Tim Abbott Zulip

  • Tim Abbott sold his buzzy workplace chat app, Zulip, to Dropbox for an "unreasonable amount" in 2014. 
  • At the time, Dropbox wanted to reinvent the entire workplace productivity suite and had just acquired email startup Mailbox, too. 
  • But about two years later, Dropbox abandoned that strategy to refocus on its file sharing product, and made Zulip an open source tool.
  • For the last four years, Abbott has been growing the business and the company says it's "relaunching" Thursday with a slew of new features.
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In 2014, Tim Abbott sold his two-year-old workplace chat app, Zulip, to Dropbox. Even though the company had not publicly launched, it already had tons of buzz and high profile investors like Dropbox CEO Drew Houston and former Google Cloud CEO Diane Green. Dropbox made what Abbott called an "unreasonable" offer to buy the company, so he sold (Abbott declined to share the terms of the deal). 

The app's workplace chat model was similar to Slack's, but it had a unique way to connect messages by topic. Dropbox acquired it as part of its goal to reinvent the entire workplace productivity suite, and just before this had acquired email startup Mailbox

However, once Abbott and his team joined Dropbox, they started to work on the company's main filing sharing product, serving in key roles on Dropbox's engineering team. As a result, Zulip didn't get much internal funding or attention. 

Eventually, Dropbox realized it wasn't going to be able to pursue a chat product of its own, and made the decision to open source Zulip in 2015. After Dropbox open sourced the product, Abbott would spend his free time working on it. At that point Zulip had a number of early customers who had stuck with the product even when Dropbox acquired it, so Abbott would fix issues that arose for them.

Eventually, in 2016 Abbott decided to leave Dropbox to focus on Zulip full time. He was getting requests from companies that wanted a third party to host the software as well as questions about making it run properly. Zulip makes money two ways: Hosting the software for customers or helping them install on their own servers, and providing support for either option. 

In the years since, Abbott's been focused on building the business and hiring a team to work with. He now has 9 full time employees and a bunch of contributors in Zulip's open source community. 

The company is launching a bunch of new features on Thursday, including a new navigation bar, a "recent topics" section to quickly find relevant new conversations, and tools to allow users to move topics to different streams or channels

"Really where people spend all their time is reading messages," Abbott said. "And often you send a message and 50 people are going to see that message. And if you can improve the efficiency of that reading experience by 5%, it's just like a huge effect on the overall productivity of the organization." 

These updates are coming at a time when Zulip is seeing increased demand due to the surge in remote work. Abbott declined to share Zulip's full customer count but said Zulip has seen growth over the last few months and named Akamai Technologies and Doctor on Demand as two notable customers.

"We've just had a lot of growth," he said. "As you can imagine, over the course of the pandemic — over the last few months — with companies and open source or academic communities shifting over to using Zulip as their communication platform."

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