Day 3

We're building a startup in 80 days in public. Day 3 was on Jan 12 '22. You can find today's entry at Day 67.

Today's posts:

On competition and disruption

Wim just wrote about what our product is going to be. In this post I’m going describe how our task/planning IDE relates to other products in the space.

State of the market

To-do/planning apps can be roughly categorized like this:

1) Pen & paper. Making plans on paper is pretty fantastic, provided you’re meeting in person. After the meeting you have to manually transfer your paper plans to a calendar. That’s a bummer. And then every person has to keep a separate todo list for their daily responsibilities. And then you need regular meetings to coordinate the info from the notepads on each person’s desk. Pen and paper might work if you’re by yourself, but it doesn’t cut it when you work in a team.

2) Glorified shopping-list apps. Apple’s Reminders app fits in this category. Apps like these are only suited for casual use. They don’t allow for any higher level planning. Collaborating with multiple people doesn’t really work. Creative work can be chaotic. You want to be able to type in free form, but you can’t. And modifying or reorganizing tasks is tedious.

3) Kanban boards like Trello. It’s a pretty decent solution for planning in a team. It’s like moving post-its on a digital whiteboard. Trello is a good product but Kanban boards address maybe 20% of the problem.

4) Single user (desktop) apps like Things (for casual use) and Org-Mode (for power-users). No matter how great these apps are, in 2022 people want software that’s suitable for remote teams.

5) Enterprise team scheduling apps like Asana. Products like these have decided to appeal to large businesses by shoehorning in as much features as possible. If you add everything and the kitchen sink a product will look great in a comparison table or during a PowerPoint presentation. But who wants to use bloated and slow products like that? Not us.

In 2020 people download 1.7 billion task/productivity/do-apps in the USA. It’s a huge and growing market and people are clearly clamoring for better software. This is matched by our personal experience. We’ve tried a bunch of todo and planning apps over the years and none of them really work the way that feels natural to us.

We think a major product category in this space is missing: the IDE. A task/planning IDE that is for teams, primarily text based, friendly to power-users, and that can be used for high level planning down to disorganized note-taking. None of the popular products try to solve this problem.

Because we’re going to be the first product (to our knowledge) in this segment it remains to be seen if there is a sizable market for it. For the time being we’re delusionallycautiously optimistic.

Market disruptors

IRC never got into the mainstream. Not user-friendly enough. Difficult to share files. A few products like HipChat and Campfire tried to bring IRC-like chat to the mainstream, but ultimately failed. The user experience as a whole wasn’t very compelling. Then Slack set the world on fire.

The story of Spotify is similar. Many people predicted that online music streaming was going to be huge and many startups tried to make the killer app. Spotify was the only one where you could click play on any song and immediately hear music and enjoyed explosive growth as a consequence[1].

GMail was the first email client with search that worked, spam filters that worked, and you could keep a staggering (at the time) 1 gigabyte worth of emails in your account. GMail has stagnated for a decade now but back in the day it was transformative.

Slack, Spotify and GMail all completely transformed their markets by making a product where the –core functionality– was leagues ahead of everything else out there. When you nail the core experience your app can be deficient in other areas. Your users will understand and forgive, provided the core experience makes up for it.

When a segment of the software market feels stagnant it’s because the apps have converged on a local maximum. The different players try to keep ahead of the others by piling on features, but this backfires. By copying each other the products end up in the same spot.

We believe that the task/planning apps out there are stuck in local maxima, and are ready to be disrupted. That’s not to say we’re going to be the ones to do it. We can’t see the future, and our hunches are wrong more often than not. Nonetheless, our concept is solid. Now we have to create some prototypes to discover what feels right and what doesn’t.

[1] The real story is more complicated. Spotify also has to get all the critical licencing deals done and, like many startups, almost died multiple times. However, Spotify’s strong initial growth can be attributed to technical excellence of the product.

What are we going to build: The Idea

Update @ Day 21: the landing page is now live! Check for more details.

