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Editorially and the Incumbent

Editorially was a beautiful and thoughtful writing tool. Unfortunately, usefulness was not enough to overcome the 900 lb incumbent gorilla: Microsoft Word.

Editorially came out of the gate with a vision to change the way content is created. It led with a deep appreciation for the writing process, and provided the writer a sophistegant1 authoring experience. The talent behind it was huge. The focus was 100%. When the curtain lifted, the crowd went wild. But one year to the day after announcing the product, the team announced its closure. One year.

Many, myself included, brayed like vindicated 6-year-olds about the zero-revenue business model. In general, I think giving away a product for free is stupid. But let’s be honest: the inconvenience of not making money has never stopped the tech industry before.

Rather, this line in the post “Goodbye” was telling:

But Editorially has failed to attract enough users to be sustainable, and we cannot honestly say we have reason to expect that to change.

And later:

Even if all of our users paid up, it wouldn’t be enough.

Indeed, revenue is irrelevant without adoption.

The obvious question: why was adoption poor? Editorially had the product, the talent and the exposure to stake a lead position in the swirly market of collaborative writing and editing tools. The prospective customer base is near infinite — besides marketing writers, editorial staff, pro bloggers and authors, there’s a computationally infinite long tail of hacks, wannabes, students and Buzzfeed contributors.

In my experience, the impediment is simple and obvious and painful: Microsoft Word.

Organizations construct communications infrastructure built upon Word, using it and abusing it every time something needs to be written about anything. It’s both scratchpad for CEOs and publishing engine for editorial teams, as embedded as business cards and fake ferns. This isn’t inherently bad. Features like commenting, change-tracking, view-switching, data parsing and visual formatting are chocolate-cake rich. Word is messy and unstructured but its convenience is narcotic.

Writers like Word. Organizations standardize on Word. The world works in Word. So switching away from Word is not like switching to a different car, it’s like driving on the other side of the road. In a hovercraft. Backward.

I learned this the hard way in 2009 when I tried to move my marketing team to Writeboard, 37signals’ collaborative writing tool. I thought it was a lay-up. Built-in version control, live collaboration, native integration to Basecamp. The pilot never got out of the locker room. Within one day, writers fell back to posting Word docs in Basecamp — because that’s what the rest of the organization needed.

Ultimately, that’s the problem. Editorially attracted a legion of early adopters, some graduating into full evangelists, many who would happily pay for the tool. But we’re dealing with a 300 situation: even the loudest, staunchest, feistiest cadre mean little to an institution of millions that regards the most sophisticated writing tool on the planet as a firmware-grade commodity and whose complacency with said tool has settled like concrete.

I’m bummed to see Editorially go. It was a genuinely great product. You can still use Gather Content, Penflip, Quink, Draft, Typewrite, StackEdit, Live Documents, Quip, Texts, Contentful or god help me Google Docs. Author in the cloud, format with Markdown, version with git. The rest of the world just needs to know if you can email them that Word file.

1 Sophisticated and elegant. Just made that up.

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