Three approaches to structured work management: Smartsheet, Basecamp and Asana

The prevalence of messaging applications and social platforms, while necessary for facilitating collaboration, creates an illusion of accomplishment, when in actuality, abstracted from any sort of priority structure, employees focus attention on the noisiest tasks rather than the most pressing. Thus, we see need rising for tools that help place employee attention in the context of responsibilities, where work can be visualized and prioritized against team and organizational initiatives, and energy can be distributed accordingly. In this report, we will spotlight three vendors – Smartsheet, Basecamp and Asana – with distinct approaches to structured work management, to demonstrate how the sector will be instrumental in driving a new future of contextualized work.

The 451 Take

The rise of structured work management signals a change in the way vendors and organizations are thinking about work enablement. The transparency afforded by tracking features refocuses on efficiency relative to goals, rather than the appearance of work and false productivity. Asana, Basecamp and Smartsheet are evangelists for a modern work culture that views employee-defined workflows as the engine for agile, culturally differentiated business processes and strategies. This market has been divided between specialized project and portfolio management services and the highly collaborative simple-featured model that tends to focus on teams, but we see this collapsing as vendors identify interdependencies between the two models. None of these vendors is new to the market, but demand for a combination of easy purchasing and onboarding, strong usability, and scalability across users for more enterprise-focused capabilities places them in a new category of value delivery within an organization, as systems of operational and managerial insight.

Structured work management is a market segment concerned with increasing transparency and improving efficiency in shared workflows. Designed around projects or teams, such services offer a way to manage communications, processes and content assets within a contextualized workspace. Especially as analytics and automation capabilities advance, the strength of structured work management will be its ability to understand information flows and attention demands in relation to organizational and personal priorities, and thus, to help employees to distinguish between high- and low-value activities.

Across the spectrum, vendors are striving to drive agile business processes, flexible workflows, functional configurability and intuitive interfaces that fulfill both end-user and enterprise management value requirements. For this reason, the market is experiencing a natural bridging of the gap between the two extremes – project and portfolio management (PPM) on one side, and collaborative team and task management vendors on the other – and an explosion of vendors that claim to deliver the best of both worlds. This convergence means pressures for both sides of the market, but it spurs interesting opportunities for value creation since the productivity tools for typically disjointed business groups overlap. We see potential for people analytics and talent identification, task and process automation, and machine learning to help in prioritizing capital, resources and attention demands. Critical to this is the understanding that strategic projects and continual processes are functionally alike, and increasingly have to be understood in relation to one another to fully understand interdependencies, drive transparency and improve efficiency.

Vendor Analysis
Below we discuss the approaches of three vendors: Basecamp, Smartsheet and Asana. Smartsheet started as an online project management tool, but is now growing its focus on the enterprise. Basecamp follows a more traditional team management approach, while Asana occupies a middle ground for the time being.

The company now known as Basecamp, started out in 2004 as a web-design consultancy called 37signals. The lack of a systematic way to organize the back and forth with clients sparked interest in developing a client extranet for managing projects and related information flows, and soon after the company abandoned consultancy to focus solely on its SaaS product. The company employs 50 people today, 15 of which act in support roles, with the rest in technical development. While growing steadily, the company prefers it to be gradual and organic, adding one to two employees a year. It remains fully bootstrapped, and has been vocal about its lack of interest in outside funding, although a small piece of the company was sold to Jeff Bezos in 2006. We estimate 2016 revenue to be $5-8m.

The Basecamp product itself is straightforward and minimalist. Core features include messaging (Campfire), an announcement board, shared calendars, task tracking and centralized content. An automatic check-in feature requests group members add insight into their progress or problem areas, to keep everyone up to date and replace unnecessary team meetings. Reporting features allow users and managers to pull up dashboards that show progress or workloads for specific employees and projects across a portfolio. An email-forwarding feature allows users to send communications straight into a Basecamp interface and loop into relevant channels. Pricing is $99 per month, with no limitations on users, storage or project numbers.

As opposed to continuous product tweaking, Basecamp will, every few years, roll out an architectural reconstruction of the product based on an analysis of the way work habits have evolved and how to bring organizations better in-line with the work-life philosophy it promotes. The current iteration, Basecamp 3, which launched in 2015, brought in a portal for engaging with clients, distinguished between chat communications and a messaging board, and added a 'Work can Wait' setting where users restrict notifications during defined periods. The company expects to unveil Basecamp 4 in the near future.

Despite a laidback market approach, the company is an evangelist for a work environment that centers on employee empowerment and work-life balance, and renounces corporate bureaucracy. Basecamp's founders have been mouthpieces for this philosophy, which they practice internally and seek to formalize through their technology. The publication of 'Rework' (featured on The New York Times Bestseller's List), active blogging and speaking events like TEDtalks help to drive organic attention for the platform. Basecamp's sweet spot is small teams of 10-50 users, and the company specializes in creative service teams, like web designers and software developers. The user base today rests in the low millions.

