ThriveGlobal Interview: Humphrey Chen on Persistent, Invisible Communications
April 9, 2021
Interview structure below:
We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don't replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Humphrey Chen.
Humphrey Chen is the CEO and Co-Founder of CLIPr, a video analysis and management (VAM) platform using AI and machine learning to help users quickly identify, organize, search, interact and share the important moments within video content. He is a corporatized entrepreneur who has bought, advised, and built start-ups in a multitude of different technology-based industries throughout his career. Prior to CLIPr, Humphrey was also the Head of Key Initiatives for the Amazon Computer Vision API’s, former Chief Product Officer for VidMob, and lead New Technologies division at Verizon Wireless during the launch of 4G LTE networks. Chen currently serves on the Board of Advisors for Noom, DialPad, GrayMeta, and VidMob. He has always had a passion for making new and meaningful things happen.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
As a kid I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but over time, I learned what I didn’t want to be. After ruling out medicine, I tried out consumer packaged goods consulting, IT Consulting and then mortgaged backed securities processing before finally landing on wanting to be an entrepreneur, when I arrived at Harvard Business School in 1994. My first startup was the equivalent of Shazam for FM radio but it was five years before Shazam and actually 10 years too early. Getting the timing right is so critical, hence CLIPr was founded during the pandemic to solve a brand new problem that everyone started to experience at scale.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Before becoming a wireless executive at Verizon and after I was a product manager at Microsoft, I was a Director of portfolio strategy & business development at Avaya focused on the continued relevance of the desk phone. This was around the time when the iPhone first launched. Back then, Apple was a big Avaya customer so I (we) asked Tony Fadell, the father of the iPod and the realizer of the iPhone for Steve Jobs, whether he would be up for the task of designing the iDeskphone and he shared that iPod was Mt. Everest #1 and the iPhone was #2, and he wasn’t sure that he was up for #3. Soon afterwards, Tony left Apple and then eventually founded Nest. I’ll never forget that meeting in Cupertino.
Can you please give us your favorite "Life Lesson Quote"? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Living life with no regrets.” Wherever I’ve worked I generally pushed the envelope of what people were willing to do. I always tried harder. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it would be valued and appreciated, but sometimes it would annoy the heck out of people. However, living life with no regrets meant that I’d err on the side of risking it and trying things versus not, since I never wanted to regret not giving it my all. You can see how I lived this motto throughout my career in my MIT talk on YouTube.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My Harvard Business School professor Marco Iansiti, quite literally, has always been helping me get to where I am today. When I came up with the equivalent of Shazam for FM radio, 5 years before Shazam, and unfortunately 10 years too early, Professor Iansiti sponsored my 2nd year field study project to help make that dream a reality. In 1999, *CD (*23) launched in 20 US cities on both the AT&T and Sprint wireless networks. More than twenty years later, Professor Iansiti committed the first angel check to my new start-up, CLIPr, 30 days before we were even incorporated. Today he is one of our most influential Board of Advisor members. Our areas of focus had reconverged since Professor Iansiti had recently debuted his book “Competing in the age of AI” that he had co-authored with HBS Professor Karim Lakhani.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
The main benefits to working under one roof is an easier path to building team camaraderie, more easily developing workflow efficiencies, and also boosting morale. I’ve worked for plenty of big companies and with many start-ups and the one thing similar about them is how great it is to build a good rapport with the people you spend the most time of your day around. Today, the importance of a positive and cohesive work culture is everywhere but that wasn’t always the case. During the early years of my career, it was always the most important unsung benefit of the jobs that I enjoyed most.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
The main challenges with everyone working remote is maintaining all those benefits mentioned earlier without being under one roof. Developing synergies and routine workflows with colleagues, keeping morale high, and really understanding how what you’re doing at a company is a huge part of its overall success. An added wrinkle (and oft-understated) challenge of remote work is onboarding new employees. There are entirely new protocols that must be developed to help new employees meet and engage with colleagues, learn the new environment they’ve joined, and feel completely integrated into tasks. This is something I believe will be one of the more significant challenges to long-term remote work after the pandemic subsides. There is a huge difference between existing employees at a company migrating to full-time remote work than new employees first entering a remote work environment.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your "5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)
(1) Understanding the most effective and relevant collaboration technology (i.e. Slack channel/DM/SMS/Asana tasks/Google Workspace doc alerts/e-mail/iMessage, Zoom, FaceTime, whatsapp). All business cultures are different, and while it’s a lot of extra time to test out each of the many available collaboration tools to find which fits the work culture best by message type, it can bring immense benefits of productivity in the long-term once you get it right. Slack notifications have turned into the unifying umbrella for all our collaboration related notifications. The only time it’s bypassed is when the platform’s snooze defaults kick in.
