Prezi zooms forward with $14m from Accel

Cloud presentation service Prezi is stepping up its campaign to become a serious alternative to PowerPoint by closing a $14m round of funding.

The investment, led by Accel, is a significant boost for the site, which claims more than 7 million users worldwide for its Flash-based twist on the traditional presentation format.

Prezi — which is based in Budapest, Hungary and has offices in San Francisco– kicked up a real fuss when it first appeared in 2009 for one simple reason: it delivered a neat twist on the PowerPoint-style engine.

Presentations built using its toolkit are not simply a sequence of slideshows, but huge images which the speaker can zoom into and track back out of at will. That immediately earned it a ton of attention from early adopters because it made a stolid format much more dynamic, and was great for making the connections between different pieces of information explicit.

You can see how it differs from the traditional, banal formula in this example from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web.

The idea was originally developed by architect and designer Adam Somlai-Fischer, who found that zooming in and out allowed him to give much-needed context to clients and customers when showing them floorplans.

And it’s certainly proved popular with users, who have latched on in droves to edit and share their efforts through the web.

The service runs on a freemium model that gives paying users the ability to build more presentations, keep them private, and edit them offline — but while the company says it’s been cashflow positive since the early days, a new round of funding has been on the cards for a little while.

When we listed the company in the GigaOM Euro 20 earlier this year, we noted that it needed something extra to move on to the next step:

The noise has died down since that initial hubbub, partly because Prezi was overused by the early adopter crowd, which is something that led to overkill, and allowed others to dismiss it as a mere gimmick. While the buzz has faded, the team has been slowly adding more features, trying to iron out bugs and broadening its scope with new ways to interact with the system. If the way people actually use Prezi catches up with the concept, then maybe it could catch fire again.

It will certainly be interesting to see where this investment takes the business. Cloud-based office services have moved on a lot in the past couple of years, and while Prezi has made improvements, it also needs to accelerate. The company has introduced collaboration options, and last year it released an iPad viewer — but users still can’t edit their files on an iPad. Perhaps they need to move beyond the zoom, perhaps they just need to make the tools broader and even more usable.

If they manage to do that, then it could make them an attractive target for anyone building cloud productivity tools.

Prezi was started three years ago in Budapest with a small seed round from Magyar Telekom, followed up in 2009 by a further $1.5 million from Sunstone Capital and the TED Conferences. Sunstone is also participating in this round.