John Chambers has always had an eye for innovations that are way ahead of current technology trends. The long-time Cisco Systems chief executive officer, who retired in 2017 after 20 years at the helm, bet early (and big) that Internet-enabled video would become an indispensable mode of communication. But with this particular innovation, he was way, way ahead of the curve.
Chambers made his first big push in the then-nascent market years before the current COVID-19 crisis forced many of us to adopt video conferencing for everything from yoga classes to corporate board meetings. In 2006, he launched a pricey, ultra-high definition video conferencing system called Telepresence, tailor-made for deep-pocketed enterprises. In subsequent years, under Chambers’ lead, the computer networking company invested billions in the space, snapping up collaboration software provider Webex in 2007 (still broadly used by corporations) and the Flip mini camcorder in 2009 (which was killed off just two years later). Cisco even launched a short-lived “personal” Telepresence set, called Umi, in 2010.
To be sure, not all of Chambers’ pushes into video communications were successful. For starters, some were just too costly to become ubiquitous. And Cisco’s strength has never been in the consumer space. But Chambers, who now runs his own venture capital firm, JC2 Ventures, was both prescient and pioneering in his belief that video conferencing would someday become mainstream. Webex, which provides screen sharing and video conferencing tools for businesses, hit a record 324 million users in the month of March. (Its more headline-grabbing competitor, Zoom, whose founder is a former Webex engineer, recently hit the 300 million daily user mark.)
To hear more about the early days of video conferencing and the evolution of the market, Fortune recently caught up with Chambers.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
You were early on in videoconferencing, from WebEx to Telepresence. Did adoption move as fast as you’d hoped?
Not only were we early adopters to video conferencing, but we actually launched Telepresence at Cisco in 2006 as a direct response to another healthcare crisis: Bird Flu. In fact, I was actually in Mexico City meeting with the President of Mexico and his cabinet the day the virus broke. They were receiving inaccurate information from Southern Mexico about the speed of spread, death rate, and the hospitals being overwhelmed. Government leaders were being advised not to meet in groups larger than two to three because of the rate of transmission. Thank goodness it turned out not to be as serious as first indicated, but this is one of the reasons we sped up our development of Telepresence, and the Mexican government then became one of the early adopters of the technology.
I’ve believed for a long time that video is the communication channel of the future, and I’ve been working hard over the past few years to have my team adopt video in their day-to-day lives. We became very dependent on email in recent years but that channel —and even phone—can be extremely impersonal. It’s never more important to focus on strengthening relationships than in times of crises. In fact, I would argue that one of the very early steps a CEO should take in addressing any crisis and leading through downturns is to reach out to employees, customers, stakeholders, and partners to communicate how an issue will be handled. Video is a great way to build confidence and help others during this challenging time.
What has changed in the last few years and paved the way for broader adoption?
I think what we have started to see is every company recognizing that they need to be a technology company, no matter what industry they are in. In order to control their own destinies in the Digital Age, companies have to be open to using technology to enable their business strategies. The real magic happens when companies can create business model changes, enabled by new shifts in technology. The pace of innovation leading up to the COVID-19 crisis was something we had never seen before—not even in the Internet Era. I think that companies really started realizing that they had to keep up with those changes, otherwise they would get disrupted by their competitors and left behind.
Do you expect that the “work from home” trend will continue past the pandemic?
In the last week alone, I have already seen a major trend, by my startups, the VC community, enterprise companies, and even the media, of not just a comfort level with video conferencing, but a view that it is even more productive than face-to-face meetings. Many anticipate meetings in the future will have less people, and I agree—this is here to stay, in my opinion, and will transform work in ways we’re just beginning to imagine. For example, it’s very possible, maybe even likely, that call centers that used to be in one central location will be run with all of the agents in their own home, enabled by AI, bots, virtual assistants, and video capabilities over time.
I do expect a sense of normalcy to return eventually in terms of people going back to offices but that likely won’t happen for some time. The worst thing we can do, of course, is to do this too quickly because then we would see a second wave of the pandemic. In the meantime, the focus for CEOs will shift. In a matter of weeks, business leaders went from prioritizing growth, then innovation, and then cost savings—but today that has flip-flopped. Cost savings are more important than ever. CEOs will focus on protecting their revenue streams in the months ahead, and innovation will get pushed to the bottom of the list.
Valuable, meaningful work can happen in virtual ways, no matter the industry. Beyond the call center example I shared earlier, just think about the value of listening to your customers even when you aren’t with them in-person. For example, consider Sprinklr, one of the companies in the JC2 Ventures portfolio that focuses on customer experience management. Sprinklr was able to pick up on social conversations about the frustrations healthcare employees were having about getting to and from work because of coronavirus disruptions, allowing their customer Grab [a ride-hailing company] to make the quick decision to develop a new fleet of cars dedicated specifically to healthcare workers.
Lastly, why do you think Zoom in particular has managed to become so popular?
There are a lot of great videoconferencing tools out there, from Zoom to Google Hangouts to Skype. I was the most comfortable using Google Hangouts before the COVID-19 pandemic started making its impact around the world, but I quickly had to make myself adept at using other videoconferencing programs because I am now doing 100% of my meetings via video using a variety of platforms. This includes weekly video calls with each of the startups in the JC2 portfolio, as well as very high-level Board meetings with various stakeholders, conversations with Verizon and Comcast, media interviews, and even a virtual dinner event with more than 20 participants from different locations around the U.S. where Shake Shack helped us simulate an in-person discussion over burgers, fries, and milkshakes. [The dinner, a gathering of startup and enterprise leaders, was originally supposed to take place in mid-March at the Shake Shack Innovation Kitchen in New York City.]
At the end of the day, we all need to remain flexible and agile in this challenging environment, doing our best to pick up on new skills in order to stay connected and identify the best ways to serve customers, employees, and stakeholders when they need support the most.
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