This week, one of the most heavily funded early-stage startups in Silicon Valley finally emerged from beta, and I’ll bet that you’ve never heard of them. That’s because Tidemark--armed with $35 million from Redpoint, Andreessen Horowitz, and Greylock--isn’t a new social-networking app or some sort of social-bookmarking site. Instead, it’s an iPad app that aims to disrupt the databases and spreadsheets that have become the backbone of modern corporate management. "In enterprise services, design used to be an afterthought at best," explains Tidemark’s CEO, Christian Gheorghe. "But the idea that the user experience was underserving these people is our core tenet."
Tidemark’s product is simple. First, imagine that you’re the sales director at a global beauty supply company. The iPad-based app taps into your company’s data warehouse, offering you global sales data. That sales data can then be parsed to finer and finer detail with a simple tap; as you delve two and three layers in, you can eventually see that the engine of your booming August profits has been sales of nail clippers in the U.K. And then it gets interesting: You can assign different teams to look into different inflection points in the data. Within the app, you can trade notes with your local managers about, say, inventory. And you can also see how much those profits are correlated with a slew of other, external variables you might be interested in. For example, you can get the app’s back-end to track Twitter mentions, to figure out if perhaps your marketing is having a big impact. Or, let’s say you’re a sugar grower; you can track bumps in your sales data against weather reports and commodity prices.
Either way, the magic lies in the data’s accessibility, and being able to share it with your coworkers while trading a stream of conversation. And it is in marked contrast with what exists today. But the demand is already there, according to Gheorghe, who was formerly the CTO at SAP. "The revolution is coming from the users themselves," he says. "They’re trying to get information like this into spreadsheets but they can’t." As an example, Gheorghe offers one of Tidemark’s early clients, U.S. Sugar. For years, they’ve been tracking their inventory using RFID; they’ve also been savvy about correlating their financial performance with currency markets and weather data. In the past, all of that data would get printed in a 670-page binder that would be sent to field managers every two weeks. All of that is getting replaced with iPads running Tidemark’s app.
Those limitations of existing spreadsheets dovetail with a dramatic change in consumer expectations. As The New Yorker recently noted, profound technological innovations used to be enterprise driven. The telephone and the personal computer, for example, began as extravagantly expensive business machines. But Apple helped pave the way for the "consumerization of IT": With the introduction of the iPhone and then the iPad, gadgets primarily aimed at consumers eventually won out over business-focused competitors such as Blackberry, largely because they were so much more fun to use. This, in turn, is creating rising expectations for apps, whether they’re a game on the iPad or a full-fledged business tool. "Users who used to take their workday experiences home are now taking their home devices to work," says Gheorghe. "That puts a lot of pressure on the user experience."
Those improved user experiences could lead to some fairly radical changes in company practice. Gheorghe points out that big database vendors such as SAP or Oracle might sell products to the head of IT at a company with 10,000 employees--and only 150 of the hardcore Excel wizards in the company could ever hope to make sense of the outputs. Which is another way of saying that the people making buying decisions (the IT department) and the people using the data (the hardcore analysts) weren’t the ones who stood to benefit from what the actual data was saying. "A good UX enables a lot of people to take action, which is the opposite of how things used to work," says Gheorghe. "Printing out an Excel grid doesn’t tell you what you need to act on." By improving the usability of the data, Gheorghe hopes Tidemark can deliver a true disruption--that is, a product 10 times better than what came before it. The ultimate metric? How many people actually use it. Thus, Tidemark is aimed at the droves of regional managers and sales people who file numbers every day, but rarely look at them and rarely use them to diagnose how they’re performing in real time. That is, Tidemark is aimed at thousands of employees, rather than a few hundred.
If that sounds like a big business opportunity, it is: For every $1.00 most companies spend on labor costs, they spend, on average, $2.40 on hardware and software for new employees. Almost all of it is spent on user experiences that were never really designed with users in mind, and were last rethought 20 years ago. And by next year, Gartner expects a third of all business intelligence offers to be consumed on mobile devices. Long story, short: Forget Facebook. Corporate IT might be the planet’s most lucrative design opportunity.
[Top image: Jakub Krechowicz/Shutterstock]