Hightail to a Defensible Niche

It’s hardly news that enterprise file sharing technology has become commoditized. That process has very visibly played out in the tech media over several months now. However, most of the articles written have assumed that pure play file sharing startups have a bleak future, if any, as Microsoft, Google, Citrix and other platform vendors continue to commoditize both functionality and pricing.
Reality begs to differ. Box has convincingly moved beyond commodity file sharing by offering ready-made, industry-specific solutions and a developer platform chock full of APIs for organizations that prefer to build their own applications using Box technology. Accellion and Egnyte have focused on the sharing of content in hybrid environments that combine cloud-based and on-premises file storage.

Hightail Makes Its Move

Hightail is another enterprise file sharing pure play that was supposed to be put out of business as a result of market consolidation. It too is still standing and has just announced a new offering, called Spaces, that essentially repositions the company from commodity file sharing to content-based collaboration for creative professionals.
Spaces is an attempt by Hightail to help people who work at ad agencies, film and music studios, and in Marketing departments to not only share, but also to give and get feedback on audio and visual files. Collaborators can make annotations directly on visual files and comment in-context of one of its elements. Comments on audio and video files are also made in context, as they appear in the track’s timeline.

Spaces is really a project management tool for creatives, albeit one with only lightweight task management functionality. Individuals can establish a collaborative space in which the creative artifacts related to a specific project are shared, annotated and commented on, and distributed in final form. There is also a dashboard that lets the owner/administrator of the space monitor activities taken by it members on its assets, including comments made and downloads of files.

Darwin’s Theories at Work

Hightail is a clear example of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and specialization at work. From its inception (as YouSendIt, in 2004) the company has evolved from a provider of technology for sharing large digital files to one that also stored those files in the cloud. Now Hightail is specializing to ensure its continuing existing. Its CEO, Ranjith Kumaran, recently acknowledged that roughly 80% of the company’s revenue comes from creative agencies and firms, so focusing the company to serve those customers was a logical move.
Hightail is certainly not the first company to start as a purveyor of a general technology and then specialize to survive. It’s not even the first in the context-centric collaboration space. As noted above, Box has also created industry-specific solutions. The real question is whether or not this pivot will provide Hightail with a niche that is large enough for the company to not only sustain its current level of operations, but to grow as well.

We’ve Seen This Movie Before

Central Desktop may well serve as a historical example of Hightail’s future.  In 2011, Central Desktop launched SocialBridge, a new offering that repositioned the company from the generic social collaboration space to the same niche that Hightail has selected – creative and marketing agencies. While Central Desktop saw some success and growth as a result, it sold itself three and a half years later to PGi, who wanted to augment its existing solution for real-time meetings into a more holistic collaboration offering.
Hightail’s evolution may take a similar path. Adobe could combine assets from its Creative Cloud and Document Cloud offerings to create something similar to Hightail Spaces, but Adobe could also choose to buy Hightail. One of Adobe’s traditional foes, such as Corel or Quark, could acquire Hightail in an effort to better compete Adobe. It’s even possible that Apple could want to buy Hightail to augment its existing offerings for creative professionals.
Whatever happens to Hightail down the road, they’ve made a move this week that they needed to do to stick around a while longer as an independent company. They’ve also demonstrated that generic file sharing has become completely commoditized and that evolutionary specialization will be required of all the other pure play enterprise file sharing vendors if they want to continue in business.

