Asana: Dustin and Justin's Quest for Flow
In the early days of Facebook, when it was still run out of a dorm at Harvard, Dustin Moskovitz was the guy who kept the site functioning smoothly. An economics major with only an intro to computer science class under his belt, Moskovitz taught himself programming on the fly. After he and his roommate Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of school and relocated to Silicon Valley, Facebook grew into a full-fledged business, with layers of management and hundreds of new recruits. For two weeks, Moskovitz would have one-on-one meetings with his direct reports, who would then spend two weeks meeting with their reports. “I had this very visceral experience where at the end of a four-week cycle, I would know what was going on the previous month,” he says.
Moskovitz started commiserating with a colleague named Justin Rosenstein, a programming prodigy who led the team that built Facebook’s Like button, among other projects. The two have very different personalities. Moskovitz is sedate, matter-of-fact, and speaks as little as possible. Rosenstein is a free spirit who dyes his hair for the annual Burning Man festival (red this year), goes on weeklong trips into the woods to meditate, and is given to extended digressions on the nature of work. “In the Industrial Revolution, the manufacturing processes weren’t designed with humans in mind,” begins one answer to a question about software.
The pair bonded over a shared passion for yoga and figuring out ways to work more efficiently. Rosenstein had been agonizing over the issue for years: He took his first stab at writing productivity software when he was 11, distributing a disk to friends that let them select DOS programs by entering a number instead Illustration by Bloomberg Viewof typing out lengthy command-line sequences.
Eventually, Moskovitz decided to quit complaining and do something to stem the inundation of process. In 2006 he launched a skunkworks to build apps that Facebook employees could use internally. By 2008, he was working full-time on the project, which included a discussion tool, a task manager, and an employee directory. The company still uses versions of these apps today.
As the months went on, helping Facebook save time and costs didn’t seem like a big enough goal for Moskovitz. He was already rich—and is now, at 27, the world’s youngest billionaire (he’s eight days younger than Zuckerberg). Although Zuckerberg wanted to keep his co-founder at Facebook, they agreed his new pursuit would be a distraction. In November 2008, Moskovitz and Rosenstein left the company that built what may be the single biggest time-waster ever, and, evidently yearning for karmic balance, launched a workplace productivity software company.
“Some people would say, ‘you have hundreds of millions of dollars, obviously what you do now is go live a hedonistic lifestyle or retire,’ ” Moskovitz says. “What we want to do is contribute to the world and make everyone more effective.”
The new company is called Asana, after a Sanskrit word meaning “yoga pose.” On Nov. 2 it unveiled a product of the same name. Asana is essentially a superfast, Web-based to-do list that lets people create tasks, prioritize them, assign them to colleagues, and follow the stream of work as it all gets done. Moskovitz envisions it as a home screen for work in the same way that Facebook is a home screen for goofing off.
Productivity software has a long history. VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, turned PCs from hobbyist curiosities into proper business machines. Lotus 1-2-3 had sales of $156 million in 1984, the second year of operation for Lotus Development. Microsoft Office remains one of the most profitable products ever created. Yet none of the above simplify some of the basic tasks faced by knowledge workers. People tend to organize day-to-day activities on sheets of paper, a personal calendar, e-mailed reminders, whatever does the job. Meetings kick off with a round-robin summing up where everyone left off last week. Then new projects are assigned, and people scribble down what they’re supposed to do. Come next week, the cycle begins anew.
To escape from that all-too-common morass, says Moskovitz, companies need “a single version of the truth” about what everyone is doing. Asana is meant to supply that: a single place where people can see every project colleagues are working on, answer questions, and get instant updates about how the work is progressing. As people spend less time dealing with day-to-day functions, according to the Dustin and Justin theory of productivity, they have more time for things they care about. They get clearer minds too, says Rosenstein, which puts them closer to perfect focus. “It’s that state you get into when you’re working, when you’re doing something creative, where you lose track of time, you forget who you are,” he says. “You’re just in the zone working on that one thing.”
Psychologists have a term for this state of mind: flow. The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “chik-sent-me-high-ee”) has studied flow for decades. While in such a state, people take deeper, more regular breaths. Their heartbeats slow. “Whether it’s music, rock climbing, painting, or whatever, the same conditions apply,” says Csíkszentmihályi, who teaches at Claremont Graduate University. To achieve flow, people need a clear task that’s challenging but not beyond their abilities; clear feedback; and an emotional state somewhere between bored and stressed. “When all of these conditions apply, you start being able to concentrate on what you’re doing, and you know exactly what you want to do,” he says.
E-mails, tweets, project meetings, clunky software—all of these standard workplace phenomena impede flow. “Flow is under attack,” Rosenstein says, and goes off on another riff. “One of the key challenges of yoga practice is, how can you find an ease and a comfort and relaxation, even when you’re literally stretching yourself to your limits? With Asana, we try to help teams achieve that ease and comfort and confidence to act even while they’re stretching their capabilities.” Moskovitz nods in agreement.
