Lots of companies want to kill e-mail. Unison is one of them

Lots of companies want to kill e-mail. Unison is one of them

Summary: The New York City startup promises a better way for teams to collaborate at work. I know this because they sent me an e-mail about it

TOPICS: Collaboration
Screenshot: Andrew Nusca

I've lost count as to how many companies have pitched me on collaboration platforms that promise to destroy e-mail altogether—or at least replace the areas where it fails regularly.

There's nothing wrong with e-mail per se. It's still a brilliant technology, and it has gotten rather refined over years of use and development. Filters, labels, multiple e-mail account support, undo send...in its regimented way, it's a punctilious person's dream. But we keep asking it to do too much.

If you don't know what I mean, just try sending an e-mail to a large group and soliciting responses to a multi-part question. Like shattered glass, the ensuing thread rapidly splinters into a million pieces. Herding cats doesn't begin to describe the mess you've inadvertendly enabled.

E-mail, it turns out, is wonderfully linear. Humans are wonderfully not.

The rise of social media has brought us new ways to monitor, digest and respond to information: Twitter's curated but ephemeral updates, Facebook's algorithmic presentation, et cetera. Several young companies saw value in that and have since developed "collaboration platforms" designed to better serve teams of people who aren't in the same room (or city, or time zone). 

Unison is one of them. The New York City-based startup's one-line pitch is that lets employees communicate and track work updates through virtual rooms organized around specific projects. 

I spoke with chief executive Manlio Carrelli and chief marketing officer Rurik Bradbury.

ZDNet: Why did you start this company?

MC: Teams today share the balance of what's happening—updates, feedback—all via e-mail threads. People become deeply frustrated: the wrong people are on the list, people talk over each other, they start using crazy highlighting, and everyone ends up on the phone for another call. We looked at this piece and said, "How do we make this awesome? How do we make this 10 times more organized?"

So we created rooms where you can share updates and all of that. Rooms are designed to house multiple conversations. You can see who happens to be working beside you. What we're hearing from our customers is that this approach sucks out 70 to 80 percent of e-mail usage. They're able to spend that time doing work, getting results.

Because they can see what each other are doing virtually, they're able to make snap decisions. There's no need to call a meeting and find the right stakeholders.

We're starting to get some really neat feedback. It's been rolled out to several organizations.

RB: The notion of a room space also allows us to make these rooms conversational spaces. It's kind of like an instant conference call; you can switch on the voice [component].

MC: We're trying to take all the friction out of the way. We're not trying to replace your telephone system; we're trying to replace that friction. We're taking out the walls.

ZDNet: Are you aiming for more traditional, office-bound companies, or no? The team behind ZDNet, for example, is extremely distributed. There are no walls to begin with.

MC: If you're in a company where you sit in an office and everybody you work with is in that office, we're not a good fit for you. Very few companies are like that today. More companies look like yours—writers dotted all over the place.

Companies that come to us have virtual teams or members, they're highly mobile, they're distributed. We're seeing a decent amount of traction with media and publishing firms, insurance, financial services, affiliate marketing—it's all over the map, but the common characteristic is around the way they work. Multiple offices, mobile members.

Companies said they were overwhelmed by e-mail. Executives were receiving 100 or 200 emails a day. They're looking for a way to keep everyone on the same page.

ZDNet: Gmail says I received 260 e-mails yesterday. And that's just my work e-mail. And I haven't even talked about the phone calls.

MC: We're talking to one large company that is, believe it or not, getting rid of their offshore team's desk phones. They only communicate internally, so it makes sense. They're also getting rid of their e-mail accounts. That's an extreme, but...

ZDNet: So how do you get people to make the switch? Troublesome as it is, it seems leaving e-mail behind is a massive leap that few teams are bold enough to take. Seems to me like that's your biggest business challenge, the inertia of the status quo.

MC: One of the classic problems that any [collaboration] tool has is that it indirectly competes with e-mail. We've done a couple things to combat that. One is, inside our tool we have 1:1 chat with read receipts and new messages. It's a way to keep people engaged and inside the tool. You also have 1:1 audio and video.

What we found is that it's not tough to get rooms to take off if they follow a recipe: create a room around a time-bound project. Post some very relevant content to that room—a project plan or thought-provoking question. Then, @mention everyone in that group, which sends an e-mail to everyone in that group. It pulls them into that room.

Two things happen after that—those people start to comment, and they see who's working inside that room with them at that moment. A couple instances of that highlights the value, and we see solid adoption from there.

ZDNet: How do you feel about your peers? I'm thinking about Podio and Convo and the like.

MC: Some of the larger enterprise networks, those household names, what they do I actually see as very different. We're all in the same big box of "social software," but these tools focus on a different problems set than us. They focus on timely information across an organization, lock it down, deeply integrate with existing business processes.

One you'd know best started as a microblogging broadcasting tool. Another started as secure internal collaboration. We see the team as the fundamental core, and we focus on just making that team faster. It can be a project team or one that exists in perpetuity. It can exist with people from outside the company or with multiple companies.

ZDNet: So who or what are you actually competing with?

MC: We're focused on a job and the way people work. But where we're competing with most is the way people do stuff today. For 99 out of 100 companies, that's still e-mail. We're not trying to take down e-mail head on, or get rid of it. There's some stuff that it's very good at. But it's not good at doing stuff with a group. It's a total disaster. That's the core juice for teams. That's the sun that all their other work revolves around.

