SALT LAKE CITY — It is no coincidence that Vlada Bortnik's idea behind the video messaging app, Marco Polo, came into the world after she and her husband started a family.
Bortnik and her husband Michal, both engineers, were working in a field that they didn't find satisfying, nor was it one that they felt would reflect the message they wanted to send to their children
"Everybody tells you that kids change your life, and of course I didn't believe it until it happened," Bortnik said. "We wanted to model to them what it's like to work on something really meaningful, something you hope will change the world."
So, what does that have to do with video messaging? Bortnik wanted to create a communication tool that would help her stay close to her family members and thought that, among the plethora of digital messaging programs and apps that were already on the market, none hit the mark for truly personal communications.
"Most of the tools had been optimized for the quantity of relationships, not the quality," Bortnik said. "And that's great, I guess, if you want to connect with friends from kindergarten and so on. But the result of it is really about sharing a highlight reel, you're not sharing your real life."
Bortnik said the development goal for Marco Polo, which has traveled through nine iterations since inception, has been focused on creating a pathway for quality, personal interactions.
"With Marco Polo, because it's face-to-face and because of the intimacy and personal connection you establish, you're getting to experience that person's life," Bortnik said. "It's as if the person is there with you."
"With other messaging apps, there's only so much a sad emoji can convey."
Marco Polo users can send unlimited length video messages to contacts via the free app. Recipients have the option to watch their messages live or, if unavailable, can view videos later. Bortnik said one of the best things about video messaging with friends and family is it helps avoid some of the pitfalls of texts or other written communications.
"On Marco Polo, you're getting the real me," Bortnik said. "You can see my face, hear my voice … it's genuine.
"Try telling a joke over text. You put in some smiley faces so people know, 'Hey, I'm telling a joke.' But things go wrong."
Unlike one of the most widely used video messaging apps, Snapchat, Marco Polo does not delete messages after viewing. Users can delete messages, but the default is they're stored in a cloud-based archive for as long as the user wants to keep them. The app also opts out of providing links with other social media platforms. Connections are under the control of the user but Marco Polo will assess your contact list and let you know who among your group is already using the app. Marco Polo does have a few filter and audio control options, but it hasn't gone down the road of offering cartoon-y image modifications that have found popularity on other platforms.
What Marco Polo has done is find fertile ground in the Beehive State. Bortnik said Utah has embraced the app at a far higher rate than any other geographic area and data reflects 1-in-10 Utahns have downloaded the app.
"We've learned that Marco Polo is a great match for Utah and it's very family oriented culture," Bortnik said.
The app also continues to be a way for the founder's family to stay close. Bortnik said it has transformed the relationship her children have with family members who live in Europe.1 comment on this story
"My husband is from Poland and we visit there every year," Bortnik said. "It used to be we'd go and my kids would be really shy about seeing their family members, they'd need a warm-up period.
"Since we launched the app, my mother-in-law sends them Marco Polo messages teaching them Polish, getting them ready for their trip. Now, when my kids get there they see her, and run to her. And it's because they see and talk to each other every day."
The Marco Polo app is available as a free download on Google Play and Apple's App Store.