Mario Cardinal

"The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" – Marcel Proust


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For five years we have been searching for the right Product/Market Fit

Often, I summarize the To-Do Studio journey saying that it took us five years of research and development (R&D) to find a simple and elegant solution to the following problem: How to allow teammates to complete a common to-do list? The reality is much more complex.

What I describe as R&D is rather a long quest to find the right Product/Market Fit. Of everything I discovered applying the Lean Startup practices, Product/Market Fit is the concept that remains the most inspiring for me. Compared to some other concepts such as MVP that I first discovered through reading The Lean Startup, Product/Market Fit is much less famous outside of the startup scene.

Product/Market Fit means that the solution (the product) is well suited to its target problem (the market who experienced the problem). Startups that achieve Product/Market Fit create a sustainable future for their businesses, with products that can grow and generate profits long after the initial launch. The life of any startup can be divided into two parts — ’before’ Product/Market Fit and ‘after’ Product/Market Fit. Obviously, to this day, To-Do Studio is in the ‘before’ part. Our goal in 2019 is to move into the ‘after’ part.

Over the last five years, using ongoing build-measure-learn cycles, we have progressed toward validated learning. Every day we had new assumptions for building the product, new measures to check results, and new learning opportunities that brought us closer to Product/Market Fit.

On the other hand, on three occasions, we abandoned perseverance and opted instead for a pivot. Pivoting is what you should consider when you conclude that you’re not making any progress (or not enough) toward Product/Market Fit. A pivot is a radical course correction, going in a new direction, with a new strategic hypothesis regarding the problem or solution space. In pivot mode, the unit of progress is creative destruction.

Here is a summary that presents the radical course correction of each pivot:

Problem Space Solution Space
Launch
April 2013
New market

For teammates who want to improve outcomes from shared accountability and aligns individual responsibility with team workflow

New product

Boards that guides collaboration between teammates using sticky notes to represent work items and columns to represent each stage of the workflow

Pivot 1
May 2014
New market

For individuals who want to schedule commitments and get a unified view of their “daily” commitments

New product

Daily planner that organize work by pairing a daily calendar with a list of to-do items. It keeps track which to-dos remain to be started, which are in progress and which are done.

Pivot 2
Sept 2016
New market

For people adopting work-life fusion who want to split their workload with their close ones

Product Evolution

Collective workspace that expands on our previous product by allowing to team up with others through a common list of to-do items, synchronized among teammates

Pivot 3
Jan 2018
New market

For leaders who need to empower others to get things done and want to avoid the hassle of follow-ups and tough talks that occur when pushing and pulling others to take initiative

Product Evolution

Collective workspace that expands on our previous product by providing each teammate with an automated assistant (personal coach)

A first interesting observation is the elapse of several years between each pivot. This can be explained by the following reasons:

  • The discovery process requires time. Making the right assumptions and finding out why they are not working is hard and time consuming;
  • For entrepreneurs, deciding to persevere against pitfalls is always the first choice. It takes a long period of thinking and many failures to agree to pivot;
  • In bootstrapping mode, since entrepreneurs divide their efforts on two fronts, the discovery process is much longer. They must complete the contracts that finance the business while continuing to pursuit the Product/Market Fit.

A second interesting observation is that each pivot involves a creative destruction of the target market. It seems that entrepreneurs are poorly equipped to define the problem space. As a convergent thinker, an entrepreneur is much more likely to focus on the solution than the problem.

The good news is that correctly identifying a problem space is a knowledge that can be learned. In our case, it was in December 2017 when I discovered the “Job to be Done” innovation approach. This acquisition of new know-how led us to our most recent pivot.

“Job to be Done” innovation approach presents a product not as a set of functionality but rather as a solution that a customer hires to get a job done.

Here are two blog posts I wrote following my discovery of the approach. It describes the positive impact it has on our quest to discover a better Product/Market Fit:


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Customers hire something to get a job done

Last year, after almost two years of effort working on a daily planner as the co-founder of To-Do Studio, I had to admit we were working on the wrong idea. Since that day, we have focused our efforts on a new vision: the design of a creativity space to team up with others. Although our new idea seems promising, we have no formal proof that we are on the right track. Until recently, I thought I was forced into this very unscientific process of trusting my good fortune and my instincts to compete against luck.

Fortunately, in recent days, I’ve discovered an innovation approach that presents a product not as a set of functionality but rather as a solution that a customer hires to get a job done.

intercom on job-to-be-doneI first became aware of the “Job to be Done” approach through Intercom. In recent months I have subscribed to their blog and recently they have published a book to summarize how they use the approach internally for product management.

competing against luckThis innovation approach is very well documented by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in the Wall Street Journal Bestseller: Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice.

“When we buy a product, we essentially ‘hire’ something to get a job done. If it does the job well, when we are confronted with the same job, we hire that same product again. And if the product does a crummy job, we ‘fire’ it and look around for something else we might hire to solve the problem.”

– Clayton Christensen

when coffe and kale competeChristensen’s book is a must read but, in my opinion, the best reading I have found on the subject is the book by Alan Klement: When Coffee and Kale Compete: Become great at making products people will buy. I particularly appreciated how he unifies the “Job to be Done” approach within a system of progress.

