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

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
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor
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.

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