Beyond the Green Dot

My most recent post on LinkedIn cross-posted here.


Ding! JohnSlayer17 has come online. Those old enough to remember that distinctive chime from AOL Instant Messenger likely have it emblazoned in memory. Little did we know that this simple notification sound and visual presence indicator would be the beginnings of a new way to work for decades to come.

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AIM and ICQ started it with status updates, such as Online, Away, Do Not Disturb, and more. Skype later introduced mobile, allowing you to be online while on the road. Then Slack brought emoji, allowing users to manually express themselves when setting a status. Despite the tech advancements made the last two decades, status has mostly remained stagnant. The green dot indicating availability hasn’t evolved, and it’s often manually set if set at all.

Now, for many, this didn’t matter. Most workers worked side-by-side with colleagues. Their physical presence provided more status than any digital manifestation ever could. It was obvious when their colleague was getting up for lunch, focused on a document, talking to someone else, or even in a joyful mood.

Then the world enters a pandemic. Suddenly, physical status is gone, and teams are solely relying upon that green dot while working from home. Colleagues have no idea who is around, when it’s best to connect without interrupting, or what’s happening outside of their core team. The lack of status and connection caused the number of meetings and scheduled discussions to skyrocket, while timely, ad-hoc collaboration and communications dissipated. And now, with many organizations returning to the office with hybrid work models, the green dot has become even more insufficient as it does little to indicate who is even at the office on any given day.

Recognizing this opportunity, an entire category of virtual office companies emerged. They created virtual maps with avatar-like heads for teammates to help colleagues visualize and replicate office presence in lieu of status indicators in workplace communication tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Unfortunately, these tools have mostly fallen flat because they were yet another messaging service to engage with when companies were increasingly entrenched with their existing communication tools.

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Meanwhile, organizations knew they had a problem. Remote work has led to Zoom fatigue, reduced motivation, impact on team morale, trust, empathy, loneliness, inability to unplug, time zone management, decreased innovation, and much more. Team metrics were plunging, and burnout was rampant. A survey by found 69% of employees feeling exasperated while a survey by Indeed found 67% of workers believe burnout has worsened during the pandemic.

In an attempt to address these challenges, some teams went fully asynchronous, abandoning status and meetings altogether. Others created a hodgepodge of custom workflows to improve awareness around availability, implementing strategies like using shared spreadsheets to enter vacations, work schedules, and in-office days or setting open calendar blocks to indicate periods during the day when team members were available for interruption. Our workdays, however, are unpredictable, and constantly updating spreadsheets, messaging channels, and calendars to reflect our current status is cumbersome, inefficient, and frequently an inaccurate indication of our availability.

Today, for example, I got up to go eat lunch; stepped out to pick up my kids from school; decided to take a work meeting from my phone; blocked two hours for a meeting that ended an hour early; and put ‘focus time’ in my shared calendar to write this article hoping that nobody would interrupt me. In each and every instance, my green dot does not reflect my true intent, but there are signals and tech to figure this out automatically.

Enter Pulse – Automatic Status

Status is more than just a snippet of text; it is a form of expression and a way to communicate intent and foster empathy. Status, in many ways, is that meta-layer for remote work that organizations have been seeking and attempting to solve but in roundabout ways.

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Automatic status can be rich and informative. It does not mean that when you’re zoning out of a meeting or deciding to cheat on your diet, everyone knows. Rather, it means that when you want the team to know you’re deep in focus designing, the tech will figure that out and update your status for you. When you want to tell your team subtly to go easy on you this evening because you are leaving for vacation tomorrow, it’ll figure that out and softly convey this in your status.

Automatic status also creates empathy. It sets expectations. It communicates your intent. When you are that lone person working from Anguilla and it’s a holiday, it’ll let your team know in status that it’s a holiday in your country today. When you are working on a shared document and you want to signal that you are available to collaborate, it’ll share, in status, that you’re in that document and invite participation. It makes every workplace experience collaborative and multi-player while reducing interruptions, increasing flow time, and making you feel more in control of your day.

