Asana’s Justin Rosenstein: ‘Doubling in Dublin is testament to our workforce’

21 Dec 2018

Justin Rosenstein. Image: Asana

The creator of the Facebook ‘Like’ button wants you to very much like the future of work he envisages. Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein talks to John Kennedy.

If you don’t know who Justin Rosenstein is, quite soon you will. The chances are that every day you interact with something that he has invented. He is credited with creating the Facebook ‘Like’ button as well as co-inventing products such as Google’s Gchat (Talk) and Drive.

However, with Asana – the work management company he co-founded with Facebook’s co-founder Dustin Moskovitz – Rosenstein has something bigger in mind and it concerns our livelihoods and how we go about our work.

‘Dustin and I had experience building consumer tools that billions of people were using, that were extremely easy to use from the start and were beautifully designed’

Asana recently reported passing the 50,000th paying customer milestone, up from 20,000 a year earlier, in addition to 1m free businesses. It was recently valued at $1.5bn after raising $50m in a Series E round led by Al Gore’s sustainable investment firm, Generation. Other investors in Asana include Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

More than half of Asana’s growth is in EMEA, where customers include Tesco, Sky News and Vodafone.

Asana recently moved the Dublin team into a new office at Three Park Place and, according to Rosenstein, the company plans to double its Dublin headcount in the coming year.

I begin our chat by asking Rosenstein if he expected the Facebook Like button to make the cultural impact it has on the 21st century. “At the time we were building it we thought it would be a good idea, but no, this was hard to anticipate. We were doing lots of experiments; I did a bunch of things that never even shipped. The main question on my mind was: ‘Would anyone use this in the first place?’

“The original idea with the Like button was could we make it one-click-easy to spread little bits of positivity in the world. The high-level context for all of the things I’ve done in my career at Google, Facebook and Asana is ways to use technology to be of service to the world and benefit life. That is still an ongoing journey.

“In the case of the Like button, it was designed for a world where people uplift each other rather than tear each other down; if we could make it one-click-easy to spread positivity and love. The other impetus was Facebook had launched News Feed, and we wondered if we could make all the content into an online democracy where people could vote with their Likes. In some ways that vision has played out, and in others there have been unintended consequences.”

Those unintended consequences unfortunately include the Like button being used as a means for polarisation in a very geopolitically unstable world.

“When I’ve seen people use the Like button to connect more with loved ones or the #MeToo movement, which predates social media, the fact that they were able to have such a massive conversation with millions and millions of people in a short period of time, those social movements are spread on the wings of social media. Those impacts are positive and inspiring. There are other consequences around addiction to smartphones and political polarisation that have been more disturbing and, in hindsight … showing people only what they like is sometimes not the best because you could continually reinforce somebody’s viewpoint – that could lead to radicalisation.”

Work should be about work

In some ways, you get the sense that Rosenstein, with the various products he helped to create, was building up to Asana.

“Gchat was the beginning of chat on the web and Google Drive was about putting files on the web and, now that I look back, chat and files are both important, but they are not sufficient to solve the collaboration problem.

“It needs a third pillar beyond chat and files, which is the ability to manage work and to see in one place what are all the steps for accomplishing our goals and who is responsible for those steps and when can I expect them to be done by. I built three of these pillars in my career and Asana is significantly the most important because it enables people to drive work to completion and integrates with Drive, Slack – but at the centre of the work for our customers is the work itself.”

Asana had its origins at Facebook when Rosenstein and Moskovitz built an internal tool that caught on like wildfire across the organisation. But it seems that it was Rosenstein’s initial culture shock on entering the formal world of work and his quick realisation that most people at work spend time managing each other than actually doing any real work that informed his passion for creating Asana.

“Google was my first job out of college. I had this fantasy [that it was] going to be great. I used to work alone in my bedroom as a teenager making software. I thought: ‘Now I’ll be working with teams, it will be like my work alone, only faster!’ That didn’t turn out to be the case. I was quite depressed and frustrated to realise that, actually, you work on a team that spends the majority of the time doing work about work – meetings, status updates, emails and all this stuff to keep everyone on the same page – than completing tasks.

“While at Facebook, Dustin and I built an internal tool to solve this. We thought about keeping that to ourselves as an internal tool. But when we thought about it more deeply, we realised that this is a problem that is not unique to Facebook or Google or to tech companies, but this is a universal problem. And we had really developed something that was a universal solution to this problem of how you keep everyone coordinated.

“Asana is software that enables teams to manage, organise and enable all of their work, and we see that working for everything from small businesses automating their tasks to giant companies being able to track strategic initiatives at executive level.”

One of the interesting things about the present generation of upstart nouveau enterprise players that are focused on the future of work – including Asana, Slack, Wrike, Atlassian and Trello – is that they are fixing problems that their predecessors or contemporaries – such as Microsoft, SAP, IBM and others – were supposed to have fixed ages ago: basically, getting workers organised.

“I think they failed in the scope of their ambition. It’s funny, when I first started my career, I found myself as a leader of smaller, then larger teams. At first, I felt insecure that I must be doing my job badly. There is no way that this is normal, there is no way that the average team in the world is spending so much time on work about work.

“As I started to ask around, I discovered that Google and Facebook were relatively fast at stuff and, for most companies, it was even worse. Massive companies spent money on big, integrated software, and I tried a lot of it – Microsoft Project, ERP, CRM, all of these different tools – and then found they were not up to the task.

“I don’t know if I would have thought to start Asana if they had worked internally. So, we built a tool from scratch that competes with those things and I think Asana is way better than all those tools now. It even was from fairly early on; it is pretty staggering.”

Appealing to consumers

Another key point is that the penchant for new enterprise tools or new work tools is being led by the workers themselves, not by a CIO wined and dined by corporate salespeople.

“We have really come to expect a higher quality of software over time from our experience as consumers. The software we use at home – on iPhones, Facebook, Google – you don’t really need training to fire up a web browser, you walk into an app store, buy these things, and then just pick up and start using without a manual.

“And yet, it did not automatically follow that enterprise software would follow that route. Dustin and I had experience building consumer tools that billions of people were using, that were extremely easy to use from the start and were beautifully designed. And so, it was very natural and obvious to us to take that consumer design and bring that into the enterprise software world where all of the incumbent players were just terrible at designing software that people would be happy to use.

“With work management in particular, there is a thing you need in order to succeed, which is you need to be simultaneously powerful enough to be able to run complex operations of large organisations, and at the same time be easy enough to use and well designed so that the average worker in those companies can pick it up and use it without any training.

“Doing both of those things at the same time is extremely difficult, and Asana is the only player in the work management space that has those qualities.”

Looking to the future, Asana has big plans, including opening a new data centre in Frankfurt in the first half of 2019, expanding its global footprint in Asia Pacific with new offices in Sydney and Tokyo, as well as accelerating its product roadmap.

“In terms of international growth, the bulk of hires will be in European offices in Dublin as well as Australia and Japan. In Dublin, we doubled headcount from 17 to 35 people and we expect to do the same next year,” Rosenstein concluded. “Doubling in Dublin each year is testament to our workforce.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years