Slack is certainly a darling in [the collaboration] space, and has been super successful. But we are really pretty different than Slack. The only people that ask me about slack are VCs and reporters. It was built by engineers for engineers, for people sitting at their computer every day. And we are decidedly not going after that space, we are going after the hotel housekeeper, the field service worker, and the retail store worker, and the healthcare working going out and visiting homes. They’re using all these consumer apps.
I think Slack is much more about collaboration than it is about communication. When you collaborate on something, you are all contributing to something that’s creating something and you need to be in sync. There’s a constant stream of dialogue that’s happening in this chatroom style interface. And mostly you want to be on your computer to be doing that.
But the problem with Slack, according to Epstein, is that it’s overwhelming to those that leave their desk for large portions of the day - or for those that don’t have a desk at all. She said:
When you go on your phone and you’ve been mobile for an hour, you get back to Slack and you have missed an hour of constant, constant dialogue.
Anyone that uses Slack knows that it has been designed to try and kill off email as much as possible. And it can be a useful tool. Although I agree with Epstein that it’s focus is largely around enterprise collaboration, rather than simply messaging and notifications.
This is where Epstein and Zinc are trying to carve out a niche in the market. They are targeting companies where a large proportion of the workforce is remote, working alone and does not have access to email throughout the day. Think of hotels, retailers, field service engineers etc.
Epstein argues that within these companies, these workers are communicating. But they’re currently using consumer apps - such as WhatsApp or iMessage - which give the IT department and the business no insight or control of what’s going on.
After a quick demo of Zinc, it’s clear that the UI and the functionality has been specifically designed to be intuitive to anyone that has used a popular consumer messaging app. It has all the features (and more) of iMessage, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, but is built to enterprise-grade security and compliance standards. Epstein said:
That’s why user experience is important in deskless industries. It needs to be just like texting. The hotel housekeeper knows how to text, because everybody knows how to text. You try to give her Slack, or Chatter, Skype - I could go on and on with the desktop apps - she would need training. She will just go back to WhatsApp, because that’s what she knows how to do. You’re not solving the problem, if you try to give them something complicated to use. That’s when you run into trouble with deskless workers.
Why not just let them use consumer apps? They’re free and everybody likes them. Security and compliance are the obvious answers. It’s not just about it being end-to-end encrypted, it’s also about knowing who’s on what app. And who is in what group. There’s no management, no control. Security is much more than wether it can be hacked into or not, it’s more about having visibility into where the communications are happening.
Epstein wants to offer IT buyers an alternative to the likes of Slack, Jive and Yammer, whereby deskless workers don’t feel daunted by a new messaging app, and yet give the IT department a tool that they can effectively work with. Epstein cited an article on CIO.com that made her particularly annoyed, which essentially outlined the popular view that you either need to lock down consumer apps amongst employees, or resign yourself to the fact that you’re not going to get insight or control into the communications.
Zinc offers the best of both worlds, according to Epstein. She said:
I saw an article recently on CIO.com and it made me irate. It was about what the IT department should do about the proliferation of consumer apps in the business. They interviewed a couple of CIOs and the conclusion was you lock it down, you tell people that they are not allowed to use any consumer apps and you just hope they won’t find a way to use it. Hope is not a good IT strategy.
And they’re not texting because they’re chit chatting, they’re texting because they want to do a better job. Why do you want to shut that down? Let them text, just let them do it in a secure way where you have visibility and you can control it.
Changes at Zinc
This strategy to focus on deskless workers has been driven by Epstein since she joined Zinc at the start of the year. Along with driving a new focus for the organisation, she has also brought in a bunch of new people to head up leadership.
Last week it was announced that John Stetic (ex-Oracle) would be Zinc’s Chief Product officer. John Dila (ex-Mixpanel) has been appointed VP of Customer Success. And Ken Webster (ex-Adobe) has been hired as VP of sales.
We’ve made a lot of changes. The industries that we focus on, the way that we market and sell our product, really the entire go-to-market strategy is new. We’ve announced a lot of additions to our leadership team. For the company it’s a lot of change.
That provides both challenges and opportunities. It’s not just like taking a company from the beginning and slowly growing it over time. This is a point in time when you inject in a whole new business model. I think it was all necessary. I’m still so bullish about the opportunity and so I feel super optimistic about how well poised we are to go and capture that.
Another big change for the company has been a shift from a freemium model to one where companies can have a trial of the product, but then have to pay based on traditional SaaS consumption. I asked Epstein how the shift away from freemium had been received. She said:
It has been great. We are still early in this market. But we are also pretty flexible with the trial. It’s a 15 day trial, but larger companies - we are talking to a 500,000 person organisation right now - they’re not going to do a 15 day trial and buy it.
I was also keen to find out from Epstein if Zinc, like other enterprise collaboration tools in the market, struggles with user adoption once it goes live within a company. Often these collaboration platforms are feature rich, but they struggle to convince the core user base that they’re necessary. Often huge programmes have to be put in place to drive adoption.
Epstein said this is the opposite for Zinc - because it is focusing on deskless workers. She said:
Our usage is pretty high. This is how people want to communicate. Now, do we impact culture? Absolutely. We have one customer, Vivint, their driving need for implementing Zinc was that they wanted to have better retention rates. They’ve got field service technicians that are out in the field, very disconnected, they’re not checking email ever.
Being on a computer is just not part of their job, so they were feeling disconnected from the organisation. We did a pilot with them and their adoption went through the roof. These people were hungry for it, they want to ask questions of their co-workers, they want to feel connected.
Finally, I wanted to gauge from Epstein how much Zinc is considering natural language as a user interface for the app. We have seen in recent months that, at an enterprise level, software companies are playing with tools, such as bots, that allow users to have conversations with their applications. Epstein agreed that this is likely to be applicable to Zinc. She said:
Long term, imagine you’re in your messaging and you’ve finished your job. And instead of having to log out and go into ServiceMax to get your next job, you just ‘hey Zinc, where is my next job?’.
And Zinc goes into ServiceMax and gets all the details and presents it to you in your messaging UI. That is just integration. Where a bot comes in, could be an automated message that says ‘ I notice you’ve been at the job for 30 minutes and this job should only take 15 minutes, do you want an installation guide?’.
No human intervention, I’m presenting something that’s going to do a better job in their messaging UI. And we’re not far off from that, that’s not challenging technology to build.
One to watch. Epstein sells the deskless worker message well and appears to be gaining traction with large enterprises. Often collaboration tools are rather complicated when it comes to the business world. Perhaps simplicity is key in this case.