Down with PowerPoint: How Prezi is gaining ground on Microsoft with the power of creativity
Microsoft is a looming monolith in the world of tech. Its office presentation software, PowerPoint, has become the norm and is now synonymous with creating slides. Not even the strength of Apple’s brand and its Keynote software can dethrone it. So why does one man think his company has what it takes to take on the tech giants and spearhead a revolution in how we convey information?
Peter Arvai, co-founder and CEO of Prezi, isn’t a fool. His cloud-based presentation software isn’t an online PowerPoint, it’s an ideas company focused on facilitating the flow of information. Prezi’s ethos grew from a simple idea to the global company it is today and, most importantly, Prezi has never lost its creative flow.
It’s a creative energy that will shake the very foundations of Microsoft’s PowerPoint, Apple’s Keynote and Google’s Slides. This is the end of dull presentations with bland backgrounds, stupid animations and gaudy Word Art to “jazz” things up. This is a visual revolution, and it all started in Hungary.
Building a competitor
All great ideas have odd beginnings and Prezi is no different, sprouting from a desire to help people create fantastic visualisations with ease.
“My co-founder Ádám [Somlai-Fischer] is a world-renowned artist,” Peter explained when I caught up with him in Munich at this year’s Bits & Pretzels conference. “He would do a lot of these beautiful visualisations that would get him to be exhibited around the world.”
It turned out that people loved the visualisations – they had a desire to create their own and dazzle their friends with the work they created. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. Most people just gave up on the idea as soon as Ádám told them they had to “calculate transformations, design these nice visuals, and put it all into a computer program”.
From there, Peter, his other co-founder Péter Halácsy and Ádám came together and set out to “help people who aren’t as talented visually and technically as Ádám to create these great visualisations”.
From left to right: Péter Halácsy, CTO; Peter Arvai, CEO; Ádám Somlai-Fischer, principal artist
It wasn’t a simple journey, though, and the task ahead was incredibly daunting. Having started out in 2008 when the recession hit, Peter and his co-founders had a hard time securing money from investors, leading them to bootstrap the entire company: “The idea of taking on Apple, Microsoft and Google from Budapest [during a recession] wasn’t that appealing for investors.”
Things got worse for Peter when, at an investor’s pitch event in Amsterdam in 2009, he found himself onstage strangling himself with a tie in an attempt to demonstrate how corporations choke creativity. It was a metaphor that was supposed to go smoothly but, due to a missing moderator, he stood there for minutes with the corporate noose around his neck.
Thankfully, Prezi was able to do the talking for itself. Despite the fumble, over half the audience loved the software and, when it launched, all of the investors who had previously turned them down came knocking. Prezi was edging closer to taking on Microsoft’s archaic presentation software.
The power of Prezi’s creativity
Seven years, 250 employees and over 60 million users later, it’s clear Prezi is still capturing imaginations around the world. It’s enticing whole new audiences of people who are tired and jaded with PowerPoint. But, even after winning over industry leaders and gaining external investment, Peter wasn’t going to fool himself into thinking everything would be fine.
Taking on Microsoft, Apple and Google is a pretty ambitious goal. “You always have your doubts,” Peter told me. “Particularly as we really had no idea what this could be.” It’s evident that, even though Prezi may not be the globally-recognised brand it deserves to be, Peter is more than happy with the success the company has had since its tumultuous beginnings.
“When we were in the very first year of the company and I was thinking about the first-year goals I should set, I thought ‘as a leader you’re supposed to be bold and get people to believe in the impossible’, so I guess I’ll take an impossible number! So I’ll say a million users in our first year!’”
“I remember giving this passionate talk to people at Prezi saying ‘we’re going to get a million users!’ and everyone was just like ‘okay, fine, whatever you idiot’”. That year, Prezi reached 1.3 million users.
It achieved this tremendous growth simply through word of mouth. People enjoyed using Prezi and told others, which is exactly how I first became aware of Prezi and adopted it as my go-to presentation software.
Since launch, user numbers have continued to grow, despite self-confessed blunders such as Quick Prezi – a failed experiment to bring more users to Prezi through bullet point presentations. Peter explains that, an initial surge of new users aside, repeat visits and new visits totally fell off a cliff.
To many, Quick Prezi just wasn’t Prezi and wasn’t interesting enough to compete with more ubiquitous solutions such as PowerPoint. That blip didn’t phase Peter and his team, though. Instead, they went head-first into understanding exactly what customers want from SaaS products like Prezi.
Having undertaken research with cognitive scientists, the team discovered that visual stimuli increase information retention. “What we know today is that Prezi actually helps people to be understood and remembered better.
“When we talk to our customers they say their close rates go up by 30% when they make the switch [from other presentation software]”. This isn’t just from random customer feedback – even the data-crunching giant Salesforce has seen a similar pattern.
“Salesforce will often ask audience surveys after a presentation and they can statistically show this difference. It’s about the same number, 30% higher audience satisfaction rates with Prezi than if they do the same presentation in the form of slides”.
Taking on the elephant in the room
Peter hesitates at the word “slides” whenever he mentions other presentation software. Even without saying it, it’s clear he means PowerPoint.
Prezi may already have a firm footing in education, but breaking into the office environment dominated by Microsoft is no simple task. However, there may be a beacon of hope for Prezi in the form of workplace consumerisation.
“People have been talking about consumerisation of IT for some time now so I don’t think I’m saying anything new. I really think there is a seismic shift of how productivity will be managed and is being managed already today.”
Peter knows that this “seismic shift” won’t happen overnight. Instead, this is a war of attrition: Microsoft’s dominance will slowly lose out to the likes of Prezi as more people become enamoured by creative solutions to their problems. Just like Slack, a sister company of Prezi, the software will trickle down into the office over time.
“Usually what happens is you have [the] first-day enthusiastic user, and then teams and smaller teams start using it. That is the nature of the consumerisation of IT,” he added. “It’s a very bottom-up adoption and traditional IT management is really being moved to the business decision makers.”
That’s all well and good, but Peter still has the task of convincing businesses it’s better for their employees to use Prezi than PowerPoint. The cost of adopting software may have dropped significantly as SaaS products have grown alongside the spread of internet connectivity – so much so that even Microsoft has adopted such a model with Office 365 – but is that really enough to drive a change in favour of Prezi?
An impressive example of what you can do with Prezi over PowerPoint
“Some companies are braver in that change, other companies are less so. As we become a more mainstream solution, collaboration is becoming a key part of what we do. So, Prezi for Teams is, I think in the long run, a huge growth opportunity for us.”
Microsoft may have experience in the workplace environment, but Peter still believes Prezi can best it: “What makes a great company isn’t experience, it’s creativity, the most important thing you’ll ever do is to come up with something that really helps people to live better lives in some way.”
Prezi may have started out in Hungary, but for those looking to start their own company in the UK, here’s why London doesn’t have to be the centre of startup culture.