This blog has been quiet for the past couple years, as we’ve been heads-down developing and working with early clients & pilots. As we are now emerging to show the world what we’ve built, it’s time to bring the blog back online and provide an update on our transformation.
For the best summary of DotAlign today, please check out our product demo and company overview presentation delivered by our CEO at dotalign.com. To catch up on the path that led from our last blog post to today, please read on…
2013 – Strategic Crossroads
In that last post we described a shift to productivity within Microsoft Outlook. Certainly given the overload of emails we all receive, this is a problem worth solving. As we delved into the problem and spoke with prospective clients about their pain points, we discovered that inbox productivity is closely related to relationship management. After all, emails contain the true record of correspondence across the web of one’s relationships. They contain data embedded in signature blocks and headers, not to mention related data such as calendar appointments and contact cards. Manually typed CRM notes should just be a supplement to these data sources.
Our client prospects also maintained quite strongly that customer relationship management (CRM), though an $18B growing to $36B industry, does a generally poor job in delighting end-users. They illustrated how CRM software requires tedious administration and data input. In their candid moments, professionals also explained that traditional CRM generates a high degree of anxiety, as end-users worry that their hard-earned relationships will be misappropriated by other colleagues. They also cited slow and cumbersome workflows. Together we identified that email would be a great source of Big Data to a CRM, but only if it could be done in a way that addressed the anxieties of end-users and compliance professionals. As long as we were planning to look at email, and do it in a unique way that allayed those concerns, they encouraged us to look at CRM.
At this point we faced a cross-roads. We could create a set of productivity tools within Outlook, or explore email as a source of Big Data to drive strategic relationship insights. Some inbox productivity tools would require very little knowledge of data and content. For example, we envisioned hot keys for quick filing to folders. (We later learned that Outlook Quick Steps allow this.) Perhaps we could quickly get a product out to market that bundled a set of productivity widgets. However, the tools that resonated the most with prospective users were the ones that require an understanding of data and content, such as “Who owes me a reply?”. Asking questions of Outlook on-demand simply couldn’t power such tools. That led us to realize that a truly valuable inbox companion should leverage a locally cached database of data and related insights.
We decided during 2013 to “go big” and create a system for relationship intelligence as well as inbox productivity. By the end of the year we had a working prototype and were holding sales meetings. (We lost a few months building a prototype against a red herring spec provided by a prospect, but that’s another story.) One firm, a boutique investment bank, liked our approach but had some specific requirements: they wanted to be able to replace a competitor’s system that centrally indexed Exchange Server. Although we would have preferred to do Exchange as phase two (e.g. as a supplement to Outlook-based indexing), earning a paying client and unseating a competitor was impossible to pass up. It would also give us the chance to learn how to work with truly large volumes of data in a real-world environment.
2014 – Big Data Indeed
In early 2014 we signed that first client. We were now three people coding two separate projects that would eventually converge: DotAlign for Outlook and DotAlign for Exchange. Of course, since we had a paying client for the Exchange product, it took top priority. As we had hoped, we learned a tremendous amount by working with terabyte-level data volumes in the real world via Exchange. The client also asked us to integrate with Salesforce, which we knew would be an important experience to have under our belts. A particular challenge that we had to solve was how to push to Salesforce the addition, deletion, merging, or splitting of Person or Company records. That said, we were pleased to power the client’s Salesforce implementation with relationship “scores” (who-knows-who well) powered by DotAlign.
The three of us spent 2014 incorporating lessons into the Exchange and Outlook products. We also ran demos for a wide range of enterprise prospects and received a resounding reception. Our pipeline of interest included decision-makers from several each of investment banks, private equity firms, Fortune 500 corporations, law firms, and accounting firms. Our message resonated particularly well at companies with secure corporate environments. This was due to our unique approach to sensitive data, e.g. keeping it all behind the firewall and allaying the anxieties of the individual professional.
As we worked to coordinate pilots with the firms in the pipeline, a key requirement became clear. We would need to find a way to enable collaboration without IT setup requirements. Clients wanted the data to stay behind the firewall, but they also didn’t want to incur the IT burden of setting up a SQL Server database until after a successful pilot. Enterprise sales cycles are already notoriously long, and so we took this problem seriously. Eventually we conceived of a unique approach for turn-key collaboration that met these requirements; a patent is pending on it.
Just after year-end we closed an investment round from existing investors, including material amounts from the management team. 2015 promised to be the year of go-to-market and closing a lot of contracts.
2015 – Learned from Pilots
We expected remaining work in 2015 toward the patent-pending architecture that allows turn-key collaboration. This seemed like something that could happen in parallel with driving the sales funnel, as it primarily impacted the length of sales cycle rather than the end-user experience. However, we also encountered the unhappy realization during early 2015 that entity management (tying together people and companies), an already hard problem, is even more difficult in a decentralized system. Whereas v1 of our Exchange product allowed for a single central database, our Outlook product (and our future direction) did not have the luxury of this requirement. A smooth end-user experience had to recognize and de-dupe People and Companies even when offline or when analyzing an un-shared data store.
When a pilot firm called saying that two people with the same name had been auto-merged and now needed to be split, our first instinct was to port over the code from our Exchange product. (We knew this feature would be important for a full-scale roll-out, but wanted to get feedback on an MVP.) However, it soon became apparent that certain assumptions, such as a “master Id” for person and company records, could not port over. The already difficult challenge of merging and splitting entity records turns out to be much more complicated in a decentralized model.
Without delving too deeply into the details, suffice to say that certain assumptions at the heart of the data model had to be revisited. This took quite a long time, but our unique approach now serves as a barrier to entry and a source of competitive advantage. Most provider have enough trouble managing duplicate entities, and rely on manual administration. Our system now allows for “n” sources of information on people, companies, and relationships that can automatically and seamlessly fit together.
2016 – Turn-Key and Mobile; Back-to-Market
Here now in early 2016, we are in the enviable position of having the only system for rich collaboration (be it social or CRM in nature) that avoids IT database setup requirements, yet keeps data behind the firewall. Once testing is complete, we will be excited to circle back to early prospects where database setup was an obstacle. Meanwhile, the application itself is in use as part of a strategic relationship with a late-stage VC firm. And our mobile application is at long last nearing completion.
We are excited to be back out in the marketplace, as this problem needs solving just as much as ever. Sensitive sources of data such as email are by far the most important source of Network Relationship Intelligence. Today, that treasure trove of valuable content is untapped due to concerns about security and privacy. We are pleased to offer a solution that allays the concerns of the individual as well as those of compliance. To learn more, check out the videos at dotalign.com and/or contact us for a demonstration.