When Bret Taylor, the ex-CTO of Facebook, co-founded mobile-first word processing app Quip with ex-Googler Kevin Gibbs, the move appeared to be a world away from the work Taylor had done to help build the world’s largest social network. But today, Taylor’s old and new worlds are getting a bit closer, as Quip unveils an update (1.7) with new social features: a like button, comments and themes.
Together, the features point to a wider evolution in office applications: they are adding more and more consumer bells and whistles for users not only to enjoy using them more, but to actually make the software more productive in the process.
For Quip specifically, it’s a sign of how, now that the platform has built out its basic word-wrangling functionality. It’s entering a second stage, adding extras to help differentiate it from the rest of the word processing pack (led by Microsoft Office but including dozens more) in its bid to sign on more enterprises and prosumers as customers.
Adding a like button is a coming-home of sorts for Taylor. His earlier startup FriendFeed actually created a “like” button in 2007, some two years before Facebook copied the feature — which Taylor eventually helped oversee when Facebook bought FriendFeed six months later.
Given how well Taylor and other FriendFeed alums now at Quip know the power of “the like”, why wait seven months after launching to roll it out? For a few reasons, it turns out. The first has to do with hours of the day and brains to throw at projects. There are currently only 15 people at Quip, “and we hadn’t gotten to it yet,” Taylor tells me simply.
There was also an aesthetic hiccup. They didn’t know what icon to use. “We didn’t want to use a thumbs up,” Taylor says. “So we tried a bunch of different things, some pretty crazy ideas.”
Quip ended up with a star — not Facebook’s symbol, but not quite generic, either: it’s what Twitter uses for its own like-equivalent, the Favorite.
In any case, Taylor tells me that they knew they were on to something when they started to test it out. “The Like button has become a cultural phenomenon with deeply embedded connotations,” he told me. That meant not only instant familiarity with the feature, but seeing it get used a lot. “People would say, ‘Quip is so fun now.’ We inspired people to use the word ‘fun’ in connection with Quip.”
And, when you think about how you may use the ‘like’ button in different settings, it’s often because you want to show approval, without more elaboration. That sort of function, essentially, is even more useful in a work setting when you are way more time-strapped than you might be in non-work life.
For a group of people who have largely been thinking about solving consumer problems, there’s still a learning curve to overcome — despite the consumerization mantra that we have all heard so much by now. “Had we known how popular it would be, we would have introduced it much sooner,” he says.
But even if the Like feature has gotten a lot of “likes,” it turns out that this wasn’t the most-requested feature among Quip users. That honor goes to adding comments and highlighting text, Taylor says.
With the update today, users will be able to add in comments inline in the document, which can then be read in the margins. Whenever a user adds a comment to a document that you are working on, you get an alert message pushed to you.
Visually speaking, if the like button is a hat-tip to Facebook and social networking norms, the comments feature brings to mind another hopeful in the online publishing space, Medium.
The addition of themes, meanwhile, has a Tumblr feeling to it, where, in the words of Taylor, “you can appear more stylish that you might actually be.”
More seriously, the themes for me highlight something else. They point to ways that you can see Quip starting to offer a platform that can be personalised, not just by individuals but potentially by enterprises who might sign large licenses with the startup.
In the case of the four themes being announced today, Quip has worked with Commercial Type on the typefaces, and has itself developed the rest of the page design. Taylor says that this is just the beginning of how it hopes to expand personalization options in the app.
Apart from the different social features, Quip is also looking for ways to continue to improve the core product. One of the key additions here is the expansion of versioning functionality, where users can now revert to any previous version of a document. The update also includes some Android-specific functionality with the addition of widgets that let you look at your Quip inbox or a Quip document from the home screen or launcher on an Android device. iOS will not let Quip go that far, for now.
While Quip has been an interesting test for Taylor and Gibbs to see whether they can build from scratch a new startup targeting a new demographic of users, on a new platform no less, they have broken new ground in other ways.
One is in how and where Quip has grown. Taylor says that right now the U.S. is its biggest market, but do you know what comes next? China, followed by the UK and then Italy.
(The company is not revealing user numbers today, although Taylor says that to date millions of documents and messages have been posted on the platform, with its user base doubling since December.)
Taylor calls Italy Quip’s “outlier” because they haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly why the app has done so well there. China, however, highlights an interesting point in how to distribute Android apps in that market.
Taylor says Quip made a point of releasing the app on non-Google app stores like Amazon’s, as well as several independent stores in China. “Given many devices there don’t support Google Play it was a way to make sure that we had broad adoption,” Taylor says. And it seemed to work.
Quip raised $15 million in a round led by Benchmark last year, and with a “big chunk” of that still left, there is “no immediate news” on that front, he told me.