Auckland startup Remotely has raised $2.5 million for its eponymous product, which allows workers to "gamify" virtual meetings.
The oversubscribed round was led by Icehouse Ventures, with support from New Zealand Growth Capital Partners (NZGCP, the Crown venture capital agency formerly known as NZVIF) and private investors.
Founder Adam Berry tells the Herald, "I had some time off after selling my last company and I was just gaming hard out, interacting with gamers all over the world."
It was fun and engaging. "When you're [multiplayer] gaming, you're forming squads and going on missions together. I thought, 'This is amazing. Why can't I work this way?"
He set about creating an online platform where meeting participants could meet in virtual rooms, choosing an avatar to represent themselves. Think the multi-player version of The Sims or the ill-fated WorldsChat from the 1990s or various other stabs at virtual worlds - only centred on a remote business meeting rather than a formless mill-around.
Berry thought his first challenge would be to sell organisations on the benefits of remote working and remote meetings. But then Covid hit, and that issue was rapidly resolved. Most companies now see at least some degree of remote or hybrid work persisting post-pandemic.
His next hurdle: convincing people that Remotely was a better solution than the likes of Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Cisco WebEx.
The founder, who has a background in animation and education (he's a former chairman and CEO of Interactive Platforms, director of Animation College NZ and - whisper it - group CEO of Intueri), drafted the services of a behavioural psychologist to create a virtual environment where people could be just as comfortable as they are in online games.
Today, there's the well-documented phenomenon of "Zoom fatigue", where you sit with a fixed positive expression on your face, nodding every few seconds in case - and you never know when - someone else is looking at you.
Many have taken to turning their cameras off. Berry sees avatars as fun, engaging alternative.
The result is still a work in progress. Several hundred trialists around the world are using a beta version of Remotely, and Berry and his team of half-a-dozen are using their feedback to hone the experience.
A commercial launch is still a year or so away; he sees a Series A round in 12 to 18 months.
Ultimately, Berry wants to offer a choice of hundreds of virtual rooms, each with fun interactives. So instead of awkwardly sitting in front of a webcam, you can, say, pop acorns from a forest floor or pick up a virtual guitar and strum it while you wait for other participants to arrive. Proximity audio will mean your avatar will be able to walk up to others for a private chat.
There are two versions of Remotely - one that works purely through a web browser, so you can just forward a meeting link to someone who lacks the software, and you're away, plus a downloadable app.
In terms of monetisation, Berry looks not to the likes of Zoom, which caps the time (45 minutes) and participants (100) on its free plan, but games like Fortnite, where people buy virtual items. You might want to, say, buy a flamboyant cowboy hat before your Monday morning Remotely meeting, he says.
Remotely is launching servers in the UK and US as it expands its beta programme.
Berry's dream is that one day his company will offer hundreds of rooms, and that some organisations will use the platform for nearly all their work, never going into the office.
There are plans to integrate whiteboarding and screen sharing apps, and even to link to the likes of Zoom, for the odd meeting when you want to see your colleagues' actual mugs.
Berry sees younger staff, who are already comfortable with a "gamified" environment, leading more wary employees into Remotely's jungles and moonscapes.
"Remotely aims to redefine what it is to be a part of a remote working team by using interactive gaming tools to help workers feel more at ease and engaged while communicating," Berry says.
"Our immersive meeting rooms encourage collaboration, without the pressure of being on-camera.
"We've seen already many people choosing to black out their screens to avoid video conferencing fatigue, and Remotely offers a range of online settings - from campfires to lakes to other planets - which can bring new energy, creativity and spontaneity to the meeting and your team."
With Covid crimping many real-life meeting options, Berry has been eating his own dog food, using Remotely for pitch meetings to potential backers - and he's managed to get a couple of marquee names on board.
Remotely's earliest investor, Mike Ballantyne, was co-founder of software forecasting company PredictHQ and travel booking business Online Republic, which later sold to ASX-listed Webjet for $85m; and UK-based Paul Heydon, an early investor in global gaming giants Unity and Supercell - makers of Clash of Clans.
Both joined remotely's board alongside Brent Ayrey, a former Facebook product director and Netflix product innovation vice-president, who is now working with local startups through Icehouse Ventures, where he is a partner of its Tuhua fund.