Software developers aim to ease crush of emails for businesses
SAN FRANCISCO — Dustin Moskovitz is plotting an escape from email.
The 30-year-old entrepreneur has learned a lot about communication since he teamed up with his college roommate Mark Zuckerberg to develop Facebook a decade ago. That knowledge is fueling an audacious attempt to change the way people connect at work, where the incessant drumbeat of email has become an excruciating annoyance.
Moskovitz is trying to turn that chronic headache into an afterthought with Asana, a San Francisco startup he runs with former Facebook and Google product manager, Justin Rosenstein.
Asana peddles software that combines the elements of a communal notebook, social network, instant messaging application and online calendar to enable teams of employees to share information and do most of their jobs without relying on email.
“We are trying to make all the soul-sucking work that comes with email go away,” Rosenstein says as Moskovitz nods sitting across from him in a former brewery that serves as Asana's headquarters. “This came out of a deep, heartfelt pain that Dustin and I were experiencing, along with just about everyone around us.”
The misery keeps mounting in the corporate world, which remains an email haven. This year, each worker using a business email account will send and receive a daily average of 121 mail messages, a 15 percent increase from 105 per day in 2011, according to The Radicati Group, which tracks email usage.
In contrast, consumers have been weaning themselves from electronic inboxes and increasingly turning to digital alternatives such as Facebook, Twitter and mobile messaging.
More email translates to less productivity as workers spend more time weeding their inboxes and puzzling over convoluted exchanges among a hodgepodge of colleagues and managers scattered in various offices — or sometimes just cubicles away.
To exacerbate matters, vital pieces of business information are often corralled in a worker's inbox instead of in a database that can be searched by anyone working on the same project.
If companies set up communications channels that worked more like social networks, the amount of time workers could devote to other things would increase by about 8 percent each week, according to estimates from a study by the McKinsey Global Institute.
Another 6 percent of the workweek would be freed up if the shift away from email could unlock more of the so-called “dark matter” hidden in individual inboxes, McKinsey estimates.
These are the problems Asanais trying to solve.
Its bare-bones system, free to use for teams of up to 15 workers, is set up so information can be easily seen by anyone authorized by the company.
Asana hopes to make money by selling subscriptions to more sophisticated versions of its software that can accommodate larger groups of workers.
Moskovitz began working on what would turn into an early prototype for Asana while he was still at Facebook in late 2007. He had become frustrated with email's shortcomings and set out to build a better alternative for managing Facebook's projects.
Before long, he was spending all his time figuring out how to escape email instead of managing Facebook's engineers.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy, but from my perspective it was clearly the smartest thing that I could do to make (Facebook) better,” Moskovitz recalls.
He finally decided to exit Facebook in late 2008 to start Asana, leaving behind a prototype that Facebook still relies on to manage its projects instead of email.
Moskovitz remains one of Facebook's major shareholders with stock worth about $7 billion, affording him the luxury to gamble on a startup that may be fighting a Sisyphean battle.
“I am not sure what anyone thinks they will be accomplishing by getting rid of email,” say Sara Radicati, editor of the Radicati Group. “If we didn't have email, people would be spending all their time on the phone and other channels of communication. Is that really any better?”
While the Radicati Group foresees consumer email usage continuing to wane during the next four years, the firm predicts the volume of business email will rise another 16 percent by 2018 to an average of 140 daily emails sent and received by each user.
“Email can't be killed completely because it's the lowest common denominator in business,” concedes Stewart Butterfield, who has been trying to sell companies on the merits of another alternative form of corporate communication called Slack.
Like Moskovitz, Butterfield is better known for his involvement at another popular technology service: he co-founded Flickr, a photo-sharing site bought by Yahoo Inc. nine years ago.
Without providing specifics, Asana says millions of workers are using its system, primarily the free version.
In many cases, Asana customers say they have reduced email usage by as much as 80 percent, according to Rosenstein.
“We are really reaching peak email,” Rosenstein says. “Our customers keep asking: ‘Can you replace more and more of my email?' ”
Rapidly growing startups such as Airbnb, Uber, Pinterest and Dropbox embraced Asana's task-management system early in their corporate lives in hopes of avoiding email addiction as they mature.
And Asana isn't alone in its quest to eradicate email. Other online services, built especially for business purposes by companies such as Jive Software and Microsoft's Yammer, are on a similar mission.
Despite these efforts, email remains pervasive. For instance, Pinterest product manager Michael Yamartino says he still sifts through 200 to 300 emails each day, with 70 percent of the traffic coming from co-workers. Even after internal meetings, Pinterest still relies on mass emails to let everyone know what is going on.
“Asana is better for tracking tasks, but email still has an important place,” Yamartino says.