Tech firm aims to give companies a central nervous system

Software firm Asana is aiming to revolutionise the way companies manage projects

 

If you have used Uber lately, listened to digital music from Sony or even attended a National Gallery of London exhibition, there’s a good chance that your experience will have been made slightly easier by Asana’s software. You just won’t have known it.

Asana was founded in 2008 by Facebook’s Dustin Moskovitz and former Facebook and Google engineer Justin Rosenstein, and its mission is to make things more efficient for workers and company owners by helping teams manage projects.

For the UK National Gallery, that means every aspect of setting up an exhibition is managed through Asana; for Sony, it’s a way to manage the digital albums in its portfolio. Uber uses the software every time it is rolling into a new city.

The company works on one simple premise: the current generation of software is wasting our time, and Asana wants to fix it.

Rosenstein knows what he’s talking about. He helped to develop the “like” button on Facebook, the signal of social approval that has taken over our lives. And in his opinion, in many cases software is wasting a lot of our time.

So it’s no real surprise that Asana has taken off. The idea for Asana came about after stints in Google and Facebook. “At both of those companies, I had the experience of being pretty constantly frustrated by how much time we were spending not doing work, but doing this work about work,” he says. “Facebook and Google are some of the most productive companies, but it was amazing to see just how much time we were spending just making sure the left hand knew what the right hand was doing, and keeping everyone on the same page.”

Forerunner

So working with Moskovitz, who was equally frustrated, Rosenstein built a system for use within Facebook, an early forerunner of Asana that formed the backbone of Facebook’s ability to move quickly in the market.

“At first we thought about keeping that for ourselves as sort of an internal Facebook secret sauce,” he says. “We realised it was a universal problem and we’d really created a universal solution. Our primary motivation is how can we use technology to be service to the world, to be a force of good. Asana ourselves are not going to fix education or healthcare, but by building a single piece of software that can enable others who are doing those things to work together more easily, we felt like that was an opportunity to be able to accelerate a lot of important initiatives at the same time.”

And so Asana was born, building on the Facebook experience to create something that could work for all companies and be easy enough to use for all team members. But the success with Facebook wasn’t quite as easy to replicate in a straightforward manner.

“Building something that’s easy to use and powerful at the same is much more than the sum of its parts,” says Rosenstein. “It has definitely been a struggle. I often experienced a lot of anxiety, especially when we were starting the journey. There’s always that voice in the back of your head that’s like ‘Do I know what I’m doing?’ Then people start joining the company, and it’s ‘Have I bamboozled them? Are they making a grave mistake?’ But I think a lot of that is to do with as an entrepreneur, what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis is you’re always fighting fires and looking at what’s the biggest problem. You’re spending most of your time looking at what’s not going too well and how you get to the next level.”

It’s all about perseverance and humility, he says. That was needed, for example, when the company developed its iOS app, which triggered some strong reaction in users of the early version.

“Some of the app store reviews are seared into my memory. ‘The worst app I’ve ever used.’ ‘Makes me want to stab my eyes out.’ That one was hard,” says Rosenstein.

“The key things to have there is the humility – okay, maybe they’re right, maybe there are things we need to stare at and fix – and have the perseverance to keep putting one foot in front of the other and make things better. You can go from worst in class to best in class if you don’t get disheartened and keep working on things one day at a time.”

Asan chief executive Justin Rosenstein: “You can go from worst in class to best in class if you don’t get disheartened and keep working on things one day at a time.” Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Asan chief executive Justin Rosenstein: “You can go from worst in class to best in class if you don’t get disheartened and keep working on things one day at a time.” Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

That was only four years ago. The company has since turned it around and, difficult as it may have been at the time, Rosenstein still puts a positive spin on the experience, using it as proof that users were invested in the service and badly wanted the problems to be solved.

The company claims customers using Asana report they are about 45 per cent faster using Asana compared with working without it. In real terms, it means they can now accomplish in a week what used to take two weeks.

