4 startups that are changing productivity

Evernote latte
Credit: Yuko Honda via Flickr

Getting work done the Silicon Valley way

By now, you've likely heard about Inbox, Google's bold new plan to reinvent email with a smarter, more context-sensitive interface that treats messaging like just another to-do list. 

But Google's not the only one trying to reinvent how people get things done. With the introduction of smartphones and cloud computing has come a new generation of productivity tools that try to change the ways people work with each other. In other words, in an age of ubiquitous connectivity and smaller screens, the old ways of communication and collaboration are just too dang slow. 

From storing photos to storing documents, and from fixing email to trying to replace it, here's a look at the startups changing the face of how work gets done, the Silicon Valley way. 

Asana

Asana boasts an impressive pedigree, founded in 2009 by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and ex-engineer Justin Rosenstein as a solution for collaborative task management that could supplant email in the workplace. Email, goes Asana's pitch, is way more noise than signal, and theoretically simple discussions take too much back-and-forth and redundancy -- if you can even find the conversation you're looking for amid the mounds of newsletters, social media updates, and other stuff that makes up the modern inbox.

Where Google, Dropbox's Mailbox, and the like try to combat this by filtering email more intelligently, Asana aims to take the entire productivity thing elsewhere. It won't cut email out entirely, but it's won a lot of adherents that use it to clearly and concisely set tasks for people. 

Asana's been around for a few years now, but 2014 saw the company really invest deeply in its mobile efforts with new native mobile apps for Apple iOS. But if you want something with a more recent pedigree, take a look at the lesser-known Pyrus, which has flown under the radar but works in more social commenting features. 

Slack

After email, IRC is probably the oldest communications technology still in wide use on the modern Internet (unless you count usenet, which I don't). There have been attempts to revamp it for the enterprise -- Atlassian HipChat is probably the best-known example, at least in developer circles -- but Slack has earned huge acclaim for combining the flexibility and scriptability of IRC, the multiple platforms of a consumer app, and the content archiving and team controls the enterprise admin demands. 

Slack, the brainchild of Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield, came out of nowhere earlier this year, raising $43 million in one round of funding as it found a tremendous fanbase among first developers, and now retail employees, reporters and anyone else where distributed knowledge workers need to collaborate. A major part of that success is Slack's extensibility -- Dropbox files, Google Docs, Github code updates, all can be automatically pulled into Slack for quick collaboration and file updates. And support for more apps is coming. Given the buzz that Slack is now searching for more funding -- at a valuation as much as $1 billion --  it won't be slowing down anytime soon.

Evernote

Like Asana, Evernote has been around for a while -- since 2008, to be exact. But where Asana focuses heavily on team collaboration, Evernote (and similar offerings like  progenitor Microsoft OneNote or newcomer Google Keep) helps users keep their lives organized with the ability to store notes in the form of text, photos or scribbles that are then available on all of their devices. If you've never tried it, it's astonishing how useful it is to have all your stuff everywhere it can be. 

This year, Evernote made two striking moves: It reaffirmed its commitment to being free for all users forever -- because free users are just as likely or even more so to spend on premium features and things like Evernote-compatible business card scanners -- even as it furthered its enterprise platform ambitions by making it easier to build presentations based on the information you put in the platform. It also added a Work Chat feature so you can talk to the people with whom you collaborate on notes.

Box

Chances are pretty good that you're already using Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, or, yes, Box. The cloud file store-and-sync market, where content is automatically pushed and pulled up to a service provider that makes it available wherever you are (a theme emerges) via an app, is so fly-simple that it's increasingly easy to take for granted. 

Box -- which, in fairness, won't be a startup for very much longer as it prepares its IPO for some time between now and the heat death of the universe -- gets a special shoutout in this crowded market for really doubling down on its enterprise focus and platform ambitions with a Salesforce integration, support for custom workflows, a partnership with Accenture for customer integration, and the Box for Verticals initiative, which custom-tailors solutions for individual enterprises in verticals with very specific needs like healthcare, oil and gas, and entertainment.  

Oh, and this year, Box gave all its enterprise users unlimited cloud storage, freeing them from the tyranny of the tiered-pricing plan, so there's that, too. 

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