(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The coronavirus is changing the way we work. As more governments implement stricter shelter-in-place orders, corporations and their employees are scrambling to figure out how to conduct business operations in a work-at-home world. First, new hardware is required. Sales of monitors, webcams and laptops are soaring as people build out their home offices. But that’s the easy part.
The bigger issue is how to enable similar levels of productivity without the many brief conversations and in-person meetings during a typical day at the office. To accomplish this, companies are increasingly turning to a handful upstarts in the aptly named workforce collaboration software category. These are the tools, initially designed for use in an office, which the world has now discovered work so well when trying to stay connected remotely, from video conferencing to electronic messaging platforms. And as they gain traction in the home workspace, it seems more and more likely they’ll stick once we’re all back in the office again, accelerating a trend toward greater usage that was happening anyway.
Three tools that particularly stand out come from Zoom Video Communications Inc., Slack Technologies, Inc. and Smartsheet Inc. What these companies have in common is they are upstarts, their products are arguably best-in-class for what they do and they’ve all seen their shares jump amid the widening coronavirus crisis.
As recently as a couple months ago, the companies faced challenges in trying to raise awareness for their offerings. Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems, Inc. have much larger marketing budgets and deeper relationships with Fortune 500 tech buyers. Well that is less of a problem now. The need to just get work done has become a showcase opportunity for the best-of-breed software vendors to break through the noise and put some distance between their products and the tech-industry goliaths’ less-capable offerings.
Zoom is further along in the brand-awareness process. By now, everyone knows how the company is thriving as the video-conferencing pure play of choice. Earlier this month, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said on a call, “Given this coronavirus, I think that overnight almost every business really understands they needed a tool like this. This will dramatically change the landscape.” Last week, Bernstein’s survey of 516 working adults revealed Zoom’s momentum continues to rise. Based on an analysis of responses, the data implied Zoom’s boost in usage among knowledge workers was more than double, versus any other vendor since the coronavirus crisis began. Zoom’s success will have ramifications for when the crisis ends too. As businesses get acclimated to using inexpensive, high-quality videoconferencing, executives may realize the prior level of travel spend simply isn’t worth the cost.
Smartsheet is also flourishing in the moment. The company makes software that automates business processes and workflows without requiring technical programming skills. For example, it can replace the manual data entry into Excel spreadsheets by using automatically updated web-enabled forms, improving accuracy and productivity. Earlier this month, the company posted 58% quarterly billings growth for its fiscal fourth quarter and said it wasn’t seeing a negative impact from the coronavirus.
And then there’s Slack. The messaging platform has seen a surge in demand for its service, and as a hard-core user myself, I can vouch for how Slack has improved communications with colleagues inside and outside the office. Compared to email, it enables a faster form of iterative communication, similar to a back-and-forth real-life discussion with a co-worker, saving time and increasing understanding. Perhaps even more important, the software offers a searchable repository of conversations, documents and files that enables an efficient knowledge transfer to other team members.
Many companies have started realizing Slack’s utility in recent weeks. Late Wednesday — in a now-epic tweet thread chronicling the explosion in demand for Slack and pressures on the company to meet it — CEO Butterfield revealed updated growth metrics for the current quarter, and they were jaw-dropping. In about two months, Slack had acquired 9,000 new paid customers, a figure 80% higher than the roughly 5,000 in each of the prior two quarters. Average messages sent per day per user were also up 20%.
Slack shares rose 10% Thursday as investors cheered the improving metrics, and have largely held that gain since.
It’s important to note that even after these gains, Slack is trading only a few dollars above its $26-a-share initial direct-listing price in June 2019, and for much of its time as a public company has traded below that level. Moreover, there is no guarantee the rising usage will translate into a permanent customer base; there will be some users, perhaps, who drop the service when things are working more normally. And there may be major corporate layoffs and losses from economic shocks that could make larger enterprise deals more difficult to close. Butterfield himself is aware of this, saying Friday in an interview with Bloomberg Television that the company’s current pace of growth “is just not sustainable … We would have the whole world on it in a couple of months if we kept going.”
But as workers form new ingrained habits using these tools, they will become that much harder to give up. This points to better sustainable results for Zoom, Slack and Smartsheet over time.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tae Kim is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Barron's, following an earlier career as an equity analyst.
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