Jim Patterson detests phone calls.
"They’re highly disruptive and presumptuous." he argues, "[The caller believes] what I have to say to you is more important than what you’re doing —and they don’t even know what you’re doing." How does he feel about email? "It’s okay for some things," he admits, "but it’s highly asynchronous."
That’s why you’ll often find Patterson making a hefty contribution to the more than 6 billion SMS messages flying around the country daily.
But Yammer’s former chief product officer wasn’t content to leave alone the squishy question of texting for work. He quit the company two months ago to launch CoTap with Yammer’s ex-senior director of engineering Zack Parker. CoTap aims to do for text what Yammer did for companies’ internal communication—make them simple and quick.
If you think about it, Patterson tells Fast Company, setting up text messaging with coworkers is currently a rather daunting prospect. You may sit elbow to elbow with someone on a daily basis, but you probably don’t have their mobile number programmed into your phone, in spite of the fact that 81% of companies allow employees to BYOD—bring and use their own devices at work.
Even if you’re 15 minutes late to a meeting, Patterson posits, you’re probably more likely to send a hurried email than try to text, because "it’s a very high-friction transaction." And forget about trying to send group texts, he says. No one wants to wade through the office manager’s spreadsheet of phone numbers and plug into an app more suited for informal conversations such as GroupMe or WhatsApp.
The way Patterson sees it, the mobile market is ripe for an enterprise-texting solution, and it’s not going to come from simply shrinking a desktop Web app down to fit on a smartphone screen. Patterson contends it’s all about how to take advantage of the many capabilities resting in that device in your back pocket.
Together with Parker, he’s just the guy to do it. "I am an entrepreneur." asserts Patterson, "This is the third company I’ve cofounded." Patterson’s not afraid of taking a risk. "When I see an opportunity just sitting out there, I literally can’t not do it," he says. In stepping away from Yammer (which was acquired by Microsoft for $1.2 billion last year) Patterson admits he left a lot of equity on the table. "It is a leap of faith, but for me it wasn’t an option to be sitting around at a big company when I feel these big opportunities are out there."
He and Parker were fully prepared to bootstrap CoTap, but thanks to a working relationship with venture capitalists who had invested in Yammer, they pulled in $5.5 million in a series A round of funding even while in stealth mode.
Though he lauds Microsoft for immediately adopting Yammer’s platform, as well as embraced its corporate culture (or at least gave them autonomy), Patterson believes it’s still really difficult for big companies to do disruptive things. No matter how much they prize innovation. "Big companies make all their money from the world as it exists today. It is really hard for them to accelerate change to some unknown future state," he explains.
Startups have no investment in the status quo, he says, they simply want to change the world without the conflict of customers who want all their software behind a firewall. Things move more swiftly at startups, Patterson point out. "Yammer released a new version every week where at Microsoft it took three years." Patterson does note that Microsoft is releasing new Windows features every three months by leveraging the way Yammer organizes its engineering team.
"I had a hand in developing Yammer’s culture, so I am obviously biased," Patterson confesses, but he is planning to build CoTap’s culture on similar values, including extreme transparency to make the team most productive when working together to accomplish one specific mission. With the exception of salary and compensation, no information will be off-limits to any staffer, says Patterson. "If you have secrets from employees, then they’ll mistrust you," he asserts, "You need that trust for people to operate autonomously."
As Patterson talks about the future of SMS in the workplace, you can tell he puts a lot of trust in the end user, too. "Texting [for business] does have its own etiquette," he admits, but that doesn’t mean there needs to be an official policy driven by the top brass. Instead, he suggests letting it become what it will. Yammer’s tone varies from company to company, reflecting the unique culture of each staff. "You won’t know what unique use cases will arise unless you trust people to do what they are going to do," he says. As long as there are no HR violations, "don’t be paranoid," he adds.
Likewise, boundaries about texting nights and weekends will naturally rise. Patterson’s confident that once people drop the baggage of the old ways —including starting chats with ‘hey are you there?’—a new and better form of communication will emerge.
That goes for photos, too. Patterson is confident that images will be a major part of CoTap’s value, once people get over the knee jerk response of photos’ informality seen in a business context. "They are so easy to create and easy to consume," he maintains, "A picture is worth a thousand words and the camera is right there." Think of it this way, he explains. Companies that have corporate social responsibility programs could use photos of employees volunteering to motivate and align the rest of the staff. Or an engineer who often never gets to meet the customers who buy their products. "How motivating would it be to see a photo of a happy customer," says Patterson, if a sales person takes a snap during a sales call. "I guarantee it will be important," underscores Patterson, "It’s new, give it room to breathe, and see what it becomes."
[Image: Flickr user Felicita73]