easy to make sure all of these worked flawlessly before moving on.
I also don’t want to make it sound like everything’s been roses – we’ve learned a lot of lessons and have had our fair share of hiccups along the way, but things seem to be rolling along now. It’s fun – come join us!
Daso: Before Sophya became what it is today, it was an ed-tech company. What drove the decision for you and your cofounder to pivot into a gamified business communication tool?
Punwani: Yeah, this is an important question. This was, probably unsurprisingly, a very tough decision to make. The team was crushing it in the edtech software we were building, and all our stakeholders were so aligned – our team, advisors, angels, and customers. It was also tough because I care so deeply about education. I had become a top-rated Teaching Fellow for Khan Academy. I worked on education initiatives at the World Health Organization, so it was certainly difficult to say ‘hey, we’re pivoting!’, also because the software was doing well.
We initially built our metaverse as a feature within our education platform, and after a while, the growth curve just became impossible to ignore. Also, we found that the team was having so much fun building the ‘metaverse.’ After using a space in the world as our own office for a couple of months, we fell back in love with work, even during the pandemic. So we took the plunge, committed 100% to it, and here we are. It’s been fun.
I write extensively on college students’ triumphs and failures in their journeys in entrepreneurship. I graduated from MIT with my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Aerospace