Mike Grafham and Rav Dhaliwal of Yammer

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A San Francisco based start-up that began its journey in September 2008, Microsoft-owned Yammer has now found an open, light and airy home away from home in Shoreditch, some 5000 miles away from base.

Originally invented as a solution to solve a communication gap in David Sacks’ online genealogy company Geni, what was once an ‘internal Twitter-like thing’ now sees messages exchanged, ideas shared, documents co-edited and projects flourish between 8 million global users in a plethora of settings.

Veterans at the UK HQ, Mike Grafham (Worldwide Head of Yammer Customer Success) and Rav Dhaliwal (Director of Yammer Customer Success in EMEA) were there to witness everything from the company’s early forays in East London to being assimilated into the software giant’s cluster of office applications. Then of course, there was also that unavoidable woe that comes with being acquired by a behemoth of modern technology; signing up 80,000 new internal staff to the enterprise social network in one day.

When did the company really hit the tech scene?

M:  We launched into something called the TechCrunch 50 in September 2008 and then kind of grew pretty rapidly from there, to the point where we're now part of Microsoft, we've got over 8 million users, with 85% of the Fortune 500; so we've grown very, very quickly from those beginnings. We're not even 5 years old yet as an organisation, so it's been quite a ride.

How did Yammer’s journey take it from San Francisco to Shoreditch?

M:  As we were growing, we always knew that EMEA was over 50% of the traffic coming to Yammer, and so we needed a local base to try and help reach out to those customers. We set up over here and it has subsequently grown into our first engineering base outside of San Francisco.

It's been quite a journey coming here actually. We did look at the de facto place for someone from Silicon Valley looking to set up in London, and the original steer that we got from HQ was to look out towards kind of Regent Street, the West End, Soho type area. Then we got connected to a lot of the people that were involved in Tech City, obviously there is this big history of digital and tech starting up around here, we realised that this was definitely the place to be.

After The Golden City, has the company acclimatised to the Shoreditch vibe?

M: We're really, really happy to be here. It feels like a very natural home, the look and style of the office (located at 80 Great Eastern Street) is very similar to the home that we've got in San Francisco. So there is no place in this area that feels more Yammer-like than where we are now.

What is Yammer’s product?

R:  I guess the simplest way to describe it is that Yammer is a communication platform for inside companies. It may be familiar to people from their consumer experiences like Facebook. and we've designed it a way so there is a minimum barrier to entry, but essentially it is a platform that allows you to find the people and information you need to do your job, and to find it in the most efficient and open way as possible. It’s a free model but we monetise by selling the administration capability, the things enterprises would need to do in a controlled way.

M: You pay to legitimise it within your company essentially, so if you want branding, if you want to put a usage policy on it, if you want to control the user management centrally. It's a very nice model to have because you only ever generally sell to people who are using your product.

How do you develop it in two locations that are on opposite sides of the Atlantic?

M:  So it's all centrally hosted in the cloud. And then the way that the development works is that all the teams work on independent components of that. We have some projects where we are working jointly between London and San Francisco, and some months where London owns the thing that's being developed and they'll make that. But the net result is that the overall Yammer product iterates, there's not a question of individual versions for different countries, it's all centralised in the cloud, all updated every week.

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Has Yammer successfully become part of the virtual community in Shoreditch?

M:  There's a couple of branding agencies around here that use it, then the people behind Moshi Monsters as well, and Mind Candy is another big customer – we do advocate it quite a lot. Lizzi and Beth Hepworth set up TechBikers to get people to cycle from Paris to London in aid of Room to Read, and used Yammer to coordinate the whole initiative. We act as a kind of hosting centre for a lot of things in relation to the community and the engineering team runs its own brewing collective in Hackney, but there is a lot more we could do. We've got a great little sector here, we've got a space we can use for events, we've got a load of people who are very passionate, most of whom live in the local area, and I think it's helping those people get visibility in the sort of things they can participate in and help with, would be great.

What other clients do you have?

R: 85% of the Fortune 500 is our client. In terms of start-ups, we have got a customer who is just one person! Then we have huge manufacturing customers, we have government customers, we have banking and finance; what that demonstrates is that it doesn't matter what the industry is, people have similar challenges. One of our clients is the European Commission for example, so the government meeting in Brussels is a big user and one of the technologies we've been able to offer through being part of Microsoft is the ability to instantly translate posts. They showed me a conversation with 50 people in it and 20 different languages, so that's amazing to see.

M: Organisation size is not necessarily an indicator of if people should take this up. We've worked with a few of the smaller start-ups inside of TechHub and in the San Francisco area and we've worked historically with people like Evernote. We do work with companies of every size from 1 or 2 people up to 130 - 180,000 person organisations.

From humble beginnings to such a remarkable present, how did Yammer actually make it into TechCrunch 50?

M:  It was an annual competition where they'd give a $50,000 cheque to the most exciting start-up of the year, so I think the American team got into that through being relatively well known in the tech scene. It was an exciting new idea, and they thought they'd pitch it and see whether they won.

R:  And then, they won! It was not only where Yammer was launched, it was where Yammer actually won, and I think to Mike's point, David Sacks had obviously given his pedigree both with his PayPal experience and also with being an investor, having been the co-founder of Geni; obviously he has a certain presence in Silicon Valley. You can actually watch the moment it was launched on TechCrunch.com

The TechCrunch award was actually given to Yammer by the CEO of Salesforce, again you can see on the video, where he says ‘I love this product, I would invest in this product, my customers would love this product,’ so it's quite ironic how that's worked out!

