“Creativity trumps experience” – Prezi CEO Peter Arvai on storytelling, science and success

Peter Arvai
Peter Arvai

Online zooming presentation software maker Prezi – based in Budapest and San Francisco – recently announced important new numbers: 29 million users, and is projected to have 36 million by December 2013. A month later, the company’s cofounder and CEO Peter Arvai came to Kiev, Ukraine to take part in the IDCEE conference. Amid hundreds of startups, participants, investors and mentors roaming between the three conference stages, tech journalist Andrii Degeler met Arvai (below, pictured at the conference) to find out the story and motivations behind the popular presentation tool…

Peter Arvai

Can you briefly talk about your background?

I was born and raised in Sweden, and I studied to be an engineer. I was the fourth employee in a startup, but then started my own company that enables people to compare hospitals’ performance. You can compare Hospital A with Hospital B, procedure by procedure, mortality rates, infection rates, etc.

The reason I got interested in that is actually sad, it was because my dad died from a heart attack, and then my mom got ill as well. Then I realised that I could go to a store to buy toothpaste, and if I bought toothpaste I could compare all toothpaste very easily — the price, benefit, ingredients, where it’s manufactured. But when I would go to the doctor with my mom, I would have no information whatsoever. I thought it was really strange that society had put so much emphasis on making toothpaste manufacturers accountable, but not healthcare.

How did working at your previous company motivate you to start Prezi?

We thought that patients would be the biggest user group for the site, but it turns out that it’s actually the doctors and the nurses. The smart ones go in there and really learn from other hospitals, and try to improve their processes. I think it taught me a lot about how I can really push society in a good direction with the help of an entrepreneurial project.

And this is actually the thing that motivates me about Prezi as well, because I believe that when we inspire people to share more ideas, we actually accelerate the positive things in the world. They all, I think, fundamentally depend on idea sharing. If you’re a cancer researcher who has to sit down and think through, ‘what did I do in the last two years,’ and then try to explain it to someone else, then you need a tool like Prezi, or PowerPoint to be able to do it. What we know today is that Prezi enables these researchers to be better understood and more remembered.


Do you think you or your team are the most professional users of Prezi?

We’re learning from our users all the time. When we first launched Prezi, we didn’t actually know why Prezi was a good presentation tool other than that we liked it. But then, in the last few years, with the help of a scientist, we’ve come to learn and understand much more about how Prezi connects in a deep way to how your brain works. Here’s a question that will help: what kitchen appliances do you have?

Well, pan, fork, microwave, stove, coffee maker…

I think what you did right now is imagine your kitchen – then zoom down to certain parts of it. The reason why you did that is because your brain actually understands and remembers information through the combination of visual and spatial information. And so the visual journey in the form of Prezi has both visual and spatial relativity, because things are next to each other.

What we know today is that when you show a good Prezi, people understand, remember, and even like the story better. There’s something very fundamental about the format itself, because it helps you to use both your visual and spatial thinking to convey a story.

This is cognitive science. I’m talking to people from Harvard and Stanford about this, and they’re teaching me that it’s called ‘landmarks’. When you get out of the cave, you turn right by the stone, turn left at the tree, and then you find the berries. If you didn’t have these landmark capability of your brain, you wouldn’t survive as an animal. And so, for millions of years this is exactly how we have been storing information in our brains.

So, you created Prezi without knowing this theory?

We had no idea about it when we created Prezi. We and many other people had a positive feeling about it, but it’s very hard if you don’t know the science of it to understand where that feeling comes from.

When you introduced audio in presentations, you said it was also done as an answer to users’ requests. How big is the influence of those requests on what’s being implemented in Prezi?

It’s quite big. We launch new features and aspects of Prezi every second week and we give those to users. And when we see that people really enjoy a new feature or a little bit different way of doing things, we implement that. So there’s a lot of things, but the whole point is that the community is really important. Of course we have some internal vision of where we want to get the product as well, but without our users, Prezi wouldn’t be what it is.


A daily team meeting at one of Prezi’s two offices…

Last year you rolled out localised versions for Spanish, Japanese, and Korean, and recently launched Portuguese. Do you think localisation is really important for a product like Prezi?

Absolutely. There are a lot of people in whose local cultures English is just not accessible enough. Korean is a great example, it was the Korean community that was so interested in using Prezi that they started emailing us Korean fonts because we didn’t know anything about Korean. But they actually helped us create the localised version.

What’s next?

I think, step by step we will have to cover all the big markets, so this is just a question of resources. Unfortunately it takes time, and I wish we had all the languages already now. But with time we’ll get there.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

One really important and interesting thing that we’re learning from our users is that the people who use Prezi belong to the kind of people who realise that creativity is becoming more important than experience. We see more and more that companies are investing time and energy in just figuring out new ways of doing things.

The economy of today is speeding up. The life expectancy of the most successful companies in the world has gone from over 60 years to mere 18 years today. The only way to survive in this economy is by constantly reinventing who you are and what you do. And so, what we’re learning from our users is that in many ways creativity trumps experience, and I think it’s an important reason of why Prezi is becoming so successful.

People are realising that it’s not important to do just another presentation; what’s really important is to come up with an idea that people will like to share with other people. That’s where Prezi becomes really strong, because it’s easier to remember, easier to understand, and it sometimes challenges you to think differently about the ideas that you’re working with. I think that is becoming a key trend that nobody can afford to really ignore going forward, an observation worth to reflect on when you build your business.

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Image credit:
Arvai via IDCEE’s Facebook  

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