It’s day 3 of 80, and the decision on what to build as a startup in the remaining 77 days has been made! As we summarized here, it will be a web app (SaaS), and it’s going to be a… brace yourselves… to-do list app. Haha, yes, well, kinda.

Building apps for tasks and notes sound like a cliché at this point. The last internet census counted 68,482 to-do apps. It’s even become the “Hello World” example for web framework tutorials. So perhaps it’s only fitting to build this as the ultimate example of how to build a startup! We’re planning to build a real product though. And as we outlined yesterday, we only think an idea works if it has a “first”. So we want do try a new approach in this category:

We’re going to build an editor/IDE1. Except it’s a text editor specifically designed for tasks, planning, and thoughts; for makers to manage creative work.

Using an editor interface for managing tasks and planning feels like a much more logical fit to us than the existing categories, the classic to-do lists and kanban boards.

The most obvious symptom of the problem with the existing apps to us is a “todo.txt” on our hard drive. We know we’re not the only ones who keep falling back to just jotting down notes in a text file or (virtual) stickies. With text, you can write down tasks or thoughts as fast as you can type, indent as much you want, collapse/expand sections, select, copy/paste or move a bunch of text somewhere else, add whitespace… format it any way you like. All these features are essential for organizing thoughts.

Having to decide what needs to be a project vs a task vs a subtask when you’re just typing out thoughts, having to click buttons, using an interface that gets slow when you enter more than a 100 items… it’s just too much friction and disrupts the creative flow. So it’s great to have all these fancy apps, but in the end, we end up with a todo.txt, again. And although a text file works, there’s no way to visually organize things, add any structure or links, collaborate in teams, drag things around, filter or schedule things. It’s just plain text, after all. So we can never find anything back and after a while declare text file bankruptcy and start over.

We want to have the best of both worlds. And we think that looks like an IDE. When you think about it, IDEs have similar features you need in a todo app built-in: things like syntax highlighting, collapsing indented blocks, keyboard command palettes, and plugins. Instead, our “IDE” will be for anything related to organizing creative work: commands, auto-complete and highlighting for things like dates and priorities. With support for scheduling, references, split-panel views, and being able to drag things around. And like an IDE, “hack-ability” in terms of plugins is a big thing too, because good tools should adapt to how you like to work.

We could talk a lot more about other cool properties this kind of system would have but that’s the idea at its core.

In the next post we’ll recap why we think this might work as a startup to build in 80 days.

[1] For non-coders: Integrated Development Environment, fast and powerful editors and related tools for programmers

Honing in on an app idea

We’ve been brainstorming in the past couple of days about what we’re going to make.

So far we’ve determined that:

  • we want to build a web app, because we need the friction to sign up to be as low as possible
  • we want to make something we can personally get excited about
  • we’ve also decided that we want to make something small in scope (only 80 days!), that is cheap to operate (no budget)
  • we’ll make at least one version of the product free (100% free, no ads) in order to get as much word of mouth advertising as possible
  • we ideally want some kind of subscription service (SaaS) for small business. We’ll write about the economics of SaaS businesses later
  • and we want to make something that’s unique enough that people can get genuinely excited about it
  • our app has to find a niche in an established market with plenty of competitors
  • we want to tackle some fun technical challenges. This will be harder for us in the short term (because it might turn out that people don’t care about our app at all), but it should work in our advantage in the long term (it will set us apart from the competition)
  • this means the core functionality has to be unique. If you only have 80 days you don’t want to waste it replicating common functionality, except for the bare minimum like account sign-up, login, and subscription logic.
  • we want to make something that can rapidly grow to millions of active users
  • we want to make something that has broad appeal among regular people (“horizontal” in business speak, as opposed to “vertical” apps that target a specific industry or profession).

This narrows down the universe of app ideas tremendously. Right now, we can only think of a few potential products that meet all these criteria. And that’s okay, because we only need one!

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You can follow us on Twitter @jdvhouten and @wcools and look for #80daystartup

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