No Email please, we’re collaborating.

Startups rely on constant, open sharing of information across all functions in order to have a shot at becoming a company. However, the most common tool for communications – Email, like cubicles in office layouts, encourages silos of information rather than easy, frictionless, and continual sharing.

I believe collaboration only happens when it happens all the time. It is not an activity that can be scheduled in meetings or forced via specific/distinct applications foisted on employees. I  think it needs to be a central part of a primary nervous system used in a startup.

While multiple attempts have been made to ‘fix email’ (ShortMail, MinBox,…), I think a bolder new approach may be required – no email. Instead, replace email with a simpler communication system that enables open participation across all employees in a startup.

The idea is quite simple – all employees ‘publish’ everything they do, and others ‘subscribe’ to whoever they need to subscribe to – in order to do their work. I call it NAIL, a portmanteau of NoEmail.

There are three canonical streams of communications that need to flow in such a system:

Work/Activity: Everything an employee does is published here. Code/dev/test/get/push/A-B/Customer-prezo/Company Ops updates/HR/Admin
Collaborate: Anything that requires two or more people to work together. Includes click-to-video, click-to-talk
Educate: Everyone’s capture of what you learnt + what you want others to learn. resources, configurations, external-resources, blogs, faqs,…

Streams in the flow

The information flowing in this communications system can be presented in a simple way using a (Dave Winer’s) reverse chronological streams of the three categories. In the interest of fast browsing, snippets can be limited to 2 lines of text+links or even 140 chrs in a nod to the popularly accepted tweet limit.

Underlying these three flows are a robust message bus, calendar system, and other Voice/Video-over-IP support. (Think UDP-fast).

A minimum feature set for such a system is:

  • Allow anyone to subscribe to anyone else.
  • Accounts for people, groups, and systems (let the db NAIL its pain)
  • @reply, @group-reply, @DM, @Group-DM
  • Archive everything. Make it all searchable.
  • Click-to-multiparty Video Call, Single click-to-multiparty Voice call built in.
  • Recommendations section of suggested people + content to follow for new employees and all users. Min-list by function, then suggest by interests, activities.
  • Must be Mobile from day-1.
  • Encourage Photos/other-media capture (especially in collaborate stream)

For communications external to the startup, use email as a connector to/from the primary communications system. For incoming emails to a user, map it as @user in to their “Collaborate” stream.mapping email to message

For outgoing email messages, map the message and attachments to standard email and also publish to ‘Work’ stream. Private outgoing messages can be DM’ed which suppress publish. mapping message to email

I have no idea if something like this scales well to large organizations or large groups but for small (<10?) work groups, I think this just might work better than email. Of course, in true startup spirit, if you can hack together NAIL on top of Twitter, even better…