By: Seth Fiegerman | January 8, 2014 (Featured on Mashable)
Snapchat has helped popularize the concept of disappearing messages among teens and twenty-somethings for personal use. Now, a growing number of startups are testing whether this concept can — and should — catch on in the workplace.
On Wednesday, a new startup called Confide released a free iPhone app of the same name, which lets professionals send encrypted messages that automatically disappear so users can have “off-the-record” conversations. The startup was founded by two prominent tech execs — Jon Brod, former CEO of AOL’s Patch unit and Yext co-founder Howard Lerman — after they had essentially engaged in a game of professional phone tag a few months ago.
“Howard emailed me looking for a reference for someone to hire who had worked for me [at AOL],” Brod told Mashable in a recent interview. He didn’t feel comfortable handling that request on his company email account and asked to handle it by phone instead. “I got his voicemail… It took us six days to sync up with that exchange.”
The inconvenience of that back-and-forth exchange prompted the two to assemble a team and spend nights and weekends developing an alternative medium for professionals to handle potentially sensitive conversations. The use cases, according to Brod, might include professionals talking about everything from HR issues to media requests to “deal making.”
“These are things that, is it the end of the world if they appear on the record? Maybe not. But certainly if given the choice, you would liklely like them to be impermanent,” Brod says. With Confide, users can send text messages of any length, but the app only reveals 20-25 characters at a time, which then disappear. If either the sender or the recipient attempt to screenshot the message, both are booted from the app and receive an alert.
Confide isn’t the first app to try bringing ephemeral messaging to a professional setting. TigerText launched a self-destructing text message service in 2010 for general consumers and shifted the following year to focusing more on enterprise use. Gryphn, which bills itself as a secure texting tool with the self-destruct feature for business use, launched in early 2013.
While it’s tempting to view these services as reactions to the phenomenal success of Snapchat, some predate Snapchat’s launch or spike in popularity. Instead, the founders are betting on the growing number of people who use mobile messaging apps to communicate in a professional capacity. But providing an automatic delete function may not sit well with everyone.
Jim Patterson, former chief product officer at Yammer and cofounder of workplace messaging app CoTap, notes that many digital communication tools for workplaces offer the option to chat online off the record or delete this data after a certain period of time, typically months or years later. He views self-destructing messaging apps as a logical extension of this — and he has considered adding it as a feature on CoTap — but he says the key is letting the company set an across-the-board data retention policy rather than leaving it up to individual employees.
“I just don’t think that’s tenable for a business app because there are too many rules and regulations around keeping and destroying data,” Patterson says of Confide in particular. “You have to eventually have the sponsorship of the company.” (Brod, for his part, says the Cofide is targeting particular professionals, not the broad enterprise market.)
One company that has followed the approach laid out by Patterson is TigerText. Since 2011, the startup has offered paid options for businesses to set up a private network of users who can message one another and let those messages expire automatically. Unlike Confide, which is intended for professionals in industries like entertainment, media and venture capital, TigerText’s user base — which numbers in the six figures — tends to be in more tightly regulated industries like healthcare and financial services.
Brad Brooks, CEO of TigerText, says that the startup complies with regulatory requirements in each industry by giving companies the ability to lockout employees who have left the company, providing employer’s remote access to the app and — of particular note — offering companies the option to receive an archive of the app’s data for a specific time period, say three years, to meet their corporate policy. All of this is intended to make businesses more comfortable with embracing mobile messages.
“[SMS] has sort of replaced a lot of verbal conversation,” Brooks says. “We are not recording a lot of our verbal conversation. It’s sort of onerous in a way that just because it’s typed, it needs to be recorded.”
Other observers we spoke with agreed with this assessment.
“This is a return to the way things always used to be,” says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a career research firm. “It’s just that technology put people in a funny place for awhile,” he adds, referring to the “tattoo-like nature” of digital communication tools.
TigerText has raised about $15 million to date and may raise more soon. Confide is bootstrapped at the moment, but Brod says the startup may raise a round in the next few months.
As for whether Snapchat might embrace the enterprise market at some point with its existing service or a new app — after all, it’s already a hit with Wall Street traders —insiders say it’s unlikely. Jeremy Liew, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners and the first investor in Snapchat, was blunt in response to an emailed question from Mashable:
“Snapchat is a consumer app and will continue to be.”