Mindjet Reaches Cloud Altitude with Mind-Mapping Tools for Getting Things Done

12/21/11Follow @wroush

Ask Scott Raskin to name the number-one innovation that changed the world of project management and business collaboration, and he has a surprising answer: the whiteboard.

It’s not that the answer is nonsensical—Raskin may well be right. It’s that it’s coming from the CEO of Mindjet, a San Francisco software company devoted to helping workers capture their thoughts and plans digitally. After all, if Mindjet’s 2 million users gave up their laptops, PCs, and tablets for old-fashioned whiteboards, the company would be out of business.

Raskin’s real point, though, is that business people deal with lots of data and ideas, and it’s often helpful to arrange this information visually, in a place where everyone can see it. Whiteboards are great for that—the problem is that they aren’t very portable or shareable (your team in Hong Kong probably won’t see the brainstorming notes that your team in Atlanta captured last night). Mindjet’s “mind mapping” software lets teams organize their thoughts on virtual canvases that can be accessed and modified from any Web browser, with the data on the maps feeding directly into project management tools such as Cohuman, a social task management platform startup that Mindjet recently acquired.

“The value of the visual is that you understand where everything is and where to get it, by going to the map,” says Raskin (pictured above). “What we’ve done is marry that with all of the other fundamental things you need to do when you’re working as a group.”

A mind map made using Mindjet's free iPad app

Judging from adoption in the corporate world, it’s been a successful gambit: Mindjet’s software is used today inside 80 percent of the Forbes Global 2000 companies, and entities like BMW, Cisco, and Siemens pay for thousands of seats apiece. Yet Mindjet has been through a challenging transition lately. To cope with the rise of the cloud and the Software-as-a-Service business model, the company had to hire an entirely new engineering team to recreate its Windows- and Mac-based software for the Web. It had to figure out how to take the information encased in mind maps and make it more actionable. And it had to shift away from its old revenue model, which was based on getting companies to pay for yearly upgrades, and adopt a more fluid (and hazardous) freemium model.

But there was no choice about these changes, Raskin says: “If you don’t disrupt your own business model, someone else will.” Alongside the product overhaul, Mindjet has been staffing up—it’s now at 270 employees, and plans to double its software development staff—and has gone on an acquisition binge, buying myMind, Cohuman, and Thinking Space. The company’s latest releases are meeting early success. Mindjet’s iPad app was downloaded 150,000 times in its first two days in the iTunes App Store and rose to number 4 on Apple’s list of productivity apps. This week, the company introduced new features that, for the first time, link MindJet Connect, the cloud version of its mind mapping platform, with Cohuman, which is a sort of Tweetdeck for task management.

Mind mapping isn’t new. The concept dates back at least to 1993, when it was first popularized in a book published by British author Tony Buzan. Mindjet was founded not long after that, by the husband-and-wife team of Mike and Bettina Jetter. As Raskin explains it, Mike Jetter was a young programmer who decided, after being diagnosed with myeloid leukemia, to build a PC-based mind mapping tool as a way to keep occupied during a long period when he was in an isolation ward, awaiting a bone marrow transplant. (The Jetters recount the tale of Mike’s illness and recovery in a 2003 book called The Cancer Code.)

By 2006, the company’s original product, MindManager, had reached 650,000 users and had “evolved from being a mind-mapping tool to, really, an information-mapping application, capturing and linking to all sorts of sources,” says Raskin. That year was one of change for the company. Investor Growth Capital helped to recapitalize Mindjet in a … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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