(2) Establish a structured approach to mandatory and optional meetings: One of the most underrated areas of developing a great remote work culture is to structure some meetings as optional, and others as mandatory. Video has been central to everything enterprises have done since the pandemic began from client and internal meetings to virtual happy hours, and while it has been great, we are all familiar with the “Zoom fatigue” that resulted from an overload of video conferencing. Some studies have shown constant remote meetings stifle productivity as well. Being able to achieve this type of system does require great video recording and indexing tools to make it easier for employees to quickly uncover the important moments in optional meetings they’ve missed.
(3) Persistent “Invisible” Communications: There is plenty of non-verbal communication occurring in office spaces every day. A lot of this type of communication doesn’t happen in remote work environments, and companies must be sensitive to its importance and compensate with more swag and perks. For example, at CLIPr we sent vests to all our employees around the world. We also recently instituted a caffeine/energy reimbursement policy for employees to reward everyone’s remote households, so that even if we can’t all have a drink together, we can still stay remotely connected through our beverage of choice. It’s these types of routine gestures that keeps morale high and reminds everyone we are all part of the company no matter where we are set up.
(4) Monthly All-hands meetings: Something that can seem mundane and routine in an office setting has become so critical in a remote work environment. It keeps everyone 100% in sync on the bigger picture and to celebrate, acknowledge, and reward others for the work they do. For example, as a start-up we have so many pieces moving at all times and getting together so we can share wins, frustrations, and overall appreciation for each other’s efforts, leaving us feeling good, better informed and aligned afterwards. I’m already starting to think that monthly is no longer frequent enough for our team.
(5) Quarterly remote investor meetings: While we’re not public yet, it’s great etiquette and adds value to both our investors and to our leadership team when full transparency can be shared about what’s working, what’s not working and how everyone can help accelerate our trajectory.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
Since our company is focused on improving communication workflows through video, we naturally dedicate a lot of resources to making sure our remote communication is top notch. We do allow employees to use their own cellular phones for maximum flexibility, and employ other collaboration tools such as Slack, Zoom, Google Workspace, Calendly, Asana, Figma and Mural to fill in the gaps. We also just recently became a customer of DialPad too for the office work phone on mobile. Interestingly, some of our communication challenges have stemmed from the sheer file sizes we are dealing with as it relates to our core business of indexing video content using machine learning. Some customer files can get up to over 100 GB and moving those sizes globally requires some extra patience.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
Slack Connect allowed us to seamlessly "instant message" our vendors, partners and customers. E-mail classically did this but it's asynchronous and this option is one step before escalating to iMessage/SMS/Whatsapp. Figma has allowed us to design new product experiences together. Asana keeps our product heartbeat strong and steady by managing a global team. Mural gave us a single virtual whiteboard to brainstorm across our initial MVP design sprint and then again during a major strategy all-remote off-site.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
Ironically, I co-founded my company, CLIPr, to develop the perfect communication system I wasn’t finding anywhere else. From large to small companies, the one thing they all have in common is that video is the primary source of all communication, and yet, there is no way to engage with video content efficiently and on our own terms like whitepapers, articles, reports and others. There is no “control+F” for searching video to find the actionable information you need to execute tasks, so you’re forced to comb through hours long videos just to get the 10-15 minutes or less you need buried within. We are using machine learning to quickly index video content, turning it into a searchable data source so employees can quickly recall and view the important segments of video and share with others across the company. Needless to say we use this ourselves and it has dramatically improved our flexibility at work and we aren’t afraid to have missed important updates if we couldn’t make a live meeting.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
I don’t think it’s changed the need for unified communications as it’s always been crucial, but it has definitely made the importance of communication in the workplace that much more of a fiscal and cultural priority. Video used to be viewed as a premium telepresence luxury but no longer, it’s become mainstream and is now preferred to audio only and ironically enough, even to in person, due to the fear of catching or spreading covid-19. The tools for Video Analysis and Management are no longer niche and need to be made accessible to all workers across all industries as economically and efficiently as possible whether through a complete solution or via an API enabled experience to integrate within existing Line of Business systems.
