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When Nick Fera settled into his new role as CEO of Firm58 Inc., an analytical software and service vendor to the financial services industry, he missed the ability to use the collaboration software created by his old company Parlano. But there wasn't much he could do about it.
When Parlano was bought by Microsoft, its group chat system became a component of Microsoft Office Communications Server. The latest incarnation is available as Microsoft Lync Group Chat, part of a unified communication suite that also includes voice and video calls and conferencing. Fera would have gladly bought the Microsoft software for Firm 58's use, except that the company is full of engineers who prefer Macs and Linux desktops. "For me to force Windows on them -- I'd be shot, probably," he said in an interview.
Fera experimented with social media tools for the enterprise like Yammer, but he wanted something more structured. So he was immediately receptive to the beta program invitation he got last year from his former sales director Brett Davis, now the CEO of the U.K.-based startup Sazneo, which has essentially reincarnated the Parlano product for the era of social media and the cloud.
Parlano got its start as a spinoff from UBS, which originally created a high-performance team collaboration software system for currency traders that ran on NeXT computers. The software became popular across financial services and made it into the customer service organization of Research in Motion, the company behind the BlackBerry, according to the former executives.
"When our company got acquired by big, bad Microsoft back in 2007, we thought this was how this mode of real-time Web-working was going to make it to everyone's desktop," Davis said in an interview. But with the capability deeply buried in a Microsoft product suite, he sees an opportunity with a lightweight tool that puts group chat front and center.
Sazneo offers a free version of its product, which actually supports an unlimited number of users -- but only 5 "channels." Channels are the groupings of messages you establish around teams, departments, initiatives, or whatever streams of messages you need to track separately. Davis is betting the users who try the free version and like it will naturally want to upgrade to the $8 per user per month team edition, which removes the cap on channels and also includes more storage.
For Firm58, a cloud-based system was ideal because it required no software installation beyond a browser and works across operating systems. Sazneo also has introduced an iPhone version -- a mobile browser app tailored to the iPhone experience rather than a native iOS app.
Fera thinks the time is ripe for broader adoption of this mode of communication. "I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a lot of stuff going on with group messaging right now," he said, pointing to Facebook's recent acquisition of Beluga and the buzz around products like GroupMe. But while public social apps may be great for chattering about where to eat dinner, businesses need something more organized and persistent, he said. Rather than one big activity stream, businesspeople also need a way of dividing their messages into conversations, he said.
Davis said he is taking inspiration from public social media services, but thinks he knows where to draw the line to make his service useful for business. "When we were designing the product, we knew it needed to look modern -- it couldn't be battleship gray like some hard-core desktop application -- but it also couldn't look too much like Facebook. It's largely a reception issue that it had to be recognized as an enterprise application.
"At the same time, what Facebook and Twitter are good at are giving you a capability you can pick up without too much training," Davis added. "We've organized this so you can invite people in and then get up and chatting easily. If the experience is complicated, then that doesn't work so well and people tend not to bother."
One of the ways Sazneo hopes to grow its business is virally. As organizations like software companies with offshore development teams invite their partners into a workspace to carry on a discussion, the idea is those partners will find it useful enough to start their own conversations and eventually turn into paying customers.
The capability to divide conversations into channels and prioritize those channels is critical because otherwise group chats tend to outlive their usefulness. "If you get more than 150 people on a channel, the conversation starts to become so busy that you lose the thread of where you are," Davis said.