Slack Posts New Functionality

Slack is widely acknowledged as the enterprise real-time messaging (work chat) tool with the most traction, having passed the million daily user mark in June. It seems that the company is not content to stay boxed into the work chat category, however. Yesterday, Slack announced and released Posts 2.0, a feature that enables the rich authoring of blog posts and publishing them to targeted collections of people.
Since its launch, Slack has had this feature, called Posts, that lets people write content that far exceeds the length of a normal chat message. However, it was so clunky that few people used it, if they were aware of it at all. To create a Post, one was sent out of the Slack application to a web browser, where text was written using a very simple editor and then saved back to Slack as an entry in the conversation stream of a specific channel or group.
The new Posts 2.0 includes an inline text editor, which improves the experience in two ways. First, it keeps users inside the Slack app. Second, it lets them create rich text with formatting styles like headlines, bulleted lists and checkboxes. Beyond that, the new editor also acts on embedded URLs by automatically displaying graphics, showing previews of websites and expanding tweets.
Once written, Posts can still be shared with specific individuals, channels and groups, whose members can comment directly on the entry (as opposed to creating an chronologically-ordered entry in the Slack conversation stream). This is one of two places in Slack where properly threaded discussions are possible; Files is the other.
There is another important new feature in Posts 2.0 – the ability to save and access Posts in the Files section of the Slack application. So rather than having to scroll through or search the Slack conversation stream to view a specific Post again, it can be easily found in the Files repository. Additionally, if an author stars a Post in the editor or a reader does so in the conversation stream, it will show up in Slack’s Starred Items list. 

Cool, But Do Businesses Need This? 

With Posts 2.0, Slack has complemented existing features with new ones that, in combination, begin to move the application beyond being primarily a work chat tool. Slack has now effectively become a lightweight Web Content Management System that enables blogging (to a targeted audience), file storage and sharing and threaded discussion (around Posts and documents stored in Files only). It’s a lightweight people directory with profiles too. Oh, and it’s still a communication and collaboration tool.
This expansion of mission is fine, but it immediately raises the question that I previously asked and continue to pose about Slack. Why? Do work teams really need an alternative to existing corporate communication and information management applications that already satisfy the same use cases that Slack is addressing? How is Slack better than the status update, IM, blogging, file sharing, and discussion tools for communities (groups) that are bundled in the enterprise social software applications and platforms that organizations have already licensed and deployed?
In addition to the functional redundancy, one also wonders if Slack will ultimately lose its audience by becoming the opposite of what it was originally. The application’s strong initial appeal was the simplicity of its user experience. By adding more communication and collaboration features, Slack risks becoming a complex mess of functionality that few will care to use, especially on mobile devices.
On the other hand, Slack may intentionally de-emphasize its application in the future, positioning and going to market as a platform on which developers can create their own apps. We’ll see. Many already refer to Slack as a messaging-centric platform. Time will tell if that is indeed their market strategy for the long-haul, but, for now, Slack is beginning to look like yet another bloated application.

Social news curation app Nuzzel finds backers in the media world

Though it may be short on manners and healthy discourse, the Internet is almost certainly never short on content. There is so much content floating around the web, in fact, sorting through it and curating it has become a multi-million dollar business. Enter Nuzzel, the personalized news curation app that just secured a slew of new investors from a land beyond the walled kingdom of Silicon Valley.

Nuzzel, a startup founded by Jonathan Abrams (founder of Friendster, the social networking app of yore), is a news delivery service and app that curates web content based on activity in your social circles, news you might be interested in, and things you might’ve missed in a clear, uncluttered feed. Using Facebook or Twitter, Nuzzel pulls together stories that your friends are reading and sharing under the assumption that if you’re friends with or following someone on either site, it’s likely because you have a fair number of shared interests.

To be clear, this kind of socially influenced content curation isn’t new. It exists on a number of apps both operational and defunct, from Digg to Flipboard. However, the fact that it doesn’t play a huge part in the habits of most content consumers and that we’re often still Gchatting links to one another suggests that it the social curation functionality is still missing a vital piece of the puzzle: Nuzzel, perhaps.

Investors in this round include Matter, a startup accelerator funded by the likes of the McClatchy Group, Associated Press, and Google News Lab, along with a half a dozen individuals touting credentials from a laundry list of media money bigs: The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, The Guardian, CNBC International and more. While the dollar signs are far from unimportant in a funding round, the “who” and “why” are much more noteworthy in this case.

