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One app to replace them all? ClickUp's CEO on the future of productivity, and how ClickUp addresses the proliferation of productivity tools

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed February 3, 2021
At diginomica, we put plenty of productivity tools through the workflow grinder. Our use of ClickUp raises questions about tool flexibility, integration, and the proliferation of productivity tools. Time to sort that out with ClickUp CEO Zeb Evans.

Zeb Evans - CEO ClickUp
(Zeb Evans - CEO ClickUp talking shop)

The future of work is a debate I can't resist - stoked by the urgency of getting things done in the pandemic economy.

I first learned about ClickUp when it filled a gap in diginomica's own content management workflow. This is no small achievement - you could light a big virtual fire with all the tools diginomica has tried and discarded.

I was immediately struck by the flexibility of what we could do in ClickUp (example: create a partner editorial management system, when the tool wasn't specifically designed for that use case at all). The geeky learning curve also struck me, perhaps made steeper by that same appealing flexibility. But we're pretty geeky around here - and we were up to the challenge. And there were huge advantages to designing our own setup; the results were notable.

ClickUp on tool flexibility - and enterprise scale

So if we hop on the buzzwords-du-jour, does this make ClickUp a low-code or no-code tool? And what does ClickUp say about the future of collaboration, in the remote work era and beyond? ClickUp CEO Zeb Evans was the right guy to ask. When I caught up with Evans, his team was hashing lessons from LevelUp their recent virtual event (you can catch the replays from LevelUp on YouTube).

What does ClickUp's team see in store, as we dive headlong into 2021? As Evans told me:

Honestly, it's a lot of the same from 2020. Obviously, with what's going on, more people are certainly moving into productivity, or at least accelerating into productivity software. So we've been able to help a lot of people kind of come online, if you will.

But ClickUp stretches from SMB to enterprise - that's always been there, at least in the vision. So you can come to ClickUp, and build whatever you need, for anything you're working on within your organization. So that's what we're continuing to see. And certainly what we're doubling down on in 2021.

I've wondered how ClickUp would work at enterprise scale, not so much in terms of performance, but workflow management. Would it get confusing, or too noisy? Just how big an organization can take advantage? Evans:

We have organizations with several thousand people that are using ClickUp. Right now, we do have a deal in the pipeline for a very large company that would be tens of thousands of users. So to answer your question, there are certainly going to be some problems with scaling that large.

So how do you solve that? Evans says it will require judicious use of the tool, and customer dialogue:

You wouldn't really want 10,000 people in one workspace, regardless of whether ClickUp could handle it or not. So we're focused on learning from that and listening to them. But with that said, we're not focused just on the enterprise. We want a startup to be able to come with us, and then build their startup into several people, grow to a mid-market business, and then an enterprise - without having to leave the product.

One app to replace them all? The persistent problem of workflow integration

Tracing back, what problem was Evans trying to solve? After all, there are no shortage of productivity and project management tools. Evans told me he built ClickUp initially for internal use. He was on a startup team struggling with tool proliferation:

We basically began with Basecamp. Basecamp was great with a couple of people with very simple needs, it was nothing too customizable, but it was good. By the time we had 80 people, we were spread out. We still used Basecamp, but we used JIRA for engineering; we used Asana for marketing; we had Trello for their boards; we had "to do" lists for reminders, we had an app for approvals. We had Google Sheets; we had Google Docs; we had Evernote; we had Skype and Slack. So there were twenty different productivity tools. I could not help but think: these things are not making us more productive - they're actually wasting time. And that's where the idea for ClickUp was born.

Given how flexible ClickUp can be, I wanted to know: what are the most memorable examples? Evans gave me two of his favorites - one domestic, and one that is anything but.

We've seen families that use ClickUp for chores and "whose turn it is to take out the trash," and things like that.  And then on the other extreme is people sending rockets to outer space. We have a lot of companies that are building the Hyperloop right now on ClickUp.

But I'd be willing to bet most ClickUp users still rely on other tools alongside ClickUp. Reducing the dizzying array of cloud productivity tools is a welcome goal, but the need for integrations is not going away. In our case, we rely on Google Workspace tools. The more they integrate with ClickUp, the better off we are (ClickUp has a number of Google Workplace integrations). So how do you balance the ClickUp branding of "One app to replace them all" with necessary integrations? Evans:

Users are either replacing ClickUp with a tool, or they're not going to replace it with a tool. And in that case, we want to be able to integrate really deeply with those tools. So we look at integrations not just on the surface level, which is how other products have done it historically. We look at it very deeply.

With things like our Google integration, you can put a Google Doc or Google Sheet inside of ClickUp, and work from there. Ideally, we'd be in a scenario where we could replace those tools, where you don't have to use them externally. But of course, there's going to be tools that you always have to use externally - for things that we just aren't going to cover.

My take - on no-code, integration and ClickUp's vision

ClickUp will probably always have a tension between its degree of flexibility and the learning curve with the product itself. However, I'm sure that learning curve can be lessened. I don't see the techie/Slack/IFTTT generation struggling to use ClickUp at all. But the business user? Perhaps. Evans told me that making ClickUp simpler to ramp-up is big on ClickUp's 2021 radar also.

How will this be addressed? By adding customized templates, and an app center that allows customers to piggyback on each other's creations. He told me they are thinking about a "simple" version of ClickUp to start with, one that grows out with you. Designing from a role-based perspective could also help. Evans:

There's always going to be a struggle when you can do everything on a platform, like: how do you present best to that person? And it starts with just figuring out who that person is. That's what we're focused on now, is building something where you can tell us, "Hey, what are you looking to do? What are your goals with ClickUp?" And then automatically, we set them up for you. I think that'll be a big help in that problem.

ClickUp is also pressing ahead on mobile ease of use, with "email within ClickUp" on the roadmap also. And, eventually, chat. With product updates shipping weekly, that should keep the ClickUp development team seriously busy.

As for that no-code thing, I found it revealing Evans didn't even bring that jargon up. I'm good with that - no one needs to get carried away with tech-happy-talk. ClickUp hails from a product category (cloud productivity apps) that assumes no-code/low-code out of the gate.

Still, I think ClickUp could make noise along these lines, given the flexibility their tool provides, for those who don't want to touch code. I also like the granular attention to notifications. So many vendors shy away from granular notification settings, worried about confusing users with too many options. Yet getting notifications just right is important - particularly for folks like me who don't live in the tool, but need to know when we're mentioned, or tasks are assigned to us (which is always fun to find out!)

Overall, I like ClickUp's approach to integration. Don't just fall back on APIs, but own the integrations between your product and the most popular link-ups. Don't fall back on IFTTT either - though full integration with IFTTT seems to be popular on ClickUp's crowdsourced feature requests.

As for this "One app to replace them all," I view that as a terrific product motivation, but not a realistic goal. If I were ClickUp, I'd consider two kinds of users: those who live in ClickUp as their productive home, and those who frequently visit, driven by notifications, but never intend to live there. Pursue a product vision where both are equally viable. For those who treat ClickUp as their home base, there are two branches within that. Some will want to use third-party tools natively in ClickUp. Others may be willing to try ClickUp's own version of such a tool. As for which functionality to build out and which to allow in, those tougher decisions ClickUp will have to make.

ClickUp is one of the most interesting workplace tools I've tried. I'd say that if we weren't a customer. My next step would be to talk to a much larger ClickUp customer. I'd be fascinated to hear how they've customized the tool - and how they function on much larger teams. Remote work is pushing us; we need these stories.

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