AV for startups and SMEs

As we approach ISE 2024, we aim to underscore the significance of audiovisual (AV) technology for SMEs and startups, as well as the shifts that have influenced the industry since the onset of COVID. Previously exclusive to large organisations and specialists, AV technology is now indispensable for many growing businesses.

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe

“In the hybrid environment of our times, delivering effective virtual events and meetings is crucial. Regardless of whether employees are at home or in the office, it's essential to have high-quality audio and video,” states Jake Ward, Business Development Director at Groovy Gecko.

Steve Franklin, Executive Director at Cinos, believes there is more at stake than a mere technological edge: “Investing in the right solutions alters perceptions of your company. When customers engage with you via video calls, or when they experience a seamless meeting facilitated by top-tier technology in your meeting room, it becomes clear that you’re not just any startup or SME, but a well-established business with a commitment to quality.”

Until not long ago, remote conferencing was a challenging affair, often necessitating costly equipment, in-house technical expertise, and considerable patience from end-users — hardly appealing for the average startup.

This scenario transformed with the pandemic, as the world quickly adopted cost-effective, straightforward unified communications and conferencing (UCC) technologies such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet. These platforms are well-suited for business use and scale effectively as a company grows.

The commonality of these technologies supports the dual principles of AV-based communications — simplicity and ubiquity — which James Snelling, Senior Project Manager at Hutchison Technologies, champions: “Ensure high-quality communication technology is available throughout your office and is so user-friendly that even the least tech-savvy staff can operate it without needing training. Meeting rooms, breakout spaces, and booths for private calls should all be fully equipped.”

Many systems allow employees to connect their devices — a practice known as 'bring your own device' (BYOD) — facilitating easy sharing of information through the meeting room system. This approach can be expanded to 'bring your own meeting', with participants managing all contributions via their devices — flexible, familiar, and economical.

Alternatively, standardising on a single UCC platform, with ready-to-use in-room technology, offers simplicity, security, and control, though it requires all participants to be comfortable with the same system.

“We frequently receive inquiries about whether customers can have a dedicated Zoom or Teams room but also use other video conferencing applications,” explains Chris Liebrand, Managing Director at Runtech. “It's challenging, but solutions now exist. We've also observed customers standardise on Zoom, then decide mid-year to switch to Teams. If the technology isn’t versatile, they face significant costs.”

Manufacturers are addressing these concerns. For example, Cisco devices now provide a native Microsoft Teams experience in the meeting room, and Crestron’s collaboration portfolio offers native Zoom and Teams experiences from the desktop to the boardroom, as noted by Franklin.

“Investing in platforms like Webex not only meets current needs for collaboration and conferencing but also lays the groundwork for future expansion into more sophisticated areas such as Cloud telephony and customer contact centres,” adds Franklin.

The rise of hybrid working has led to the concept of 'meeting equity', ensuring a satisfying experience for both remote participants and those in the office. For home workers, this often means upgrading from a laptop's built-in camera and audio to professional-grade accessories like all-in-one soundbars with integrated cameras and microphones.

Technology suitable for small in-office settings, such as solo booths and huddle spaces, includes:

  • Extra-wide or dual screens for displaying numerous remote participants simultaneously,
  • A separate screen for presenting written or video content,
  • Microphones that isolate background noise,
  • Smart camera systems that identify and focus on the speaker.

“There is a wide range of choices. Entry-level manufacturers like Logitech, Yealink, and Avaya offer devices with plug-and-play functionality, which are typically customisable and scalable as the business grows,” notes Snelling. “For those expanding from an initial ‘small business’ setup, manufacturers like Crestron, Cisco, and Poly are better suited for larger scale and customisation, though they generally require a higher budget.”

For buyers overwhelmed by options, major UCC vendors have introduced certification programmes, such as Microsoft Teams Rooms, which provide specifications for variously sized spaces to ensure that all hardware and software work seamlessly together.

To mitigate upfront capital expenditure, many 'as-a-service' options are available. “Devices-as-a-service is an expanding business model, offering a fixed cost for devices that connect to various UCC platforms,” states Derrick Kelly, Director of Solutions Enablement at AVI-SPL. “This can include platform licensing as part of the monthly fixed cost. Additionally, many providers now offer rooms-as-a-service, providing a comprehensive solution rather than specific equipment at a fixed cost, allowing for growth and even technology updates throughout the life of the room.”

Once an AV kit is installed, it can serve multiple purposes beyond remote communication. Screens