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Asana's Vision of Collaborative Task Management

Asana

(This summary of Asana is part of a longer story “Battle of the Business Models in the Task Management Market: Will a Top Down or Bottom Up Approach Win?” that appeared on Forbes.com.)

Asana is the brainchild of Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein, who worked at both Google and Facebook. The pair built an early prototype while at Facebook for use as an internal project management tool, then left to found Asana in 2009 because of "their passion to solve the universal loss of productivity faced by managers and knowledge workers everywhere." According to the website, "Asana was started with a mission to increase the potential output of every team’s efforts: to empower humanity to do great things."

A Freemium Model

In its product, Asana has focused on supporting the individual and the team. Asana uses a freemium model in which the product is free to use for up to 30 users, and then costs $300 per month for 31 to 50 users, with increased cost as the number of users rises.

To get Asana's point of view, I spoke with Kenny Van Zant, who lists his title as "staff" at Asana, but plays a senior role at the company, focused on product and marketing strategy. (Co-founder Rosenstein said on Quora "In general, we have a very collaborative organization and try to avoid titles or putting people's roles in boxes.") Van Zant was SVP and chief product strategist at Solar Winds, a company that successfully used the freemium model to gain significant traction in the enterprise.

Making Coordination Effortless

“Imagine that wherever you are, in the office or in a remote location, you have all the information that you need to do your job literally at your fingertips, and that you know the same is true for everybody that you’re working with,” said Van Zant. “Our mission is to make that kind of coordination completely effortless, and that is a big audacious goal.”

Unlike AtTask CEO Morgan, who is skeptical that a "worker uprising" will lead to adoption of such tools, Van Zant says that in the modern world, workers expect to play a role in choosing the tools they work with. Asana puts this into practice with its own staff, each of which get a $10,000 grant to create the work environment of their own design.

Letting the Product Sell Itself

“Asana is a freemium product. We let teams grow really unfettered to be pretty big teams, up to 30, for free,” said Van Zant. “We are not looking for signals of budget, we are looking for signals of success. We have empathy for the user, not for the buyer. We make a free product and we hope the product itself does all the early selling, if you will, to drive adoption. We focus on adoption, and our sales efforts are about taking successful teams and growing them. As we see teams get successful, we lean in with essentially an account management function that tells them how to be more successful, answers questions, maps workflow to Asana, and does things to essentially guarantee their success, all telephonically, remotely.”

IT and Users: Partners in Product Selection

Van Zant believes that users and IT are now partners in product selection. “Our model is in keeping with the overall trend of user-driven vendor selection. It’s no longer the case that a company can say, “This is the tool, whether you like it or not, and you have to use it.” It’s so easy to get tools these days that you could enforce that, but it’s a losing proposition for IT these days,” said Van Zant. We see users and IT being in partnership, and we’re trying to make sure that we serve both groups effectively. The prior model was just about serving IT. We definitely don’t want to have a model that’s just serving the consumer. That’s bad as well. We want to be balanced.”

Simple but Sophisticated

Van Zant said it is vital that Asana is pleasing to both the team and the individual to do his or her own work. To make the experience as pleasing as possible, Van Zant said Asana has studiously avoided expanding the surface area of the project and packing the product with features.

“One of the beautiful things about Asana is that it reveals its sophistication in layers. When you sign up, you see a list, you start putting in tasks, and it looks like a task management app. When a team grows and when you start adding additional workflow, it becomes this remarkable combination of everyone in your team on it—not just the marketing team or just the sales team or just the dev team. It’s everybody in one place, which is really unique. It is all of the work that all those groups are doing, organized—you can see everything, and it allows you to bring multiple people into any given project without having to move between apps,” said Van Zant. “They’re replacing a whole host of things when they use Asana. Most typically, even amongst the very technical user bases, they’re replacing lots of internal email, documents, and spreadsheets that are used for nothing but capture and tracking. Asana’s not just about knowledge capture; it’s about work capture. The idea is let’s capture what we’re going to do, prioritize it, organize it, assign it, give it accountability, and put it all in one place.”

Avoiding Feature Bloat

Indeed, you would expect a product that is five years old that has been developed according to a more traditional enterprise model to have more functionality. But that is not what Asana is going for.

“We have a perspective that we hold very dear, which is to keep our team small, keep our product tightly honed and to not expand the surface area of the product so that we confuse people about what is important to us and what they can expect from us. Focus is what ends up winning,” said Van Zant.

Scaleability

Instead of feature bloat, Van Zant said Asana's designers and engineers are seek to create leverage so that the product can scale both in terms of number of users and in term of the number of problems it can solve. Asana is built using the same principles of scalability that are used at Facebook and Google, so if the company grows from its current user base of tens of thousands of teams to tens of millions, it shouldn't be a problem.

Asana is also not seeking to create versions and features tailored to specific industry or functional scenarios. Instead, the company seeks to create a universal communications platform that can be tailored by users through APIs and other means to integrate with other technology and support specific use cases. That said, Asana has just created an integration with Dropbox.

Key Features

To achieve its vision, Asana's product is focused on the following features:

    • A fast and versatile web-based user interface that meets the higher standards of consumer software
    • An interface that allows everyone to see the updates made by everyone else in real time
    • A task modeling system that supports cascading levels of tasks and subtasks
    • The ability to annotate tasks easily and attach links and documents to them
    • The ability to capture workflows
    • The ability to support team communication through commenting features, @-replying of people, and Asana's Inbox
    • The ability to support individual work through a clear view of one's priorities and current tasks, necessary resources and context, and collaboration with the other people related to those projects and tasks
    • Apps for iPhone and Android with mobile functionality around search, Inbox, push notifications, and task creation/assignment

Asana has also avoided forcing progress. Given the founders’ massive success at Facebook, it would be easy to raise pretty much any amount of money. Instead, Asana has kept the team small, with about 40 people, half of whom are devoted to engineering.

Van Zant agrees with my vision that in the long run applications will become a video-game like experience where collaboration and the ability to take action are integrated like those we see in heads up displays. Van Zant also agrees that the management and reporting features that serve the needs of executives are important and will eventually be a part of Asana.

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