From University Project to Leading Visual Collaboration Platform
In our exclusive interview with visual collaboration software expert Chandika Jayasundara, we explore the evolution of Creately from a diagramming tool to a full visual collaboration platform. Creately started as a university research project in 2008 at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Chandika and his future co-founder were involved in a research program when they identified two fundamental problems: the lack of collaborative online diagramming tools and the inability to embed data and knowledge directly into diagrams.
At the time, complex visual designs like diagrams and schematics contained lots of information, usually reduced to flat JPEG images in documents and presentations. The data behind the diagrams was lost. Chandika explained, “None of the data on the inside that you have in each of those blocks you put on the screen is captured.”
Early Vision: Diagrams With Data Layers
The Creately founders envisioned a new kind of collaborative diagramming tool. The solution is perfect for today's distributed work environment with teams using virtual office software to communicate and work together. Diagrams would have built-in data and knowledge layers, not just static images. Users could explore problems visually while capturing information in the diagrams themselves.
Chandika noted, “We thought about creating from the beginning about how people can create diagrams that have the data and the rest of the information around it.” This novel idea was the genesis of Creately.
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Launching a Collaborative Online Diagramming Tool
In the early days, Creately focused on creating robust online diagramming capabilities that didn't require desktop software. Their collaborative features developed over time into a natural extension of the tool.
Initially, the market wasn't ready for the advanced vision of diagrams with data layers. But as visual tools went mainstream, Creately saw growing interest in centralizing information in visual workspaces.
Visualize Relationships with Euler Diagrams
Pivoting to Visual Knowledge Management
Creately pivoted from just online diagrams to complete knowledge management. Teams could now capture documents, data, and information layered on visual diagrams and workspaces.
Chandika explained, “We spent a lot of time in the last few years building these additional capabilities into the platform.” This allowed Creately to differentiate itself as competition increased.
The Future: AI and Visual Collaboration
Creately sees visual collaboration becoming even more essential for distributed teams. AI will also enable new capabilities like generating diagrams from text and enhancing brainstorming.
The founders' early vision of diagramming with built-in data is now becoming a reality through Creately's visual knowledge management platform. What began as a university project now empowers teams worldwide to collaborate visually.
Evolution of Creately Key Milestones:
- 2008: Founded at the University of Melbourne
- 2009: Launched online diagramming tool
- 2012: Pivoted to visual knowledge management
- 2020: Growth accelerated due to remote work
- 2023: Integrations with Microsoft Teams, Slack, and more
Creately's Journey from Diagrams to Visual Collaboration
Expansion Into Mainstream Visual Collaboration
Visual collaboration tools became essential, especially post-COVID. As Chandika notes, “At that point when we started, it was a new thing that allowed people to create diagrams on the browser, which in itself was a huge deal because Vizio was incumbent at the time, and you had desktop software for this. And you had one another alternative that was sufficiently decent. On the internet, and we were very early in that space, and people were wowed by it”.
Visual collaboration became essential after COVID-19, and many competitors entered the space with basic features. However, Creately differentiated itself by enabling teams to combine diagrams with structured data layers and position itself as a central workspace to consolidate information.
Competition From Non-Visual Tools
Creately focuses on complex use cases requiring advanced diagramming and visualization. As a specialized player in visual collaboration, Creately aims to differentiate through its robust diagramming capabilities and integration of data and documents.
Many competitors entered the space with basic diagram features. Chandika said, “We see many more competitors in this space as well. And some platforms have, that are not really from this space, adopting these capabilities. Like, you know, now Monday's launching one, ClickUp has a collaboration whiteboard. These are like fundamental tools, but are still capable and cover the bottom; it's the 80-20 tool, right?”.
We believe that Diagramming and visual collaboration tools empower teams to think and work visually. By capturing ideas, processes, and systems in intuitive visual models, these tools bring clarity to complexity, align perspectives, and enable fluid teamwork and innovation. Gartner has a similar thought.
