October 19, 2004
At first glance, Socialtext doesn't look like a company running on a shoestring budget. Founded less than two years ago, it now has more than 50 customers around the world, including Walt Disney (DIS ) and Eastman Kodak (EK ), which use its Web software to help people collaborate online. Yet a peek behind the slick Web site reveals a truly virtual company: no offices, only 10 full-time people -- all working at home, and a chief executive who answers the phone himself.
Socialtext co-founder and CEO Ross Mayfield makes no apologies for the threadbare setup. Increasingly inexpensive and ubiquitous information technologies such as the Internet, wireless connections, and cheap computer servers, he says, allow him to run the company with far less money and fewer people than he could have a decade ago -- without scrimping on features or quality. Says the 34-year-old serial entrepreneur: "This is the prototype of the new Internet startup."
BEATS A HUNDRED E-MAILS. That's not a boast. It's the stark new reality for many tech entrepreneurs. Socialtext is helping forge this new path -- not the least with its own software. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., Socialtext sells so-called wiki software. Offered as a service over the Web, the software makes it quick and easy to set up Web sites with a simple browser.
Anyone in a company or department can post material on these wikis, and anyone else, subject to approval by the creator, can edit or add to them. They've become a cheaper, more flexible collaboration alternative to both overtaxed e-mail and complex groupware such as IBM's (IBM ) Lotus Notes.
Essentially, Socialtext's wiki software allows everybody in a group or even a whole company to literally stay on the same page -- that is, on their shared Web pages. That speeds up everything that involves coordination, helping to cut costs.
Stata Labs, a San Mateo (Calif.) startup that makes e-mail software, uses Socialtext's wiki service to track projects, post presentations, and allow employees and partners from Boston to India to work more closely together. Although Stata can't quantify the exact savings, it has reduced a raft of expenses. The wiki has made it easier to outsource programming and public relations and reduced the need for constant back-and-forth via e-mail and phone.
DOT-COM VET. Mayfield, a tall, gangly Palo Alto native, stumbled onto wikis via an unlikely route. After graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) with a degree in political science, he opted to work in nonprofits, in hopes of changing the world. He landed in Eastern Europe in 1995 as a $300-a-month special adviser to Lennart Meri, Estonia's first post-Soviet President. He wrote some of Meri's speeches and ultimately developed a Web site for the President's office, where he caught the Internet bug. "I realized I could have a greater impact being an Internet entrepreneur than as a bureaucrat," he says.
After starting a broadband service provider and a Web-design and software-development company in Estonia, he returned to San Francisco in 1998, where he got a fast education in boom-era entrepreneurial frenzy. He co-founded RateXchange, an online business-to-business marketplace for telecommunications capacity, but it went south in the telecom bust.
Then he dabbled in a few other ventures, getting interested in the social dynamics of e-mail and the Web. By the end of 2002, Mayfield and some friends became jazzed with the business potential for wikis, which were mostly a nerd phenomenon. Thus came Socialtext.
NO FANCY OFFICES. Befitting the leaner times, Socialtext has subsisted on less than $300,000 from friends and other social-software entrepreneurs such as LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman and Tribe Networks CEO Mark Pincus. Last month, it got another $300,000 from the Omidyar Network, the semi-philanthropic organization launched by eBay (EBAY ) founder and Chairman Pierre Omidyar and several other individuals. That's in stark contrast to the boom, when multimillion-dollar initial rounds were all but mandatory.
How has Mayfield survived on the cheap? Partly by using his company's own wiki software to get things done. Mayfield does his work on Socialtext's internal wiki wherever his laptop is, from his home office to the nearby café that has free wireless Internet service. So do colleagues in places such as Silicon Valley, Chicago, Indianapolis, New York, Canada, and Taiwan.
They also use free Internet-based teleconferencing and long-distance calling services. "The infrastructure costs are a tenth of what they used to be," says Mayfield. "We can do more work with lower cost because of teleconferencing and the Internet."
"TRANSFORMATIONAL." They also use the Net to do all their marketing, essentially for free. For one, Mayfield and several other founders write well-read blogs on social software and related topics. Mayfield also pitches his wikis as discussion boards for high-profile events such as the PC Forum, giving hundreds or thousands of influential industry players a taste of how the software works.
When Stowe Boyd, managing director of Corante Research, a technology-information service, encountered a Socialtext wiki at a workshop, he says, "It was transformational. It became much more of a group experience."
