Behind the Software Q&A with Asana
Certain types of business software aren’t all that easy to figure out, but the benefits of better organization of your tasks and projects are self evident, and Asana has been at the forefront of providing just that. During our Q&A with Asana, we talked to Kenny Van Zant to learn more about the company and its plans for the future.
What was the inspiration behind Asana? Was there a specific business need that wasn’t being addressed?
LOCATION: San Francisco, California
You know, whenever I get onto the topic of what Asana helps people do–which is to get organized, stay organized and track their work–I have never met anybody who said, “Oh yeah, I do not have that problem. I have never had a problem staying organized and getting my team coordinated.”
This feels like one of the universal challenges of getting work done right, because essentially all of us out there in any sort of professional or volunteer team setting need to channel energies in the same direction to try and achieve something that is really complicated. Technology can help us with that, but when we look at the tools that people rely on, they’re more often than not shockingly basic and very obviously nontechnical solutions.
There is a huge market of people who use notebooks for this, people who write down everything they are going to do in a notebook and take it with them everywhere they go. There are whiteboards all over offices, where people are tracking things that are supposed to happen. There’s also tons and tons of software that has been built to address this need. Everybody has access to email and sometimes document management systems in some shape or form. And yet despite all that, no one is saying, “Oh, I’m perfectly organized, my team is a well-oiled machine all the time.” This is a universal problem.
Our founders, Dustin [Moskovitz] and Justin [Rosenstein] came out of Facebook. At the time the company was growing really fast and both of them saw this problem manifesting itself, and they did what everybody else does: they started trying all the tools, trying all the processes, but nothing really worked, and ultimately they started building a product themselves inside of Facebook to solve the problem. It ended up working so well that it was adopted across the company. The adoption was so fast that they realized the best thing they could do was to bring a product like that to everybody as opposed to having it just be a secret inside of Facebook.
In contrast to large-scale business software systems like ERP and business process management, where implementation is top-down with employees often wondering how the tools benefit their work, the benefits of Asana can be understood immediately. What do you think are the factors contributing to that?
First and foremost I think you have to recognize that we try to build uses for information in Asana that are associated to individual users. So whether it’s your task list or your inbox you’re getting a very personalized view of the information that you have decided to care about. Either it’s the things that are assigned to you that you and your team think are important to you, or the other work items you are following.
And it’s very much an opt-in model. I get to choose what I want follow and I can choose what I want to un-follow. Now, someone might me as a follower, but I can always undo that, the exact opposite of email. If I decide to send you an email, you can’t do anything about that. If I decide to reply to that email thread you can’t do anything about it either. On Asana you pick what you need and want to focus on and then you can curate that down into a manageable universe. That’s one of the first things people talk about and become very attached to.
The second thing is that, from a technology standpoint, we designed Asana to be fast. Not just fast in terms of raw browser-to-server performance, though we try to be really fast there as well, but also just in terms of getting information from and into Asana. So if I’m capturing ideas I as the end user can just type, press enter, type again, press enter, and generate a new line on a list every time I hit enter. But in fact each of those lines is its own piece of work; it’s a real work object being created each time with all the metadata–attachments, due dates and all that information, just by hitting enter over and over again. In a lot of other products that’s a painstaking process that you would never think about as a means of getting information out of your brain into a system as fast as possible. We’ve even done things that help power users be even more flexible and remove friction like add in tons of keyboard shortcuts.
As a company you’re famously skeptical of email’s role in the workplace for centralizing communication. Define some of the main problems with email-driven communication. What are the alternatives?
First off, I definitely think that–as I’m about to go in and tear down email–I’ll start by saying email is an amazing tool. It’s been around for a really long time and scaled far beyond what its creators thought it would scale to, having been developed as a way to essentially send office memos over the internet.
What doesn’t work about email for most people is that it’s very recency biased in the sense that new emails show up at the top of the inbox and you’re drawn constantly to the flow of new things. It makes structuring what is important really difficult. Everyone is familiar with the anxiety caused by the fear of missing something in their inbox. What is really bad about email is that all this information, communication and really important data about where things are is locked away in people’s inboxes. There is no place I can go to discover the status of a project that’s being discussed in an email thread I’m not on.
