Pingboard has released an API to help office managers better access and integrate their employee directory data. Drawing on experience working with Austin, Texas incubator program Capital Factory, the way Pingboard has approached its API provides lessons for other startups offering an API as part of their initial product suite. ProgrammableWeb spoke with Bill Boebel, CEO and founder of Pingboard, for this week’s launch.
Pingboard is a new Software-as-a-Service product aimed at creating a “modern company directory that centralizes employee information and shares that internally,” Boebel says. “Employee information is broken in the enterprise. If you are traveling and you need to contact a colleague, find out who is in the office, or see what people are working on, our products are solving that.”
At a recent API event in Oslo, Norway, I spoke with the chief IT architect of one international company whose greatest API strategic difficulty was exactly this problem. The company is one of Norway’s biggest exporters, with offices in Europe and the U.S. Its Amsterdam office works on one big data analytics API, while the U.S. office has leadership over another service API.
As the enterprise seeks to create scalable API architecture, the chief IT architect said the biggest issue is the various API developer teams knowing the other developers in the company, where they are located, their key programming interests and skills, and what coding projects they're working on. Without this knowledge, the company is having difficulty scaling to the sort of industrialized API strategy it needs to implement, as developer teams are working in silos. Shortcomings in the organizational systems prevent a more collaborative culture from emerging.
Boebel believes Pingboard is the solution to this sort of problem:
We interviewed office managers and they have some form of this data, but it is incomplete and they have to poll everyone again for updated information.
I talked to some customers - our typical customer is between 50 to a few hundred employees - and some bigger companies, and they are basically just using a spreadsheet. So what we are competing against is a mess of spreadsheets.
A few of them have built a proprietary directory like what we have here, but the fact that people are doing that themselves is a good sign that they need this product!
1 New API
Boebel says Pingboard has been a year in the making: “We have been working on it for a little over a year. We are now coming out of beta and anyone can sign up. At the same time, we are announcing our employee API, which is entering a beta phase.”
Boebel’s vision is that Pingboard will be at the center of a business’ office toolkit and will be the primary database used for updating employee information. Pingboard would use API integrations to make sure this data is also synced with whatever other systems it may reside in, like Google Apps.
We import a list of everyone from their Google Apps domain, we sync every hour, and if there are any new employees added, we send them a link to set up their Pingboard profile. Our big vision is that Pingboard will be the standard hub that small businesses use for their employee information. We want to be the reliable hub of that information.
Our plan is to build a lot of the integrations ourselves initially. It is a one way integration now from Google Apps to Pingboard, and we have done a Tribe HR into Pingboard as well, but the idea is to do two-way integrations in future. At present, our directory is mostly static, and you can add a lot of information. As we get into vacations, it will be more status-oriented and it will include real-time data that is short lived, like when people are out of the office. We are getting into that; I see that as fundamental.
7 Use Cases
During the past few months, several early adopters have been testing the API ahead of this week’s beta release. “We have beta customers doing some lightweight API integrations, pulling it into their applications,” says Boebel. He points to several use cases already being explored to optimize the use of employee information, with others noted by discussions we have had with other business SaaS providers, and several suggested by Pingboard early adopters, Umbel.
1. Twilio-HipChat-Pingboard integration
Storage finder SpareFoot has "built a really cool HipChat API integration and robot that will look for a hashtag in an IM conversation. This will trigger a query of the employee cell number and uses the Twilio API to send them the HipChat conversation. It is a way to get reliable employee information through an API. You couldn’t really do that sort of stuff before,” explains Boebel.
2. Flash cards
Boebel notes that Pingboard has the potential to impact the wider organizational culture as well the “fundamental of knowing who is working on what.” To help build employee relationships across a distributed enterprise, one API-driven app already in the Pingboard marketplace is a flash card game that tests knowledge of staff by showing their profile images and asking you to match to their name. Boebel mentions that people-centered CEOs and C-level executives already spend some of their flight time doing this manually when visiting a regional office; the game encourages this culture for anyone in the business.
3. Front desk intake
While at present a visitor log/front desk log-in app uses a wrapper around the web app to integrate an interface for the iPad, this is being rewritten to put the API at the base of the application. Boebel sees that not only could visitors log in and the iPad app automatically alert the relevant staff member, but could also complete any additional paperwork, such as the visitor signing a nondisclosure agreement. This app already complies with PCI, a financial security system that is also widely used as a baseline standard for its security systems.
4. Group travel arrangements
As Pingboard moves beyond static information to add pulling in “status-type information,” Boebel sees group travel as a good place to start. “It is relevant to pull in employees' travel schedules. Businesses do a good job at scheduling vacations (to prevent too many employees being away at the same time) but do a very poor job of sharing that information, so people often don’t know someone is on vacation until they try to contact them when they are away.”
Concur, a business travel expenditure solution provider, also recently noted that solving group travel is one of the biggest pain points today. While it is possible to retroactively see who has been booked from across a global enterprise to attend an event, it is difficult to do so in advance of bookings. That means it's impossible to schedule attending staff for cluster meetings and to leverage discounts for group travel when the staff are coming from multiple locations, for example. Using Pingboard and the Concur API integrated together could possibly solve this pain point and allow businesses to get optimize the opportunities that come with having a globally distributed team all in the one place at the same time.
