Canadian Software Engineer Zamir Khan Is Helping Millions of Families to Hug Again
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
“What the world needs now is: Hugs! Hugs! Hugs!” media entrepreneur Howard Brown told me as he urged me to check out the popular new service: www.VidHug.com. Founded just before the COVID pandemic at the urging of a small circle of friends and family living in Canada, VidHug now is exploding around the world with more than 4 million hugs delivered so far.
“We all need a good hug after more than a year of isolation,” Howard said as we worked together on the editing of his upcoming memoir, Shining Brightly. Howard’s upcoming book is full of dozens of ways you can brighten the world—one act of kindness at at a time. “I practice what I preach and I found this super-easy-to-use online service, VidHug.com, to help me send a few more hugs out into the world even in the midst of this pandemic. People absolutely love the videos we’ve created on this service. They’re overwhelmed when they see the VidHug the first time—and I’ve found that they like to view these hugs again and again. Whenever they’re feeling lonely, that VidHug is right there for them.”
Howard’s creation of personalized VidHug videos is mentioned in his book as just one example of his own outreach to friends and loved ones. So, Howard and I resolved to track down VidHug’s founder, Zamir Khan, and schedule a Zoom interview with him. Adding to our interest in meeting Zamir is a book co-authored by Howard’s wife, Lisa Brown. It’s called Now What? A Guide to the Gifts and Challenges of Aging. From the very first chapter of that book, “isolation and exclusion” are identified by researchers worldwide as the No. 1 threat to health and wellbeing as we age. In Lisa Brown’s section of that book, she emphasizes the healthy benefits of taking part in public service as we age. Given their own writing about personal connections, both of the Browns have become big fans of VidHug.com.
Zamir Khan: ‘People feel better after sharing’
When we explained our idea of publishing a story about VidHug in an email to Zamir, he scheduled an hour of Zoom time with us.
In our interview, I told him: “Zamir, did you know there’s real scientific research that says making meaningful connections with other people is a ‘social determinant’ of health? It’s clear from reading about you on your website that you’re doing this because people enjoy this experience.”
“And, right now in the middle of a pandemic it’s also a perfect entrepreneurial project,” Howard added.
“But, one thing we wanted to ask you is: Are you following the public-health research about the effects of isolation?” I said. “We think there’s a strong case to be made that meaningful contact like this actually contributes to people’s health and wellbeing. Are you following those studies?”
“In general, of course, I know that people enjoy what we’re enabling them to do,” Zamir said. He explained that public health research is not his specialty, but welcomed our making that connection from the team of authors who produced Now What?
“I don’t want to misrepresent the data,” I cautioned. “No researcher has specifically tested the health benefits of your VidHug.com—although, maybe someone will study it someday at the rate your online service is growing. But, the overall finding is that meaningfully connecting with people on a regular basis will tend to help them live happier and longer lives.”
“Well, I am glad to have you making that connection with what we do,” Zamir said.
We also immediately mailed him a copy of Now What? Collectively, we are trying to find allies to spread the message—in this era of deep divisions—that there’s healthy power in authentic human connection.
How Zamir Discovered the Power of a Virtual Hug
Zamir discovered that power himself when he created an online video montage for his own mother’s birthday, inviting family and friends to send him short video clips of their messages for the birthday girl. Given Zamir’s professional background as a software developer for sophisticated medical devices, he understood how to gather digital files, edit them, create a colorful montage and post it online.
That was the very first and only VidHug several years ago. Today, after hundreds of thousands of VidHugs from around the world, Zamir has published that “origin story,” which begins:
I pressed play and watched with bated breath. We were all sitting in the living room of my home, including my wife, our young children, and my parents. Everyone’s stomach was full after having celebrated my Mom’s 70th birthday at a delicious vegan restaurant (her choice!). The MacBook placed on her lap was about to play a video that I had painstakingly spent many days to put together. Looking back, I had no idea (a) how emotional her reaction would be and (b) that I had started on a path to building VidHug.
Corine, my mother, undoubtedly like someone in your own life, is notoriously difficult to buy gifts for. She doesn’t have material wants and spending a lot of money is a surefire path to her disapproval. If you ask her, she’ll tell you that she doesn’t need anything other than your love, presence, and maybe a hug.
The First Key Is Ease of Use
Everybody knows how to hug. It’s as simple as opening and then closing your arms.
