HighRise.pngVenerable Enterprise 2.0 software vendor 37signals -- makers of Basecamp, Backpack, Writeboards, and the Ruby on Rails framework -- has just opened the front door for their much anticipated CRM'ish offering. Highrise marks a new era of simple CRM for the 2.0 generation, and we were lucky enough to get our hands on a sneak preview.Th idea behind Highrise, as with all of 37signal's hosted applications, it to simplify an application down to its core functionality in order to religiously refine and streamline the most useful features. In this case, the application is an "online contact manager that helps you keep track of who you talk to, what was said, and what to do next...you can set reminders for follow-ups, thank you notes, calls tasks, and more." Now while a simplistic start, to us it sounds a lot like the foundation of a Customer Resource Management (CRM) application. But it isn't, well not in the traditional sense. Salesforce.com does these things and adds about 1000 other features that you might also need, but that also might tend to complicate. Highrise is positioned between the traditional CRM, your address book, your todo list, and your calendar.

Features of Highrise

Smooth Usability Sailing Highrise has a very Basecamp-like look and feel, so users of other 37signals applications should have no problem traversing from the Enterprise 2.0 backwoods to the concrete and steel of Highrise. When you log in, you are greeted with the traditional dashboard page with latest activity, search field, and tasks arranged by due date. As you'd expect, the layout is smooth and simple. At the top are the tabs for different sections. Dashboard, Contacts, Tasks, and Cases. Highrise CRM - Tabs Dashboard, Contacts, Tasks These areas of the product are unsurprising. The names fairly well tell the tale, and in fact, we've seen these characters all before -- albeit perhaps in slightly different packaging -- in other 37signals applications. The extension of note here is in the Contacts area. With Highrise, contacts can have what's called a Dropbox. This is an email endpoint that can be used to automatically generate Tasks or Contacts for this user. More on this below. Highrise CRM - Dropbox Cases, A Clean, Well-lighted View Cases are what differentiate this product. Cases tie all of your information together in a new and productive way. Its similar to an event or project in Basecamp in that it ties all of the small stuff together in a way that's natural to the needs and operations at hand. On one page, listed is the title of the event, a place to add notes, the people involved and their input and categorization tools at the right. Highrise CRM - Cases A huge downside here is that -- much like Basecamp and Time Tracking -- you don't get the Cases feature unless you are willing to shell out at least US$ 50/month for the fully featured version of the software. We think the otherwise inspiring 37signals have mis-stepped here. With Basecamp and Time Tracking, you can see the connection between billing for cash and having to pay more for the feature. But here, with Highrise, Cases are really the one feature that is unique. Yes, there are some organization and packaging differences around Contacts and Tasks, but that's about it. Hopefully the pricing around Cases will change in the future. We believe the Web 2.0 Chicago boys have got this particular item wrong. Put it In My Dropbox To now do a reversal on what we just said and continue from above, the Dropbox feature is probably the most interesting application level feature of Highrise. Dropboxes provide the ability for users to send email straight into the system and have each email converted directly into a task or a contact. In the BCC field of email correspondence, you can put a specially assigned email address which will automatically input and organize the data being sent into Highrise. By appending different time values to the email address string you can assign the task different due dates (e.g., today, tomorrow, this week, or next week). Wow, that's too easy. And in our initial testing this functionality works extremely well. So while we do love this feature, we have a hard time considering it something unique to Highrise. For if 37signals coding is worth its salt, this functionality is sure to shortly appear across their full product line. Its a functionality that can be applied horizontally.

Summary

37signals have been on a strong and interesting trajectory. Their software has met with success for both reasons trendy and real. Highrise is probably going to generate less noise in its initial phases, but over time it could very well take a nice bite out of the lower-end SalesForce market. The real entry price for Highrise is US$ 49 per month. That gets you all features, up to 15 users, 1GB of storage, and a whopping 20,000 contacts. SalesForce on the other hand, currently starts off at discounted rates of US$ 695/year ($58/month) for 5 users or US$ 995/year ($83/month) for 10 users on the "Team Edition". So if you could call and compare these apples, a 10 person team could save US$ 408 per year by using Highrise. But Highrise is no SalesForce. SalesForce Team Edition makes Highrise look a touch anemic. SaleForce includes sales leads, support incidents, document storage, group calendaring, a multitude of reports, reminders, and desktop integration (via their web services API's). The rub is that a lot of small sales teams find SalesForce too complicated to understand and/or too difficult to build new daily habits around. This is where Highrise has its opportunity, especially with the email Dropbox feature. Logging into SalesForce 3-5 times per day to keep things in-sync and rolling smoothly is an improbable pain for multi-hat-wearing professionals. Developing a habit of BCC'ing your Highrise account is a much easier and much more likely to transpire activity. Given this opportunity and that 37signals' products are far from static and tend to integrate well with each other, we do have, er, high expectations for the life of this effort. Making Cases a standard feature would go a long ways toward picking up the low-end of the SalesForce market. Expanding features via integration of a full "Small Business Office" version of Basecamp, Campfire, and Highrise is the real money pot. Do this for US$ 99 per month for small shops and Highrise will no doubt earn its name. [Editor's Note: Announced on 22-Mar-2007, ALL flavors of Highrise will include Cases.]