The co-founders are sitting in their flow-compliant office in the northern edge of San Francisco’s Mission District. A cooling, gray wash of paint coats the walls, and the 19 employees have ample room to roam. Everyone gets hydraulic desks on wheels, which can be raised for the standing-worker position. Every few weeks the desks are rolled into new formations as team assignments dictate. A chef prepares meals to the dietary preferences of each employee—vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians abound. The kitchen area has a wide selection of liquor, energy aids, and coconut-water drinks. Two days a week the dining room is cleared for companywide yoga sessions. It’s Club Med for coders.
Moskovitz and Rosenstein don’t claim that Asana’s sumptuous working environment—or Asana’s product—ensures flow. Rather, the goal is to create Csíkszentmihályi’s conditions for it. Productivity software only really works, though, if the user wants to be productive.
When you pull up Asana on a browser, it divides the screen into three panes. From left to right, they are Projects, Tasks, and a running, automatically refreshed stream of what’s getting done that will be familiar to anyone who’s used Facebook. You can call up a project—say, “Photos for Honda Civic Ad”—and then click on it to reveal the associated tasks in the middle pane. There you might see things like “Call Joe the photographer about shoot,” “Get engine graphic,” “Brainstorm session on slogan,” and “Lower budget.” Click on “Get engine graphic,” and the task wall opens up to the right, showing everyone that’s following this task, a due date, attached documents and pictures, and comments. You can move tasks around with a mouse or use keyboard shortcuts to mark something as complete, add a new comment, or flip to a new project. As people update a task, alerts go to their e-mail. You can respond to those alerts straight from e-mail without entering Asana.
The founders position Asana’s to-do list structure as a starting point, and plan to build future modules tailored to specific tasks such as performance reviews and recruiting. A la Facebook, they will look for third parties to build add-ons, so scientists might craft their own lab notebook systems and businesspeople might build systems to track sales leads.
Asana has been beta testing the software since the middle of last year at hundreds of companies. One of the testers is Tyler Ginter, a former platoon leader in the Army who served in Iraq. He now runs a video production company in New York called Variable and uses Asana to manage about 4,000 tasks. When producing a commercial, Ginter will set up a new project and create items underneath it—tasks, in Asana lingo—tied to securing a shooting location, organizing freelancers, writing the script, and filing away ideas from brainstorming sessions. “We’re trying to pull away from e-mail and use Asana as our foundation,” Ginter says.
Brian Frezza, the co-chief executive officer at pharmaceutical startup Emerald Therapeutics, says Asana has helped his company tame meetings run amok. As Emerald grew from three to eight people, Frezza spent most of his time in one-on-one chats, making sure each researcher was tackling the right task in the right way. Part of the problem was everyone having their own to-do lists on white boards. “All those quick meetings were starting to dominate our daily activities,” Frezza says. “After we implemented Asana, we keep meetings to major stuff, like brainstorming sessions, companywide updates, etc. We’re back to doing science now, which is awesome.”
The software takes some getting used to. At first it can feel like one more burden that eats time instead of creating it. People used to checking e-mail for clues about what to do next must now go to a screen filled with everything they’re supposed to do. Co-workers can assign them to tasks on the fly, and a flurry of comments, which require perusal, accompany most tasks. There’s no built-in e-mail application, or even a calendar, although more features arrive by the week. Frezza remembers employees needing a month to shift from e-mail and constant face-to-face updates. A couple people on the team refused to use Asana, but they got on board when Frezza stopped having meetings with them. Now, he says, it’s, “Dude, why are you talking to me? Just Asana it.”
In addition to Office and Microsoft’s Web-based products, Asana has newer competitors, too. Salesforce.com’s Chatter, Yammer, Jive, and Basecamp are all vying for a chunk of the productivity-software market. No one has a precise value, but the market is worth at least tens of billions of dollars a year. Microsoft’s business software division alone had sales of $22 billion in the year ended June 30.
Cosmetically, Asana appears similar to some rival services such as Thymer and GQueues, which also split up the screen into different project areas. What separates Asana from the pack is the attention to speed and turning tasks into living objects. Asana feels much more like a speedy desktop application than a Web service. Type something in, hit Enter, and boom—it appears on the screen.
The decision by a business customer to purchase productivity software usually comes from the top, with companies signing megadeals that cover all their employees. Asana hopes to creep in from the bottom using the consumer Web trick of making the product free—at least for groups of up to 30 people. The idea is that small groups within companies will try out Asana, and that some employees will even use it to manage their personal affairs. Once addicted, those groups will draw others until whole companies end up as paying customers. (Asana has yet to set pricing for larger groups.)
Toward the end of a visit in October at Asana’s offices, a conversation with Dustin and Justin turns to how rare it is for people in tech to hit it big twice. “I didn’t realize that’s an adage,” Moskovitz says, as employees sit or stand—presumably in a state of flow—at their hydraulic desks, putting the final touches on the software before launch. Each of Asana’s 19 staffers receives a stipend of $10,000 to buy all the computing gear they need, and it’s clear a good portion of it goes toward monster flat-screen displays. “There’s research that shows you work faster when you have more pixels at your disposal,” Rosenstein says. “You might have picked up on our obsession with productivity.” —With reporting by Dina Bass