Let’s Talk: Quip, Zendesk, and Evernote All Want A Piece Of Your Work Chat

Quip, an online tool for workplace collaboration, is getting chatty, adding features that let coworkers chat in free-form chatrooms. 

Chattier, we should say, since Quip launched two years ago with the ability to chat one-on-one or in small groups. But those conversations were always sidebars to the comments and discussion attached to Quip’s documents. Tuesday’s updates to Quip’s desktop and mobile apps allow for freewheeling discussion—with the ability to instantly start a new document when conversation turns serious.


The Medium Is The Message

“Our product has always had messaging as a central component,” Quip CEO Bret Taylor told me in a recent chat. (On the phone. What can I say, I’m old-fashioned.) “When we launched, the main experience difference, besides being exceptional on mobile devices, was that we integrated messaging with document authoring. We’ve always had messaging as a core part of our product experience, and there’s a lot more messages sent per day than documents, though a lot of those messages are hanging off a document.”

One notable thing about chat in Quip is that it’s, well, fun. Taylor and his team noticed that while document-centric discussions were very focused, watercooler discussions were more social in nature. So Quip added some features that seem ripped from BuzzFeed and I Can Has Cheezburger. In Quip chats, you can not just to paste jokey visual memes you find on the Web, but generate new ones on the fly. (My favorite is The Most Interesting Man In The World.)

“At first we were a little hesitant and then we really embraced it,” says Taylor of the quirky, GIF-laced nature of online chat. “It’s making the experience of communication more fun and interesting and improving the dynamics of the team that uses it.” 

There’s serious business at stake, though. Quip has a lot of rivals in harnessing the power of chat—and hoping to have conversations hang off of its core features. 

Evernote introduced Work Chat in October, to capture discussions around shared notes. Zendesk, which launched an experimental new email-handling offering called Inbox in September, added a feature called Team Talk in March. Zendesk Inbox already let colleagues add internal notes about email sent to group aliases; Team Talk lets them have discussions unattached to particular emails. 

And then there’s Facebook, which has launched Facebook At Work, a version of its service which lets employees chat with each other using Facebook’s social tools. With Facebook At Work, users set up work accounts which don’t expose any of their personal profiles to coworkers and don’t require adding each other as “friends” to communicate.

Talking About Billions

All of this product development takes place against the backdrop of the runaway growth of Slack, the maker of a team-collaboration tool now used by 750,000 people a day—200,000 of whom are paying something for the privilege. (Rather, typically, their employers are.) Investors recently valued Slack at $2.8 billion. 

Taylor says he admires Slack for making a “really high-quality product” and notes that many Quip customers use both Quip and Slack together. (Full disclosure: ReadWrite is one of those joint customers.) He believes that what’s driving the addition of chat features into business tools is the deep penetration of mobile devices in the workplace.

Push notifications, in particular, have freed up business-software tools from having to rely on email as a channel of communication. And consumer messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have trained a generation of workers to look anywhere but their email inbox first.

This new generation of business tools are creating a new problem, though, as they all add chat, which is that they put a burden on their users to follow conversations from one place to another—or make the hard decision to centralize chatter in one place. 

That’s difficult if—say, like a certain editor of a certain technology news site—you admire the elegant email handling of Zendesk Inbox, the collaborative document editing of Quip, and the real-time communication features of Slack.

“To be perfectly honest, I think we’re in a period of rapid experimentation and innovation in business productivity or business communication,” says Taylor. “Over the next few years, it will be particularly acute.”

In consumer social networks, there was a strong winner-take-all effect, as everyone moved to Facebook because that’s what their friends were doing. That seems less likely to happen in social business tools, which tend to be contained within individual, idiosyncratic workplaces. We’ve seen consumer messaging exist in a fragmented state for a while now. Quip—and all of its new chatterbox competitors—may find that it’s hard to talk people into using just one tool.

Photo by Drew Stephens; screenshot courtesy of Quip

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