The rush of new mobile messaging apps, building on the popularity of services like WhatsApp and Line, continues apace, with the latest twist a service for business users. CoTap, an app co-founded by Yammer ex-chief product officer Jim Patterson and ex-senior director of engineering Zack Parker, has picked up a $5.5 million Series A round led by Charles River Ventures, an early Yammer investor before Microsoft bought that company for $1.2 billion. CoTap is still in stealth mode but plans to use the funding to staff up and help launch its first app, a free service, later this year for iOS and Android devices.
Also participating in the round was Emergence Capital Partners, another early Yammer investor. As part of the investment, CRV partner George Zachary and Jason Green from Emergence Capital Partners will be joining CoTap’s board of directors
Just as Yammer brought already-popular Facebook-style social media services into the workplace years ago, CoTap’s enterprise service mimics WhatsApp, MessageMe and Line in mobile messaging, but in a more secure, private, enterprise-friendly format.
Consumer messaging apps have disrupted carrier-controlled, metered SMS with their fast, feature-filled services, and while CoTap may not be launching cute stickers any time soon, the idea will be to bring a similar function to business users. In the words of Patterson, CoTap’s CEO, it will remove some of the “overhead of email” such as salutations and signatures and get right down to the essence of what you need to say to someone in a faster, and maybe more casual way.
“Our goal here isn’t to dehumanize corporate communication or remove all grammar and etiquette from the way people communicate at work, but to make it slightly more efficient, which we think will increase overall communication,” he told TechCrunch. “However, ultimately the users will choose how they use a service like this, but I suspect the usage patterns will mirror how people use text messaging in their personal lives.”
Patterson describes CoTap as “almost the opposite” of Yammer, with the latter focused on open messaging and the former on private. “With Yammer, the primary message is, by default, public to your entire company, whereas with CoTap messages will be private to only the people explicitly addressed, either in 1-to-1 or group conversations,” he says. Like the difference between Facebook and WhatsApp.
But while Facebook has made a significant move into messaging itself, to position itself as a provider of both shared and more direct exchanges, Patterson doesn’t believe that Yammer (and Microsoft) can pull off the same feat. “It’s really hard for a single product to be both open (social) and private messaging,” he notes. Even with Facebook putting a “major focus” on private messaging these days, he notes, it remains a challenge for it to expand because it’s “just hard for users to understand what they should do.”
And perhaps as a reflection on some of how that tension played out at Yammer itself, he notes, “It’s also hard on the product teams internally to decide where to apply focus. Should they be working on features to push people to share more in the open, or features to push people to send more private messages?”
That extends to how the services are sold to users. “It’s also hard from a product marketing perspective,” Patterson says. “Facebook and Yammer’s marketing messaging are both around making things more open and sharing more. It’s confusing if they are simultaneously trying to push features that are the opposite of those ideals.”
If it sounds a little like Patterson is selling Yammer and its capabilities down the river, that’s not totally the case, either.
“I don’t really see these two things as competitive,” Patterson says. “Open messaging is useful under some circumstances and private messaging is useful in other circumstances. Even though I left Yammer and started a company focused on private messaging, I am still a big believer in the power of social sharing in the workplace. Communication isn’t zero-sum,” he notes.
“Look at all the sharing going on in Facebook today. Social networking didn’t ‘steal’ all that communication from another medium; it created more of it. Conversations and connections simply weren’t happening before, but now are, because it’s so easy. And in spite of so many people saying email is dead, there are still more emails being sent today than ever before. I believe that making it really easy to send a private message to a coworker or group of coworkers from your mobile device will have the same effect of creating more communication and connections within a company and not necessarily at the expense of any of the existing channels for internal communication.”
There will be another notable way that CoTap will diverge from the likes of WhatsApp as a mobile messaging service for business users. CoTap in its basic form will exist as a free app, but there will also be a paid tier that will integrate with other communications services that enterprises are already using. “This will be part of our paid offering to businesses, but we’re not ready to talk about any details around that yet,” Patterson notes. The service will let users attach links and files to messages — the equivalent of stickers and pictures in the consumer mobile messaging apps. It’s not clear whether these will be features available in premium or free versions of CoTap.
It’s the focus on new mobile platforms like smartphones and tablets that attracted CRV and Emergence to back CoTap; the Yammer connection didn’t hurt, either.
“The use of smartphones in the workplace is still on the rise and soon text messaging will be one of the primary ways employees communicate,” Zachary noted in a statement. “Jim and Zack’s past experience at Yammer has primed them to understand modern workplace communication and bridge the gap between end users’ and businesses’ needs.”
Nevertheless, because this is aimed at workers, CoTap will “probably” eventually also roll out a desktop app, although Patterson and his team are focused on optimizing CoTap for mobile. “Where we go after launch will in large part depend on how people actually use the product,” he says. “I have my instincts on how people will use it, but I also know that your users always surprise you in some way. I wouldn’t be shocked if the next platform we end up supporting is Google Glass or the Pebble watch rather than Windows or OS X. Part of being an early startup is trying to optimize for the future rather than the present.”