Finally, Socialtext draws on the resources of the open-source software movement, in which programmers volunteer to improve the software. Socialtext, which charges $995 a year for five users plus $30 per additional user, also offers a free open-source wiki called Kwiki for do-it-yourselfers. Mayfield draws new feature ideas for Socialtext from seeing what smart techies do with it.
More than that, he imbues the for-pay product with the same philosophy, leaving it open for customers to modify. "People value the ability to extend the tools themselves, so we don't have to invest in very customized areas," he says.
MISSIONARY ZEAL. All that frugality won't ensure that wikis will become the next big software phenom. Analysts figure larger companies such as Microsoft (MSFT ) and IBM could simply make them part of their suites of software. At the same time, Socialtext's niche is attracting attention from new rivals. JotSpot, a new company in Palo Alto recently launched by Joe Kraus and Graham Spencer -- two founders of the boom-era portal Excite (ASKJ ), is backed with $5.2 million in venture capital. Kraus contends that JotSpot has a more ambitious goal beyond mere collaboration, allowing minimally technical people to write customized software (see BW Online, 10/6/04, "Do-It-Yourself Software for All?").
But those who know Mayfield say that in contrast to his easygoing demeanor, he won't get shoved aside easily. "He is tenacious and scrappy," says investor Pincus. More than that, he notes, Mayfield has a zeal about social software that transcends his own company. If wikis do catch on widely, Mayfield no doubt will be a big reason why.
By Erika Brown, June 21, 2004
Just when you thought you figured out what a blog is, here comes the latest Silicon Valley idea intriguing enough to attract some venture capital. It's a wiki (from the word for "fast" in Hawaiian). A wiki is a kind of communal Web site that allows nontechies to create and edit Web pages. If a blog is one person's rant, a wiki is a blog for, and by, many.
Wikis have been around since the mid-1990s but were the domain of geeks who used them to swap and discuss code. Now wikis are making their way into PCs, PDAs and smartphones, and companies are using them to allow employees to communicate with one another. Wikipedia, a Web encyclopedia run by a nonprofit, boasts 274,000 articles written by "experts" in its English edition.
While the software is free, there might be a business in setting up wikis for companies. Ross Mayfield raised $300,000 from angels to start Socialtext, in Palo Alto, California. He charges $30 per user per month for hosting and maintaining a wiki, and expects $1 million in revenue this year. One of his 50 customers is Andrew Stack, cofounder of e-mail outfit Stata Laboratories. His company has nixed the idea of a traditional corporate intranet in exchange for a wiki that is open to changes by any password-enabled employee. "The wiki is like a virtual whiteboard," says Stack.
Silicon Valley financiers Foundation Capital, Mobius Venture Capital and the Woodside Fund all say they are watching wikis with an eye toward investing--if they can figure out how to get around that free-software problem and find a budding company that already offers things like social-networking and e-mail. "So far wiki looks like a feature, part of something bigger," says venture capitalist Sam Jadallah.
Six months ago Microsoft hired Ward Cunningham, founding father of the wiki. Watch out for that "W" word.
March 11, 2004
Software: Blogging brings to mind self-absorbed teenagers posting their daily musings online. Might the technology be useful in business?
WILL blogging—the practice of maintaining an online diary, or blog—revolutionise journalism? Do the world's bloggers really constitute a “second superpower”, the only force on earth capable of keeping America's neo-imperialist government in check? Or is the blogging craze just an example of sound and fury signifying nothing—a re-run of the late-1990s fad for personal websites, only with easier-to-use publishing software?
While bloggers—half of whom are teenagers, according to one survey—are convinced that they are changing the world, not everyone agrees. There are, whisper it, even some people beyond the insular world of the “blogosphere” who have not even heard of blogging at all. Ross Mayfield, the founder of Socialtext, a firm based in Palo Alto, California, wants to move blogging beyond its usual constituency of teenagers and wide-eyed political activists. His company is taking a novel approach, arguing that blogging might actually be useful in business.
Socialtext makes a corporate version of a wiki—a web page that can be edited by any reader (the word means “quickly” in Hawaiian). Wikis offer a middle ground between e-mail and a conventional web page, which makes them useful for collaborative projects, particularly those involving far-flung teams. Rather than maintaining multiple copies of a document and sharing ideas by e-mail, a wiki allows members of a team to pool their thoughts more easily. Wikis are not particularly new, but are now beginning to demonstrate the potential to replace other forms of groupware.
