Mmhmm brings out the performer in video presenters

Pandemic-period startup mmhmm adds a dimension to Zoom and other video tools.


You pronounce mmhmm by making that noise that indicates listening, agreement or empathy. It’s probably not to be confused with that other sound that Americans make and which can sound passive-aggressive, ‘uh-HUH’. Anyhow, if you want to understand more about the moniker you can go here. More importantly, this is a case of ‘crazy name, not so crazy idea’ for an app.

Mmhmm is a tool for enhancing video applications: for “funner Zooming” as the company puts it, but also to add dynamism and pizazz to other programs, by adding video more creatively than is normal in presentations, recordings and collaboration spaces. That means that rather than being locked in a grid, presenters can, for example, put themselves front and centre (or to the side) of a slideshow, co-present with a partner, grow or shrink their images, point to screen objects or change backgrounds on the fly.

It’s basically adding an extra layer of engagement to the screen shares that have become so much a part of life and work during the Covid-19 age. Currently available for Mac, a version for Windows is in the works; the model is freemium for consumers and a business version will be available early next year. The company states that it will not engage in any data monetisation.

Performing arts

It’s no coincidence that mmhmm is an app born in the time of pandemic as it’s an obvious fit for a stay-at-home global society living in Zoom-land. It was created “kind of as a joke [because] everything was so boring”, says CEO Phil Libin, speaking over (what else?) a Zoom call. “The pandemic forced innovation that probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Mmhmm is a good fit for people who want to impress and stand out and early use cases include not just video meetings but also teachers educating over virtual classrooms, hospital entertainers performing to patients and hosts conducting pub quizzes.

“Anyone who’s good at their job is also a decent performer,” says Libin. “There are very few [knowledge worker] jobs you can be effective at if you’re boring everyone. I’m really shy and I have had to force myself to do that but we’re all micro-performers and we need to think about what we can learn from the entertainment industry. Being charismatic on video is different to physical, in-person meetings.”

A little learning

Libin is best known as the former CEO of the hugely popular notetaking/idea-capturing app Evernote and he sees comparisons between his old company and his present gig. Back in 2007 and 2008, the advent of the iPhone and then app stores gave Evernote a lift-off platform “worth millions in marketing” and “video platforms just like smartphone in 2008”, he argues.

But he can also apply his learning from the Evernote experience after having quit as CEO in 2015. He left, he says, because “I wasn’t very good at it. The company had grown to almost 500 people and it wasn’t my skill set… I wasn’t enjoying it.”

He says that acknowledging what he can and can’t do will hold him in good stead this time around and he believes he is “a better CEO than I was at Evernote”. That current CEO role covers not just mmhmm but also All Turtles, a product studio that is an investor in mmhmm but also home to several other efforts.  

“We were inspired by Netflix and how they changed how Hollywood works [where] before there was almost a feudal system and a lot of insider dealing,” Libin says.

Netflix showed that it’s not necessary to have an all-powerful physical home base and that recognition has been expanded due to the pandemic.

“For us it’s been not that bad,” Libin says of 2020. “We went fully distributed in March, closed down offices and productivity has been pretty good. I’ve barely left my apartment since March.”

Bye-bye to the city by the bay

That apartment and offices are in San Francisco and unlike Tony Bennett, Libin doesn’t sound as if he’ll leave his heart there when he leaves, as he plans to do, and as he takes his company location-independent.

“San Francisco as a city has been a pretty bad place for a long time,” he says, citing health and social problems, “shockingly bad” crime, public health and safety. “It’s hard to even explain how we got this way but the tech bro culture [and mushrooming wealth of the digital economy] hasn’t been good for San Francisco or the world.”

Sure enough, on the day we talk, a company with the deepest of roots in California, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, announced it will up HQ sticks for Houston.

“I don’t think I’ll have to commute again,” he says, and being free of offices is a “superpower” worth fortunes to companies, he adds.

“We hire from anywhere in the world,” he says. “For 10,000 years, where we’ve lived has been largely determined by where we work. The shocking thing that’s better is the ability to hire people from everywhere.”

There will be cash for making home-working better and, for those that still want an office environment, Libin says the company will sponsor WeWork facilities or similar. Face-to-face meet-ups will be held perhaps twice yearly and tools like Slack, Figma and mmhmm itself will help fill the collaboration void.

Let a hundred flowers bloom

All Turtles is “not trying to make more startups, but worthwhile products for the world,” Libin says. Today, mmhmm has about 25 staff and 25 part-time contributors. Go-to-market models will vary but “we think there’s standalone potential in mmhmm”, Libin says.

He’s dismissive when I suggest that the approach incurs the risk of over-diversification and the old American fabled sin of not sticking to your knitting.

“There’s a lot of random nonsense people say everywhere,” he notes, and a lot of it is “mutually contradictory”.

Libin says that with All Turtles he and colleagues are “trying to greatly expand the aperture” of how companies and products come to life. I venture that his restlessness and rejection of industry norms might have roots in his childhood when his parents, professional classical musicians, left St. Petersburg for the New York Bronx in the early 1970s.

“I definitely remember being the only kid who didn’t speak English and was seeing things differently because I was forced to,” he says. “I remember learning English, reading comic books and over one summer the captions slowly formed into words I understood.”

He is also open about his shyness and says “a feeling of alienation is pretty common” even in the hothouses of software and internet superpowers. Interestingly though, in person and in the mmhmm videos in which he stars, Libin comes across as confident, droll, funny, quirky… Perhaps mmhmm is an acting out, a way to break free and unleash the performer inside, both for Libin and for users.