Dustin Moskovitz cofounded Asana in 2008 to commercialize a tool he built for managing tasks and workflows at Facebook, where he was a cofounder and its first Chief Technical Officer.
But although Facebook was fairly unique -- a fast-growing startup with a strong engineering culture -- he doesn't think it was specially suited to this kind of task management tool.
"I really reject that narrative," he told me in an interview after BoxWorks, where he spoke to an audience of developers. "I think [Facebook is] full of early adopters, it's full of technologists, so they're eager to use tools in general. But I don't feel like there's anything about the way it worked that was specific to the culture and didn't apply more broadly. I really think all the fundamentals of Asana existed in that tool and they're really quite similar....The fundamental data model is very much the same."
That data model organizes work around shared tasks, which may sound like a non-starter in a typical hierarchical organization -- people will happily accept a task that's assigned by their boss, but may bristle at tasks assigned by peers. But Asana has found that once the tool is implemented, peers will often collaborate to create a list of tasks, then grab them one by one.
"It's all about encouraging a culture where peers are more likely to assign things to each other," says Moskovitz. "I often think it ends up being not so much, 'I am delegating this task to you,' but 'hey let's put a list of tasks together that define our project, then we each pull from it.' That's a very different dynamic."
"A massive percentage of tasks aren't assigned, they're taken," explained operations and business leader Kenny Van Zant. "Once you get to a culture of publishing accountability, then things get really smooth."
Moskovitz added, "If you don't have that culture, Asana doesn't cause you to have a different culture. If it's unacceptable for you to delegate a task to a peer, you don't do it. It doesn't happen."
Asana won't disclose how many customers it has, except to say it has "tens of thousands" of teams and "thousands" of paying customers. But the company has seen faster enterprise growth since introducing Asana Organizations, which offered more granular permission controls for IT departments.
"We have a lot of customers who were using it at part of their company, and then they felt more comfortable expanding and having more teams across other departments using it, and having teams segment it with different project lists and different team members," Moskovitz told me.
So when a team or company adopts Asana, what tool does it usually replace?
"Email," said Moskovitz and Van Zant simultaneously.
"I like to clarify that," Moskovitz added. "For a long time it will be displacing email. But as we cover more and more of the use cases you might do over email, successful organizations, especially our own organization, see this total inversion: You used to be doing 10% of your communication in some project management tool and the rest in email, and now it's totally flipped....It becomes annoying to use email, frankly."
Surprisingly for a new-breed enterprise startup, Asana says it's not particularly focused on mobile devices -- unlike Box, for instance, whose customers often see big value in letting employees access files from any device.
"Mobile is very important for certain use cases, like staying in touch with the conversation," said Moskovitz. "But that's definitely not the majority use case. Or even a large segment. Most of our users are knowledge workers who work in an office and use Asana every day from their desk, and use the mobile app some of the time as they're away from their desk."
Even so, Asana takes pains to support the many mobile platforms and browser editions out there. "To some extent, it's good for us because it makes it really hard for another startup to compete with us, because we're actually big enough that we can do it. But it's still frustrating to have to spend so much time just supporting the little deviations, and making sure you're testing on all those platforms."
And yes, that will finally include supporting Internet Explorer as a first-class citizen. To date, IE users have had to run Asana in a Chrome frame, but Van Zant and Moskovitz both promised that's changing "soon."
Surprisingly for an engineer, Moskovitz also said he's turning more of his attention to messaging.
"It's hard when you have a new product category. Some people immediately get it, early adopters are 'oh sweet, I'll totally try this new thing.' But to get to the 50th and 80th and 90th percentile, we need to have concrete words that successful customers can use to convince their friends to use it.
"You see it all the time, online or in tweets, 'You should use Asana.' 'Why?' 'I don't know but it runs my company and it's great and it changed my life and I can't articulate it.' We're spending a lot of time on that, and we think it'll have long-lasting impact on the success of the business."