5. Maintain website employee details
Ben Papillon - from audience data platform Umbel, one of Pingboard's early adopter customers - sees an easy way to keep their website's About and Team pages up to date using Pingboard. With the API, they can "Sync the list of team members from Pingboard to a table on our web server nightly, and use that data to feed our web site's leadership and team sections. This would reduce some of the dev time involved in maintaining our web site," Papillion says.
6. Better allocate dev team resources
Papillon points to a solution that could also be useful for the IT Chief Architect I spoke to in Oslo. Papillon says that if employee records in Pingboard were tagged with each engineer's specialties and responsibilities, "when we get error notifications, we could use this metadata from the Pingboard API to assign an auto-created bug in our issue tracker to the most appropriate developer. This would reduce some of the friction around the bug tracking process."
7. Speed up new employee onboarding
A final use case suggested by Papillon aims to solve a growing pain for many startups: not just getting employee data into the central office system, but ensuring new staff can access the documents they need and the team resources they will be required to use. Papillon suggests using Pingboard's API to "auto-create staff users in our product when they are added to Pingboard, and automatically assign them to the appropriate permission groups for their department. This would cut down on some of the onboarding time for new employees, and reduce the possibility of human error in this process by ensuring that every new hire automatically has access to the parts of our product that they need to do their job."
6 Startup Tips
The way Pingboard has approached its API offering is a useful case study for other startups looking at announcing an API as part of their feature set. Here are some of the key tactics Pingboard uses:
1. Leverage a GA launch to announce the API
Pingboard’s API offering has been announced at the same time as Pingboard itself moves from a pilot release to general availability. In this way, Pingboard is acknowledging that for a new SaaS product to be of value in the market, customers need to feel confident that there is an API tool on the product road map, if not available immediately. Announcing the API at the same time as the GA launch is a clever move.
2. Comply with Safe Harbor principles
Building trust is one of the most difficult challenges facing startups, and for Pingboard this will be an ongoing issue as it deals with employee information. Already it offers social media integrations so that employees can choose to use their Facebook photos, for example, as their employee profile images. Boebel is clear about what exactly the integration is accessing: “When you connect Facebook, it shows the Facebook icon, but you still need to be friends with the person to see their feed. We have seen hesitancy from some employees. It depends on the culture.”
The use of social media profiles in business has broken privacy rights in the past. Earlier this year, Violet Blue from ZDNet exposed a number of cases where transgendered people had been outed in their workplaces because of how Google-Plus shared their personal information with colleagues.
Boebel hopes to avoid those sorts of issues by adhering to Safe Harbor principles. “We are Safe Harbor-certified to set the bar now with all of that stuff and stick with it,” he says.
However, Boebel notes that API authentication is one area that can be strengthened further. At the moment, this is done by “a per-user token that you get by calling our authentication method with either your Pingboard username/password or with a Google OAuth token. Rob [Eanes], my CTO and co-founder, wants to improve this so that you can create and revoke tokens through the web app, but we haven't implemented this yet,” Boebel says.
3. Start with a beta, partner API release
Pingboard’s API release is available only to customers and is focused on supporting customer users to integrate the Pingboard directory across their current business processes and needs.
“The API will never be an extra charge," Boebel says. "Pingboard customers pay a simple $1 a month per employee, and as a customer you get the API. We also ask that you do request access to API so we can understand the use case.”
4. Dog food your API in your mobile apps
Pingboard has launched a mobile app that customers can also use immediately, built off the data in their Pingboard employee databases, Boebel says. “It looks like a contact list, but it can sync your Pingboard address book to your phone (either individual people or the whole organization), so that means caller ID is updated when you are using your mobile.”
The mobile app is “completely built” on the API. “Technically, anyone could have built this type of app themselves without us knowing about it, but we built the mobile app in parallel to the API to test the API and as an example of the sort of application that the API can create,” he says.
5. Know your market
Pingboard was born out of Capital Factory, a co-working space for fresh startups in Austin. The office manager of the co-working space needed a way to know who was in the building, what meeting rooms were booked and by whom, and other details of workers located in the building. Boebel’s team looked for off-the-shelf products that could be used to manage this need, and in doing so learned of the difficulties facing office managers in enterprises in managing this type of information. Hence, Pingboard was created.
Nevertheless, while it's being used by incubators and co-working space managers for their needs, Boebel is clear that this is no longer the primary market. “We are not targeting them as a customer per se, but the use case does align pretty well, but we won’t get into components like billing, etc., that those sorts of providers need. 500 Startups are using it in their Mountain View office. Techstars Austin are using it, for example.”
6. Take a strategic approach to entering the wider business app ecosystem
Boebel takes a similarly strategic view around ecosystem participation in the wider SaaS market. “We are going to enter into that in a lightweight way. We have talked specifically with Twilio, for example. Every quarter they do a half week where they work on something random. We’re looking to partner with them to use that time to try and get a core product out, and that’s where the fun starts.”
Pingboard's Success Will Depend on the API
For a SaaS startup like Pingboard, it's easy to see why offering an API is crucial to the business’ future growth. In each of the use cases described above, the employee database will need to integrate with other business systems, hence the need for an API that plugs the data directly in to those business processes.
Given Pingboard’s experience in the Austin incubator scene and its modeling of some clever API deployment strategies at its launch, it may well become a textbook example for other startups in how to enter the market.