Workarounds don't work, history repeats itself
The problem isn't hiding. It's painfully obvious and we've tried many things to solve it.
We've tried organising our work into Google Drive shared folders and Confluence spaces, but these are hard to maintain. Someone inevitably forgets to put that one doc in that one place, teams gradually loose faith in the system, and we all eventually fallback to pinging each other on Slack to find docs.
We've also tried standardising on tooling to just use Notion or just use Coda for everything. After all, if everything just happened in the one place, this wouldn't be a problem. Despite how flexible these tools have become, that's not possible in practice: designers still need Figma, sales still need Salesforce, recruiters still need Greenhouse. Moreover, it doesn't make sense to mandate that people use a specific tool if that's not how they want to work. It's ineffective, and teams often end up going rogue any way.
There is no escape
What's worst is that we're stuck repeating ourselves. As memory of an attempt at fixing this problem fades, we approach this problem yet again, with the same set of solutions we've already tried.
We're better than this.
Our day 0 vision was to build a search across all work apps. It's easy to extrapolate how this could be just like "Google Search but for your work". The approach also felt seemingly obvious - integrate with different apps using APIs.
We thought we knew, but things got uneasy quickly. There are just so many important work tools out there. Are we really going to build API integrations with everything? Hang on, this list is always changing - it's not unusual to notice a colleague experimenting with a new tool any given month. If we really did want to search across all work apps, we'd certainly be playing catch up with old and new APIs. You could argue that these were just the schleps we had to overcome, but it was amidst this uneasiness that we noticed what was right in front of us - the browser.
We work in the browser, but it isn't really made for that. Just look at the address bar. It's the primary way to access work but it gives a noisy mix of personal things, search suggestions, and work stuff.
For all its flaws, the great thing about the browser is that it's built on a set of standards - the web standards. From HTTP and URLs to HTML and CSS, all apps we use in the browser follow the same predictable patterns: documents are accessed via URLs, content lives inside the HTML, there's a page title, there's a favicon, and so on.
This is actually a perfect replacement for APIs. There's no need to manually build integrations with every single app that people use for work (or will use in the future). We can just rely on existing universal web standards and be compatible with any app that you use in the browser - including apps that don't offer APIs (e.g. your internal company tools), or apps that don't exist yet (e.g. the next Product Hunt hit).
There's a catch though.
This only works with things that can be, and have been, opened in the browser. We can't help you access that Microsoft Word document on your hard drive, and we can't help you access that Google Doc that you've never opened before. This intuitively feels like a big drawback, but we've come to realise that it's not as critical as it sounds.
Firstly, accessing work seems to be more of a problem on the web and in the browser. URLs are magical. They've made it so easy to share work with colleagues and collaborate freely. All this has come at a cost however, as it has become quite overwhelming to navigate work. A product manager is linking you to Google Docs on Slack, an analyst is linking you to Tableau in an email, a designer is linking you to Figma on Zoom. We're sharing and receiving lots of links across lots of apps, all the time. In contrast, we're less likely to share the files that live directly on our hard drives (probably because they don't have anything like URLs to make sharing easy). This means that there aren't that many local files we use to collaborate, and so finding them isn't a critical problem.
Secondly, we usually just want to access things we've already accessed. This is very counter intuitive, but think about how often you actually want to access a document you've never accessed before. It's probably not that common, and when it does happen, you usually have to chat with someone to learn about (or confirm) the existence of the document anyway. e.g. "Do we have data on the last launch?" "Yes, I've created a Tableau dashboard for it, here's the link".
To sum up, searching for local files and accessing things you've never seen before, are both not that critical to solve for. These insights are the foundations for eesel.
We started by building a Chrome extension for ourselves and our immediate teammates. The extension was a basic filter over someone's browser history to extract links relevant for work (e.g. see all my Google Docs). It was dead simple, it worked with all our work apps, and there was no need to connect work accounts or give access to sensitive data. This alone was already delivering a lot of value.
So we kept improving the extension, and kept adding more teammates to the beta, all the way to our public launch on Product Hunt in April 2020.
A year on after the launch, the before and after may not look different, but we've come a long way.
The app is more customisable, faster, and now, you can even take actions from eesel (e.g. create new Github issues or join your next meeting). We've gone from tens of users in Intercom (read: friends) to thousands of users across great companies like Canva, Atlassian, Shopify, Monday.com, Gitlab and more.
Lots has stayed the same too. eesel is dead simple and just works seconds after you install it.
eesel works with anything in the browser. eesel is fully private and runs locally.
The cloud brought the first shift in collaboration. Having the most up to date view of files synced up in Dropbox was magic.
This means that word docs have shifted to Google Docs, Sketch designs have shifted to Figma, (basic) Excel has shifted to Google Sheets, VSCode has shifted to CodeSpaces. We're at an inflection point. More work will shift to the browser, and more collaboration will happen in the browser.
eesel will be there to enable that. We want to transform the browser into an operating system for work. We want teams to work seamlessly across their tools, no matter the tools.
We'll start by giving teams a shared source of truth. It will be a place to have all documents for a particular project, automatically organised (remember that you can't trust people to organise?). It's everything we wanted when at Atlassian, when at Intercom, when at Front, and I can't wait to show it to you in the coming months.
eesel is our vehicle to have the most meaningful impact we can. There's lots that's wrong with the world, and there're lots of amazing people working on lots of pressing problems.
We believe that we're uniquely placed to enable others to do their job better, and that's how we can best impact the world. Even just enabling hundreds of people to do good work, better, is far more than what we could personally achieve ourselves (check out operations and altruism). We're excited to make eesel our life's work, and we're excited to help you do your life's work.