Dear Yammer and the entire cloud wave: If you expect companies to use your software, it has to work

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 12, 2012

From The News Desk

You might wonder why we haven't had quite the same volume of posts so far today that we usually do, why we're not Tweeting as much or commenting as much, or why our entire editorial staff seems, well, distracted.

It's because early this morning our core productivity tool, Yammer, decided to inexplicably stop working. No heads up. No communication. No explanation. It was almost as if Yammer didn't expect companies would actually use it to run their businesses. It was almost as if we were getting the value of what we're paying. You know, nothing.

Let this be a warning for companies trying to run their business on freemium cloud apps. And as a business owner, here's my response to cloud companies: If you expect me to run my company on this, it has to work. I don't give a shit how pretty the UI is. I don't give a shit about your mobile app. I don't give a shit how cutesy your name is or if your company has a mascot of some cute animal. I don't give a shit if I'm paying you or not paying you. It has to work. And should something go wrong, you owe me some sort of communication letting me know when it'll be back up.

In the early years of, the users would go apeshit if the service was down at all. This was even before the era of social media when venting was a lot harder, but the outcry was still huge. CEO Marc Benioff used to sigh and point out that the software was up more than 95 percent of the time -- something that users should be impressed with.

But the message was loud and clear: If you want us to stop using on premise software and use this instead, it has to work. Back in those days, people used the analogy of electricity with on-demand or SaaS or Cloud software. You just turn on the light switch, and there it is! Like magic! If that's the pitch, you have to deliver with the reliability of electricity or plumbing or whatever your utility analogy is.

And because Benioff understood selling to customers and marketing, he got this. And Salesforce got rapidly better.

The problem with so many of the new generation of software moguls and the obsessive move to the "consumerization of enterprise" is that they don't know how to build enterprise-grade software that doesn't crash. As consumers who just want to Tweet witticisms, we can forgive a Fail Whale. When a Fail Whale can bring your business to its knees, it's simply not acceptable. It's when launch first and iterate later will cost you your entire customer base.

You think I'm being harsh? Imagine explaining it to a big company with an IT manager. If modern companies realistically think this new generation of apps will replace SAP, Oracle, and the rest, with this kind of reliability and communication, they are dreaming. The business world has a legacy of dealing with shitty software that's known and reliable. This is not an industry where people take risks and early adopters within companies are rewarded.

Lesson No. 1 here was that I should have gone with my gut. Trust in a vendor matters. I wrote back in June, when Yammer was rumored to be in talks with Microsoft, that I wanted to switch our collaboration tool. As a private company, Yammer was already buggy, and I didn't expect it to get better under Microsoft. People wailed about how harsh I was being on Microsoft. Guess what? It has progressively gotten worse. The only place Microsoft seems to be putting more resources in is constantly trying to upsell me to the paid version. The change would have been a lot easier planned and done over a weekend. Not wrecking a busy day's editorial plan, just as our growth is really taking off.

The worst part about my morning is I knew this would happen. I begged Yammer founder David Sacks not to sell, which only got me uninvited to his birthday party. Of course, he ignored my advice in exchange for an exit of more than $1 billion, as anyone would.

Again, let it be a warning to any small business owners running their companies on cloud software made by this new crop of startups. Companies like Microsoft and Oracle and SAP have near endless sums to spend on acquisitions, should the cloud actually start to dislodge their locked-in customers. The valuations don't have to make sense, and these apps will not be the focal point of these big Leviathans. This is a big reason that large companies don't like to buy software from startups.

So where do we stand now?

We lost an entire morning of work as the team was like a huddled mass of refugees flitting between possible alternatives. The plus of cloud software is you can try out several alternatives in the course of a morning. Convenience and productivity keeps you locked in, but once a company blows it as badly as Yammer did this morning, there is nothing technical that holds you back.