Now that I am equipped with a more scientific approach, I will take advantage of the next few weeks to review and validate whether setting up a creativity space to team up with others is always the best idea.


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To-Do Studio – the new name of our startup

For those of you who follow this blog, you know that in recent months we have re-positioned our startup and that we no more designing a personal task planner but instead, a creativity space to team up with others and do what is important today. We are currently experimenting to find a viable solution to enable asynchronous communication between teammates who share a to-do list. It is not a simple challenge. We still have many months of work in front of us before being ready to market a version 1 of this service.

Lately, we worked hard to find the name of this new service.

The importance of choosing the right name for software as a service (SaaS) is not to be taken lightly. Not only the name of your service is an important part of its “business card” on the web and in the apps store, but the name will enable customers to remember your product. This is about making your name talk-able. An easy name will make it easier for current users to refer your name to others. It is very well known that advertising is not a trustworthy marketing tactic as much as word-of-mouth. The name is probably the first thing prospective customers will find out about your application. It is a good way to differentiate yourself from your competition.

logo-dark-192We chose the name To-Do Studio. Not only it is talk-able and the domain name to-do.studio was available, but it clearly explains what differentiates our application of the hundred Todo apps that already exist on the market. First, it was important to have the word “Studio” because our service provide a creativity space to team up with others (aka a studio). Second, we choose the word “To-Do” to fully explain that the collaboration is done through to-do lists.

We did not feel the need to change the logo because it still communicates the right message.

On the other hand, to focus on a single name, in due course, we will also rename our company with the same To-Do Studio name.


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Three years later, what did I learn about bootstrapping

Bootstrap is a situation in which an entrepreneur starts a company with little capital. An individual is said to be bootstrapping when he or she attempts to found and build a company from the operating revenues of the new company.

The untold story behind many bootstrapping is this. You can hardly fund your startup from customer revenues but, instead, from your personal finances. The founders come to the table with more time, more energy and all their savings. In my case, with limited savings, over the last three years, I have generated the cash flow from the part-time consulting services I do on the side.

Bootstrapping using part-time consulting is a real challenge on your personal finance (not to mention energy and health). In general, little by little, you exhaust all your savings. After three years, I am in this situation right now. I need to revitalize my personal savings.

Fortunately, as a DevOps expert it was easy to find a full-time contract. For the Commission de la construction du Québec (CCQ), I will lead a major reorganization of the software release process and testing pipelines. Billing more hours will allow me to put aside money and rebuild my savings.


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Back to the drawing board

When restarting on new ground it is difficult to keep the momentum. Fortunately, we do not start from scratch. We are evaluating what we should retrieve from our old DayTickler product. There are many things that are still valid because we always aim to achieve what is important today. Obviously, with the new orientation, we must not only review the product, but also the name.

The most difficult will be to design the product features, those that allow to team up effectively. As previously stated, the challenge is not only to team up with others, but above all to enable asynchronous communication between teammates. This is not a simple solution to find. We are going to need to take our time to innovate properly.

Now that we are on the right path, we will need the endurance to go the difference.

We need to secure recurring revenues to ensure our financial security. My business partner and I, we are going back to do some consulting. We bootstrap our startup the best we can.


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Working on the wrong idea

The biggest risks founders face when starting something new is to keep working on the wrong idea and burnout. We are now convinced that the market does not need another daily planner to manage to-do lists. This learning was a long and winding process.

Success often comes down to a very small moment when a decision is made that has a significant impact. About a year ago, we decided to improve our daily planner by adding the ability to team up with others. At the time, this decision to share to-do lists with your close ones seemed like a secondary feature.

Lately we have finally realized that it should become the main feature of our service. We experienced the “Aha!” moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, and comprehension… that we are working on the wrong idea.

This awareness explains why the DayTickler product is still not available. We did not want to invest anymore in a product that is never going to be viable.

The main service of DayTickler is not anymore, a daily planner but instead, a creativity space to team up and do what is important today. We are back to the drawing board.


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Minimum Lovable and Marketable Product

In this post, I explain why the first version of DayTickler must not only be lovable but also a marketable product.

Following my last post some readers were surprised that we will take almost nine months to produce a minimum viable product (MVP). According to Wikipedia, a minimum viable product (MVP) is the product with the highest return on investment versus risk. Usually, a MVP only has those basic features that allow the product to be deployed, and no more. The product is typically deployed to a subset of customers (early adopters) that are supposed to be more forgiving, more likely to give feedback, and able to confirm a product vision from an early prototype. As stated by Eric Ries in his colloquial book The Lean Startup, “The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

heart and dollarAt this stage in our product development, we seek to validate whether customers will agree to subscribe to the premium version of DayTickler. As we aim to market to consumer in an already mature market (there are already over a hundred to-do app), we can hardly launch a product that would be perceived as incomplete. We need to polish the software to the point of making it lovable, and this requires time. Furthermore, it must have all the necessary features to make it marketable. In our case, this requires building not only the core of the product but also the main feature that will convince customers to subscribe and pay for the premium version. This means that the product cannot be a prototype and this takes work. Especially that while building the product, at the same time, we continue to do consulting. Here’s why the construction of the MVP is so demanding and requires more than 9 months.