Salesforce, Asana And The War For The Future Of Enterprise Software

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Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Dan Kaplan, who leads Product Marketing for Twilio and writes occasionally about the extrapolation of the present into the future. Before Twilio, he worked as a contractor in Product Marketing for Salesforce. Follow him @dankaplan or find him on Quora.

You’ve got to hand it to Salesforce: The big battleship of Cloud CRM is remarkably adept at turning its boat around to make war against the startups aiming torpedoes at its hull.

First, it was Yammer.

Flash back to the 2008 TechCrunch50: Yammer enters the market with a bold play: Build an enterprise collaboration app around the status update and newsfeed mechanic, give most of it away for free to let individual teams test it out, and then acquire enterprise customers from the bottom up. Once you’ve got the users and the attention of their bosses, (so the logic goes), you leverage what you’ve launched into a platform that can support a wide range of apps. Some of these apps you build yourself, some you open up to third parties.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, judging the competition, saw Yammer on stage and said, “I really like this company the best”.

Fast forward one year to Salesforce’s Dreamforce 2009 conference, and Benioff is announcing Chatter, a status update and newsfeed app that integrates with Salesforce CRM but otherwise looks an awful lot like Yammer.

Fast forward again to this year’s Dreamforce conference, and Yammer is handing out free Starbucks coupons outside Moscone Conference Center and making a big deal about its new ability to integrate with Salesforce.

Whether or not Salesforce’s entry has made a meaningful dent in Yammer’s enterprise-domination ambitions is an open question, but it seems that Chatter was a depth charge intended for Yammer’s submarine.

This time, it’s Asana.

At the beginning of this month, after almost three full years in development, Asana (a startup founded in 2009 by Facebook co-founder, Dustin Moskovitz, and early Facebook employee, Justin Rosenstein) launched to the public with an ambitious but now familiar play: Build a team collaboration app (this one around to-do lists and projects), give most of it away for free, acquire enterprise customers from the bottom up and leverage that foundation into a platform that can solve a wide range of businesses’ needs.

Fast forward to literally five days later and Salesforce is announcing Do — a simple collaborative to-do list for teams and projects that integrates with Salesforce’s CRM and looks an awful lot like … Asana.

Yet again, Salesforce heard a ping on its radar. Yet again, the battleship shifted course to attack the enemy submarine. But with Asana, Salesforce now finds itself up against an entirely different, more menacing foe, one whose capabilities are a more dangerous threat than those of the one it faced before.

The thin edge of the wedge.

If you’re wondering how some project management app — even one built by Facebook rockstars — could possibly represent even a minor risk to the master of cloud CRM, consider this brief history of Salesforce.

When Salesforce launched its automation app in 2000, it was essentially a content management system for sales contact records. Armed with this core, Marc Benioff’s marketing genius, and the advantages of the cloud, Salesforce pushed its way into the enterprise through the sales department’s door.

From there, the company has tried hard to take its original product and use it as a platform to launch new applications and empower third-party developers to launch even more. (This is what Chris Dixon cleverly coined the “thin edge of the wedge” strategy: You slide your way into the market’s cracks with one thing, than push on that edge until you’ve busted the whole market wide open.)

One problem Salesforce faces with executing this strategy is that the thin edge of CRM does not abstract particularly well into other problems. Sure, you can bolt things on (like tasks or a social newsfeed) but when it comes down to it, you’re dealing with a core framework that was built to handle customer record data and metadata and not much else.

Salesforce CRM, after all, is basically just a browser-based version of software that originated long before the Web became a full-fledged platform and way, way before the Web went mobile. You can push the CRM framework from its roots in sales into customer support, but if you try to push it much further, you’re going to start crashing into walls.

The other problem is that, as even diehard Salesforce fans will point out, the underpinnings of Salesforce’s user experience are a relic from the early days of the cloud. “Wouldn’t it be great”, you can’t help but say to yourself as you wait for a screen or interaction in Salesforce to load, “if something came along that cracked the core problems of CRM but whose interface didn’t slow me down?”

Enter Asana, stage left, with arguably the quickest, most adaptable project management app on the Web. Behind the surface of Asana’s collaborative to-do list is a real-time interface and a tremendously ambitious vision: To make collaboration so fluid, effortless and fast that the software eventually becomes the standard conduit between humanity and the work it needs to get done. Underpinning Asana is a highly-flexible data model constructed entirely around managing tasks.

Unlike customer records (or social sharing plus manual status updates, for that matter) tasks form the core of everything we aim (or should aim) to do at our jobs. Unlike CRM, you can abstract a properly-designed task framework across every function and every line of work. Among other things, you can go after ticket management for customer support, applicant tracking for HR, bug tracking for IT and, of course, CRM for sales (indeed, there are already companies using Asana for some of these things).

If you want to find a thin edge that can expand into the entire enterprise, collaborative task management is a great place to start. The founders of Asana know this, which is why they are doing what they are doing.

Which brings us back to Salesforce’s Do. Do is the first Salesforce app built on Heroku, coded in Rails and written in HTML5. Thanks in part to the platforms it’s built on, Do works well on mobile devices and is generally much faster and more responsive than the mainstay Salesforce apps built on Force.com. But despite these advances, Do’s design is less carefully considered than that of Asana; its interactions less meticulously crafted; its interface not realtime.

When you play with both apps, it becomes clear that Asana’s team has devoted more time thinking through the problems surrounding collaboration and building the intellectual and technological horsepower necessary to tackle these problems head-on.

In co-founders Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein, respectively, Asana’s got Facebook’s original architect and the guy who has us pressing “Like” buttons all over the web. In Kenny Van Zant, Asana has the man who built Solar Winds’ bottom-up marketing strategy and knows how to penetrate the enterprise with freemium models like the back of his hand.

Despite Salesforce’s agility and the best sales and marketing machine in tech, it’s going to be hard for Do to win. The app is up against a killer team with an expansive vision, a solid product foundation, and a deep understanding of the problems at hand. If Salesforce wants to protect its core business from Asana’s eventual, inevitable assault, the CRM juggernaut will have to empower Do’s team to do remarkable things, up to and including the cannibalization of Salesforce CRM. So the question becomes: Will the Salesforce battleship, facing down an upstart nemesis, have what it takes to defend against the Asana submarine?

The question is a big one, so break out your popcorn: The war for the future of enterprise software is officially on.