Steve Evans talks to Alastair Mitchell, co-founder and CEO of collaboration start-up Huddle, about why they are not a social enterprise vendor and what exactly is wrong with Microsoft’s SharePoint
Let’s start with a bit of background on Huddle.
We’re just over 4 years old and are VC backed. We’ve raised $40m to date, the most recent round was $24m. So we’re very well funded, especially for a UK business and we’re growing fast. We’ve tripled in size every year since we launched. This year parts of the business will grow by almost 800%.
We are co-headquartered in London [overlooking the famous Old Street roundabout] and San Francisco. We also have offices in New York and are looking to open another in Washington DC soon.
We’re an enterprise platform for content collaboration. That means we are not a pure play social vendor; we are a content vendor that believes social is an important part of the content.
Our job is to displace SharePoint. That’s an $8bn to $10bn franchise and it’s in play at a very high percentage of the world’s enterprise and government organisations. That was always the goal. The only thing that’s changed is we’ve gone more and more into the enterprise. When we started we wanted to provide a version of SharePoint in the cloud for small businesses, but we were quickly brought into the enterprise.
But why does SharePoint need to be replaced? What’s wrong with it?
There’s a lot wrong with it. You can talk about cost, you can talk about user adoption, these are reasons why people don’t like it. They use it because it’s the only thing they’ve got. But the big driver is that it was born for the non-Internet era. Fundamental architectures come along that change the industry, and cloud is one of those. Basically it’s because traditional, on-premise software was designed for a server – you installed it on a server and everyone connected to it. That is a dead or dying paradigm.
Traditionally you had to go into the servers via the VPN or the network, log in, get your stuff and use it internally. If you want to use it externally you had to email it or take it on a USB. But in this social world we have become used to just logging on, from wherever you are. It’s incredible that in the enterprise it just doesn’t work like that.
Huddle is a single, web-based platform that you can access from anywhere with any device and work with a group of people on a bunch of content.
We’re not the only people going after that part of the market. It’s a $25bn space. SharePoint is our main competitor. But not the likes of Tibbr, Yammer, Chatter… they are much more social. We don’t come across them at all. Google Drive is like iCloud and DropBox and so on, it’s storage.
There is a lot of other activity in this space. The social guys are trying to become more content, there is lots of consolidation at the moment. But what we do that is different is that we’re growing very quickly and we are certainly the European leader. Almost everything else is US-based. We also have a heavy focus on the enterprise.
If you’re a small business of five people you’re probably not going to deploy Huddle. You might use Box or DropBox or Google Drive because you don’t care about security and features, you just want somewhere to bung some stuff and share it with people. So with us there is a focus on security, uptime and integration. We also have some very nice IP around the way we help you define and use your content.
Can you expand on that last point?
We’ve got a patent out on it and it’s something our bigger customers are getting very excited about. It’s also why some people have called us "the new Autonomy," which is really nice.
What they did was behind the firewall they’d look at all your content and analyse it. What happens on Facebook and similar services, there is one platform that has all your stuff on it. They work out what is useful. So if you upload a photo you don’t have to tell anyone – Facebook will share it for you. In an enterprise that just doesn’t happen. 95% of content created will just disappear into some storage system and never get read.
So what Huddle does, which no one else is doing, is figure out what is useful and tells you about it. It sounds obvious, but it just doesn’t happen in the enterprise world. It’s all cloud-based, so there is no need for Word or so on. You don’t have Word or Excel on the iPad so we’ve created an image of it for users to work on and edit.
How does it determine what is useful?
We have a series of rules and algorithms and machine learning that figures out what is useful. So if a colleague creates some content but doesn’t tell you, Huddle will flag it to you and even sync it to your device. It’s based on a whole load of different algorithms such as who you work with and your relationship to the content, for example. We rank every bit of content and person and work out what’s important, and display the content to them.
What about the possibility of a user seeing content they are not supposed to?
It won’t show them the content. That’s the complex bit. In a social world you don’t care about that but in the enterprise you really do. Huddle has a whole load of sophisticated controls to work out who can see what, even if a user is invited into the "huddle". What they can see will still be controlled. Also, they will only be allowed to make changes if they have permission to.
Mobile devices are not the most secure so how to you approach security?
The security perception of cloud is changing. Those sectors that are still behind are mostly due to legal and compliance issues. For example both the UK and US governments have embraced the cloud but there are some elements that will never move there, such as personal tax returns. That will have to be secured on their secure version of the cloud [The GSI]. It’s the same with banks.
We have multiple data centres in multiple locations and can help with the encryption of content. We’ve launched a version of Huddle that governments can run on their own secure networks, like a massive on-premise version that serves a mini-internet.
We can provide higher uptime and security than your own IT department because it’s all we care about. That’s what people are now realising and that’s why they are becoming increasingly comfortable. We guarantee three nines uptime and give you money back if we don’t meet it. And when we say uptime we mean there is no such thing as scheduled maintenance; we release every four weeks with zero downtime.
You’ve made it clear that you are not a social vendor but your most recent updates lean very heavily towards that space.
There is a big difference between a pure play social vendor and a social collaboration tool. Social is a feature; every bit of software in the future will be social, it’s just the way it will be. The social enterprise will just become the enterprise.
So if you are pitching Huddle as a SharePoint alternative, do you think Microsoft may come knocking at the door?
Maybe, but we’re having too much fun going after them at the moment. For example, last year there was a SharePoint conference in Anaheim, California, with 5,000 attendees. It couldn’t have been much fun for anyone so we decided to hire a 120-person marching band. It was four blocks long, complete with cheerleaders, all wearing Huddle clothing. We marched them straight into the conference venue.
You did something similar against Yammer recently as well?
We did, although that wasn’t against Yammer as such, we love them and think they are great guys. It was purely against Microsoft. We had so many CVs from people at Yammer and at Microsoft.
Do you think the purchase of Yammer was a way of fighting back against Huddle?
Definitely against people like us. It’s not going to work. They will kill Yammer, they’ll try to crowbar it in [to SharePoint]. How do you integrate an on-premise product with a cloud product?
What about an IPO?
That’s much more on the cards. We want to be a big, standalone business. We think we’ve got a very powerful concept and platform. I’d say within the next two to three years.
To hear Alastair’s views on the burgeoning tech scene in east London, where Huddle is based, click here. He also has some very interesting comments on the VC scene here and why UK businesses will struggle compared to US start-ups.