Atlas launches into beta to take the juggling act out of scheduling meetings

By Michael Carney , written on May 8, 2013

From The News Desk

Calendaring can be tough for all of us. Moms regularly juggle multiple kids worth of activities. Students must manage homework, exams, and those all important frat parties. But for sales professionals, VCs, and others (ahem, journalists) who fill their days with meetings involving other equally busy people, the challenge of coordinating this madness gets an order of magnitude more difficult.

We’ve all experienced the chaos that is trying to find a mutually acceptable meeting time with another busy person. Today the process typically involves multiple back and forth emails with proposed times, politely delivered reasons why one or another won't work, and the dreaded, but inevitable, miscommunication, where a time that was originally available, but has since been filled, is accidentally double booked. If you're the less senior of the two parties, the whole exchange can start to resemble an act of contortionism I’m getting hives just putting this into words.

Yesterday, a new mobile app called Atlas launched into Beta to address this very problem. (I would have written about it then, but, ironically, my calendar had other ideas.) Most importantly, this app was not created by engineers who saw an opportunity to create an attractive business – although the founders obviously hired those smart keyboard pushers – but, rather by veteran sales pros who are acutely aware of this calendar charade and intent on solving it once and for all.

Atlas does a few things well that separate it from everything else in the market. First, it allows you to suggest multiple meeting times from which your counterpart can choose. Second, and most differentiating, is that the app blocks off these times in your calendar until the invite is acted upon so that you don’t accidentally offer two people that coveted Tuesday at 9am coffee appointment. Third, once your recipient accepts one of the proposed times by simply clicking on the corresponding button in the invite, it automatically populates your calendar with the appointment and frees up the remaining two suggested times.

Finally, Atlas is different from all the other solutions in the market in that it is mobile first. Boomerang Calendar offers some of the above functionality, but in a desktop Web only package. Tungle came the closest to solving this problem previously, again in a Web only product, but it was acquired by Blackberry in 2011 and integrated – partially – into the company’s new OS. Also, while the experience works best when both parties have Atlas installed (iOS only), a mobile-optimized Web client for non-users allows them to easily interact with Atlas invites. If both people are Atlas users, however, the entire scheduling process can happen in-app, with push notifications, and without the use of email or messy attachments.

It’s not all roses, however. Atlas still has a few rough edges that it will need to sand out before reaching it’s full potential. There is currently no way to create an expiration date on a meeting proposal, or to “nudge” a counterparty to act on an outstanding invite. For busy people, it is a bit too much to ask that they sit back and wait for others to respond while precious meeting slots sit tied up in a state of uncertainty. An outstanding invite can be cancelled entirely, but that doesn’t really solve the problem. There are other minor issues along these lines that could elevate Atlas from a really good product to a superstar, but it’s already miles ahead of the competition at this point. And the team is both aware of and actively working on solutions to the biggest of these issues.

For anyone be concerned about uprooting from their existing calendaring platform, rest assured that’s not necessary. Rather Atlas integrates with existing calendars like GCal, iCal, YCal, and Outlook, providing an all-important management layer on top. An avid Atlas user may never open another calendar app on their mobile device, but will still have all of their meetings synced to their underlying calendar provider for access across devices and platforms. The app even plays nice with the newest crop of smart calendar assistants like Tempo, Cue, etc., which work most of their magic after an event is already booked, as well as sexy calendar interface app Fantastical.

In addition to integrating with existing calendars, Atlas integrates with a user’s address book to simplify meeting scheduling with known contacts and to populate calendar events with useful information like the recipient’s photo and phone number for one click dialing.

Atlas is currently free to use, but there is a Pro product in the works that will be targeted at sales professionals and others who live within their calendars. This paid product will be available via a monthly subscription and will include a vanity URL for use by non-Atlas users, additional privacy controls, and other premium features. The company is also working on versions for the iPad and for Android smartphones and tablets.

When getting people to switch productivity apps, pretty and exciting isn't good enough. Utility and making their lives easier is the only currency that matters. Atlas' challenge isn't in delivering these, but rather in conveying that value to non-users. Many power users have tried every solution under the sun and come up wanting. With most resorting to their own inelegant but effective solution comprised of multiple platforms and a little duck tape, the company faces an uphill battle to get these users to try yet another new solution.

With Atlas in Beta, there is currently a waiting list to join the platform (think Mailbox, Tempo, etc.). There is, however, an important caveat to this rule. If an Atlas user sends a non-user an event invite, the invitee will be able to skip to the front of the line and activate an Atlas account to respond. While the company's primary motivations are server optimization and a slow, deliberate roll out, this structure could add a measure of Dropbox-style viral growth.

When Atlas first launched its Alpha product in January, the idea was to focus heavily on the direct selling and multi-level marketing worlds, both in terms of sales efforts and even feature development. For example, it had much more team collaboration and hierarchical oversight elements built in. The company has since broadened its thinkng and the product has benefited dramatically. Amway reps will still benefit greatly from adding Atlas to their toolkit, but now so will realtors, insurance salesman, financial advisors, VCs, journalists, and a wide variety of other meeting-driven professionals.

Santa Monica-based Atlas is a graduate of the Launchpad LA accelerator and raised $700,000 in Seed financing from Tech Coast Angels, Maverick Angels, Pasadena Angels, Angel Capital Entrepreneur Fund, Clark Landry, and other individual investors. The LA-based company has grown to eight full time employees plus another half dozen contractors and interns.

Calendaring may not be sexy, but it is an integral – and painful – part of the daily lives of nearly all professionals. With workers untethering from their desks more and more, mobile calendaring is becoming mission critical. With limited screen real estate and the pressure of juggling multiple back and forth meeting negotiations while on the go, this is a recipe for disaster.

With just its beta product in the market, Atlas has already solved a number of the biggest problems in the category and has designs on becoming the default calendar management solution for the business crowd. It’s a dirty job, no doubt, but one someone has to do. This is easily the best attempt I've seen to date.