“A VidHug should be simple, too,” Zamir said in our interview. “In fact, we keep updating the service all the time based on user comments. That’s our concept really: Anyone should be able to do this.
“When I made that first VidHug, it was so popular that I had lots of people asking me to teach them how to make these—or even to do this for them. I didn’t have that much time. I thought: I just should build a way for people to create these videos without having to understand all the software. As I went, I envisioned this: Think of my aunt who is not a technical person and certainly isn’t interested in becoming a power user. If I could help my aunt create something like this with a few clicks, then she’d certainly want to do it.
“To this day, we keep telling ourselves: If we can make this even simpler—we will.”
“Yeah, I can testify to that,” Howard said. “Your users don’t need to know all the technical magic that’s built into the software. They just want to create a VidHug and, for most people, that’s got to be very easy. Your service definitely is user friendly.”
The Second Key Is Self Expression
“The other goal we have is: ‘Joyful connections made easy’,” Zamir said. “Or, because some of these connections are for more serious or somber occasions, we also say, ‘Meaningful connections made easy’.”
On his website, Zamir lists the most popular occasions for VidHugs:
- Holidays—so many opportunities!
- Birthdays—and anniversaries
- Weddings—lots of opportunities to support the loving couple
- Business—especially onboarding videos to greet remote staff
- Schools—perhaps to welcome children back to school or to celebrate a special school event
- Memorials—celebrating the lives of loved ones
“The power of these little video clips is that you’re seeing each person—or group of people—speaking to you from wherever they’ve turned on their camera,” Zamir said. “Even if their message is just 30 seconds or so, that’s a much more meaningful connection than the typical note you find on Facebook.”
Far and away, Facebook remains the most popular platform for sending greetings at milestones that pop up in users’ lives.
“But think about how a typical Facebook birthday greeting happens,” Zamir said. “That happens just because it’s automatically built into your profile. Your birthday pops up and people may acknowledge that, but usually most of them are as basic as three letters: HBD. Typing three letters to mark someone’s birthday doesn’t qualify as a meaningful connection. But, going on video and talking for even a few moments to the other person—that’s really expressing yourself.”
Even after the Pandemic, Isolation Still Will Be a Challenge
It’s true that VidHug.com is a pandemic success story, Zamir acknowledged. The numbers tell the story.
“We were getting a few hundred visitors per day before the pandemic,” he said. “By May 2020, we were getting more than 100,000 people visiting each day—and recording 30,000 videos per day. When this idea started, it was just me. Now, we now have a team of seven and the VidHug.com you see today is the product of our developers and customer support staff.”
The pandemic solved the entrepreneur’s greatest challenge: discoverability. How does anyone even know you are offering a product? With enforced isolation, millions of people suddenly were Googling for solutions—then sharing their discovery widely across social media.
“So, yes, we are growing because of the pandemic,” Zamir said. “But the thing we all have to acknowledge is: There was isolation before the pandemic—and there will be isolation after the pandemic ends.
“What has motivated me all my life is simply trying to do work that will make our world a little better place,” he said. “When I was working on the software for sophisticated medical devices, I had the satisfaction of knowing that my work did have a positive purpose. But the impact was distant and indirect. I was contributing to a device that a salesperson had to bring to doctors, who might use it and eventually someone would be helped—but it was not an impact that I ever could see. I was quite removed from the positive results of what I was doing.
“But today, I can see the positive contributions these videos are making every day. That’s why I still like to do some of the customer support myself, because it connects me with the users of our service. I’ve heard so many stories of people telling us how these video messages helped them to get through some very tough days.
“You might think that our service is mainly used for happy times like birthdays or holidays, but I’ll never forget a woman who told me about her father who was so ill that it was clear he would not be leaving the hospital. So, the family used VidHug to share farewell wishes and the hospital’s chaplain sat down in the room and watched the VidHug with him.
“When you hear a story like that, you realize that this isn’t just a business. This is a real privilege to become a part of these families’ lives.”
Care to Read More?
In our special We Are Caregivers section of ReadTheSpirit, you will find an excerpt from the opening pages of Now What? That passage begins to explain the central challenge of isolation, which millions of us experience even without pandemic restrictions. If you have interest in this new book—or in organizing a group discussion of it—please email us at [email protected]