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Business Report

A Facebook Cofounder Tackles Workplace Collaboration

Dustin Moskovitz says lessons he learned while building the social network will apply in the world of collaboration software.

Quitting Harvard to build a site that rapidly grew to dominate the Web was undoubtedly exciting, stimulating, and rewarding, but Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz also uses another word: frustrating.

New gig: Asana founder Dustin Moskovitz.

As Facebook’s chief technology officer and then vice president for engineering, he helped equip the network to coördinate every part of your life, from planning events to reading text messages. In the process, he realized that no such tool exists to coördinate the flow of work in the modern office.

“We had something like 25 different tools for managing different types of data, like calendars and expense reports and more, that were all reinventing the wheel,” he says. “They all used the same techniques but didn’t connect.”

Now he hopes to solve that problem. Moskovitz left Facebook in late 2008 and before long started a collaboration-software company called Asana, which has raised $9 million in venture funding. The startup recently revealed its plans, showing off Web software that helps people keep track of joint projects and update one another on their progress (see this video on Asana’s site).

The software’s design shows signs of its Facebook heritage. Once a project has been created in Asana, users can “follow” it to see a Facebook-style news feed of updates or comments made by people involved. It offers rapid access to the history of a project and its current status. Comments also update in real time, enabling speedy exchange of ideas and information. That beats communicating over e-mail or IM, because information is kept tied to the project and doesn’t get separated from its context and lost in cluttered in-boxes.

Moskovitz says lessons learned in the competitive world of consumer websites will make Asana stand out from previous workplace software. “The principal value of our team is that we’re a consumer team; we’re used to releasing early and often and moving fast and are willing to experiment,” he says. “We’re aiming to create a product that sells itself because it’s a joy to use.”

Facebook for work: This image shows Asana in action.

That product seeks to fill a gap in the current market for collaboration software, he says: “There are tools that are really good for sharing already, like Google Docs and e-mail, but they’re extremely bad at structuring information about tasks and updates.” On the flip side, he adds, tools like Microsoft Project provide plenty of structure but are poor for sharing. “Our chief mission is to find a better balance between the two,” he says. “We have structure and more flexibility.”

Some 100 organizations use Asana today, in an invitation-only beta trial set to become more open later in the year. So far those organizations have been small startups that are testing Asana against more established competitors such as Basecamp, Pivotal Tracker, or Salesforce.com’s Chatter.

Future battles will be fought in another world: that of large-scale enterprises, which typically buy software in large contract orders from suppliers such as Microsoft or Cisco. Asana’s strategy there will be to provide hooks to let its software connect with tools already in use, something that Moskovitz says his engineers have yet to focus on. “We’ll create ways to import data and even sync with certain software in use today,” he says.

Perhaps Asana’s most ambitious goal, though, is for workplace software to become as addictive as a must-have online app. Moskovitz says that the tangible benefits of well-designed workplace software make that possible. “Many people today are being held back because they are so busy doing work about work,” he says. “Anything that makes you more effective will advance your career.”

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Next in this Business Report
Collaboration Tools

Powerful software and widespread Internet connectivity are making it easier than ever for people to work together no matter where they happen to be. Throughout March in Business Impact, Technology Review will look at the latest tools for collaboration within and between organizations. We’ll analyze why some technology-enabled collaborations work and why others don’t. We’ll explain why some collaboration tools have failed to prove useful to the employees meant to benefit from them. We’ll present case studies, profiles, and interviews that help you understand how to make the people in your organization more collaborative—and more productive.

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