Team project and collaboration vendor Asana started off the 2017 calendar year with 270 employees and north of 20,000 paying customers, which it claims to be a 100% increase over the last fiscal year. In recent months, Asana has been acquiring executive talent from neighboring SaaS companies; it expects to sustain this growth as it assembles a salesforce. With 20 reps at the start of the year, and another 30 expected by year-end, Asana hopes to introduce a higher-touch revenue band; even so, the primary market model will continue to be land and expand, driven by its freemium product. The company has not yet focused internationally, but plans to localize the product and invest in regional sales efforts, as it has done recently in Dublin. Asana has undergone three funding rounds, the most recent of which was a $50m round in 2016, bringing the grand total to $88m.

Like the others, the core Asana product offers a place to plan, prioritize and track activities against shared objectives. It offers file sharing and plug-ins with content services, an email bridge, task following and searching, commenting, and task assigning. Asana's top use cases include task, project and workflow management; onboarding; ideas and brainstorming; product roadmaps and launches; and meeting management. Penetration has been high in tech, media and entertainment, retail and consumer services, professional services, financial, manufacturing healthcare, real estate, and telecom.

Like Smartsheet, it sees an untapped opportunity in this segment as the general workforce starts to demand more usable and adaptable workspaces that reinforce corporate initiatives. No-code and highly customizable workflows are critical development initiatives for Asana, and it sees opportunity to drive functional use cases in areas where vertical commercial tools do not currently exist. Recent feature enhancements include customer forms, custom templates, reporting and dashboarding. Asana has seen a gradual uptick in companies attempting to operationalize cultural processes and core intellectual property. While the company overall works hard to avoid feature bloat and keep core capabilities sophisticated yet minimal, we expect forced enhancement of portfolio reporting and security features that support the enterprise deployments that it is likely to see with a new formalized salesforce.

Asana's cofounders, like Basecamp, publically advocate for a cultural redefining of the workplace. Design remains one of its principle differentiators – it received the 2016 Google Material Design Award.

Since its founding in 2006, Smartsheet's go-to-market approach would have been characterized as a bottom-up, low-touch sales model driven by its viral sprawl across different lines of business. The core Smartsheet product is built around the concept of a collaborative spreadsheet for managing group work. Sheets can be in Card View, Calendar View, Standard Sheet View or as a Gantt Chart. Comments, notes and content attachments add context and communication. From a sheet, users are able to share updates with internal and external collaborators, assign activities and track updates. A Sights feature offers dashboards and reporting designers relative to a personal or team workload. Interoperability with other applications is an ongoing initiative with Smartsheet; the product offers out-of-the-box integrations to Salesforce, Jira, Google, Microsoft and O365, DocuSign, Box, and Dropbox, among others. The company sees automation as its next big product focus, and has begun to explore features like conditional notifications, approval automation and basic intelligence through natural language processing.

Smartsheet will focus more of its efforts higher up the enterprise chain, and has responded to customer demand for product enhancements that better accommodate more complex work scenarios. The company's new Control Center capability, designed to bring consistency, repeatability, and visibility into processes and projects, is the cornerstone of this new focus. In addition to enhanced reporting in portfolio rollups, Control Center allows managers to repurpose project templates and associated meta data, but preserves their configurability to suit local requirements. Smartsheet does a good job of balancing usability and configurability for teams and their projects with the consistency, scale and portfolio insight for enterprise management value.

Smartsheet began the calendar year at just under 450 employees, but plans to end 2017 with about 800 in expanded office locations in Bellevue, Washington, and Boston, after a recent fundraising round of $52m brought total external funding to more than $120m. The company boasts more than 70,000 distinct paid brands today, and anticipates a growth rate of more than 60% for the calendar year, bringing total revenue to more than $100m. Market pressures are influencing software makers to adopt intuitive design and open architecture as buying centers shift toward line-of-business users. Smartsheet believes its current market trajectory – advancing upmarket by incorporating management value – will be an easier and more successful transition than that of the vendors it hopes to disrupt (BPM and PPM vendors that seek to be more broadly relevant).

Competitive landscape
We expect continued convergence across PPM, project management, team and task management, and workflow automation segmentations for a more homogenous approach to structured work management. From the PPM perspective, vendors like One2Team, Clarizen, ServiceNow, Planview, Innotas and Workfront are embracing the call to be more collaborative, to appeal to the modern project manager and broader enterprise audience. Traditional team-centric vendors like Trello, Planbox, Samepage and Redbooth will continue to advance usability and interface standards, in part by pursuing partnership opportunities with vendors across the productivity landscape, such as Microsoft, Google, Dropbox and Box. Wrike and Jira will be the most formidable competitors in the stretch further up the enterprise, despite Jira's specialization in engineering workflows. Messaging platforms like Slack, Facebook and HipChat may also start to encroach on the segment as they strive to become more process-centric and contextualize communication delivery.

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