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Skype Launches Networking Platform For SMBs

Max ‘Beast from the East’ Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope.

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TechWeekEurope looks at Skype In The Workspace, a new platform that aims to help small companies grow

Microsoft launched Skype In The Workspace (SITW) this morning, an online community platform developed specifically for small-to-medium businesses (SMBs).

The free service extends Skype functionality and enables users to share expert advice, and find new customers and partners by posting “opportunities” – offers for short meetings, either on Skype or face-to-face.

SITW has been in beta stage for six months, with a community of 500 businesses testing every aspect of the platform, and the initial feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Bringing people together

Skype was created by a small team of Estonian programmers, and saw its first release back in 2003. Eight years later, Microsoft brought the communications platform for $8.5 billion. Today, Skype has been released on every popular operating system, and serves 280 million active users worldwide.

Skype, video conferencing © mast3r Shutterstock 2012It now wants greater traction amongst SMBs. According to the company, 350,000 new businesses were started in the UK last year alone, contributing around £1 billion to the economy. With the SITW release, Skype gives SMBs the ability to use this huge network for business development, without making changes to the software itself.

After logging into the SITW website using Skype or LinkedIn credentials, users can start creating and participating in ‘opportunities’ – interaction requests that could result in new ideas, additional contacts and growth. These opportunities can range from consultancy offers to job vacancies to brainstorming sessions. Each will culminate in instant live sessions through Skype, or a face-to-face meeting.

SITW works a bit like a community advertising board, and could be useful to a variety of small businesses “regardless of location or industry”, Skype said.

For convenience, opportunities are divided into categories such as ‘interaction design’, ‘business strategy’ and ‘coaching’, and most have a time limit.

The service automatically keeps track of appointments through a meeting notification service. When an ‘opportunity’ is over, participants can leave feedback and suggestions, helping bring especially useful offers to the top of the category.

What it is not

Even though self-promotion is at the core of most opportunities, SITW is not an advertising platform. Skype staff moderate all posts, and will remove useless or spam messages.

Although it involves profiles and connections, SITW is not a social network either, and wasn’t designed to compete with Facebook, Yammer or LinkedIn, Ural Cebeci, head of SMB Marketing at Skype, told TechWeekEurope.

Now that the Windows Live Messenger (previously MSN Messenger) has been retired, Skype has become Microsoft’s main communications product. However, the company also develops Lync, a similar platform for enterprise users.

So why did it need SITW? According to Cebeci, the main difference between the two is SITW was created specifically for SMBs, while Lync is a tool for bigger companies. He also revealed the next release of Lync will feature some integration with Skype.

All of the content hosted on the platform is open and indexed by search engines, which will prove useful too. “It’s like a business directory,” says Cebeci. As an added bonus, every opportunity posted by a business will increase its presence online.

“My business is about getting in front of people and helping them to solve their problems. With Skype in the workspace, I am visible to quality leads without even leaving the office. With no travel time to contend with, it’s also now far more feasible for me to grow my business outside of the UK into Europe and the US,” said Alison Coward from creative collaboration agency Bracket, which has been testing SITW over the past several months.

Intriguingly, it seems Skype is really opposed to the idea of making any money from SITW. The website features no advertising banners, and users are not charged for anything.

“Skype in the workspace is available as a free service to users. Skype’s goal is to enable small businesses to instantly connect with potential customers, partners and suppliers across the globe and Skype in the workspace is a showcase of our commitment to this,” said the company, in a statement.

SITW isn’t the first ostensibly altruistic project from Skype. Last month, it announced eight new educational projects as part of its “Skype In The Classroom” programme, to be run by organisations including NASA, British Council and Woodland Trust. These projects added to the 2,000 free Skype classes being run by an army of more than 38,000 teachers across 200 countries.

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