For some it means they are now taking on new projects they didn’t realise were possible in the past. “It’s exciting to see that for some of the bigger customers – Google, Disney, Nasa. For me it has particularly heartening to see it for the non-profit, for the Malala Fund, Unicef. ”

Fast growth

Asana has been growing at a fast pace, in both employee numbers and financial terms.

It now employs about 400 people, with 37 in an office in Dublin. But those figures are expected to rise further by the end of the year, with Dublin to grow to 43 by the end of this month, and the overall total predicted to hit 600 worldwide by the end of 2019.

Ireland is not one of the company’s primary markets, but among its clients here are the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, Cork City Council and Tayto Park. The company is experiencing strong growth in the Nordic and Benelux countries and in the UK, something that even Brexit is not expected to slow.

Rosenstein puts Asana’s success down to the search for clarity. “In general the reason people come to Asana is that they are looking for clarity, the ability to really understand what’s going on in their teams. The average knowledge worker spends 61 per cent of their time not on work but on work about work, on the emails and meetings and status updates just to keep everyone on the same page,” he says. So what they find is that the spend all this time figuring out really basic things, like what are all the steps left between now and accomplishing our team’s goal, who is responsible for each of those steps, when can I expect those things to be done by. There’s no one system that can keep them all on the same page until they start using Asana, and it just scales up from there.”

The category is a new one, although it is growing quickly – while Asana had little competition initially, others are entering the market now as the possibilities become more apparent.

“In practice most of the teams that turn to Asana are coming from really low-tech things, like whiteboards, email, spreadsheets, systems that were not designed for this kind of work management. Then they realise: ‘This is such a critical part of our business, we need a dedicated tool,’” says Rosenstein. “Work management as a whole is this new category that has really been taking off to solve this problem. Asana is early and pioneering, and today we’re the fastest-growing player in that space. There are a bunch of other competitors that have cropped up, just because it’s such a popular, fast-growing space, but Asana is the fastest-growing player of scale.”

Asana’s future, for now at least, looks like it will be bright. At the beginning of the year, the company kicked off with a series D funding round that raised $75 million and gave the firm a $900 million valuation; earlier this month the company announced its series E funding round, a $50 million round that saw a $1.5 billion valuation reached. The latest funding round is set to fuel international growth. About half of the firm’s new revenue is coming from outside the United States, with the software used by teams in 195 countries and six languages.

Already on the cards is a European Union data centre, which will be based in Frankfurt. An AWS facility is set to come online in the first half of 2019.

Engineering hub

The company is about to open a new engineering hub in Vancouver, the first for the firm outside the US. There are a number of reasons behind the decision to split the engineering team to a new location, but chief among them is recruitment. Not only is Asana competing against other tech firms – with deep pockets in Silicon Valley – for the top talent in the region, it is also dealing with the current US administration’s clampdowns on immigration.

“There’s a lot of international talent we want to have access to and it’s a lot easier to get those people to Vancouver than through the H1B process in America,” says Rosenstein.

But growth in employee numbers isn’t the sole goal. In fact, Asana intends to keep staff lean as it grows, in keeping with its ideal of making teams more productive rather than bigger. “It’s funny to me how companies that are 100 times our size are not shipping 100 times the product,” he says. “It’s easy to confuse headcount with productivity. Being conservative can be helpful. But given our ambitions, we are going to need to grow. We will end up being thousands of people over time but we want to do that growth very methodically and mindfully.”

What will come next? Rosenstein isn’t giving too much away. But a look at the management team may give some hints away; chief financial officer Tim Wan, who was appointed last year, successfully led Apigee through its initial public offering and eventual acquisition by Google.

While Asana is unlikely to be pinning its hopes on acquisition by a tech giant – Rosenstein has ambitions of taking the company and turning it into one of the biggest software companies in the world, making it the central nervous system of organisations. That includes marrying computer intelligence with human intelligence, automating the “busy work” for firms and leaving employees free to concentrate on other tasks. He describes it as making Asana the GPS of organisations – you tell it where you want to go, and Asana will figure out the best way to get you there.

“In a lot of ways, we’ve just scratched the surface.”

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