Tech startups have tried with varying degrees of success to reinvent urban transportation, grocery shopping, and dog walking.
But a Boston company is tackling what may be the thorniest challenge of them all: boring meetings. And they are doing it with emojis — those expressive little icons more commonly used in text messaging chats with friends.
While only a handful of companies so far have been testing the software in real-world workplaces, the notion of upgrading meetings has enough appeal that the startup, Marlo, recently raised an initial round of funding from a group of investors, including Boston’s Underscore VC and NextView Ventures.
“Companies don’t want to waste their employees’ time,” says Ankith Harathi, Marlo’s chief executive and cofounder. “And poorly-run meetings are not good for employees — you see less job satisfaction, and higher churn rates.”
Harathi and his cofounder, John Keck, met last year on the campus of Harvard Business School. Both had worked inside fast-growing startups, including the food delivery app DoorDash, and larger companies like Boeing and Eli Lilly. As meetings multiplied, they saw the gatherings as something that had a big impact on productivity and workplace culture.
Plenty of companies have metrics to track how they’re doing when it comes to sales, manufacturing efficiency, and product returns. “They measure everything they do,” Harathi says. “But they don’t measure as much when it comes to employees’ time as a resource.”
Harathi and Keck began reading about why meetings can sometimes feel like a massive time sink. They talked to experts. Some of the basics of what they learned? Good meetings bring together people who are going to actively contribute to the discussion; they don’t get overpopulated by passive onlookers. There’s an agenda shared in advance, so that everyone is on the same page when they show up. (And the meeting actually sticks to that agenda.) Meetings are kept as short as they can possibly be, rather than expanding to fill the hour or two that were blocked on the calendar. Everyone gets a chance to talk — including remote workers who may be dialing in or participating via videoconference.
“The very last thing,” Harathi says, “is having clear next steps. What are the action items, and who owns those?”
The Marlo software ties into Slack, another software system designed to support collaboration and communication inside companies. As soon as a meeting ends, the participants get a message through the Slack software asking them to evaluate the meeting on a spectrum with five different expressive emojis, from an angry face to one that is overjoyed. That becomes the meeting’s score. If a participant rates it poorly (any of the three dissatisfied or neutral expressions), they are asked one follow-up question: why? They can choose answers like “Better agenda,” “Unequal airtime,” or “Didn’t need to be a meeting.” Participants can then see how others rated the meeting, and there’s even an estimate of how much the meeting cost, in terms of participants’ time.
Not every meeting needs to be rated by the participants, but managers can designate those that should be.
In the future, Marlo wants to be able to be able to let senior executives at a company see which of their employees run effective meetings — and which don’t. “That would let you harness the people who run great meetings, and have them teach others,” Harathi says. “And if you’re promoting someone up to the next level, you want to be sure they are using people’s time effectively.”
Harathi says that the initial tool Marlo has built, which offers the ability to score meeting effectiveness, will always be free. But the startup has plans to charge for more advanced features that would help companies analyze the effectiveness of all their meetings, or even determine which ones shouldn’t happen at all.
Among the system’s early users is Jonathan Parsons, an engineering manager at Wayfair, the Boston site that sells home furnishings. Parsons says he has Marlo set so that it gathers feedback from any meetings he convenes with four or more people. So far, he explains via e-mail, the ease of offering feedback has kept the participation rate high. He often begins meetings now by addressing comments from a previous meeting — especially when they relate to loose ends that didn’t get sufficient discussion. “I think over time, myself and my organization will have fewer meetings as a result of the insights gathered from Marlo,” Parsons writes.
Nalani Genser has been using Marlo at Mavrck, a Boston startup that helps consumer brands connect with social media “influencers.” For her startup, it’s a way to monitor employees’ experience related to meetings as the 85-person company grows. But Genser says that over two months of using Marlo, “what I’ve learned most is that the content of the meeting is more what skews scores,” as opposed to how well the meeting is structured and chaired. In other words: a dull meeting about making tweaks to a complex process will often get lower Marlo scores than a rah-rah celebration of a project’s completion or a big sale.
Key to Marlo’s success will persuading employees to use and keep using the system, says Steven Rogelberg, a professor at University of North Carolina and author of the book “The Surprising Science of Meetings.”
“The one thing people hate almost as much as meetings,” Rogelberg says, “is filling out surveys.” And, he adds, Marlo will have to compete with other startups and more established companies that are trying to collect data about meetings and other aspects of workplace culture.