LiquidPlanner, Inspired by Social and Mobile Computing, Aims to Make Business Software Sexier
The explosion of faster networks, connected crowds and mobile computing has made millions of Americans into astonishingly fast and efficient consumers. But when the weekend’s over, too many of us walk back into a technological time-warp of email chains, conference calls and endless meetings.
Bellevue-based LiquidPlanner is among the companies trying to break down that wall. Founded in 2006 by two veterans of Expedia and Microsoft, the startup is trying to make productivity software sexier—and just plain better—by incorporating elements of social networks and app-based computing.
It’s one example of an emerging trend in business software. Author and venture capitalist Geoffrey Moore, the guy behind the classic business text “Crossing the Chasm,” describes the change as a migration from “systems of record” like databases to “systems of engagement,” allowing workers to collaborate and share more information.
“The next big wave of investment in enterprise IT will be around this consumerization of enterprise IT,” Moore told us in an interview last month. “And it’ll be around, in particular, helping companies communicate, coordinate, and collaborate across company boundaries.”
Charles Seybold, the co-founder and CEO at LiquidPlanner, couldn’t agree more. The company is trying to overhaul boring old business software by including the features and visual language that people already use in their private lives—and that younger workers will increasingly demand.
“Our whole design was built around this concept of social management. It’s about people working together to get things done,” Seybold says. And he says that is a big change in the world of project management, a multibillion-dollar market where software has traditionally focused on technical rather than social solutions.
“A lot of our competitors are involved in what I like to call the kitchen sink wars—they’re trying to add more features. But it’s not really about adding more features. It’s about making them easier to use,” Seybold says.
LiquidPlanner’s story is a classic: Techies frustrated by the bureaucracy of a larger company set out to solve a nagging problem. Seybold and co-founder Jason Carlson both worked at Expedia before it spun out of Microsoft, and were with the company as it grew into “one of the Four Horsemen of the Internet,” as Seybold puts it.
“From an insider’s perspective, this was a company that grew really fast,” Seybold says. “And its process, inside the company, became quite a challenge.” Seybold got to see that firsthand as he worked to set up Expedia’s first project management system. After spending millions on consultants and tools, it became clear that there was a niche to be filled for simpler, more powerful software—and LiquidPlanner was on its way.
Seybold and Carlson have their own money in the company. They also have angel backers, including the prominent Seattle investor Geoff Entress. LiquidPlanner was the first company financed with the Alliance of Angels Seed Fund in 2009.
The consumerization angle to LiquidPlanner’s product already is apparent in its current form, and will get even more prominent in the company’s upcoming 3.0 version, pegged for release this year. Already part of the mix is an instant messaging feature called “Chatter.” (Salesforce.com also has a feature by the same name. LiquidPlanner says on its blog that “We had our Workspace ‘Chatter’ feature before SalesForce had Chatter. But we’re not making a big deal about it.”)
The design of the LiquidPlanner page should look pretty familiar to anyone who uses Facebook, and that’s not a mistake. In the upcoming release, LiquidPlanner also will move away from a browser-esque tabbed navigation across the top row, instead incorporating larger button-type icons that bring to mind mobile apps. In fact, the intent is for an upcoming iPad app and the Web-based product to be basically indistinguishable.
Instead of just being a glossy extra, Seybold says better design has actually helped LiquidPlanner win business—it communicates that the product will be easy to learn and use, a big selling point for anyone who’s sat through hours of new product training.
“There are whole companies and whole ecosystems based on training people for these things. Project management is the kingpin of tools that require training,” Seybold says. “And the time for that has come and gone.”
LiquidPlanner also taps into a more ethereal element of the new socially networked workforce: An ability to build schedules more from the bottom up. That’s exemplified in the feature that lets team members set ranges of dates for completing a given project, something that reflects real life time-sucks but also could appeal to workers who, in their private lives, are putting increasing faith in the power of crowds to supercharge everything from saving money to organizing political protests.
It’ll be interesting to see how all this plays out for LiquidPlanner. The company has been motoring along and now claims more than 500 organizations are using the product, including AOL, Honeywell and GlaxoSmithKline. LiquidPlanner positions itself between Microsoft Project on the expensive end and Basecamp on the cheaper side, aiming for department-level teams of moderate size rather than whole enterprises.
Seybold wouldn’t disclose any financials or figures for the company, but says “We’re doing well and growing and not seeking any funding.” If he and Geoffrey Moore are right, the market stands to be a major growth area in the years ahead.