Three of Plaxo’s best engineers and designers left almost a year ago to start a new company (much as they’d done a few years ago with HipCal, which Plaxo acquired in 2006). After a brief private beta, today they are launching to the public.

HipChatMeet HipChat. It’s a new (and, IMO, very clever and promising) approach to group collaboration within companies and teams–essentially group chat plus file-sharing done with the simplicity and polish of a great consumer app, but targeted at the enterprise. And it’s meant to spread organically and bottoms-up by attracting enthusiastic team members who really find it useful, rather than top-down through long sales-cycles to CIOs–in other words, winning by actually being better for the people that use it every day. You’ll be able to tell this from the moment you start using it–it’s distinctly “un-enterprise-y” in all the right ways, yet every enterprise needs something like this to be more productive and organized.

[ More HipChat screenshots ]

I’m excited about HipChat for several reasons:

First, the founders (Pete Curley, Garret Heaton, and Chris Rivers) are all rockstar talents and super nice guys; the best of the young web 2.0 “bootstrap from nothing and build something genuinely good that grows because people are using and loving it” approach that’s only become feasible recently. Whatever they work on, I know it’ll be well thought through and well executed, and it’ll keep getting better over time. These are good guys to know and watch, and they’re just getting started.

Second, group collaboration is a space that everyone knows is important, and yet that nothing does a good job of solving today. At Plaxo we’ve tried tons of wikis, internal blogs, mailing lists, document depots, dashboards, you name it. They’re always too complicated and cumbersome and never have streamlined workflows that work the way you need. One of my early surprises coming to Google is that for all their efforts and internal tools, the situation is ultimately not much better. Information is still spread everywhere across a variety of systems, is too hard to find and curate, and too often forces you to just ask the person next to you and hope for the best. Maybe new tools like Google Wave will make a difference here, but of course the more flexible and general-purpose a tool like that is, the greater the risk that it will do too many things and none of them just the way you want. HipChat may not be the magic solution to this complex problem either, but it’s refreshing to see the team apply a consumer-app eye and discipline to the problem–focusing on specific task arcs to really nail, and an end-to-end polish and friendliness that’s so clearly lacking from most other groupware tools.

This last point deserves its own slot: in my experience, the only way to really advance the state of technology making a real difference in the lives of real people is to subject it to the harsh Darwinian landscape of consumer software and devices, where if it doesn’t “just work” and provide a compelling and enjoyable experience, it doesn’t get used. This is the sharpening steel that’s honed all the best apps we have today, from gmail to facebook to the iPhone to boxee, and so on. And if you think about it, it’s the missing piece that makes most enterprise software so terrible–your company buys it, and you’re stuck with it, like it or not. The typical enterprise “fitness function” yields a much slower and sloppier rate of evolution than the consumer one, and that I believe is the main reason the quality of the two classes of apps differs so much. So it’s great to see an increase in companies willing to try and swim upstream to gain corporate adoption with a consumer mindset, whether it’s Google Apps,, Yammer, or now HipChat.

If you work on a team, if you’re dissatisfied with the state of collaboration tools, or if you just want to see a really well done new app, I encourage you to check out HipChat. We used several early betas inside Plaxo, and while any new communications tool faces an uphill battle to gain critical mass of adoption and change old habits, enough of us had enough “eureka moments” using HipChat to see its strong potential and to wish that we could fast-forward time until more people are using it and it’s had even more love put into it. The next best thing we can do is to spread the good word and give our support to the team, so consider this post a down payment!

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