Former Facebookers Want To Accelerate Your Project Work With Asana, A Virtual Whiteboard

Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz takes his "underestimated secret sauce" from his Zuck days and teams up with Google and Facebook alum Justin Rosenstein to solve one of business' biggest problems: lost productivity.

You've been there before. You shoot off an email to a manager about something that needs to get done on a project. It takes a while for the manager to see the email. Maybe they back-and-forth with you a little before to nail down what, exactly, needs to be done. Then they eventually assign the task to a coworker. And boom, 24 hours later, something that the coworker could have picked up and run with in five minutes, had they known about it, finally gets done.

There's got to be a better way.

The formidable duo behind Asana thinks there is. In the plugged-in world of the 21st-century workplace, there's no reason for managers to become bottlenecks, say the founders of this three-year-old San Francisco startup.

So former Google and Facebook alum Justin Rosenstein and Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz have created a web-based project management tool that functions like a real-time to-do list. Anyone can add a task. Everyone can see what needs to be done. And anyone can grab a task and start working on it.

Asana operates on a freemium business model. Teams of up to 30 people can use the service gratis. At the end of April, the company released Premium Workspaces, which charges teams numbering up to 50 people $300 a month, with higher-priced tiers for larger teams.

The founders compare Asana to a virtual whiteboard, and they say it allows teams to move faster and get more done. And, in the change-the-world exuberance that bubbles through Silicon Valley these days, they also predict that the productivity gains it generates will allow companies to take on projects they might never have considered doing before. (More on that later.)

Asana grew out of problems Rosenstein and Moskovitz faced in their previous gigs. "We spent 90 percent of our time coordinating," Rosenstein tells Fast Company. Each independently prototyped tools, skunkworks-style, to try to solve the problem. (Notably, the tools Moskovitz built at Facebook are still in use there today. Rosenstein says they're the "underestimated secret sauce of how that company gets so much done.")

Eventually the two joined forces and set up a company (named after the Sanskrit word for both a yoga practice and yoga poses—both Rosenstein and Moskovitz meditate) to build a tool for the rest of the world.

Like many online collaboration tools, Asana lets you create workspaces and add team members. Once set up, anyone can create a project, or tasks within a project. They can leave the assignments open or assign them to someone on the team. Other team members can grab open tasks and see what work others have assigned to them.

And, as is de rigeur in anything approximating social networks these days, there's a "follow" function that lets you stay on top of tasks and projects, even if you're not directly involved.

Unlike Microsoft's Project software or the web-based Basecamp, which give you a high-level view into a project, Asana operates at a granular level. It's focused on tasks, not timelines, on what needs to be done right now, or the near future, rather than charting out waterfalls or dependencies. 

As such, it's really more about communication than management. Rosenstein says the engineering team has focused on designing the interface to work as fast your brain so that team members will actually use it and it will, in fact, contain the latest, most up-to-date information of what's happening on a project.

In the long run, then, Asana will more likely disrupt email, that sinkhole for efficient communication, than project-management software tools, Rosenstein and Moskovitz say. One poster on Quora compared it more to a GTD ("Getting Things Done") system than a project management tool.

Asana itself also reflects an evolving notion of how work gets done today. Historically, because there hasn't been an efficient way to collaborate on the fly, discrete sets of work have been parceled out to individual employees, who go off to their desks and focus on their individual sets of responsibilities.

The Asana model reflects a much more fluid idea of work, one where a whole team works together, with any number of members picking up whatever tasks happen to be the top priority for the project at any particular time.

It's a very Silicon Valley-cum-Millennial way of thinking about work, but Asana says it's not just the tech industry (including companies like Foursquare and Airbnb) that have glommed on to the service. Teams are picking it up in almost every sector—sports, energy, finance, schools, and churches.  

The company shies away from talking user numbers, but Kenny Van Zant, who handles marketing, sales, and operations at Asana, tells Fast Company that when the tool launched in November, there were "hundreds" of teams using it, and now there are "tens of thousands."

About 10 million tasks have been created, the company says, and of the people who "adopt" (ie: go a little farther than just setting up an account), 75% keep using it.

When asked about results, the cofounders point to a Silicon Valley biotech company founded by two world-renowned bioscientists. Before using Asana, they spent all their time managing. Now, they say, it's down to 25%. "They had given up on doing science," Van Zant says. "Then the lab itself got more efficient."

While productivity software might sound humdrum in contrast to the excitement of building something like Facebook, Rosenstein says the opportunity is huge. "Whoever solves this problem is going to be the next $100 billion company," he says.

Indeed, the company has the backing of Benchmark Capital as well as Andreessen Horowitz, which has openly declared that it only backs the handful of companies it believes will matter in the long run.

Given the value of their Facebook stock options (when the social network goes public, Moskovitz will be the youngest billionaire on the planet), both founders can probably get away with never working another day in their lives. 

But both Rosenstein and Moskovitz say they're inspired by the opportunity to help workplaces become more efficient and, ultimately, therefore, free people up to do great things. "Any other problem we might work on—this is a tool that could be leveraged to help them do that," Moskovitz tells Fast Company. Adds Rosenstein, "The opportunity to help our fellow man is enormous."

[Image: Flickr user Trondheim Byarkiv]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

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4 Comments

  • Zachary Latta

    Another product to definitely check out is Wunderkit. It was created by 6WunderKinder (creators of Wunder List). I've been using it for the past few days and have been loving every moment with it.

  • Mike Drew

    A good review of Asana, and I agree with your point - at the end of the day, Asana is an excellent way for teams to communicate and get tasks down, but for managing projects, you'll need a different tool to make sure that they get done on time. (A personal nitpick of mine, is that you can't nest tasks. You have the main task defined by a ":", and the tasks under it. You can't have sub levels). 

    Mike Drew
    HappyTODOS Project Management
    http://bit.ly/zmuFvk  

  • Anita Loomba

    Great review - I like the granular level of detail that's possible - will have to try it out.