If You’re Going To Have A Call, Make It A Good One

Bad Internet is just one more inequity. But don’t let it hurt you.

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This morning, I talked with two brilliant founders from Africa. Both calls were scheduled on Zoom because, well, everything is scheduled on Zoom. The two calls were very different experiences.

The founder on the first call was in a major African city. His first words were to let us know that his internet was not very good, which proved to be an understatement. It was to be a 30 minute call. We burned up a few minutes hearing about and sympathizing with him about his shitty internet. Then we messed around for another five minutes trying to make it work, with his audio breaking up and video going in and out.  We turned off our cameras and burned another five minutes before deciding that wasn’t going to work either. We’d given him my WhatsApp number and so, with a little more fuss, he called me. The connection was solid, but we were now 15 minutes into the call and everyone was kind of stressed and irritated. The founder said that he was pleased that WhatsApp worked, because it often has problems too.  

On the next call, the founder was clearly using his phone, but he had decent headphones (the standard iphone ones, which actually have a pretty good mic) and both audio and video were good. We had a relaxed 30 minute conversation in which I learned a ton, and we laughed a lot. At the very end, I asked him why the quality was so good, and he said “Oh, I live outside of town and we live right near a 4G tower, and I use my phone because it takes less bandwidth.”  

Now, I make tons of calls to places with iffy internet, and I am utterly sympathetic to the plight of those who have to use it. Both founders were impressive people with good ideas; however, my experience with founder #2 was exponentially better. The first call left me irritated and annoyed in a vague and undirected way, which then made me feel guilty, which of course left me more irritated. Worse, I realized that founder #2 just felt more competent somehow, when in fact I have no idea of their relative competence.

It is all unfair, and in this case, it’s largely my fault for thoughtlessly scheduling Zoom calls. However, funders often do thoughtless things, and, sadly, you doers can’t really change our behavior, so you have to figure out how to take effective action on your own behalf. Again, not fair, but this may be your only chance to make a good impression. So, trying to be helpful (and yes, I am absolutely going to schedule better), here’s my unsolicited advice:

Don’t make zoom calls with shitty internet.  Ever.

Here are your choices:

  • Go somewhere there is bomb-proof broadband and take the Zoom call. Check the internet speed (just Google “internet speed test” and use the first one that comes up). Our experience is that you really need at least 3mbps (megabytes per second) of internet speed to have a good quality call (that’s 3mbps if you're only running zoom and every other device on the network is shut down - you can’t have your nephew in the next room playing online video games).  And even that isn’t good enough if your internet is cutting in and out.  
  • Try using your phone on Zoom.  You need to have either an OK internet connection (you can usually get away with a bit less bandwidth with a phone), or 3+ bars of 4G signal and lots of data.
  • Ask to use WhatsApp audio instead of a Zoom call. People will understand, and a quality audio call is infinitely better than a lousy video call. When it works, WhatsApp is higher quality audio than a mobile phone call and the subtle difference really works in your favor.
  • Use your damn phone! The 3G (and now often 4G) networks in Africa are awesome! It amazes me that it often doesn’t occur to people to simply make a phone call. Yes, you may have to buy a bunch of international time. Do it. It's an excellent investment.

The point is that you should have the chance to make the good impression you deserve. No matter how cool and empathetic the person on the other end of the line, a poor quality call makes you look bad. This is your time, and your chance to shine - don’t waste a minute of it. Pick the right option for the call and ask for it - I guarantee you that people will give you credit for being thoughtful. Don’t let yourself be pulled into a bad experience.

The whole thing is utterly unfair, both that you have shitty internet and that you can end up looking bad as a result. Someday, I hope that we can pay for Starlink or some other broadband solution to mitigate the inequity. For now, though, the only one who can prevent you from falling victim to that inequity is you. Don’t fall for it.

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