Creately differentiated by data layers and centralizing information. Chandika explains, “Where we stand out is that once you create a diagram or a visual in Creately, you can combine this with a database built into Creately. And you can take the same thing and… have a multimodal view of this information”. Creately positioned itself as a flexible knowledge base and “central canvas” for teams to collaborate and consolidate information from various sources.
Visualizing System Interactions with Use Case Diagrams
However, adding basic diagrams becomes table stakes as collaboration tools adopt these capabilities. The challenge for Creately is balancing an easy-to-use interface while providing advanced features.
As Chandika says:
“And the challenge is going to be keeping your initial UX simple enough for general use adoption, while still providing these additional capabilities.”
New Frontiers Like AI Assistance
Emerging trends like AI and generative design can help enhance visual collaboration. Creately is launching new AI features, viewing them as a “co-pilot” to augment teams.
As Chandika explains:
“And yeah, I think bringing AI and using it as a co-pilot or a assistive capability to maybe like another member in your team as you work through various problems on a visual canvas, is going to be very interesting and it's going to be quite mainstream, very, very fast.”
The goal is to use AI to expand perspectives and avoid groupthink, not replace human intelligence.
Creately aims to differentiate through advanced diagramming, data integration, and new AI capabilities that enhance team collaboration. The transcript highlights these as competitive advantages.
Visually Compare Concepts with Creately
Introducing Visual Frameworks To Users
Creately aims to make visual thinking frameworks like business model canvases and SWOT diagrams more accessible and collaborative for teams.
As Chandika explains:
“we figured out that there's no real collaborative way to draw things on the internet, right? One. Number two, when you work on anything that is sufficiently complex, it's a visual design that comes out, diagram, schematic, and so on, and a lot of information is actually captured in this visual form.”
The goal is to combine visual collaboration with the ability to embed relevant data and knowledge behind the diagrams:
“So what we really thought was what if we just combine these two things and allow you to sort of explore, document, or think around the visual problem in that visual form, but also embed the data and the knowledge that goes around it into this co-form of a, you know, that looks like a diagram, but behind it there are so many layers.”
Initially, the market wasn't ready for this level of complexity, but the adoption of visual tools has increased:
“Now we see a significant number of people, a larger segment of the market appreciating the fact that you can actually combine all these things and have a central place as a point of reference, as the central canvas of collaboration or the central place that you run the project from be a visual one rather than a document-oriented one or a text-oriented one.”
Creately aims to make visual thinking frameworks more accessible and help teams apply them beyond basic flowcharts and sticky notes. The company is passionate about mainstreaming these frameworks through an easy-to-use and collaborative platform.
Creately has come a long way since its beginnings as a university research project in 2008. The founders' vision for online collaborative diagramming with built-in data layers was ahead. Still, the increasing adoption of visual tools created the conditions for Creately to pivot into a complete visual knowledge management platform.
After over a decade of innovation, Creately is now a leader in helping distributed teams consolidate information, streamline workflows, and collaborate visually in one place. With powerful integrations, intelligent diagramming, and an infinite canvas, Creately aims to be the central workspace for teams to manage projects from ideation to execution.
The future looks bright, with new frontiers like AI assistance on the horizon. Creately continues to push boundaries so teams worldwide can work smarter. Experience the next era of visual collaboration yourself. Sign up today for a free trial to create unlimited canvases, diagrams, and workflows. Let Creately become your team's source of truth and take your productivity to new heights.
Watch our episode featuring Creately: In this Software Spotlight podcast, Michael Bernzweig interviews Chandika Jayasundara, Co-Founder of visual collaboration platform Creately, on the company's growth from a 2008 research project to over 10 million users today. Chandika explains how the initial vision of diagrams with data layers evolved to a focus on enabling collaboration across tools like Microsoft Teams. With recent ISO and SOC 2 certifications, Creately continues to build trust and integration capabilities.