If you’re not on the email thread you can’t get onto it without physically asking someone. That basically means we run around repeating data to each other all the time. By putting those conversations inside of Asana and attaching to the work they’re about you get an amazing benefit you don’t get with email. You know, our own use of email internally is probably 10 percent what it would be for a company that wasn’t on Asana. That 10 percent leftover is really important, it might be for things pertaining to people outside the company or other use cases where email is better suited, but the rest goes inside of ASana.
The concept of enterprise social is baked into Asana, but recently there’s been more emphasis on driving enterprise social apps to be tied directly to getting work done as opposed to being an extension of water cooler conversations. What’s your take on that view and, if it’s relevant, how are you designing Asana in a way that addresses it?
I think you’re right. I feel like we’re students of this particular aspect of the problem because of the pedigree of our founders and because much of our team has spent some amount of time at Facebook. I’ll paraphrase for you what Dustin and Justin have said before, and that’s that if they thought what the world needed was a Facebook for business, they would have just stayed with Facebook.
We feel that if you’re just a social networking platform for an enterprise that’s not enough to solve the business hurdles we’ve been talking about. Facebook exists to create social graphs for people. That’s it’s reason for existence. Businesses don’t need to create social graphs. They’re not there to connect their employees for social purposes, they’re there to connect people to achieve a goal. You have to attach the work necessary to achieve that goal to the product.
There’s nothing wrong with building a social network for employees. The companies that are building those are building them for the purpose of having a better connected, happier, more socially wired-together workforce. Friendships are good. It’s just that if you’re doing this for the purpose of increasing productivity that’s the wrong answer. You have to connect it to the work, and that’s why Asana is not a social graph, but a work graph. It’s literally a graph of the projects your team and your company is working on. So for us social is important in the sense of social productivity, social workflow, social work, meaning that work has to be at the center of all the conversations.
What’s the biggest challenge you’re currently facing, either business or technology-wise, and how are you addressing it?
We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can do a better job explaining to people why this feels so important. Whenever I talk to someone and ask what Asana does, and I say, you know, it’s that system you have that centralizes everything your organization is doing, prioritizes all the conversations around them and contextualizes all of them in one place that you know to look at every day to make sure your energies are being applied to the right thing, they say, “We don’t have once of those.”
It’s just shocking to a lot of us that we’ve gone this long habituated to the notion of weekly meetings, repeat status emails and updating your spreadsheet with what you did this week when there are better solutions. We spend a a lot of time trying to think about how we can explain how transformative Asana can be. Explaining that to someone who has only ever used Microsoft Office and the mail client on the laptop they were issued is something that’s a challenge, and I think it starts with us highlighting some of the amazing companies that have had that transformative experience. How we’re trying to address that is that we don’t wan’t to tell that story–we want to let our customers tell the story themselves.
Where do you see this segment going in the near future?
From my perspective the value proposition delivered by this kind of software is becoming more understood by larger companies; not just companies particularly, but just more people in general. We’re excited about the energy we feel not for Asana, but for the problem that we’re solving.
We’re also excited to see the development these larger categories like enterprise social and other collaboration tools that have been around for a long time. It’s going to be fun to see how the things those markets do come together and what ends up being the winning recipe for helping these companies solve these problems. We’re excited about our strategy and our approach, but it’s just a fun market to be in.
I have to ask–what drove the decision to not have a built-in calendar view and instead just sync tasks to Google Calendar?
Well, every decision is deliberate on some level, but not deliberate in the sense that we choose not to do something and never do it. The calendar is actually an area that we really, really want to address.
Our philosophy of delivering features and software is not to decide on the best answer immediately and rush something out. We tend to be very pragmatic about new features, but I think there is a huge value there, and because of that it is something we have to get right, and we spend quite a lot of time thinking about it. It’s something you will see us invest very heavily at some point in the near future.
The calendar is actually one of Justin’s favorite topics to talk about when it comes to things we could do a really better job with compared to what’s in the marketplace right now, so I’ll just have to say, stay tuned.
Learn more about Asana and other enterprise social and collaboration tools by downloading our exclusive Top 10 Enterprise Social Software comparison report to review leading industry solutions side by side.