Seven years ago, Greg Caplan ditched his desk at Groupon, where he managed the site’s Things to Do category, and committed to doing more things himself. He wanted to travel the world, and he wanted to help others do it too. So Caplan founded a startup called Remote Year, a concierge for office-weary workers to do their day job while traveling abroad. For a fee, Remote Year arranged lodging, coworking space, and even excursions. “We were trying to preach to the world that great work can be done from anywhere,” says Caplan.
Remote work became the norm for many last year—though, ironically, the conditions of its rise more or less tanked Remote Year, the startup. As borders closed last spring, dreams of traveling the world were dashed, and Remote Year “postponed” its ongoing trips, leaving some customers stranded abroad without refunds. The startup laid off 50 percent of its staff in March. Caplan stepped down as CEO in April, and the company was acquired by Selina, a hospitality brand, in October. Since then, Caplan has been free to think more about how to make remote work meaningful, even without the globe-trotting.
When Caplan was working in Mexico City years ago, he marveled at the technology that allowed him to do his job remotely, but he also found it draining. Rather than seeing the world, he was staring back at his own face on Zoom. As a respite, he started taking some of his meetings off-camera, with headphones on, on long walks through the city. He’d walk circles around Hippodrome, a tree-lined neighborhood with an old horse racing track, listening to birds chirp and pedestrians chatter. “It was a small change, but it was like a light bulb moment for me,” says Caplan. “I was having a lot of weeks where I was walking 30,000 steps a day.” He felt more energized, more connected to the city and to his work.
Energized? Connected? It’s a far cry from what many Americans experienced in their own (forced) remote year. More than half of Americans worked from home during the pandemic, according to Gallup—and many will continue to work remotely in the future. The software tools that have enabled this transformation have also left workers shuffling between bed and desk, hunched over their laptops, suffering from novel illnesses like “Zoom fatigue.” Caplan, a longtime remote-work advocate, doesn’t think the solution is rushing back into offices. Instead, his enemy is the office chair.
His next startup aims to provide a fix: It’s called Spot, a virtual meeting platform made just for walks. Spot can be used on a desktop, but it is designed to shine on mobile, so you can take your calls into the fresh outdoor air. It has a built-in calendar for scheduling meetings and seeing which calls are next. It can record and transcribe calls, using Google’s voice transcription software. It also has a feature called Smart Mute, which algorithmically filters out street noise by amplifying frequencies that look like a human’s speaking voice and toning down everything else. For now, Spot is in closed beta on an invite-only basis, but it plans to launch with a freemium model—free for individuals, not for businesses—soon.
Perhaps the concept sounds familiar. Like Zoom, without the camera? Like WhatsApp audio? Like … a phone call? Caplan argues that his software does add something new, because it combines enterprise features (scheduling, transcription, smart mute) with a mobile-first approach. It’s “lightweight,” designed to be used on the go, without the awkward dance of videoconferencing.
Spot arrives at a time when screen fatigue is at an all-time high. The excessive amounts of artificial light, the all-day near-distance gaze, the mental strain of constantly seeing yourself in the video window—it’s all contributed to increased tiredness and burnout. “Many, many people have found audio to be a good solution to that,” says Caplan. Even phone calls can be a reprieve from a day of stacked Zoom meetings, “because it allows them to not sit and hunch and dance behind their desk all day. You can get up and walk around, get outside, and have a much more pleasant experience.”
Walking meetings are nothing new, and Silicon Valley’s technocrats have long sung their praises. Steve Jobs famously held many of his meetings on foot; Mark Zuckerberg has been known to make acquisition deals on hikes. In the early days of Square, Jack Dorsey would start his meetings at the office and walk down the street to Sightglass, where he’d buy you a coffee (using Square’s payment platform, naturally). Whether the walks had anything to do with their success is up for debate, but some research does suggest that walking can improve creative thinking, and can help people have more honest exchanges with colleagues. It is unarguably better for you than sitting.
Whether the world, already in the deluge of workplace software, really needs an entirely new platform to take meetings on the go is another matter. “My point of view is not ‘Will walking meetings be a thing?’ That’s a given,” says Andreas Klinger, an investor at Remote First Capital, which focuses on tools for remote work. (It is not an investor in Spot.) “The question is, can you create enough utility to replace the standard behavior?”
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Spot has already seen an animated, if small, base of initial users. Caplan says it has 500 people in its beta and thousands more on a waiting list. The startup has also raised $1.9 million from Chapter One Ventures, which also has investments in Lyft, Superhuman, and Cameo.
Remote work during the pandemic has left people feeling like they are living at work, rather than working at home. Even as companies start to head back to the office, Caplan is hoping to capitalize on new interest in work-life integration. Then again, the ideal walking meeting is the kind where you can leave your desk behind. With Spot, people can add some fresh air to their workdays, but thanks to the smartphone—and email and chat apps—they still bring the office with them wherever they go.
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