With more than 1.7 billion users, Facebook is running out of people to sign up for its social network.

On Monday, Facebook announced the launch of Workplace, an ad-less version of its social network designed specifically for companies and their workforces. The social network had been privately testing Workplace with more than 1,000 businesses around the world for the past year and a half, but is now offering it to any business that is interested.

Many of the features in Workplace are no different than Facebook's consumer version. Users can post updates, photos, videos and live streams on which their colleagues can leave "Likes" or comments. Additionally, they can do audio and video calls, with the option to create groups--including multi-company groups where individuals from partner companies can communicate securely with one another on shared projects. Workplace also offers users a live chat feature, which is key as Facebook takes on the likes of popular consumer communication services like Slack, HipChat, and Yammer.

The new service "gives everyone a voice, from your CEO down to your summer intern," Lori Goler, Facebook's global head of people, told Inc. "That is part of being in an inclusive environment--having a place where there's a free exchange of ideas, and there's a free exchange of communication, and everyone is part of the conversation."

Workplace could potentially help Facebook tap into the vast enterprise software market, worth $2.9 trillion, according to Forrester Research. For the tech giant, enterprise represents the opportunity to expand beyond being just a hangout for social activities, and also become the main hub where people communicate with their colleagues.

"We want this to be a product that's used by as many companies around the world as possible," said Kyle McGinn, director of product at Facebook and the product manager of Workplace. "This is a big bet for us. It's part of our long-term vision."

To keep Workplace ad-free, Facebook is charging businesses on a monthly subscription fee to use the service. Companies with less than a thousand users pay a monthly fee of $3 per active user. Companies with more than a thousand users, but less than 10,000, pay $2 per person. Those with more than 10,000 users pay $1 per user. The option for a three-month free trial period is also available.

Facebook says it won't require companies to sign long-term contracts, and will keep Workplace's pricing low as a way to focus on user growth.

"At the moment, this is not about a revenue stream for us. This is about bringing about a tool that's really engaging to a whole bunch of companies," said McGinn. "Internally, we're motivated the impact our product has and the engagement our product has."

Social communication tools have risen in popularity among businesses as more Millennials enter the workforce. These new-age employees are accustomed to social communication through easy-to-use services like Facebook. It's a trend they've brought into the companies they now work at.

"Facebook believes that coming out of the consumer world, where these Millennials honed their habits, is a market they can succeed in and capitalize on financially," said Forrester analyst Craig Le Clair.

The concept for Workplace evolved from Facebook's internal version of the social network--which, for years, has been used by Facebook employees to communicate with one another. Through Workplace's pilot program, Facebook has signed up more than 1,000 companies, up from 450 six months ago. Companies vary from all all over the world, ranging from major clients like Starbucks and Booking.com to smaller businesses like startups and shipping companies.

"I think the only continent where we don't have a deployment in is Antarctica," McGinn said.

Originally called "Facebook at Work," Facebook decided to change the product name to something short, snappy, and easy to use in a sentence. "We also wanted something that represents what the product's used for, which is collaboration and being productive and connected while at work," McGinn said.

Finding success in this market won't be easy for Facebook. Many businesses have yet to use social tools for work, and employers commonly consider Facebook, and other social media services in general, to be distractions.

"They have a lot of challenges ahead of them, not least of which the stigma of Facebook being a time wasting activity," said Ilan Nass, founder of Taktical, a tech consulting firm.

Additionally, Facebook is coming into a crowded market. Slack, which was named Inc.'s 2015 company of the year, already counts more than 3 million active users and has emerged as one of Silicon Valley's most promising companies. HipChat, meanwhile, remains a popular communication tool among tech companies, which use many of HipChat's sister services for software development. Yammer is another tough competitor in the space as it is owned by Microsoft, which has been tying in the social tool more closely to the rest of its productivity suite.

"There's a big chunk of people's time that Facebook really doesn't address at all today, and that's the time they spend working," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. Workplace "is a way to open up a whole new addressable market for Facebook with fairly significant potential revenues."

Published on: Oct 10, 2016