Asana’s Robbie O’Connor: ‘We are living in the age of urgency’

8 Jun 2018

Robbie O’Connor, head of EMEA sales, Asana. Image: Asana

Asana is the collaboration platform taking the world of work by storm and it is growing fast in Dublin. Robbie O’Connor says the new enterprise app revolution needs to stay focused on productivity.

Asana is the workplace productivity tool created by Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook, and Justin Rosenstein, the creator of Facebook’s Like button and Google Chat.

Companies use Asana to manage everything from marketing campaigns to product launches to team goals. It has millions of members of teams using it in more than 192 countries.

‘There is an over-emphasis on tools and this can lead to “suffocation by application” and many companies suffer from this “work about work” phenomenon or planning to plan’

The company – part of a new generation of enterprise software players that include Slack, Dropbox, Trello and Wrike, to name a few – recently raised $75m in an investment led by Al Gore’s London-based sustainable investment firm Generation.

Also backed by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Asana has more than 35,000 paying customers, including Tesco, Sky, Uber, Danone, Chanel, Santander, Spotify, Uber and IBM as well as organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Khan Academy.

Asana established its Dublin office to support rapid user growth in the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region.

The head of Asana’s EMEA operation, which employs 25 people, is Robbie O’Connor. Prior to Asana, he was head of EMEA sales development at Dropbox and before that, he was in charge of enterprise partnerships at Google Maps.

How would you best sum up Asana and its place in the working world?

Asana, at its core element, is a work-tracking tool. We built Asana and designed it with the belief that everybody in work has to manage projects, even if you are not a trained project manager, and it should be simple and easy and you should have the tools available to do this in a powerful way.

That’s why we designed it the way we have. We are living in an era that can best be described as the age of urgency. Companies need to move faster all the time and a whole plethora of collaboration tools have sprung up recently to enable that fast working.

We break it into three categories: communications, content and coordination. There are lots of different apps out there, but Asana ties it all together from a coordination standpoint.

How does Asana differentiate itself from the plethora of new enterprise apps? Does it compete with them or does it complement them?

We look at the competitive landscape in a number of ways. There’s the more traditional tools that many people continue to use, like spreadsheets, and that’s how they are managing and organising their work.

Unlike spreadsheets, Asana was built to help teams manage their work, their plans, their processes and responsibilities, and it scales to an unlimited number of users.

As we look at the more modern tools or companies that work in a similar area to us, we see them as project management tools masquerading as work management tools. Those companies suffer from long deployment cycles and really low adoption rates.

Asana is the user’s choice. We are the highest-reviewed product within the category and we are really built from the bottom up to help teams effectively, as opposed from the top down.

Companies such as Slack and Asana are being brought into organisations by the users rather than the CIO – would you agree?

Asana actually works really well as a complementary tool to Slack. So, if you think about the three Cs, from a communication perspective, it is important to have really good communication tools like Slack.

Just like Slack, Asana has a freemium business model for initial users. We have 35,000 paying customers and hundreds of thousands of individual users.

We would have a similar ethos to Slack insofar as the enterprise model is being turned on its head and it is user adoption that is driving it.

Does this present a challenge or an opportunity for CIOs?

A CTO or a CIO’s job today is very different to what it was five years ago and definitely compared with 10 years ago. Enabling your workforce and employees to move quickly is becoming a key asset for every organisation.

And that is increasingly becoming an important part of not only the CIO or CTO’s job, but it is managers of teams or divisions of functions. They need to ensure that their workers have the right tool stack to enable them to move fast.

There are a number of technologies that have sprung up and it is quite difficult to keep track of which tools team are using. Any good leader or manager worth their salt has a good view of what tools their team needs in order to be successful.

A trend that has arisen, however, is that there is an over-emphasis on tools and this can lead to ‘suffocation by application’ and many companies suffer from this ‘work about work’ phenomenon or ‘planning to plan’.

And, with the recent rise in collaboration technologies, we are seeing an exponential increase in the amount of collaboration, but we are not necessarily seeing the same increase in productivity. So, people are collaborating more and more but they are not as productive as they used to be. This is where Asana really comes to the fore.

Where people are collaborating really well, Asana helps the project stay on track and keeps people in the know about what needs to be done and when it needs to be done by. We surveyed users recently and found that companies benefit 44pc more in terms of productivity on the projects that are managing if they are using Asana.

Who is the typical Asana user?

It is quite wide-ranging. We see Asana being used across a number of different functions and across a number of different teams. Asana is used by small teams to manage small projects and it is used in very large divisions to manage some really critical business processes as well.

We see our sweet spot being in operations, engineering, HR, sales teams, design teams – all mapping their workflows and processes.

What are Asana’s plans for Dublin?

Europe is absolutely crucial as part of our international expansion strategy. Europe is the fastest-growing region for us and we are growing four times faster here than in any other region – and they are growing fast, too.

We are being pulled into Europe. Our product is growing internationally really strongly; so much so that, two years ago, we set up a small team in Dublin that was focused on user support. Following on from that, we saw the opportunity to set up international operations and we decided that Dublin would be our headquarters for the EMEA region.

We have grown the office more than 100pc in the last year, going from 10 to 25, and we have plans to grow further into the future. In the next year, we would be expecting to grow 100pc again.

Dublin is becoming the city of the cloud. What attributes do you think make it attractive for these high-growth companies?

We are huge fans of Dublin in Asana. Ireland is seen as the established route to Europe because lots of tech companies are located here and they are flourishing here.

We work closely with the IDA and they have been absolutely excellent in making Dublin a home for Asana in EMEA.

We have noted that there is tremendous access to talent in Dublin and across a broad range of experience and skill levels, helping us to scale operations here.

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