Salesforce is Yammer’s main competitor, what sets the two apart?

R:  Having worked at Salesforce, I got quite a lot of experience with it and actually the thing that drove me to Yammer was that Salesforce did a very big commercial for Chatter, which is their social layer. They did it on the Superbowl, which is a big deal, they spent a lot of money and it was considered to be one of the poorest ever Superbowl adverts. I was reading the reviews and there was one that caught my eye, it said ‘Social networking start-up Yammer purchases Google search term for Chatter during Superbowl!’ So for somebody whose career has been in collaboration software, I'm thinking I'm actually in the wrong place. I realised it was years ahead. Like, years ahead.

Are there any Yammer features you are particularly proud of?

M: Having built something that's pretty unique in the enterprise space, being able to understand what features people are using, and why, is hugely valuable when it comes to understanding what you should do next. You need to be adaptable to what's going to happen and we are absolutely that. That's the thing that we are most proud of, going above any individual feature. I think there's a tonne of stuff coming, and now we can lean on and make use of being a part of Microsoft. 1 in 7 people in the world uses Office.

R:  And I think something like 25% of all international calls are made on Skype, which is a very large proportion of people, so if you folded that experience in, it would be a very powerful way to communicate. At the moment, things like Skype aren't integrated. We've got some other priorities in terms of where we integrate with Microsoft, specifically around things like SkyDrive Pro, but this is all on the roadmap. It's going to be very exciting, the further we go through this journey, just to see the power that will give customers, the ability to be on your social network and create a power point and then work on it with multiple people at the same time no matter where they are.

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How has Yammer transformed the way people work?

M: 70% of people aren't engaged in what they are doing at work, which is a terrible statistic. And actually 30% of those people are actively working against your organisation despite being paid by it. The thing that tends to cause disengagement is that people don't necessarily relate to what the organisation is trying to achieve strategically and don't always understand what their role is in doing that and their ability to influence it. The way you fix that is from a huge number of different things, everything from organisation design to the way that you reward people, and also how information flows around, which is where something like Yammer fits in.

One of the easiest ways of describing Yammer is that it’s three things. It is an embodiment of the philosophy that says if you are a network as a business, you're more equipped to deal with the way the world is now changing outside of the doors of your organisation, you've got to be a network to serve a network. Secondly, we're a product that creates the conditions where information can flow like that. Thirdly, we're a company that lives by those principles.

We introduce our customers to other customers, to say you guys are the best people to help this person to solve that problem. My team is not in the business of trying to sell three yearlong consulting engagements to people, we're in the business of making customers make themselves successful.

R:  So our function is a really interesting one, we effectively in a way to make ourselves redundant, if that makes sense?

Why the name Yammer?

M: Yammer was originally called Workfeed, which was not a great choice, and then Corpster, which was my favourite but it comes with a curiously zombie like reference! And then eventually, the one everybody seemed to congregate on was Yammer.

R:  Yeah and now we treat it as an adjective, verb and a noun. So Yam: to Yam, you're a Yambassador or you have a Yammerversary. It's handy in that respect!

Can Yammering be counter-productive to the working environment?

R: My response to that is if someone is coming to work with the express view to waste time, they're going to find a way to do it anyhow. People will get engaged if there is value for them, that's the thing to understand, it's not just another thing for them to check, it's actually going to help make their work life better.

Do you think internal networks discourage face to face communication?

M: There's no substitute for sitting in a room and interacting in person, however for a lot of organisations it's just not feasible because of time-zones, geography, language. So I don't think it necessarily cuts anything out, I think it actually promotes people to have stronger relationships.

Is there a tendency for office cliques to be re-represented on the platform?

R:  Interesting question. I'm not certain I've seen it myself or had customers talk to me about it.

M:  I think what these sort of tools are really good at doing is putting a window up to what the culture of the organisation is really like, so if it is broken, cliquey, passive aggressive, it will show.

Are you seeing a usage trend across different countries?

R:  I think in the Nordic region they go on holiday for 3 months because It’s the only kind of good weather they get, so that’s a slightly different rhythm of business, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are less or more adept or adverse to it. We had some really interesting statistics, anomalies I would say, Holland for example is leading across people using yammer. So the Dutch are really taking to it.

Do you see a difference in the way Yammer is incorporated in diverse cultures?

R: We’ve been working with the Saudi Minister of Labour on a programme to better integrate women into the workforce, so I think that’s a really good example of the social sort of things that are happening in the Middle East.

What does the future hold for Yammer?

M: The vast majority of people that joined Yammer joined because they wanted to change the way that work got done. Now we’re part of Microsoft we actually have a really realistic chance of achieving that objective because we have this huge potential audience, a lot of influence over how communication flow works, and a world that is becoming ever increasingly ready to make that change because it can see that that’s something it needs to do.

So I think it’s an incredibly exciting p­lace to be in terms of thinking about how all of these different things, from Office to CyberLink and from Yammer to SharePoint, connect people to each other to get work done. How those come together in a world that needs to be more networked is a tremendously exciting place to be. Basically Microsoft’s pretty much the only place in the world you can do that, even though I don’t think anybody knows what that future looks like right now, we will be it! That is the reason why we come to work every day. 

Yammer have been tenants of The Estate Office Shoreditch since 2012.