ZDNet: How do you get that adoption in a top-down corporate environment?

MC: Because we focus so much on the team, we find that, in a large organization, we don't need some corporate "OK" to get in there. We get in at the team level, and we work our way from there. Sometimes we stay within a team of 10 or 20; sometimes we spread to the whole company, and someone from Operations gets involved. Our Freemium model allows you to test it with limited features for free. We don't run into corporate walls there.

I'm not surprised that plenty of smaller companies or teams are using our stuff; six or seven Fortune 500 companies have started using it, too. A few larger clients that we've been able to win with employees that number in the hundreds. That has surprised me. We've seen steady interest from larger companies that say, "Hey man, e-mail is just destroying us. We still want it; it's like having a phone number. But it's not where we want to work."

We knew this pain point existed. This is why we started the company. We expected more organic adoption; it's been very pleasing to us that it's coming from the other way, too. Senior executives are more likely to hate e-mail. They know how corrosive it is to their company.

The two reasons we're having success: one, we have a simple, fast messaging experience inside the product, and two, we're coaching these organizations on how to do it. I tell them not to roll this product out right away, but pick a department that has a high need and start it there. Then it starts leaping from department to department. They almost don't need an official rollout. It creeps out on its own.

We do have an enterprise version that gives the IT organization the controls they want—if they don't want certain people using it, or don't want to allow certain capabilities. Our enterprise version is five bucks a seat per month. Even for a team of 50, that's what, $250 per month? That's a rounding error on their budget. Somebody throws that on their credit card. We thank our forebears in cloud services. It's just become more and more common. It hasn't been too much of an uphill battle at the team level in that respect.

ZDNet: Does the involvement of the IT organization help or hurt adoption?

MC: So far, it has facilitated adoption of our tool, rather than hurt it. But you make a good point. It's an interesting line that we'll need to carefully manage. We don't want to create the same overmanaged situation with blinders on that e-mail has created.

Nothing has been more regulated and mission-critical in organizations than e-mail.

Topic: Collaboration

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • What's old is new again!

    Wow...they've slapped a few neat graphics into a browser-based format and re-invented IRC!

    • Not like IRC

      (Disclosure: I work at Unison) It's very different from IRC: in rooms, you can can post pictures, inline videos, docs, and other files. Rooms also have voice and video chat for when you need to talk in real time. Third big difference is that discussions are threaded: so each project or issue's "room" can house multiple discussions. Try it out: www.unison.com
  • It was called Notes

    And it didn't work back then. The problem they're addressing can only be solved by getting people in a room. Real time still rules.
    • Real time is important...

      ...but not always realistic when your team is across different offices or countries. BTW Unison has realtime group discussions: a room can "go live" to become a group call. Maybe not the same as being physically in one room, but much better than email tag and scheduled conference calls. (Disclosure: I work at Unison)
      • Google Wave

        So what's different about this than Google Wave, that Google canned years ago. In Google Speak "Wave is not a Product, but an enabling background Technology".
        • Some overlap with Google Wave

          There are definitely some things Unison has in common with Google Wave. Real-time awareness of people viewing, threads more tidy than email. BTW a lot of people liked Google Wave! The *differences* with Unison are: corporate management/compliance; integration of chat; integration of live conferencing. It's a broader solution than Wave.
  • Oh no. Oh no oh no. Here we go again.

    Someone who wants a particular area of IT to die so their new idea will take over.

    Oh my. Where is the Segway when what I really need is a car?

    The next step of course is for them to start predicting the area in question is almost dead already.

    Then, of course its only a matter of time before some writer around here sees this as a great clickbait issue and dosnt mind throwing their reputation into the trash for a few thousand clicks for a nonsense headline.

    Then of course, the bizarre faction that lives in some small corner of the world, who also for some reason are very loud, where email is seldom used anymore, will post here upholding the "well accepted theory" that email is dead as far as they are concerned.

    And this will become the next "thread of predictive nonsense" we will be forced to endure even though years down the road email will still be getting used almost exactly the way it always has been.

    Dosnt anyone get sick of this round about?
  • Headline...

    had me confused, I was wondering why a health workers union (Unison) was getting involved in an email replacement... Hmm, when will the lawsuits start flying?
  • It's not a paid advert....

    ......Reeeeeeeeeallllllllly.......(strokes chin)
  • Lacking for Enterprise usage

    As an collaboration professional in the fortune 500 providing solutions like Microsoft Exchange, SharePoint, Lync this solution has some appeal and reminds me of Lotus Notes. It's too project / team based to have wide scale adoption and seems to lack many of the governance controls used with email.

    Considering any communication within this system is a corporate record, how do you handle litigation hold, archival, retention etc? There are regulatory bodies which have specific guidelines for electronic communication. I'd need to dig further into the solution but the sniff test screams small / medium business and limited usage.
    • Unison Enterprise edition

      Good questions, and you're right: those features are important. The off-the-shelf Unison does not include all of them, but there is an Enterprise edition with private cloud/on-premise options, AD integration and compliance/retention setup. More info at www.unison.com/pricing

      BTW the way Unison goes into wide adoption is by adding more teams/rooms. Here's one example of a mortgage bank (ie regulated industry) using it across a company: http://www.citeworld.com/social/22268/no-more-email-all-western-mortgage