Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Collaborative Enterprise (at last!)

During the first social era as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and other products were first breaking out, there was a lot of talk of the "social enterprise" or "networked enterprise". The idea, circa 2010, was that all the collaborative features of Web 2.0 social products were going to be baked into SaaS leading to large scale transformation of software. This obviously did not happen 10 years ago.

More recently, the two big trends transforming the enterprise are (i) Nocode/Lowcode/RPA, and the (ii) Collaborative Enterprise[1]. Collaborative enterprise is an updated take on building collaboration and learnings from consumer products into SaaS. 

The emergence of collaborative products in the enterprise is being driven by a handful of trends:

A. User shift. Users (and founders) who grew up with social product, chat, cloud storage, and lots of cloud apps are comfortable with using similar products in the enterprise. Adoption of basic team communication and collaboration tools have now been massively accelerated with COVID. COVID is a new "why now" statement for many companies in this area.

B. Distribution shift. Bottoms-up adoption and in-product viral and growth distribution techniques have at last been integrated into SaaS products. In-product distribution techniques are inherently focused on collaboration, so some of the earliest features in many products are peer-to-peer or network driven. Box and Dropbox are examples of early pioneers of these techniques, with Slack similarly adopting early in product-distribution techniques.

In the past, many large enterprises were locked down by IT and legal in terms of what could be downloaded or used by an individual in the enterprise. Given the platform shift below, much more can be done in browser now than in the past, opening up broader opportunities.

C. Tech shift. WebRTC and WebGL are now baked properly into browsers - this creates a platform shift that is enabling applications rich in audio, video, and collaborative graphics. Browser based audio/video are finally crisp and products like Figma work seamlessly in real time in part due to WebGL. This tech stack also has implications to social products (discuss in another post).

The emergence of the collaborative enterprise is going to yield a number of companies across categories. Below is a list of potential categories in which large collaborative enterprise products may emerge:

1. Collaborative Enterprise: Function-Specific Tools

These are team-oriented tasks or products in which multiple people work together to product an end product like a user interface design, BI graph interpretation, FP&A planning, or other areas. Here are some example areas: (Lists below are non-comprehensive - apologies for any omissions this post was written quickly)

  • Design. Figma was a forerunner on the collaborative enterprise with its best-in-class cloud-based collaboration focused design tools and early adoption of WebGL. Invision's first products were similarly focused on team collaboration in the cloud. Zeplin was focused early on on design-to-engineering hand offs. Sketch and others are now scrambling to catch up. Figma has emerged as the leader in core design on the web.
  • Engineering. Gitlab and Github are the grandparent apps in this category. A number of engineering collaboration and productivity tools are also being built. For example, Fig for the terminal.
  • FP&A. A number of startups are emerging with a focus on collaborative financial planning, headcount planning, and other tasks that tend to be cross-functional, currently run in a spreadsheet, and highly inefficient otherwise. Companies include Runway.com, Pigment.so, and Cube.
  • Business intelligence & Dashboards. Focused on sharable graphs, commenting, and interactions for BI applications, companies include Graphyapp.com, Mode, and Sigma.
  • Data science. A number of tools have emerged recently for collaborative data science. Jupyter Notebooks was an early pioneer in this area with Deepnote a more recent entrant and Streamlit taking a very different approach focused on creating data apps.
  • Other areas. Many other areas are finally allowing for in-browser collaboration and cloud hosted output.
2. Collaborative Enterprise: Remote Work, Events, & Distributed teams. 

In addition to vertical or task-specific tools, there is also emergence of better tools for remote work, collaboration, events, and networking including:
  • The basics. 
    • Communication. Besides some of the vertical/functional tooling mentioned above (e.g. Github/Gitlab, Figma etc.) Zoom, Google Meet, Slack/Microsoft Teams, form the basics of communication for remote work. Newer companies like TandemAround.coThreads and Quill are also working in this area.
    • Productivity & emergence of NoCode/LowCode
      • Cloud based versions of productivity suite tools are accelerating. This include Docs (Google, Notion, Coda, to a lesser extent Roam), Spreadsheet/Access (Google, Airtable) and slides (Pitch). The new entrants like Airtable and Notion are dramatically more interesting than their Google cloud based predecessors.
      • Unlike their productivity suite predecessors, the NoCode platforms are actually broader-based tools to allow any person at an organization to build an application or capture knowledge collaboratively. For example, Airtable allows people to build simple software applications, or to use templated applications for their own work flow or productivity. You can think of this as taking a SQL database or excel spreadsheet and turning it into an app platform. Airtable has templates for everything from Applicant Tracking Systems to Marketing Forms to CRM. Notion (which is more docs-based, knowledge capture, and productivity-centric) has templates for design systems, knowledge capture, note taking, and other areas. These companies are building a few of the key bases for the future of collaboration in the enterprise.
      • (Aside: there are obviously also vertical NoCode/LowCode apps outside of productivity (e.g. Retool et al), and RPA or automation products (Parabola et al) which will be covered in a separate post.)
  • Cloud storage. Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive are obvious early examples of early collaborative enterprise tools, that are now used ~ubiquitously.
  • Virtual office. A number of companies are experimenting with providing a virtual space for people to hang out and collaborate. This includes companies like Huddlehq.io, and With.so, Here.fm.
  • Virtual conference room. I think a virtual conference room product is going to emerge and scale rapidly. One could argue products like Miro, which focus on virtual white boards, project planning, and kanban boards, are the early precursors for what will likely be video enabled, tightly integrated products. This may be solved by the virtual office products above, by products like Miro, by Zoom or others integrating collaboration tools, or an entirely new company.
  • Virtual events. 
    • Once COVID is over, many events will snap back to the real world. However, social distancing has also shown the value of remote events - more people will attend virtually (in some cases 10X-100X more), there is no need for travel and wasted time, and sometimes the format is more efficient. 
    • The downside is the loss of serendipity and side conversations. This leads to virtual networking products (including a side project I am experimenting with).
    • Companies for virtual events include Hopin.toWelcome, Gatherly, EventMobi, and others. I expect one or more of these to be worth many billions in the future.
  • Virtual networking. There are two types of virtual networking - networking at an event or a social hour, and meeting people 1:1 to expand your network. Companies have arisen for both purposes including Airmeet, Run The World (see also), Toucan.eventsRally.video for the former, and Lunchclub for the later.

While many of the areas above are speculative, the movement to truly collaborative tooling for the business world is one of the two new big paradigm shifts for enterprises after the cloud (the other being Nocode/Lowcode/RPA). The Collaborative Enterprise is finally coming, and it is coming fast due to shifts in technology, user behavior, and bottoms up distribution.


[1] To coin a term, badly.

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