Just get out: Self aware Salesforce pays employee to leave and build a great product

By Sarah Lacy , written on March 6, 2013

From The News Desk

One of the great things about being a reporter is you get to yell at people who made products that let you down. It's petty, I know. But we typically make low salaries and work thankless hours. Let us have it.

So when I got a pitch about Discoverly, all I needed to read was that founder Ted Summe had spent the last five yeas at Salesforce as the product manager for Chatter.

"Yes, I'll take the meeting."

As people who regularly read this blog know, I have very strong opinions on the social enterprise/collaboration space. Yammer has had an "I can't quit you!" hold over our productivity as much as we hate its buggy, flakiness and have no faith in Microsoft's ability to make it better. Finally-- after a day of unexplained downtime-- we switched to Chatter with its terrible, terrible logo but far superior reliability.

But after months of stubbornly digging in my heels out of principle, I finally caved to the staff's demand to go back to Yammer last week. Sure, the site is up. But the basic features of Chatter-- as ripped off from Yammer-- just don't work.

For instance: If you try to "@" someone in Yammer-- I know this sounds futuristic-- but you simply type an "@" followed by his or her name. In Chatter you type an "@" and then you might as well turn on reruns of the Jeffersons, because you are going to sitting around for what feels like thirty minutes waiting on a menu of names to pop up that you have to select in order for the person to get a notification.

Someone from Chatter once brushed a member of my team's gripes aside by saying, "Well, it's not designed for newsrooms." Yeah, well neither was Yammer. I'm not sure newsrooms are the only customers that would like basic features to, you know, work.

That douche aside, many people at Salesforce are talented and do care about creating great software. This was a company that was an early leader in making this stuff actually usable. So how is it that great people with great intentions can make such lousy software?

That was what I wanted to know. And also, sure, what's Discoverly?

Summe knew what he was getting into with this phone call. (Unlike, I suppose, Eric Lefkofsky's people who recently proposed him for a PandoMonthly.) And unlike the mercifully unnamed douche above, he answered the question about Chatter. He didn't try to say it was feature-wise better than Yammer and had a few reasons why. The first is that Yammer can iterate on a weekly basis. Little things like moving buttons around, changing the colors, making things work more seamlessly. Salesforce limited the Chatter team to pushing new fixes a couple times a year. There was also less flexibility in terms of how Chatter could use customer data to make the product better, due to onerous privacy restrictions at a larger company. Certain types of tracking that consumer sites rely on was forbidden.

And lastly, it was a matter of focus and energy, Summe says. To Salesforce, Chatter was a way to augment its existing product and tying conversations into the existing structured data in their apps was the focus, not simply making a great communication and collaboration tool. Since we don't use Salesforce beyond Chatter, we were missing what the team was really focused on.

Summe was basically describing the difference between trying to develop something within a large company and a startup. This is why it's typically bullshit when someone says, "We run exactly like a startup, only inside a big company!" That's a purple unicorn. It just doesn't exist.

Summe was still at Salesforce when he had the idea for Discoverly. And after a few conversations, everyone decided-- for a lot of the same reasons-- he'd be better off leaving to build it. And Salesforce even gave him a $100,000 check to go do it, along with Bessemer Ventures, Atlas, Great Oaks, Alchemist Accelerator, and angels Howard Lindzon, MJ Elmore and Jim Patterson-- appropriately of Yammer.

You might wonder why I've spent almost 700 words talking about anything other than what Discoverly actually does. Well, it's in part because I don't know. The company is announcing its funding round and private beta launch today, but not... what it does. As near as I can tell from asking Summe the same question multiple different ways is that it's not a competitor to Chatter, Yammer or any other internally focused enterprise social network or collaboration tool.

Instead, it is trying to "tap into the value of external social data." That doesn't mean it's another Klout. Rather than tapping into the value of what, say, customers are saying about you on social, it seems to be focused on what your employees are doing and saying on outwardly facing social networks. "We all have our own personal lives in the social world," Summe says. "What we'd love to be able to do is pool that together while maintaining privacy to highlight opportunities for the company. If your company is trying to figure out a specific problem, who inside the company may have that knowledge to go solve that problem or have the resources to solve that problem."

Could be creepy. Could be interesting.

If you want to find out Discoverly is specifically giving private beta access to startups with fifty employees or less. Go here to sign up. (And come back to tell me what you think.)