Can you build a better business messaging app?

October 8, 2014, 3:03 PM UTC
The Avaamo mobile application for Google Android.
The Avaamo mobile application for Google Android.
Courtesy: Avaamo

If there’s one thing I’ve learned covering business technology over the last few years, it’s that those businesses are terrible at communication.

It’s not for lack of trying. In the old days, dropping by someone’s office or picking up the phone was a fairly straightforward affair. Need to talk to a bunch of people at once? Call a meeting. Today, we have the ability to reach each other using a variety of media—text, images, video—in real time and in an asynchronous fashion, such as email. (Yes, it’s a stark reminder to those working in 2014: email is not intended for rapid-fire communication. Don’t forget to tell your colleagues.) We can send to one person or to many within the same tool. And, like ye olde telephone, many of those tools can be used for people inside and outside the organization.

One problem, though. Each tool is a little bit different. Which means you will soon find yourself communicating with the same human beings 10 different ways, depending on how they initiate the conversation. It’s maddening.

I first met Ram Menon a year ago, when he was a president at Tibco (TIBX), the Palo Alto, Calif. enterprise software company. At the time, he was leading the charge on its Tibbr product, which the company calls an “enterprise social network”—that is, a Facebook for the workplace. The always-on communication that we now enjoy, extended by our use of mobile devices, has changed the way we work. Several companies, Tibco among them, have tried to build new tools that allow us to do so more easily. Emphasis on “tried,” of course—the too-many-channels problem persists today, and most of us still use email or phone more than anything else.

Menon must have felt he was on to something, though, because he and colleague Sriram Chakravarthy left Tibco in March to launch their own startup. The company, called Avaamo and formally introduced for the first time today, aims to fix a narrower problem: mobile messaging. Many software companies, including his former employer, have focused on building new communications tools for an old computing environment: the desktop. Avaamo exclusively focuses on mobile devices and work environments where that’s the only computer on hand, such as in the airline, hospitality, retail, and law enforcement industries.

“We’re focusing on business which have a large percentage of employees that are away from their desk,” Menon told Fortune. “For example, there is a large retailer I know that has deployed tools that nobody is using. Instead, floor managers are using WhatsApp to communicate with each other. It’s a real problem. They want to make it a fireable offense to use WhatsApp because the employees are sharing confidential information in an insecure environment. But they can’t do that until they have a credible alternative. People are fed up. Management is really nervous.”

The Los Altos, Calif. company’s namesake mobile application, which is available in Google’s Play store today and Apple’s App Store next week, is built to assuage those concerns. Its messages are encrypted. It has an “off the record” mode that’s akin to Mission: Impossible‘s “This message will self destruct.” It sandboxes your corporate contact list. And, most crucially, it allows for secure, two-way messaging with people outside the company—a feature lacking in many competing apps such as Slack, HipChat, and Convo.

“Most of these apps work inside a walled garden,” Menon said. “Tibbr did that. Yammer did that—only employees. But the real world is not like that. You talk to customers, vendors, partners. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, this is only for employees and for the rest, send email.’”

The app is free for anyone to download, but businesses who seek administrative control must pay a premium. To support its growth, the young company has raised $6.3 million in seed funding from WI Harper Group, Rembrandt Venture Partners, Streamlined Ventures, Eleven Two Capital, and Ovo Fund. It has been piloting the program with 27 organizations, large and small, in 17 countries. Menon said he has a particular eye on the Asian market, where it’s less typical for a company to automatically issue each employee a laptop.

“We have to get normal people comfortable with the tool,” he said. “You can’t just mandate things like you would with Microsoft Lync and Cisco Jabber. Those days are gone.”