Sam DeBrule

@samdebrule

How to Survive the SaaS App Explosion

I want to make you a bet.

If you spend the majority of your day working in front of a computer, your bookmark bar looks at least as packed as mine:

Don’t worry, you’re not alone :)

Avi Eisenberger, Samiur Rahman, Mark Philpot and I have spent a lot of time considering the dozens of apps people rely on to do their jobs. Building Journal (📒Get Early Access to the Journal beta📒) an app that let’s you search all your work information from one place, and a 20,000-person artificial intelligence community called Machine Learnings, has given us a unique perspective on what’s happening now and what will happen next.

Over the past few years, well-known venture capitalists like Tom Tunguz have written about the explosion of niche software tools used across marketing, productivity, design, sales, and engineering categories.

The majority of their articles consider impacts that companies experience, but less thought has been given to the impact on the individuals who have to juggle all the tools.

Meanwhile, the number of marketing tools alone has grown by 3233% over the past 7 years and is showing no signs of stopping.

Today, all information workers rely on dozens of apps to do their jobs.

They (and the companies they work for) benefit enormously from using the best tool for their every need: emailing, calendaring, storing files, building spreadsheets, checking off to-do’s, writing notes, filing support tickets, and doing job-function specific tasks.

Unfortunately, the same handful of tools that helps people do their job effectively also causes them to suffer. People stress over the thought of missing out on important information and feel a lack of control when their work is scattered across a bunch of tools.

Yet, the tools create too much value to justify a call for a consolidation of them into a single platform that does a little bit of everything. Someone will need to make it easier for individuals to see, search, and stay on top of all their work from one starting point. It’s the only way you’ll have a chance of becoming the workplace superhero we all know and love: a deliberate ass-kicker who understands, juggles, and masters all the tools her job requires.

Let’s start by looking at the tool explosion from the eyes of a company.

The Benefits of the App Explosion

So. Many. Tools. Source

5,381.

That’s the number of available marketing services in 2017. The number might sound overwhelming, but the benefits from all the niche tools are too great for us to return to a world where employees depend on monolithic software (think IBM) that is decent at everything but not great at one thing.

The market is able to support all these tools since they make it possible for teams to achieve goals that would otherwise be impossible. Organizations within companies now have the power to build a “tech stack” of the best individual tools needed to handle their responsibilities and nail their big, hairy, audacious, goals.

Companies win as a result.

For example, a marketing team can use Google Analytics to measure website performance, AdRoll to retarget, Optimizely to optimize conversions, HubSpot to manage customers and prospects, Mixpanel to analyze funnels, Intercom to communicate with customers, and to top it all off, Salesforce to manage customer and campaign data. Other teams build their own tech stacks too — not just marketing. If you’re an engineer, a designer, a salesperson, or anything in between, you already know that your job requires you to juggle a handful of products.

As long as this differentiation is substantial, we will continue to see fragmentation. A marketer who uses a best in class marketing automation solution to attain their lead and meeting numbers is not going to give up that piece of software without a fight. — Tom Tunguz

Companies also benefit because their people can easily cancel subscriptions of the tools they no longer need, and out maneuver competition that can’t quickly adopt and leverage the best new services.

All of this isn’t to say that the tool explosion has been easy on companies — it hasn’t.

But, the most painful issues have been sorted out. It was once impossible to use insights from one tool to better serve customers in a separate tool. MuleSoft, Zapier, IFTTT, Segment, Datadog and mParticle came to the rescue to make data integration across tools simple. They make it easy for companies to collect all their customers’ data, and send it to any other tool it needs to be.

Now all tools across a company’s tech stack can talk to each other. Companies benefit by building a single, robust record of all their customers, and it includes data from every single one of their tools.

Of course nothing is perfect, but things are peachy. The app explosion created two major question marks for companies, but now they can be answered:

  1. “Does our customer data have to live in separate silos?” No.
  2. “Do I have to look in 10 places to see and use all my customers’ data?” No.

The tool explosion has been great for companies, but it hasn’t been as kind to individuals.

The Individual Costs of the App Explosion

The tool explosion made companies more flexible, but it might make individuals snap.

82% of salespeople and marketers lose up to an hour a day managing tools. — Mimi An in HubSpot Global Tools Survey

People stress out over the thought of missing out on important information, and lacking the context they need to do good work. Not to mention, you waste time jumping back and forth between apps just to accomplish a given task.

The app explosion broke your work into tiny pieces and scattered it across a dozen apps — making it almost impossible to feel on top of things:

  • You depend on ~5 job-specific tools to do much of your job.
  • When you feel overwhelmed, you create your own system to organize your important work.
  • You create a Frankenstein-organization system of your calendar, email, messaging, note-taking, spreadsheets, and to-do lists to organize your work.

