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 big financing round, buying out the Jetters in the process. At the same time, recruiters approached Raskin, then the president at software development firm Telelogic, about becoming CEO and leading the company to faster growth.

“I wasn’t familiar with the company or the space, but I got a copy of the software and played with it and was absolutely amazed at what it could do,” Raskin says. Even before he accepted the job offer, he bought 25 copies of MindManager for his team at Telelogic and used it to manage a big product introduction. “I quickly built out a MindManager map to show how we could track this launch, and everybody was blown away,” he says. When the recruiter called back, his answer was ‘Yes.’

Raskin says his main job was to transform Mindjet “from a company that had one product that was built in a typical one-year release cycle…into an agile R&D organization delivering SaaS products and mobile products. That required a big shift.” And that’s what the company has been up to for the past few years, culminating in the launch on September 12 of Mindjet Connect, the freemium, cloud-based version of the company’s planning and sharing platform.

But Mindjet’s basic DNA hasn’t changed, Raskin told me in an interview that week: it’s all about helping people visualize the relationships within unstructured information. A typical Mindjet user starts by creating a mind map (i.e., a collection text boxes arrayed in radially branching trees) to capture the elements of a project plan, then annotates each element with notes, documents, URLs, and the like. This way, all the data related to a given project is visible in a single glance.

“Without Mindjet, people come into a room, they get on a whiteboard, they spend two days brainstorming and discussing strategy, and then they go, ‘Great, we are going to do X, Y, and Z,’ Raskin says. “Then they look at the lowest person on the totem pole and they say, ‘Can you take all these white boards and put them into PowerPoint and e-mail it out to the team?’ So they do that.

“Then somebody says, ‘Okay, we need a place to collaborate.’ So they get Box or SharePoint or Google Docs—which are really just places to store documents. Then people go off and start working. Then they say, ‘Okay, we need to have a meeting. Let’s do a Web conference so people can look at each others’ PowerPoints.’ It’s all very inefficient. People lose continuity, they miss things, they spend a lot of cycles to stay in sync.” Mindjet, Raskin argues, gives users a single place to store documents, manage time and resources, and visualize what needs to be done.

The company’s big news this week is about the first stages of integration between Mindjet Connect and Cohuman. In short, Mindjet users can now highlight items in their maps and click on “Send to Cohuman,” which turns them into tasks that can be assigned, delegated, and tracked in the separate Cohuman application. Raskin walked blogger Robert Scoble through the details of the integration in this 18-minute video, posted December 17. Over the next few months, Raskin told Scoble, the company will fully integrate Cohuman into Mindjet Connect, so users won’t need to go to separate sites or use separate logins.

Mindjet Connect and Cohuman are free for individuals and small groups, but the company starts charging once users bring on a certain number of team members or exceed a gigabyte of storage. (Subscription plans start at about $10 per month.) Raskin, like other cloud startup CEOs I’ve interviewed, says Mindjet’s software tends to spread virally inside companies. That means Mindjet doesn’t have to put much effort into direct sales. It usually just waits until it sees a critical mass of users inside a given company, then approaches the firm about buying a subscription plan, which naturally comes with enhanced administrative controls.

Mindjet has some new competition in the form of Web-based productivity tools like Asana, the creation of ex-Facebookers Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein, and Do.com, a social task management system created by Salesforce.com. “We are attacking the same problems,” Raskin acknowledges. But he thinks that as more companies see the efficiency advantages in task-visualization tools, the marketplace will grow fast enough to support many solutions.

“In the industrial era the competitive differentiator was manufacturing efficiency—how do I get widgets built faster, at lower cost, than my competitor,” says Raskin. “Today it’s how do I take the best ideas, decide what we are going to do, and get everyone working together to get that done before the next guy. We are all about improving the efficiency of groups working together on that goal.”

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

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