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In the first years of the 1990s, the attempt to push video chat to the masses got off to an ignoble start when AT&T released its VideoPhone 2500. For the low cost of $1500, you, too, could have choppy, grainy and essentially unwatchable video conversations with other similarly-equipped clueless people around the globe.
More than 15 years later, San Francisco’s TokBox has reduced the price of video chat to the cost of a webcam and a couple of clicks. A-list VCs Bain Capital Ventures and Sequoia Capital are impressed, and the two firms, with Bain taking the lead, have invested $10 million into the company’s second round of financing.
While video chat has been a feature of instant messengers for a few years, TokBox stands apart because it runs in the browser; unlike Skype or any other instant messengers, TokBox doesn’t require anyone to download anything to use it. If at least one user has an account, as many as eight other people can join a video conversation simply by visiting a url. The company shares some features with Imo.Im, which makes it easy to have video chats across your IM networks.
When we covered TokBox’s launch last Fall, the company garnered a fair amount of buzz, in no small part because Roelof Botha, the partner at Sequoia who invested in YouTube, had led the investment in TokBox’s first round. TokBox has kept products coming by partnering with web-based IM start-up, Meebo, to power its video chat and releasing a couple of applications, including a FireFox extension that adds TokBok to Facebook’s instant messenger and a desktop application built on Adobe AIR.
One catch, of course, is that anyone wanting to use TokBox for video chat needs a webcam, which many people still don’t have. But the bigger catch is that video chat, while great for getting some form of face time with those who live far away, doesn’t seem like a vital service. Furthermore, unlike instant message conversations, video chats require your full attention and, worse, force you to look at the unattractive or unclean people that call themselves your family or friends. That being said, TokBox’s ease of use is appealing.
Nick Triantos, TokBox’s CEO, says that the company’s growth has been strong, and has found some traction with job and dating sites — though neither of those are huge or lucrative markets when your core product is free. As for revenue, Triantos says that TokBox is currently focused on expansion, but might look to advertising or value-add services to generate cash down the road. He says that the company keeps its burn rate low and raised this money with most of the previous round still in the bank.
TokBox’s premium-brand venture backing won’t hurt the cause. Sequoia gives the company most of the connections it needs in the Valley and, as Triantos points out, Bain Capital’s large private equity arm opens doors to companies like Clear Channel Communications, in which Bain has a major stake. Bain’s investment also means Bain’s co-founder, former Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, will return TokBox’s calls.
But will he use TokBox when he does?