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A new medium for presenting work
Briefings highlight generational AI scaleups, startups, and projects. I was fortunate to have interviewed co-founder & CEO Grant Lee. Read on to learn more about the origins of Gamma, how it is defining a new UX with AI, and why it is a generational company. You can also read this article as a Gamma doc here: link.
Gamma is the canvas for modern work documents. Users can create visually engaging, interactive documents easily by themselves or with the help of an AI assistant.
Why Gamma is a generational company
Efficient momentum: Gamma is the most popular product in its category while having raised the least amount of capital and having the leanest team
Seasoned venture-backed operators: the founders led teams at Optimizely. Grant was the COO of ClearBrain, another venture-backed startup, before starting Gamma with Jon and James
Rethinking the medium: Gamma is forging their own path by owning the UX, not just being an add-on to an existing platform or an AI wrapper
Top investors: Accel led their seed round
Slide presentations have become the lingua franca of the modern workplace. Whether it's an internal team meeting, a key client pitch, or a conference presentation, PowerPoint reigns supreme. But for many, creating slide decks can be an exercise in frustration. Templates look stale and inflexible. Formatting text and images feels like a slog. Trying to craft a compelling narrative with bullet points and stock photos is tough. Ultimately, most people just wish the deck would make itself.
That's the insight Grant Lee, James Fox, and Jon Noronha had when they founded Gamma in 2020. Their goal was to reinvent presentations by combining the simplicity of documents with the visual appeal of slides. And thanks to rapid advances in AI, Gamma may have cracked the code.
According to Lee, a significant portion of time spent on slide deck creation is not on the content itself but rather on its formatting. He observed that the emphasis on aesthetics often overshadowed the message's clarity and effectiveness.
Instead of adhering to this norm, Gamma's vision was to introduce a tool that prioritizes communication over appearance. Lee described their unique approach: "Our primitive is this concept of a card. A card can be any length and any height." This flexibility means cards could house varied content forms - text, images, video, or web embeds (Side note: I wish Substack would support more embed types). For Gamma, the objective was clear: to build an alternative to PowerPoint, a platform responsive across devices and formats.
Lee's perspective on the flaws of traditional presentations is rooted in the old "print and project" paradigm. In days gone by, slides had fixed dimensions due to the need for physical printing or projection. But in today's hybrid work environment, presentations have evolved, with many viewing them individually on their devices.
"COVID rapidly accelerated our shift away from this era of work," Lee commented. As offices started blending remote and in-person workflows, the restrictions of slide dimensions and the necessity for paper printouts became increasingly redundant.
Drawing from his personal experience, Lee reminisced, "Back in my banking days, I was the one at midnight binding these books so that the managing directors could flip through these pieces of paper, mark all their edits on the piece of paper, and hand them back to me." In the current hybrid work landscape, the potential to go beyond static slides is immense.
Closing his thoughts, Lee stated, "We're not trying to craft an incrementally better slideware tool. We're challenging the status quo by asking: what if slide decks were truly optimized for communication and content, minimizing the exhaustive work of formatting?"
Writing Like a Doc, Presenting Like a Deck - Powered by AI
By late 2022, Gamma had launched a robust editor to rearrange content into shareable presentations. "Our slogan was 'write like a doc, present like a deck,'" said Lee. "The insight there was that making slides is a painstaking visual process that’s intimidating to a lot of people." This resonated with a lot of users who wanted a simple yet beautiful way to present their work.
But teaching users to build presentations from scratch proved challenging. Gamma used to push users to a blank page and hope they figure it out. Well, 2% would and 98% wouldn't.
At the same time, AI was advancing rapidly. ChatGPT showed the creative potential of large language models. Availability of models like DALL-E made generating images simple. In response, Gamma pivoted to an AI-first approach. Users could describe their ideal presentation and Gamma would generate a custom first draft using OpenAI's API.
"It never occurred to us that AI could really transform the creation experience, nor that that was where its real potential was. That's something that I think dawned on us more over time as we built out the product," Lee admitted.
In March 2023, Gamma relaunched their product with integrated AI features. The difference was "like night and day," said Lee. Signups jumped from hundreds per day to over 10,000 after launch. The viral growth continued for weeks, accumulating millions of users globally. Lee attributes the viral growth to AI's ability to showcase Gamma's value instantly. Users sign up, describe the name of a presentation they want to make, and see it being created in real time.
But it's not just a parlor trick. Users can tweak the AI's initial suggestions using Gamma's real-time editing tools. As Lee explained, “AI lets them jump between those things very quickly. It fast forwards you right to the end, and while it won’t make something perfect, it's so much easier to edit it and tweak it." For many, AI eliminated the activation barrier that previously deterred them from trying new presentation software.
AI provided the "magic wand" to shortcut users past the learning curve of new software. This has worked well for the company with millions of users generating millions of decks each month. Gamma is now the most popular product in its category while also having the leanest team and raising the least amount of funding. This efficiency reflects Lee’s experience as a seasoned startup operator. He emphasized how much a small team with complimentary skills can deliver.
Forging Their Own Path
Gamma sits at the intersection of two red-hot trends - generative AI and future of work software. But taking on entrenched incumbents like Google, Microsoft and Canva won't be easy.
Gamma can't compete slide-for-slide in core features — yet. Instead, they're betting that AI-powered automation and focus on responsive content will open up new use cases beyond old-school slide decks. Already, many Gamma users publish their presentations as websites or share interactive embedded previews.
What’s not obvious to skeptics is that they are forging their own path by creating their own medium similar to how Notion created its unique experience. In the early days of Notion, it was often compared to Google Docs and Microsoft Word. But Notion charged ahead and today its one of the most loved and used product. It is still early days for Gamma but what makes them different from AI-wrapper companies is that AI is not the core of the product. Creating a new UX for users to better present ideas is.
If they succeed, Gamma will fulfill the promise of making presentations as easy as writing a document. For now, they've already realized the dream of many office workers - a presentation that designs itself.
Instead of writing up a note for Gamma, I thought the product is best experienced directly. Head on over to Gamma to see how it ingested this article to produce a doc-like presentation: Gamma on Gamma (Its awesome)
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