Mixing pleasure with business

Socialtext founder Ross Mayfield works out of an unassuming office in downtown Palo Alto, a couple of blocks away from the Caltrain station (if you listen hard, you can hear the trains clanging) and a stone’s throw from the sprawling Stanford University campus.

Like just about everywhere else in Silicon Valley, Socialtext’s low-tech surroundings are a foil for the hi-tech business taking place. People talk on the phone about ‘mikis’ (mobile wikis) and ‘webinars’ (online seminars) as if these were common words in the English language. ‘Wiki Wednesday across the way’ is scrawled in faded marker pen across the reception whiteboard.

After a few minutes, Ross appears. He’s the first company chairman I’ve seen wearing shorts – ever. Admittedly it’s 28 ºC today. We go outside to sit a shady spot under a couple of Cypress trees, partly so I can make the most of the weather, partly so that Ross can have a cigarette.

Ross co-founded Socialtext, ‘the world’s first wiki company’ in 2002. What made him feel that this type of social media could work in business?

“So much interesting stuff was happening in the social space [at that time]. Adrian from Ryze was putting on loft parties and wanted to connect the people who went to them; Ben and Mena Trott from Six Apart, Evan Williams from Blogger…they all created tools to scratch an itch, to interact with friends from a community. The guy who invented Trillian [instant messaging between different networks] did it simply to connect with a girl he had met on a beach.

“It was just after the [dotcom] crash and a lot of people had been made redundant and I guess had time on their hands. The thing is, these [new] tools had better social dynamics, and they were lightweight and easy to use compared to the clunkier enterprise systems.”

Ross and his co-founders were keen to take that simplicity and apply it to business. For two and half years, they worked out of their own homes (“in a distributed fashion” says Ross, not without irony).

So, what’s the main diff between the early noughties and now?

“In 2001, it was the fear economy – the only people selling technology were the security companies, and then 9/11 happened! Now, there’s much less hype; buying behaviour and investing behaviour are verging on the rational.”

Ross cites the change in the consumer markets – the growth of wikipedia, open source etc – as a key change: “on the consumer side, the bar is raised higher”. Consumer products genuinely have to work for people, otherwise they simply won’t be used.

The growth of blogging, in particular, has helped enormously:

“We used to have a lot of push back from PR and legal departments. Not any more. Now there are thousands of blogging policies up on the web for corporate lawyers to pull down and adapt.”

In November 2007, the company entered a new phase, securing a further $9.5million of funding. This seemed a good point for Ross to hand over his CEO role to Eugene Lee, a former executive at Cisco and Adobe:

“I’m very much an early stage guy, very hands on,” says Ross. “I always knew that I’d have to step aside at some point. You start off wearing all the hats, then you’ve got to give every one away, ideally to suitable people. It was a very emotional decision when I first had to step aside [at my previous start-up].”

See Ross’ blog for more of his thoughts on ceding control.

Needless to say, the Socialtext platform, originally a wiki solely for the highly tech-literate, has grown and developed in six years. WYSIWYG editing, introduced around 2004, was a step forward. But the real tipping point came in 2006, when mass collaboration became possible.

It was around this time that more ambitious ideas, such as ‘Wikipedias’ for companies were introduced. The whole user experience became more transparent and participatory, meaning that ‘non-teccie’ types could access and use the platform with relative ease.

Ross constantly thinks about how to make the platform more genuinely useful – in internet parlance, maximising ‘network effects’ (ie, the more people using a network, the more powerful it becomes). Identifying when and how people interact with the Socialtext platform has been a key part of making it more relevant:

Our VP of Professional Services came up with the framework of ‘in the flow’ use cases as opposed to ‘above the flow’: where [people used our platform] as an integral part of the process of a project, rather than outside of it. These [in the flow use cases] are what we specialise in.”

One context in which Ross has found social media to be particularly useful is change management – where people can “collaborate on the change”. He points to the recent merger between two large companies (7,000 employees each) as a good example:

“The wiki and social networking became a great way of getting cross-pollination to happen…in the past it would be 6 or 7 people, and $1million, just to define a structure or taxonomy. Now the approach is to let the structure emerge, let staff collaborate on building it.”

And Ross has some words of comfort for any CEO fretful of any loss of control s/he might experience:

“The person who benefits most [from good knowledge management systems] is the CEO because he can drill down and see exactly who did something and why it happened.”

There’s no doubt about it, Socialtext must be doing something right. Today, it’s a global company, with offices in California, New York and the UK, employing 50 people and serving more than 4,000 organisations.

The easy-to-use, accessible style of software that originally came from the social space has now entered the corporate world. For good.

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