Why not infuse the organic simplicity of MySpace-like social networking into the enterprise knowledge management world? That was the question Andy McLoughlin and Alastair Mitchell posed to one another a year ago. Their answer was huddle.net, a burgeoning Web-based project collaboration solution.
Tapping their own funds and the development chops of application development firm Neoworks, the two London friends merged McLoughlin's extensive knowledge management know-how as a technical consultant to the insurance industry with Mitchell's insight into the collaboration needs of advertising and retail companies.
The .Net-based cross-platform application, which was piloted in November and launched formally in March, allows virtual, disparate teams to post and edit documents, discuss ideas, and assign tasks in a unified Web-based project management environment. Through the central dashboard, users can view the progress of their various projects, take actions, and ascertain the online status of collaborators. Moreover, individuals can initiate new projects, inviting other huddle subscribers to collaborate, with complete access control. This networking effect is the true differentiating aspect of huddle, according to McLoughlin.
"This is where we're really beginning to see the huddle network grow," McLoughlin says. "With something like Microsoft SharePoint or Basecamp, which are really hosted extranets, it's not real collaboration; it's not being able to work with anyone you want."
McLoughlin points to Firefly Tonics, a soft-drink manufacturer that has adopted huddle as its primary collaboration solution. The design agency responsible for creating the soft drink labels now subscribes to the huddle service, as do Firefly's distributors and myriad other companies the manufacturer works with to deliver its product.
The viral nature of huddle.net adoption gives the service an expanding client base that includes large legal, PR, and advertising firms, on down to sports teams, church groups, and individual freelancers.
Huddle has six developers at its London headquarters, and leans on Neoworks' eight member development team in London and a four-person development team in Slovakia to deliver features quickly and at low cost.
The huddle application is offered with varying grades of service from free (for five users up) to a customizable enterprise-level package that includes on-site training and support. Huddle built the application with growth in mind, positioning load balancing on the front end and database clustering on the back end. Huddle.net also does away with session states on its servers, making it more than ready for an onslaught of users.
McLoughlin tips his cap to Salesforce.com for softening enterprises to the Web as a service-delivery platform. Like Salesforce, huddle.net will be responsive to changing customer needs but less focused on a particular problem.
"What we're trying to do is build a tool that's useful for everybody, not one that's tied down to a particular industry or market," he said.
On top on the list of useful features is real time collaboration.
"Right now, huddle is a fantastic tool for working together asynchronously," McLoughlin says. "Live chats, video chats, application sharing -- we're hoping to roll those sorts of things out by the third quarter or the end of the year."
A desktop widget for managing document uploading and downloading and for checking documents in and out is also in the works.
Both those features will require a Web services API, which is also on the huddle.net horizon. The company's founders hope that publishing an API will also lead to more third-party development on the huddle platform.
"The API will give companies the ability to present information from their back ends through the huddle interface," McLoughlin says, "and it will also allow developers to build applications to interact with huddle to work with documents, post items to the huddle calendar directly from Outlook or iCal, and so on."
According to McLoughlin, the company is attractive to investors in part because it delivers a Silicon Valley-caliber product but in Europe. "But with the organic growth that we're having, we don't really need to go for funding," he says. "Even from day one, we were making money; we weren't making a profit, but we were making money right away."
That said, huddle.net has many interested investors and is considering its funding options. McLoughlin expects an injection of cash in the third quarter of this year as the company makes a more definitive platform push.
As for the quick to rise, quick to fall nature of the startup game, McLoughlin takes it in stride.
"You keep your eyes on what's going on," McLoughlin says. "I religiously read TechCrunch to make sure someone with $10 million of funding isn't releasing the same thing," he said, referring to the popular Web site that tracks Silicon Valley startups. "But at the same time, you can't base your business on what other people are doing. You have to focus on doing what you do better than anyone else."
And with profitability a distinct possibility within a year of launch, huddle.net might be doing just that.