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
A lot of these technologies are just emerging and getting their feet wet in terms of enterprise applications, but the one I’m most excited about is mixed reality if it becomes a commonplace work tool. The idea of being able to have in-person meetings through HoloLens changes the game in terms of not only developing a true office environment remotely but also unlocking the potential to hire the best person for the job without geographical restrictions. A lot of the technologies that are most exciting are already known, they just need to become cost-effective and applied to all kinds of work environments to even out it’s distribution beyond the early adopters.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
The potential concerns I have can all be found in the majority of dystopian books or movies. Historically, amazing transcendent technology built for good has always been used for nefarious purposes. Trusting so much sensitive data to cloud-based environments and systems beyond the firewall is a double-edged sword. Cyber security is, of course, innovating just like any other technology, but in this case the bad actors are also getting more innovative at a similar pace. At the end of the day, I’m optimistic that the great advances we are making will outweigh some of the bad they will inevitably create.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
"Being in the neighborhood" (anywhere in the world) used to be a good reason to get together in person. Now an early morning Snapchat or Whatsapp about a time sensitive email can make all the difference to simulate Instant Messaging. Carrier powered voice is good ole reliable and most resilient, but ironically, not the first choice. It's always fun to receive the occasional—but rare—live FaceTime video call for the all-in up close remote interaction.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn't come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
This hasn’t been so different for us because we are always communicating via video chat. For the reasons you mentioned, I try to withhold any criticism or feedback until we schedule a remote call to try and retain some of that body language that softens the blow and allows for a more productive conversation. One thing I’ve always done in an office and remote setting, is wait to deliver the criticism until I’ve had time to process it and determine an appropriate way to communicate it to the other person. My rule is to never criticize unless I have a clear reasoning and solution to help them solve the particular problem. That’s the difference between helping someone grow versus discouraging or alienating them as a colleague.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
The key to creating camaraderie and team cohesion for our staff when we work remotely is providing certain perks or company branding into their routines in subtle ways. For example, our complimentary coffee perk for our employees and their families is a nice unobtrusive way to be a part of their daily routine without actually having them in an office. Everytime they get coffee they will think about the company in a positive way. Another method is creating company-branded computer wallpapers and work supplies. Not only does this remove the need for them to purchase out of their own pockets, but it helps create a unified and connected work environment between us all even if we are located in different parts of the world. Of course, it’s also important to have special holiday events (even if they are virtual) and all-hands meetings where we don’t just focus on business growth but personal growth as well. It can be surprisingly refreshing to create an environment where employees feel like they can express themselves and their situations outside of work.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
As we move towards this hybrid, or even fully remote work environment for some companies, managing employee time to reduce burnout and improve overall mental health is so critical. I would want to create a movement that focuses on what I consider to be a crucial factor of burnout - meetings. There needs to be an established process for “meeting triage” across companies to make it clear what meetings are mandatory for some participants and not others. Even if those meetings are required to view at some point, but not attend at the moment it’s happening. Oftentimes in large organizations so much productivity and time is wasted by mandating employees to be on an abundance of meetings that aren’t providing value to their role within the organization. Let’s call this “real-time optional”.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.