Upward was going to allow professionals to collaborate better by replacing their email accounts and professional text messages with a free B2C messaging app.
Professionals worldwide send almost 110 million emails every day, despite the availability of vastly more productive alternatives for day-to-day communication like Slack and Google Hangouts. The resulting lost productivity is a problem for individual professionals, businesses, and society at large.
We knew from personal experience that email is still so prevalent professionally partly because switching to a tool like Slack requires building substantial momentum within teams: someone on a team had to become convinced that the new communication system would dramatically improve productivity for everyone; then she would need to sell the rest of the team on it; and then, finally, the team would need to commit to switching all of their internal communication from email to the new system. And even if all of this happened, team members would still have to send emails to communicate with people outside of the team.
We realized that a B2C messaging app for professionals (one where individuals, rather than teams, made the decision to join) which also supported sending emails to people who did not have accounts would solve all of these problems. Individual professionals could switch on their own, without requiring the entire team to buy in. And just as Facebook Messenger makes sending messages to your best friends as easy as messaging someone you just met, individual-centered professional messaging would allow communication with close teammates to happen in the same place as communication with clients, lawyers, and other people external to the team.
So we reached out to hundreds of potential users from investment bankers to Hollywood producers to talk about the ways they communicated professionally. And, over the course of a year, we developed and launched an MVP which featured core messaging technology (sending and receiving text messages, links, and documents in real-time over multiple devices with push notifications), instant search over all messages including attached files and linked webpages, and a compatibility layer for both email and SMS.
While the users we contacted were enthusiastic about our solution, and while we did see some growing use after launch, we ran into an ultimately fatal market limitation stemming from our B2C approach. Almost all potential users were incredibly reluctant to start using a new technology for their core communications because of concerns about privacy and reliability without approval from IT departments or higher management. (In our experience, the only exceptions to this rule were employees of tech-savvy startups who were already using Slack.) Those users who did begin to use Upward only did so after getting buy-in from their team lead or IT department. This meant that instead of the viral, individual-led growth that powers a typical B2C app, we were seeing unit-by-unit growth typical of B2B—but without any of the benefits (i.e., immediate revenue). And so our initial hypothesis, that switching costs from email to messaging could be substantially reduced through a B2C solution, was shown to be incorrect. Faced with the choice of either pivoting into a B2B solution, and thereby competing head-on-head with Slack, or shutting down, we chose the latter.