But, it takes a lot of effort to keep your to-do lists up to date and organized. Your email stresses you out when you have enough time to check your inbox, but not enough to respond.

You re-create work you did in your note-taking app because you can’t remember exactly where you wrote it down. And to top it all off, your company’s messaging app keeps you from working for even 10 minutes straight without distraction.

All this adds to a feeling of anxiety and the sense that you’re not in control of your work. The flexibility businesses get from the tool explosion is great, but the costs will outweigh the benefits if it leads to employee burnout.

The tool explosion doesn’t need to be so hard on people — look no further than a past tech explosion to see why.

Remember the webpage explosion? Everyone, not just companies, benefitted from it. Any public information you could ever need was available online. It was an overwhelming time, to be sure, but Google saved the day.

When you needed to find information, Google gave you a place to start. It gave you a feeling of control. You could get to all the world’s public information from that little search box. They limited your options. They made it all manageable.

Now imagine Google didn’t exist to make the webpage explosion manageable.

There would be no single place to go to find the information you need. You’d go directly to every individual website. You’d search each of them individually. When you needed to remember a specific piece of information, you’d struggle to remember where you found the answer. You’d waste time looking. You’d miss out on important information.

Get early access to Journal to see and search all your important work from one place.

Right now, you’re living in the aftermath of the work information/app explosion, but a Google-like service hasn’t come to the rescue.

Survival Tips and Tricks for the Tool Explosion

Survival in today’s post-explosion workplace isn’t easy. Individuals must be both responsive and deliberate in all the work they do.

The most effective people are aware of all the relevant tools, able to pick them up quickly, and great at staying organized across all of them.

It’s actually possible if you take the necessary steps.

1. Be aware of the available apps

Websites like Product Hunt, Siftery, SaaSGenius, Stacklist and Stackshare make it easy to stay on top of the best tools that the best teams at the best companies use to do their work.

It’s worth checking them once a month to see what new tools could be helpful to you or your team’s specific needs. Before a real pain emerges, you’ll learn about the struggles people face at other companies, and the services they test.

When you see warning signs of the problem arising at your company, you’ll be familiar with the remedies, and prepared to add the tool to your team’s tech stack.

2. Familiarize yourself with fundamental platforms

People who deliberately build mental models for how tools work have an easier time of grasping new ones.

Wade into the weeds of marketing automation and do a trial of HubSpot. Dive into the deep waters of web analytics and play around with Google Analytics reports. Make a MailChimp campaign for a family get together to grasp email marketing software. Jump into a Salesforce trial environment to develop an understanding of customer relationship management (CRM) software.

Starting is never easy, but getting to know the tools is worth the investment. It’ll be that much easier to pick up the next round of marketing automation, CRM, or analytics apps your company adds to its stack.

Make it second nature to learn the new apps, because your career depends on it.

3. Start in a single, controlled place

Workplace superheroes usually have the right answers, and when they don’t, they know where to turn to find the answer — quickly.

But your work information is scattered across a bunch of tools. It’s hard to know where to start — and keeping track of all your moving pieces is a challenge. You still have to deal with that feeling of dread that you could be missing a meeting, deadline, important task, or action item.

Instead of being scattered, and wasting 1.8 hours every week searching for your work information, you should form the habit of turning to one place to see exactly what’s happening in your world.

Resist the urge to open your email or messaging app as soon as you get to your desk. It’s a surefire way to start your day in reactive mode. Instead, try a system that helps you to be more deliberate:

  • Create a document with your 1–3 daily goals
  • Drop in links to the apps you rely on to do your job
  • Check back periodically throughout the day to make sure you’re on track

4. Master your organization’s favorite apps

There are a few tools that you could not imagine doing your job without.

Master them.

It could be Gmail, Slack, Google Calendar, or a job-specific tool like Zendesk, Intercom, Salesforce, or GitHub. Go beyond the basic features. Dive deep into the support articles. Befriend their customer success teams. Learn all the power features that will allow you to work more effectively.

You’ll become an indispensable teammate as your company’s dependence on tools grows — especially if others haven’t made the same effort to build the app-picking-up muscle.

You can be a deliberate ass-kicker that understands, juggles, and gets the most out of all the tools your job requires. You just need to be willing to keep trying and mastering new services.

Be one of the first to get beta access to Journal to see and search all your important work from one place.

Want to be in the first small group of family & friends to try Journal?

Retweet the the article, and include a screenshot of your browser’s bookmark bar!

Topics of interest

More Related Stories