Group email was quickly unworkable. So we met over in HipChat. People always used to extol the virtues of HipChat to me, and I didn't remember it had been bought by Atlassian -- a plus, as it's a growing company focused on making great business software. I set up our group there and emailed Atlassian President Jay Simons to ask about his commitment to the product, how much they were investing in it, and whether it'd merely been an acqui-hire. Somewhat confused, he wrote back and said they had big plans for the product and a new version coming out next year.

Not soon enough for us, the current version was essentially unusable. It was just a big group text window with no threading, liking, or other basic features we rely on to collaborate. And there were dramatic notifications when people "left the room" that came across like them storming out and slamming the door. Adam Penenberg noted that it read like the stage notes of a bad sitcom. As we huddled over where to go next, Erin said we sounded like a bunch of drunks trying to find the next bar. Nathan "fear of change" Pensky kept begging that we could go back to Yammer, which finally decided to start working again, but few were in favor of that.

I held my nose and downloaded Salesforce's Chatter next. It's a reactionary, blatant rip off of Yammer -- even down to the similar name. God, can I even look at that dorky logo all day every day?

Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 1.35.33 PM

Using Chatter is like watching your dad trying to moonwalk. "Hey, look, kids! We can be cool and social too!"

But you know what? There are good things about a site being a total rip off of the site you are used to. When you are relying on something to do your job, you don't want change and you don't want dramatically new features. You want the transition to be easy. Chatter had a very similar -- although worse -- UI as Yammer's and the same features we were used to.

Some things were better. We could embed polls for instance. I'd never wanted to embed a poll in Yammer before, but why not? The messaging and side chatting features were far better than Yammer. It felt like maybe we could do more in the app, versus breaking off into side Skype and Google Chat conversations.

But soon the staff started to sour on Chatter as well. The worst part is that it doesn't seem to sync automatically in a consistent fashion, if at all. That sort of defeats the point of how we use it. You'll get engrossed writing a story, and someone is desperately trying to get your attention, and they can't unless you go refresh the app. That's a significant problem. Also, the "@" mentions don't work nearly as well. Several times, we've had to put them in two or three times to get them to work. And I don't like that I have to actually move the cursor and hit "SEND" versus simply hit return. There is definitely less free flow, less conversation in Chatter. Again: Totally defeating the purpose.

I went to a meeting and came back to find everyone had staged a coup and gone over to a Google+ group. That was the new shiny toy the staff seemed to love. But I'm not a massive fan of Google Docs, which we also use, and I'm not thrilled to move more collaboration into the Google world. I don't think business apps are where Google focuses or excels. Google+ is built to take on Facebook, not organize your company.

Jive is a nonstarter. It's too bloated (and expensive) for our needs. We've tried to use Asana. It is great for many things, but it also doesn't work for what we need. Competitors like to dismiss Yammer as a toy compared to other more fully-featured collaboration products. Great, if it's just a toy, then recreate it in your spare time please. I am happy to pay you to use it.

I don't know where we'll end up. I do know we've wasted a day. As a young company we don't know what that has cost us. Maybe readers were coming here for the first time and we weren't able to wow them as much as we'd like. Maybe we've missed some under-the-radar stories that we'll only find out about in the coming days. That's the thing when you run a company: You don't know what damage you've done when your productivity goes to zero for this long. You just know it's bad.

For now, I've asked the team to stay on Chatter through the end of the week. A lot of the discomfort is that it's different. More than half a day into this mess, and more of the staff is joining the Pensky-yearning for what we knew, Yammer, which is working fine now.

But that's why companies aren't democracies. We're not going back to an app that simply shows no sign of consistent uptime, and no sign that Microsoft gives a shit about us as users. I don't care how pretty it is, I don't care how used to it we are. I should have left Yammer back when I said I was going to. Now that I've crossed the state line, I'm not turning the car around and going back to the now comforting arms of the abusive spouse.

This is a lesson that all of the consumer Web transplants rushing starting enterprise companies need to internalize if they want to succeed: Pretty is nice to have. But reliable uptime and treating your customers with respect is a must have in the business software world.

Yammer has blown it.