Since the Nuzzel team comes from the Silicon Valley & Internet world, not the traditional news/media world, and our existing investors were mainly from the Silicon Valley world, we thought it would be useful to Nuzzel to add some investors from the news/media world,” says Jonathan Abrams, founder of Nuzzel. “This was less about money and more about getting news industry veterans as advisors to Nuzzel.”

The fact that investors from the news and media world are backing Nuzzel is key because as former publishers, CEOs and board members of some the largest media organizations, they are likely not easily wooed by attempts at distribution and curation. The media industry is rife with plans and concepts to deliver content to willing and eager eyes. In a world driven by page views, there are many trying to crack the code to simple and effective distribution, but most are wildly ineffective and unsuccessful.

“As CEO of the Guardian I saw many new digital products innovating in the news/content space. Few cut the mustard,” says Andrew Miller, former CEO of the Guardian and one of Nuzzel’s most recent investors. “An exception however is Nuzzel which successfully declutters my newsfeeds and surfaces only relevant content.”

A financial vote of confidence from those who have had plenty of contact with new approaches to content curation is a promising sign for Nuzzel, which is looking to beef up their offerings for publishers.

For example, we are thinking of how Nuzzel can work with publishers in the future, i.e. perhaps we should offer some sort of widget or way for publishers to use syndicated feeds from Nuzzel,” says Abrams “Those are the kinds of things that these new investors will help advise us on.”

While the funding round is a big step in the right direction for the budding content curation darling, the key to success for Nuzzel will be something that no funding round can provide: more users. With powerful integrations like Slack, Pocket and Buffer, paired with new incentives and tools for publishers and the pedigree of the investors behind it, though, Nuzzel’s just might become content’s next big “must-have.”

The State of Salesforce Community Cloud

It’s the eve of Salesforce.com’s annual Dreamforce event, and I have the company and its customers on my mind. I’ll be attending Dreamforce again (Disclaimer: Salesforce is covering my registration, travel and hotel expenses). As always, I’ll be taking in all the announcements at Dreamforce, but paying the most attention to the Community Cloud, individual applications and platform components that make up the Salesforce collaboration and content management ecosystem.
Before Dreamforce begins, it’s useful to think about the actual state of collaboration amongst Salesforce’s customer base. There will be marquee customers on stage this week talking enthusiastically about their cutting-edge use of Salesforce’s latest offering versions, including those that are not yet generally available. But what about the mainstream Salesforce customer and how they’re using the company’s products to collaborate?
To get a sense of that, I digested The State of Salesforce survey report that was recently published by Bluewolf, a global consultancy that designs customer-facing, digital experiences using third-party, cloud-based software. This year’s report is the 4th annual edition published by Bluewolf, who surveyed more that 1,500 Salesforce customer organizations, of varied organizational size and located around the world.
Bluewolf’s report does not investigate every bit of Salesforce’s collaboration and content management functionality in detail. Instead, it focuses on the assembled collection of those that is the Community Cloud. In two pages of The State of Salesforce, Bluewolf reports on Salesforce customers’ adoption of Community Cloud, its most common use cases and the high-level business benefits that customers attribute to its use.

Community Cloud Adoption

Of the Salesforce customer companies that have purchased Service Cloud, Sales Cloud, and Marketing Cloud, 36% have also purchased Community Cloud. That represents decent adoption by Salesforce’s best customers, especially for an offering that has only been in-market for a year. Even better, 21% of respondents that already license those other Salesforce clouds said that they plan on purchasing Community Cloud in the coming year. If that pans out, then over half of Salesforce’s most dedicated customers will be on Community Cloud within two years of its launch.
What the report doesn’t illuminate, and I’ll try to investigate at Dreamforce this week, is Community Cloud adoption by the rest of the existing Salesforce customer base. It’s likely that the bar is set much lower there and that Salesforce will need to refocus its marketing and sales of Community Cloud for the next wave of potential adopters. Selling Community Cloud as an enhancement of the other Salesforce clouds is very different than convincing organizations of its utility as an independent collaboration and content management solution.

