How big is the market for solving pointless "work about work"?

A chat with the co-founder of productivity tool Asana and wider look at the growth of project management software

“I was enormously frustrated,” says Justin Rosenstein when we meet at the Rotunda Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel near Tower Hill in central London. “I seemed to spend the majority of the time doing work about work. At first I thought it was me doing something wrong…” then he realised the continuous drain of pointless meetings, hunting for lost emails and getting drafted into incomprehensible projects, was the same for everyone else too.

Rosenstein has a history at Google (where he created Google Drive and G-Chat) and Facebook where he devised the Facebook Like button and the less well-known Tasks. This was an internal project management tool, which has since turned into Asana, and aims to solve all the problems described above.

“I worked with the co-founders at Facebook to build an internal tool,” he says. This was built at night and used to improve Facebook processes during the day.

Asana was initially founded in 2008 – raised $88.2M in funding along the way – and has steadily grown via a blend of free bottom-up adoption and commercial top-down subscription. Today it has over 25,000 paying customers (up from 10,000 in 2015) and 45% of these come from outside the US although the product is still only available in English. The company’s ambition is to increase adoption round the world, with a particular emphasis on Europe, and a newly solidified base in Dublin.

Not surprisingly there is endless research around the need for such tools and it makes for pretty familiar reading. In 2012 McKinsey published “The social economy” which suggested that each week, the average knowledge worker spends 19% of their time looking for internal information or tracking down colleagues who can help with specific tasks. While in September Asana research from the UK reported that 42% of employees spend most of their day on futile “work about work”.

This is likely to sound pretty true to anyone who has ever worked in an office. However, the tricky thing is even if a decision is made to adopt a solution there are a number of similar platforms in the space. It also suffers from a labelling issue. Forrester calls it ‘enterprise collaborative work management’, but it which could equally be billed as project management tools.

The aim of these tools overall is to centre all files and conversations around the work itself. This is particularly helpful in departments, like marketing, where each project – take launching a product or running an event – has lots of small, incremental steps which are person and time dependent and require completion in a set order to deliver the whole. The promise is that instead of checking the next project action on a spreadsheet, then searching through emails to locate the last action point, all files and messages can be grouped together in one place.

Rosenstein clarifies that in “the collaboration space there are three components”. These can be broken down into messaging (with apps like Slack), files (with solutions like Box and Dropbox) and work tracking. The latter still has a “massive gaping hole,” he says.

“There are more powerful tools [than Asana] out there, like Wrike,” he says when I ask “and really simple tools like Trello. [However] ours is the only product within the category which is both easy and powerful”.

This is a big boast and I’m not qualified to say if it is correct or not. Last year one of my colleagues did do some research into the various offerings available. For this, she set up a number of free trials – including Asana and Wrike – and attempted to run tests on the different platforms out there.

The challenge was they all offered slightly different workflow styles and functionality – especially at the freemium level. This made it difficult to import whole, multi-faceted projects for a short trial, because it represented a whole new way of working. In the short term, at least, this meant it created more work for the individual project manager.

For our internal editorial scheduling – which is comprised of different types of stories organised at various points ahead and distributed to different audience lists – we use Smartsheet. This is an upgraded cloud version of an Excel spreadsheet with some improved functionality.

Forrester identified the 13 most significant platforms in the space in its 2016 Wave report. This research suggested that of these Clarizen, Redbooth, Wrike, Planview, Asana, and Smartsheet “lead the pack”. While LeanKit, Atlassian, Microsoft, Workfront, ServiceNow, Huddle, and LiquidPlanner offer “strong options”.

In the end solutions that work best for individual businesses will ultimately depend on what they’re trying to achieve, who is involved and how much budget they have to spend. In practice Rosenstein concludes, our biggest competitor is “inertia, chaos and email”.