Asana: speedy, stable and very well connected

Well funded and connected 'task management for teams' firm Asana could make waves through their Facebook roots, quality code and cultural fit

I dropped in to meet up with the founders of Asana a couple of weeks ago, a task management for teams product which is originally derived from the internal collaboration tool Justin Rosenstein created while at Facebook. I've always considered Facebook's remarkable stability as a platform (it always seems to be up and functioning well) as one of the major elements in their success and a benchmark for other software as a service offerings. I thought Cassandra and then Hadoop HBase have been Facebook's secret sauce but Justin, Dustin Moskovitz and Kenny Van Zant told me (not surprisingly) Asana's inside Facebook predecessor was the real reason for Facebook's agility.

The world is awash with lightweight productivity and task tracking technologies at price points from free to pricey in a wide variety of languages, and it's easy to dismiss Asana as yet another of-the-moment lightweight toolset. Like Nationfield, which is fronted by billionaire Maurice Saatchi's son Edward, Rosenstein & Moskovitz of Asana are very wealthy indeed from the their Facebook stakes. (Nationfield evolved from the  private social network back office created for the last Democratic presidential campaign; I haven't encountered it in the business world so far or evaluated the product seriously yet).

Given the number of businesses on the planet there's plenty of room for all the belly button small and medium internal business social network, task management and work stream technologies offering various flavors of Software as a Service, mobile user interface, rudimentary content management/digital storage and file transfer options. Many of these service firms can exist modestly with a few clients and typically hit various small business scaling ceilings. It's easy to move into a low rent or free space (like the hilariously named flophouse 'Eula Hotel' in San Francisco above I took a snap of  a few city blocks from Asana;  the challenges can  be in moving out again...think Hotel California/ Data Portability... and having credible quality service and support guaranteed by your  'End User Licence Agreement').

Put aside the serious fragmentation of collaboration paths within larger firms - I've used the term 'collaboration silos' in the past - as different groups of people use multiple different environments, the way in which the very crowded software space evolves will have a lot to do with the ability to charge clients for differentiating services. This is extremely tough given how many 'Freemium' products there are in today's depressed global economy, from very well funded firms such as Yammer to the tiny services eking out an existence.

Where Asana are interesting for me is around the potential for Facebook tie ins (and the halo effect of their history) and the quality of their code. I did a couple of consulting projects last year where latency was a big issue. Areas such as financial services require instant response across collaborative networks and of course bandwidth quality continues to be a major issue in different parts of the world. For a major international retailer, rolling out in store systems that interact with a global mothership HQ are at the mercy of the quality of the connection. Dustin & Justin are very confident in the efficiency of their code to enable real time interactions - Podio, a somewhat similar Danish product recently purchased by Citrix, is by comparison 'a bit too slow' by their standards.

Facebook have an interesting 'millennial dna' internal culture. Employee Engagement firm Rypple (now owned by Salesforce) very kindly enabled their client Molly Graham of Facebook to speak on my HR Track at Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara last fall; David Spark has a good post session interview video with Molly here which captures that session's essence. I've noticed over the years how the culture and 'ways of doing things' of companies gets baked into software products, often unwittingly. Oracle Beehive and Cisco Quad have always had that feel to me for example, and clients have commented on this also.

Launched last November, Asana doesn't feel like Facebook from a user interface or experience perspective but does have an 'agile' light feel to it which I think is a good thing. Their mobile experience is solid (probably better than Facebook's ironically) and their entire package hangs together well from a logical workflow perspective... I can see it could be a good fit for a some types of departmental, small or medium sized business. Justin is pretty passionate about Asana becoming the internal homepage of a business 'the place where work gets done' and I could see a yin and yang to Facebook with some user bases, particularly around marketing and social networking interactions. Asana is backed by bluechip VC's Benchmark and Andreessen Horowitz along with Peter Thiel and Sean Parker and angel investors Ron Conway and Mitch Kapor: the Valley A list.

Asana currently highlights 'how to' videos for individual task management, project management crm, bug and applicant tracking with their toolset and is currently available free for up to 30 people.  Any team can upgrade their existing workspace to  'Premium', which allows more workspace members starting at $300/month for up to 50 teammates: tiers of 75, 100, or more members are also available. Fairly typical seat pricing model for freemium models.

Jive software, the publicly listed heavyweight in this space, have sensibly just reverted to allowing thirty days of tire kicking for their offerings again after a period of coyness about their core and modules, while Salesforce continue to evangelize Chatter and their 'Social Enterprise' vision at the higher pricepoint/greater feature se/enterprise capabilities end of the market - and along with both these offerings come deeper experience of pragmatic enterprise realities, something the small and newer vendors inevitably lack.

Given the speed at which people digest and understand new capabilities, possibilities and needs around online and mobile networking, this market space is evolving and mutating at a terrific clip despite being sometimes confused by buzzwords and tech speak. Despite some people's cynicism around Asana's wealthy founders ('they could just be vesting in peace on a carribean island, already won the hitech lottery etc) I sense some all important green shoots of innovation and passion there: innovators tend to want to keep innovating.

The hurdle may be in breaking out of the productivity tool niche and scaling to be a credible larger entity performance fabric, something which is much harder and more political than it appears. Just as we scope out where we're going to stay before we leave home, people are getting much more savvy about checking up on the quality of Software as a Service offerings: Asana seems unlikely to leave you stranded and looks to be a decent place to live and work….