Community Cloud Use Cases

As for Community Cloud use cases, Bluewolf’s survey found that the top three were Customer Service (25% of respondents), Partner Enablement (21%) and Internal Collaboration (17%). Given Salesforce’s current positioning as “The Customer Success Platform”, and the amount of resources it has spent to launch and grow the Service Cloud, it isn’t entirely surprising to see that so many customers are focusing their use of the Community Cloud on post-sales customer service.
What I did not expect is that a larger number of Community Cloud customers are using it for partner enablement than they are for internal collaboration. Given Chatter’s roots as an internal-only communication tool, I would have expected to see more internally-focused usage of Community Cloud than what was reported. Of course, Chatter isn’t the only component of Community Cloud, but it is the oldest and most established among Salesforce customers. It will be interesting to learn more this week about why external community support is out in front of internal use of Community Cloud.

Community Cloud Business Benefits

The final area of interest here that The State of Salesforce report provides data on is business benefits associated with Community Cloud. Bluewolf compares productivity gains and cost reductions reported by two Salesforce customer segments, those who are using Community Cloud versus those who aren’t.
Community Cloud Biz Benefits
Clearly, Salesforce customers who are using Community Cloud in tandem with one or more of the company’s other offerings are realizing higher productivity and lower operating costs than customers who have not adopted Community Cloud. No surprises here. As noted above, Community Cloud is an enhancement and enabler to the other Salesforce clouds. This data is proof of that notion’s validity.

The State of Salesforce Community Cloud

Bluewolf’s The State of Salesforce report raises as many, if not more, questions than it answers about collaboration and content management among Salesforce.com’s customers. As a result, it’s hard to derive much insight from the survey data reported other than that Community Cloud is enjoying respectable adoption among Salesforce’s best customers, and they are seeing greater benefits by using it with the other Salesforce clouds, especially for external-facing use cases. While I can gather some anecdotal stories and learn more at Dreamforce this week, another survey would be needed to get the data necessary to understand how successful Salesforce’s collaboration and content management offerings have been with, and for, the rest of its customers.

RebelMouse wants to help media companies own their social graph

After leaving the Huffington Post, former CTO Paul Berry built a social-content management platform called RebelMouse to help media make their content more viral — and now RebelMouse wants to help them build their own niche communities as well

Snapchat hiring journalists to become its own publisher

Not content to rely on major brands for its new media exploration section, Snapchat is also planning on making its own according to a new report by Digiday.

The company will produce high quality video, images, and text for people to view in the Discover tab. Theoretically, it will provide more content for Snapchat’s advertiser partnerships. Furthermore, it will help the company establish itself as a place to consume content, so it doesn’t just have to rely on its partners creating media specifically for Snapchat. As previously reported, the company is working with CNN, Vice, Buzzfeed, and a whole host of others to help them tailor content for its upcoming Discover section.

The company has been snapping up journalists for the endeavor, which explains why long time social reporter Ellis Hamburger left The Verge for Snapchat in November. According to their LinkedIn profiles, blogger Nicole James, videographer Matt Krautstrunk, Dom Smith, and CJ Smith, former MTV producer Greg Wacks, and even animator Kyle Goodrich will be joining him.

I’m curious to see what they create. Snapchat’s disappearing, finger holding format doesn’t naturally lend itself to media consumption. These people will have to get creative if they want Snapchat to become a second screen.

The recent leaked news of a soured Snapchat deal with Vevo, to create its own record label, also makes more sense now. It suggests that the company will look towards creating its own entertainment content in addition to — perhaps — journalistic. Music videos and comedy sketches are likely to be a better fit for the younger crowd then CNN reports.

Snapchat isn’t the only tech company pursuing a platisher (publisher meets platform) approach. Medium has faced criticism for its similar approach, and as Digiday pointed out Tumblr’s former platisher efforts failed spectacularly in 2013.