Dustin Moskovitz is plotting an escape from email.
The 30-year-old entrepreneur has learned a lot about communication since he teamed up with his college roommate Mark Zuckerberg to create Facebook a decade ago, and that knowledge is fueling an audacious attempt to change the way people connect at work, where the incessant drumbeat of email has become an excruciating annoyance.
Moskovitz is trying to turn that chronic headache into an afterthought with Asana, a San Francisco startup he runs with former Facebook and Google product manager, Justin Rosenstein.
Asana peddles software that combines the elements of a communal notebook, social network, instant messaging application and online calendar to enable teams of employees to share information and do most of their jobs without relying on email.
"We are trying to make all the soul-sucking work that comes with email go away," Rosenstein says as Moskovitz nods sitting across from him in a former brewery that serves as Asana's headquarters. "This came out of a deep, heartfelt pain that Dustin and I were experiencing, along with just about everyone around us."
The misery keeps mounting in the corporate world, which remains an email haven. This year, each worker using a business email account will send and receive a daily average of 121 mail messages, a 15 per cent increase from 105 per day in 2011, according to The Radicati Group, which tracks email usage.
In contrast, consumers have been weaning themselves from electronic inboxes and increasingly turning to digital alternatives such as Facebook, Twitter and mobile messaging.
More email translates to less productivity as workers spend more time weeding their inboxes and puzzling over convoluted exchanges among a hodgepodge of colleagues and managers scattered in various offices -or sometimes just a cubicles away. To exacerbate matters, vital pieces of business information are often corralled in a worker's inbox instead of in a database that can be searched by anyone working on the same project.
If companies set up communications channels that worked more like social networks, the amount of time workers could devote to other things would increase by about 8 per cent each week, according to estimates from a study by the McKinsey Global Institute. Another 6 per cent of the workweek would be freed up if the shift away from email could unlock more of the so-called "dark matter" hidden in individual inboxes, McKinsey estimates.
These are the problems Asana is trying to solve. Its bare-bones system, free to use for teams of up to 15 workers, is set up so information can be easily seen by anyone authorised by the company. Asana hopes to make money by selling subscriptions to more sophisticated versions of its software that can accommodate larger groups of workers.
Moskovitz began working on what would turn into an early prototype for Asana while he was still at Facebook in late 2007. He had become frustrated with email's shortcomings and set out to build a better alternative for managing Facebook's projects. Before long, he was spending all his time figuring out how to escape email instead of managing Facebook's engineers.
"A lot of people thought I was crazy, but from my perspective it was clearly the smartest thing that I could do to make (Facebook) better," Moskovitz recalls.
He finally decided to exit Facebook in late 2008 to start Asana, leaving behind a prototype that Facebook still relies on to manage its projects instead of email.
Moskovitz remains one of Facebook's major shareholders with stock worth about US$7 billion, affording him the luxury to gamble on a startup that may be fighting a Sisyphean battle.
"I am not sure what anyone thinks they will be accomplishing by getting rid of email," say Sara Radicati, editor of the Radicati Group. "If we didn't have email, people would be spending all their time on the phone and other channels of communication. Is that really any better?"
While the Radicati Group foresees consumer email usage continuing to wane during the next four years, the firm predicts the volume of business email will rise another 16 per cent by 2018 to an average of 140 daily emails sent and received by each user.
"Email can't be killed completely because it's the lowest common denominator in business," concedes Stewart Butterfield, who has been trying to sell companies on the merits of another alternative form of corporate communication called Slack. Like Moskovitz, Butterfield is better known for his involvement at another popular technology service: he co-founded Flickr, a photo-sharing site bought by Yahoo nine years ago.
Without providing specifics, Asana says millions of workers are using its system, primarily the free version. In many cases, Asana customers say they have reduced email usage by as much as 80 per cent, according to Rosenstein.
"We are really reaching peak email," Rosenstein says. "Our customers keep asking: 'Can you replace more and more of my email?'"
Rapidly growing startups such as Airbnb, Uber, Pinterest, Dropbox embraced Asana's task-management system early in their corporate lives in hopes of avoiding email addiction as they mature.
And Asana isn't alone in its quest to eradicate email. Other online services, built especially for business purposes by companies such as Jive Software and Microsoft's Yammer, are on a similar mission.
Despite these efforts, email remains pervasive. For instance, Pinterest product manager Michael Yamartino says he still sifts through 200 to 300 emails each day, with 70 per cent of the traffic coming from co-workers. Even after internal meetings, Pinterest still relies on mass emails to let everyone know what is going on.
"Asana is better for tracking tasks, but email still has an important place," Yamartino says.
Two of Asana's own employees, Emily Kramer and Jim Renaud, wanted to prove it's possible to survive without email so they vowed to avoid checking their company and personal inboxes for all of April.
It was the longest stretch that Kramer, 30, had gone without checking her email since she was in the sixth grade when she opened her first account on AOL. Renaud, 39, hadn't lived without email since he enrolled in college 20 years ago.
Kramer stayed out of her email, even though she kept fretting about what she might miss at work and had to deal with complaints from friends about the inconvenience of finding other ways to keep her in the loop about a bachelorette party they were planning. She also found herself dealing with lengthier mobile messages that read like email.
"A co-worker had told me, `I think it would be easier to go without oxygen than email," Kramer says. "I definitely don't think that's true any longer."
Renaud didn't avoid email the entire month.
Once, he needed to go into his Asana account to check on an issue affecting the company's customers.
On another day, Renaud couldn't resist opening his personal email to retrieve a $100 rebate on some tires that he bought for his car. When he clicked on an email link confirming the rebate, he was informed it would take six to eight weeks to get his money.
"I have learned that I don't need to check my email all the time," Renaud says.
HOW IT WORKS
❏ The service is free for teams of up to 15 workers. The company sells subscriptions for a version of the service that gives access to more than 15 people. Asana says some companies are already paying to have several hundred employees on the service.
❏ Asana users create tasks or projects that can be communally shared on a main page that acts somewhat like a social network. Workers can comment on the posts. A manager can also add workers who need to "follow" the thread, even long after a project started. Workers can also "unfollow" a project when they no longer need to be part of an ongoing discussion.
❏ Various projects and tasks can be displayed in order of their priority. Deadlines can be defined and managers can track the status of the work.
❏ The service's controls can be set to give access to contractors or key partners outside the company. By the same token, the controls can be managed to limit which internal employees have access to discussions.
❏ Asana users can signify that they have seen a comment or agree with an idea by posting a "heart" next to it, which is similar to a Facebook "like."
❏ When information about a project needs to be kept confidential, employees can communicate through private messages.