Additionally, it’s transforming the digital workspace from a stale set of green dots to something more lively, as if we are working side-by-side with our colleagues. Automatic status is completely changing how we work, and the best part about this is that the tech is there to make this all happen. Amongst APIs, laptops, mobile devices, and the tools we use, the signals to determine intent are available.

I believe Pulse’s automatic status is the next step. It is the evolution of the green dot we’ve been waiting for.

Reflecting on the Productivity Category

My most recent post on LinkedIn cross-posted here.


Having spent the last 4 years working in the productivity category, I wanted to share some learnings from the space. Note, everything below is slanted towards an early-stage startup ultimately selling prosumer to SMB.

1/ Individually vs Group Useful
Sometimes called single-player vs multi-player mode but the premise is the same. Is your app useful to the individual or useful to a group (eg workplace).

For example, Asana is useful in a group but not so much as an individual. Evernote is useful to the individual but not so much in a group. Rare apps like Dropbox are both but this is not a requirement. Given that productivity apps typically touch personal data, they are not generally viral. Brainstorm ways to be both individually and group useful.

2/ Direct-to-Prosumer vs Top-Down
Is your app B2C or B2B – the trend is to drive prosumer adoption and then to sell to the SMB. Yammer pioneered this model; Xobni extended this model and in some instances it can even backfire such as when Microsoft asked their employees to uninstall the Xobni plugin.

If your app is direct-to-prosumer, you need to think about whether you can really get to 100s of M of users or 10s of M at a really high price-point. Evernote is probably the best example and is still struggling with accelerating freemium growth.

With SMB deployment, you can charge a higher SAAS price-point plus drive more seats. Ideally, you can achieve this without a sales team like Slack and Github have demonstrated but realistically, you will need an inside sales team and ignoring this reality is why I’ve seen many productivity app developers fail.

3/ Replacing In a Category vs Creating a Category
Are you an app the SMB already pays for or something they don’t yet pay for? Slack, as an example is a new category in that SMBs did not previously pay for chat. However, if are a “Todo” app, you are probably competing with an already existing tool such a Jira that the SMB pays for. Getting a company to switch tools is hard and thus why I recommend targeting super-SMBs when replacing in a category.

4/ Create Lock-In
Most productivity apps aggregate some cloud data (files, CRM etc). In the PIM (email, calendar, address book) category, we aggregated email accounts (Google, Exchange, iCloud). Being an aggregator means we are the presentation layer. But without any content exclusively stored in our system, the user can switch presentation layers without penalty.

To create lock-in, some options:
(a) Store some content exclusively
(b) Require upfront customization such as Salesforce
(c) Introduce paid; this will be the best thing you can ever do and will improve all of your metrics
(d) Achieve network effect. Hard to pull of but if you get it, hold on to it!

5/ Be Pervasive
Productivity is a lifestyle and is integrated across personal and work. Although mobile-first is my recommendation, don’t discount laptop usage at the workplace. Apps must be avail on all screens otherwise you are destined to fail.

6/ Have a Macro Thesis
Product management in productivity is hard – there is no 80/20. Workflows are unique to each individual and attempting to change and behave like a coach is exceptionally hard except when managed down (eg everyone has to use Expensify). It’s best to embrace the existing workflow and improve while also maintaining a macro product thesis. Without a thesis, your resultant app will look like the Settings dialogue in Office.

7/ Don’t Be Too Smart
As I’ve written previously, I believe predictive intelligence will be a new layer on all apps. But in the productivity, trust is always the #1 feature. Failing to sync an email will be an immediate deal-breaker. Optimize on precision (accuracy) vs recall (# of results) and ask the user when unsure versus being too smart. Although most contact mergers are pretty good, the 1 out of 10 times they fail is why many don’t embrace.