“When I first heard of wikis, I brushed it off as a weird, messy thing that was out of control and never would be useful,” says Peter Morville, head of Semantic Studios, a consultancy in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He now thinks more highly of them, having successfully used them on several projects with clients.
Socialtext takes the wiki concept and adds to it some corporate bullet-proofing. It can be used to create a conventional blog, yes, but more importantly it tracks different versions of documents, so that people working on a project can see each other's changes and go back to earlier versions. It also has administrative tools that allow wiki entries to be viewed and sorted in different ways.
Socialtext launched its product at the end of last year, and already has dozens of customers. One example is Soar Technology, a Michigan-based software firm. Jacob Crossman, an engineer at Soar, has been using the Socialtext software for a six-person project. Though there is still room for improvement, he says the software will probably become the collaborative tool of choice at his company. A use for blogging? Perhaps the teenagers are on to something after all.
By Steve Gillmor, February 10, 2004
Will real-time streams fuel the next generation of enterprise business intelligence and employee knowledge sharing? eWEEK.com's Messaging and Collaboration Center Editor Steve Gillmor argues it will. Read how.
Before his recent comeuppance, Howard Deans Democratic presidential campaign focused attention on the emerging category of social software, as Deans campaign team used Meetups and Blogs to generate more than $40 million in contributions.
In the enterprise, social software can help build connections between workers and their business contacts and customers. The social software phenomenon began with such services as Friendster and LinkedIn and has been expanding to include a variety of real-time Web technologies.
Ross Mayfield, CEO at social software maker SocialText, calls these new social networks "frictionless whuffie fun." But whuffie, a colloquial measure of digital reputation, speaks to the fundamental problem confronting social networks: How do you establish trust over the public network and make group formation and information sharing more secure and efficient?
Spam and virus assaults on e-mail have undermined the reliability and utility of collaboration. In response, instant messaging use has accelerated, particularly via vendor and corporate portals. Enterprise versions added archiving, API monitoring of file transfer and sometimes content, and hierarchical scoping by project and group.
A small step up from such IM content capture is Blog infrastructure, first provided as a community-building hosted service. Tech companies such as Groove Networks used Dave Winers Manila server to share information behind a firewall. RSS aggregators now provide a powerful management tool for routing this data across workgroups and external partners.
As IM and RSS end points have mushroomed, so too have the requirements for prioritizing and managing access to those information streams. The Dean campaign employed SocialText software and 400 volunteers for decentralized news analysis, clipping and annotating blogs, and traditional media posts. SocialText marries several social software precepts: the Wiki information store, automated authenticated blog generation and RSS output for change notification.
Wiki software runs on a server and lets users create and edit Web page content using any browser. At its best, Wiki software captures the informal but often critical forms of conversation such as those that might occur around the water cooler. The conversation can be logged, accessed by team members in self-managing threads and indexed by links so that hardware indexing engines such as Google appliances can derive useful results from internal as well as external searches.
At stake in all this: enterprise whuffie, the reputation of importance that employees would be able to acquire by becoming known as experts in different areas. The value of any knowledge management system depends on the amount of knowledge that employees put into it. A corporate manager may demand participation as terms for employment, but information hoarders often route around this by sharing it only in non-recorded situations. However, the all-important whuffie would be a powerful incentive for sharing information more broadly.
But a payoff even greater than enterprise whuffie will emerge as groups begin to manage themselves without IT involvement. Todays social software is a big step in that direction, using browser-based tools to create Wiki pages and blogs simply by typing in a name and, in SocialTexts case, allowing RSS aggregators such as NetNewsWire to track changes with color-coded edits.
SocialTexts recategorization technology allows for broadcasting posts to multiple blogs and therefore RSS streams. But aggregating external feeds within the software has yet to be implemented. When social software can collect RSS subscription and consumption patterns and apply the aggregated results to dynamic indexes of internal and external microcontent, the resulting real-time streams will fuel the next generation of enterprise business intelligence.
By Michael Totty, January 12, 2004
Like so many companies, Stata Labs Inc. has employees and contract workers scattered around the globe. And like so many companies, Stata Labs has struggled to find a way for its far-flung employees to work together.The San Mateo, Calif., software maker thinks it has found the answer in a wiki.
Wikis -- "wiki-wiki" is Hawaiian for "quick" -- are Web pages to which anyone can make changes. They make it easy to add, change or delete online material without having to learn a complicated programming language -- or get anyone's permission. As a result, they allow companies and work teams to trade ideas, share intelligence and track projects.
