Interview with Alastair Mitchell, CEO of Huddle.net

Since graduating with MSc in Naval Engineering from Southampton University, where he learnt how to build boats and submarines, Alastair has spent the last 10 years in the online services industry.

During early years, he helped to build the first online market place for the global food commodities market, which provided marketing, auction and logistics capabilities to companies across Europe, Africa & the Far East. There he also became a professionally trained tea taster. Alastair then moved to dunnhumby, where he led the growth of its web-based marketing intelligence product to £20m in three years. Alastair joined dunnhumby’s Strategic Management Board in 2005 to head up the group’s Shopping Experience practice, a $60m+ business globally.

Alastair’s grandfather was the inspiration behind starting his own dot-com, Huddle.net. To celebrate this, Huddle’s holding company is named after one of grandfather’s inventions – Ninian, the biggest ever concrete platform ever built.

When not running the company, Alastair enjoys skiing, snowboarding, hiking, diving and driving. The latter has become an infrequent affair as Alastair passionately believes in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. You can follow him on Twitter @alimitchell where he tweets once every six months.

 

Enterprise 2.0 and the Social software scene have enjoyed a bit of an explosion in the last 12-18 months since the concepts have been floating around for a few years before then. What do you attribute the reason for so much attention being paid to it now?

There are some fundamental shifts that are driving the explosion of enterprise 2.0 and social software. Firstly, we’re becoming increasingly mobile in the way that we work and this has driven uptake of tools that aren’t tied to the desktop. Instead, they’re available to you from any location, from any device and at any time of day.

Secondly, we’re seeing an increase in the consumerisation of IT. People now have the ability to buy applications on their mobile phones in their personal lives and they expect that same power and simplicity to be available in the office. No longer happy with being dictated to by a central IT department, people want to manage their own work. Online collaboration tools present them with a way to work together and manage themselves.

SaaS is also coming of age and concerns about security, control and permissions are starting to be overcome. Tools such as Huddle now enable people to work securely with full permissions, control and audit trails. You can now work as securely – remotely, when on the move, or with people outside of your organisation – as you can when you’re working with people sitting next to you. This also means that organisations are no longer a closed enterprise. They are more a group of people working together, both internally and externally. Boundaries have blurred between internal and external workers.

Finally people are waking up to the numerous benefits of social software: reduced costs, ease of deployment and ease of updates.

What is your definition and philosophy towards enterprise 2.0 and enterprise collaboration?

For me, enterprise 2.0 is all about bringing together the social and the enterprise world and breaking down the silos that have developed in traditional organisations. In many organisations, you have a structure of department, department, department and there is little communication beyond these groups. Enterprise 2.0 breaks down these barriers.

To work better together, organisations need to have all their collaboration tools in the one place – web conferencing, project management, discussions and document management. Often the most important collaborations are between companies. So, for true enterprise collaboration, tools need to be in one place that can be securely accessed by partners, suppliers and colleagues that work with you beyond your office firewall.

Verticals like CRM and BPM seem to be on a convergence path due to what social software and business collaboration is bringing to the table, do you see further market convergence taking place as vendors begin to understand how social is removing barriers to communicate with the internal enterprise?

Yes, definitely. The collaboration and communication markets are converging, bringing together asynchronous document and project collaboration with synchronous real-time tools like instant messaging, web conferencing and phone conferencing.

Huddle is the first of this new breed of applications that brings all types of collaboration into a place for the enterprise.

Is there a reluctance for larger enterprises such as financial institutions to take on collaborative software over regulatory, security and data fears and how do you get around these challenges?

As with any new technology, there was some initial reluctance around collaborative software due to concerns such as data security and regulatory issues. But, as mentioned earlier, SaaS has really come of age and fears are starting to subside as larger enterprises realise that the correct security measures, full permission controls and audit trails can now be put in place. It is about education, showing users what they can do and addressing any concerns they may have.

Huddle has been built from the ground-up with enterprise users in mind and our customers include the Home Office, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The fact that cloud services are now being trusted by government departments is a big step forward.

Do you see the technology platforms like the iPad as a way to increase the possibilities of mobile enterprise collaboration?

The iPad certainly highlights the potential for mobile enterprise collaboration and the fact that one million iPads were sold within 28 days of launching reveals people’s hunger for receiving and consuming information on the move. Are we going to see widespread adoption of the iPad in enterprises across the globe? Only time will tell, but the iPad certainly seems to be a great tool for workforces that spend a lot of time out of the office, presenting videos and images to clients and prospects.

We’re already seeing an increase in smarter, more flexible working practices. People have realised that advances in technology mean they no longer have to be shackled to their desks, in one location, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Advances in hardware, software and high-speed broadband ensure that information can be accessed from anywhere, at anytime, and I’m sure there will be many more technology platforms released to satisfy the demand for accessing information 24/7.

Can collaborative software create a truly flexible and social enterprise and remove departmental silos and traditional hierarchical constraints?

Yes, I think this is the ultimate goal of enterprise 2.0 and the problem that Andy and I set out to solve with Huddle.

Traditional organisations tend to function in silos, but social business software breaks down barriers, lets groups form naturally and everyone can connect and share information with each other. To create a truly flexible and social enterprise, businesses also need to be willing to place some control back into the hands of the users and trust the people that they have employed.

How did Huddle come about and what’s the journey been like so far, I hear you’ve just secured additional investment to increase your presence in the US too?

Andy and I came up with the idea and set up Huddle because we were so frustrated with how hard it was to work with other people in our business lives, when it was so easy to work with people in our social lives. We have built Huddle with a single purpose in mind: to make it easier for people to work with each other.

We wanted to create something that worked online in the same way as if you were sitting in an office working together. We knew that more and more people weren’t going to be sitting at their office desk from 9am to 5pm, but they would still need the same tools. People would still want to share and work on documents, discuss ideas, brainstorm issues, manage projects, and connect with people. But they would want to do that in a secure online environment, like a workspace, and do it as securely and easily with anyone inside or outside of their organisation, wherever they’re located, as if they were sitting next to them.

Three years on our goal hasn’t changed.

It has been an amazing journey so far. From setting up the company in my bedroom, Huddle grew to a company of 30 people in a basement office and now we have nearly 50 people across the globe.

The latest $10.2 million investment is going to be used to expand our US presence and take our great British company global. Andy has already relocated to San Francisco to set up our new office there. With more than half of Huddle users now based in the US, we wanted to give them more local support.

How important is it for social companies to embrace and encourage community development, whether open source or not?

It’s vitally important because social is all about the community and you have to live by your values. More than that, in a rapidly developing market, community development allows you to bring the features that your users actually want to market faster.

Do you think vendors should open their code a lot more and allow creative development to take place?

Vendors can open their code using APIs. This then enables developers to build apps on top of and integrate with them. All web businesses should be built on top of a completely open API set and Huddle is no exception. We have an iPhone app, desktop tools and integration with office and SharePoint all of which were built using our APIs.

What’s the next big thing you’d like to see happen in the social software industry?

Large enterprises continuing to recognise the value that social tools can bring to their business and adopting them across their organisation to bring the social revolution into our work lives. This will make work a more fun place to be.

Finally, what next for Alastair?

Following the investment, I’m going to be focusing on expanding our entire operations. We’re expecting the Huddle team to grow by three or four times, so we can continue to build on our great product and respond to the feedback from our customers and partners.

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