Talk Isn’t Cheap As Investors Pour Cash Into Collaboration And Intelligence Tools

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Investors and innovators have been trying to develop better tools for groups to communicate, collaborate, and make decisions for decades. Since businesses have become increasingly global and engage more remote workers, the need for collaboration tools is even more pronounced. And while hundreds of millions have been spent on technology, investors still think that there’s more work to be done.

Friday saw the confirmation of a new $120 million investment in the collaboration software developer Slack. That investment values Slack at over $1 billion, making it the latest enterprise facing software startup to become a unicorn.

Slack’s metrics are as impressive as its valuation, with 30,000 active teams that send more than 200 million messages each month, and more than 73,000 of the daily active users registered as paid seats, according to the company. Slack also says that it’s now pulling in $1 million each month in recurring revenues.

But behind Slack and its other large competitors, such as Yammer and Convo are a host of smaller companies waiting in the wings to tackle the problem of collaboration and decision-making in businesses large and small.

One recent entrant hoping to make headway against the industry’s giants is SpeakUp, which has raised $700,000 in financing and has developed a new software as a service collaboration tool for businesses.

SpeakUp isn’t alone. Since 2010, venture capitalists have made 239 investments in companies that are trying to develop these new collaboration, communication and decision-making tools, according to CrunchBase. And despite a slackening in the pace of investments and some big rounds for incumbent players in recent months, new startups keep launching to try their hand at building a better mousetrap.

SpeakUp began developing its technology about 11 months ago, but the inspiration came from chief executive Ray Gillenwater’s experience as a managing director for BlackBerry in Australia. “As the new MD, I was pushing for culture change,” Gillenwater wrote in an email. “I wanted a team that participated in problem solving and idea generation, from top to bottom. I successfully got the team to open up and share their thinking with me. And when they did it was information overload.”

Thinking that businesses needed a better way to capture and curate input from their team, Gillenwater developed the SpeakUp tool, which lets anyone post to a private space in the company to share ideas and suggest solutions to problems. The team reaches consensus through voting and the decision maker approves, amends or denies posts transparently.

Gillenwater estimates that it’s a massive market, with about $1.5 billion spent on internal tools to manage decision-making and communications among teams. “We are much more than just an engagement tool; we are also a communication and innovation platform, so the market is… Big,” Gillenwater wrote.

Anyone can sign up for free to use the service, but it’s utility really begins when at least 12 people sign on to share information and collaborate, according to Gillenwater. For enterprises or small to medium-sized groups the cost is $89 per-month, while groups of up to 100 users pay $249 per month.

His service has really taken off with companies like Box, PayPal, Lyft, Adobe and Dropbox, along with bigger corporate divisions like John Deere, and Lexus. Another company that launched earlier this year with similar aspirations of combining communications with enterprise decision-making is Waggl. Backed with $1.1 million, the company developed a mobile application for communicating and polling around specific questions posted to its forums.

If SpeakUp and Waggl are taking a hands-on approach to collaboration and problem solving, then companies like Decision Lens, which raised $6.5 million in July, and the massive Sequoia-backed, Chicago-based company Mu Sigma are looking to automate much of the process. Believing that there’s no better tool to help managers make strategic decisions than the raw data that they have but can’t always process, Decision Lens and Mu Sigma both tackle decision-making with software.

From deciding on capital planning projects and budgets to determining which research and development initiatives to prioritize, Decision Lens makes collaboration easier by obviating the need for it. Founded by two brothers who developed the technology from research their father had conducted as a professor, Decision Lens began by selling its software a service toolkit to government agencies. Since then, it’s been picked up by some of the largest Fortune 500 companies including AstraZeneca, Boeing, and Johnson & Johnson.

“During 2014, Decision Lens has experienced its greatest revenue growth ever, and that can be attributed to our technology platform finally hitting its stride among large enterprises. They are witnessing first-hand how invaluable the solution can be for the future of their business,” said John Kealey, Decision Lens chief executive, in a statement at the time of the company’s financing.

Decision Lens currently has 71 employees and more than 80 enterprise-level customers. But the company’s beginnings are more humble. Its initial business intelligence and decision-making tools were developed in 2004, tapping into databases and providing visualizations of data that could indicate to managers what paths to take, according to company co-founder John Saaty.

“What it does is structure objectives through a hierarchic format,” said Saaty in an interview. “That’s different from a survey system that’s taking votes.”

Surveys are imprecise, according to Saaty, because people are not consistent — or pragmatic — when it comes to evaluating competing objectives. Unlike surveys, Decision Lens takes the raw business data and allows decision makers to evaluate the impact of certain courses of action given a set of mapped decision blueprints.

The executives at Mu Sigma agree. “In the age of big data, companies often lack the tools they need to appreciate and understand the complexity of problems they face. A new art of problem solving is needed to address this,” said Dhiraj Rajaram, the chief executive and founder of Mu Sigma, in a statement. “The big goal of our new platform is to automate dynamic thinking that is often baked into the DNA of innovators like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, but now make this available to any major corporation.”

Unlike Decision Lens, Mu Sigma has raised quite a bit of cash to pursue its goals. Some of venture capital and private equity’s biggest names — Sequoia Capital and General Atlantic — have poured over $200 million into the company.

Earlier this month, Mu Sigma rolled out muUniverse, a new product that the company said serves as a Google Maps for decisions.

Whatever the path, it’s clear that venture investors still think there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that companies work more intelligently and efficiently as they become more distributed.

Photo via Flickr user Brewbooks.

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