Trying to Replicate 37signals’ Success

The online collaboration space never lacks for new entrants, but it’s also a place with relatively few bright stars. 37signals is likely the biggest player on the block, with the exception maybe of Google Apps, but there are some recent newcomers who are trying to identify ways to appeal to niche customers not taken in by Basecamp, Campfire and Backpack.

Groupiter, a new startup in private beta co-founded by former Obama PR/social media executive Matt Meeks, is a great example. Groupiter is focusing on collaborative tools targeted at creative industries, an area not necessarily best-served by 37signals products. So far, Groupiter is keeping pretty tight-lipped about what its product will look like, and co-founder/CEO Christopher Dyball says we likely won’t get a closer look for another few months. When it does launch, however, Groupiter looks like it’ll be one to watch. It has a strong founding team with a distinguished executive pedigree, and a list of investors and advisors that’s already looking like an all-star cast, including Derek Parham, founder and former technical lead of Google Apps for Businesses.

Codelaboration is another product that’s been influenced by 37signals’ success. The Boston-based startup was founded by Erich SeifertJeffrey Glusman and Mike Lilly. Seifert, also the company’s CEO, said in an interview that Codelaboration, which is now seeking angel investors after bootstrapping its seed funding, was originally conceived of as a project management tool, but the team sensed there was little breathing room in that area, and decided instead to address the specific niche of customer service. Ahead of Codelaboration’s launch, Seifert and company will first introduce Twykin in either late February or early March, which is a public-facing version of what Seifert calls a “question and interaction” service, and also acts as a “site to proof the [Codelaboration] technology to make sure it’s ready for enterprise use.”

Seifert says that while Twykin is “fairly similar to your current Q&A sites like Quora or Yahoo Answers,” it adds “the ability to interact with people in real-time as well as asynchronously.” That happens because users can see what people are typing in answers to posted questions as they type. That might sound familiar as Google Wave offered similar functionality. Seifert acknowledges the similarity, but says Twykin offers what Wave lacked: a targeted strategy addressing a “particular pain point.” Twykin offers grouped knowledge around specific topics, and eventually Codelaboration will do the same by providing similar tools to enterprise customers for handling customer service interaction. The product will eventually aggregate and make available archived discussions between customer service and customers. It’s real-time collaboration, but between a company and its users, which is something current reigning champs like 37signals don’t address.

Geckoboard, a startup that launched in 2010 and received $300K in seed funding from 500 Startups, Index Ventures and others, supports 37signals products through integration, instead of taking them on directly. Founder Paul Joyce described it as “Chartbeat for everything else,” in an interview with TechCrunch, including project and brand management components like CRM, sales and help desk functions. Geckoboard recently announced a partnership with digital signage maker iAdea, which means Geckoboard users can now quickly and easily display rich, real-time information about the status of current projects and customer relationships on digital signage with a minimum of effort.

Another online collaboration tool that competes more directly with Basecamp and the rest of the 37signals stable is Teambox. It’s a SaaS platform that focuses on bringing VoIP, group chat, task management and file sharing together with customer support all in one place, and the Teambox team just announced Monday on Angel List that it closed deals with Columbia University and Sotheby’s, putting it on track to hit a milestone of 27,000 new sign-ups during February. Barcelona-based Teambox has managed to attract other big customers, too, including BP, Square and Lego. It’s a good example of how even companies operating close to 37signals’ core business can still show impressive growth.

Basecamp has a customer list that includes some of the largest companies in the world, like Adidas, Kellogg’s and The World Bank. In January, 37signals posted some staggering numbers covering their 2011 performance, including an average of 1,500,000,000 messages logged each day, and 2,000 email notifications per minute sent during the first 10 days of 2012. Going toe-to-toe with a company with that kind of traction isn’t easy, but at least a few startups are still betting that working in the niche spaces that remain untouched in the collaborative workspace is still not only possible, but could potentially be profitable, too.