Wikis are a modest version of one of the hottest product categories in technology today: collaboration software. Microsoft Corp. and International Business Machines Corp. are beefing up their offerings to make collaboration an integral part of the desktop. Ray Ozzie, who created the early team software Lotus Notes, has launched Groove Networks Inc., based in Beverly, Mass., which enables groups from inside and outside a company to share documents and other files securely. Meanwhile, other companies, such as Vignette Corp., have enhanced their collaboration services.
These companies' products are rich in features, such as instant messaging or the ability to detect when members of the team are online. But for many users, especially smaller companies, those extras can be overkill. By contrast, with a wiki, "there's little overhead in installation, in learning" how to use it, says Gary Boone, a research manager at Accenture Technology Labs in Palo Alto, Calif. "The disadvantage of not having the sophistication of more elaborate tools is outweighed by the ease of using" the wiki.
Their simplicity has enabled wikis to spread informally within organizations, much in the way that instant messaging first took off. Individuals or departments install them, often without the help or knowledge of the corporate information-technology department, and they gradually spread as more people see their benefits.
A wiki page looks like any Web page, but with a difference: With the click of a button, a visitor can add new material to the page or change what's already there. Others can see it once they refresh the page. This isn't as disruptive as it sounds; all changes are tracked, and earlier versions can be restored if important information is deleted. There is even a wiki encyclopedia (Wikipedia.org), where anyone can add or amend entries.
Most wikis are open-source products, which can either be downloaded to a company's servers at no charge or accessed on the Web. But there are a few commercial vendors that are expressly targeting the corporate market.
An engineer at Stata Labs, which sells e-mail and antispam software, set up its first wiki last June, using an open-source product from TWiki.org, one of the many informal suppliers of wiki software. It gradually caught on among the company's other engineering teams, but problems popped up as it became more popular. For one, it was difficult to include people from outside the company, including contract programmers. What's more, using TWiki required programming skills that many in the company lacked, and the system didn't adequately back up all the valuable information that was accumulating in the wiki.
So Stata decided to move to a commercial product provided by Socialtext, a Palo Alto, Calif., start-up that sells a wiki-based collaboration service for use by businesses. It charges $995 a year for the first five users, plus $30 a month for each additional user. About 40 people are tapping into Stata's various wikis, including employees, independent contractors, product testers and others.
The company uses a wiki to manage its customer-relations program. As customers e-mail requests for new features or relate problems, the information is added to the wiki, where it can be viewed by developers in India or by Stata's chief executive in San Mateo.
Not long ago, a sales representative posted a question on the wiki about configuring the company's antispam product. Working from an Internet cafe in Florida, Andy Stack, Stata's vice president of product management, suggested a solution. The fix worked, which was duly noted on the wiki, where other engineers who had been struggling with the same question were following the exchange. If the initial back-and-forth had been conducted via e-mail, Mr. Stack says, no one else would have known of the fix.
"With e-mail, a lot of this gets trapped in one-off conversations," he says. The wiki "has the ability to capture these side conversations and make them available to all others."
Stata also can limit access to individual wiki sites, something that isn't possible with some open-source wikis. "If we bring on a really good contract developer, we don't necessarily want to give him access to sales details," Mr. Stack says.
Much in the same way that instant messaging grew up alongside e-mail in firms, wikis are being used to supplement existing collaboration tools. At the Palo Alto campus of Accenture Technology Labs, the research and development arm of consulting giant Accenture, researchers have access to IBM's venerable Lotus Notes and are in the process of moving some of their team collaboration to Microsoft's Sharepoint. Still, Mr. Boone, the research manager, wanted to try out a wiki for managing the flow of information around the lab.
So far, the wiki has been only lightly used. Mr. Boone's work group, which includes two programmers, uses wiki pages to organize reports on bugs and requests for new features in the software they're developing. In addition, the lab's executive assistant posts speaker schedules, lab announcements and tech-related news that can be viewed by everyone in the lab.
The biggest advantage of the wiki is that it reduces the team's reliance on overused e-mail, which in most offices serves as the last repository for all important information -- whether it's to organize contacts, store the daily to-do list or whatever. "E-mail is a tremendously overloaded tool," Mr. Boone says. The wiki "may represent a sweet spot between nothing or just e-mail and these more elaborate systems."
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Integrating "social features" with your organizations core business processes (CRM, ERP, CMS, HR, Financial, etc) makes it easy for your staff to use the new social features "in-the-flow" of their daily tasks. This recording provides examples of how Socialtext customers are benefiting from this type of integration.