Mario Cardinal

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


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The most useful form of patience is persistence

Covid-19 has no borders and is spreading at lightning speed. In these times of crisis and confinement, patience is essential. The eminent leader of Indian nationalism, Mahatma Gandhi, known for promoting nonviolence compares the act of waiting to a fight: “To lose patience is to lose the battle”. Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer who is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time, known for “War and Peace” compares patience to a warrior: “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time“.

Today, I was reading “3-2-1”, the weekly newsletter from James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits. There was an insight connecting patience and persistence which I found very appropriate.

“The most useful form of patience is persistence. Patience implies waiting for things to improve on their own. Persistence implies keeping your head down and continuing to work when things take longer than you expect.” — James Clear

Patience, persistence and positivity are the three keys to living better. It’s the easiest way to reach your goals and succeed! Life is a journey and you cannot rush success. This is true in all areas of our lives, even more so when you are a start-up entrepreneur.

coding1-500x400

It has been several months since I provided any status on the progress of To-Do Studio. I know that many of you are eagerly awaiting the Beta version of the product. Your patience will soon be rewarded. Me and my business partner, we keep our heads down and keep working even if there is a pandemic and things take longer than expected. Less than ten weeks to wait. Soon we will announce the Beta program.


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Aim for a market where customers are currently spending money

For those of you who are following my entrepreneurial journey, you know that we are now in the process of programming the first version of our task management software. I have written in the past that every step brings a lot of challenges and that the work is always longer and more difficult than expected. For example, even if we did not finish developing all the basic features, we recently managed to integrate a first implementation. This first integration is an important milestone because it allowed us to evaluate the work done in a real context of use. In return, it also allowed us to quickly discover several things that are wrong and need to be reworked. So, even before we finished all the basic features, we had to reprogram some components.

My close ones, who are unfamiliar with software development, are always surprised at the slow progress and delays caused by the work that often need to be redone. They are afraid that delays will give competitors the chance to improve their products and that we lose our competitive advantage. They are fearful that the task management software market will evolve to now offer the ability for teammates to work in tandem with an automated assistant.

In my opinion, it is a minimal risk. And if this ever happens it will not be dramatic because our implementation will be different. In addition, it will not be the end of our product because, in my opinion, the task management software market is large enough for hundreds of competitors.

I do not want to downplay the importance of having a competitive advantage but, in my opinion, when a startup tries to validate its Product/Market fit, the choice of the market is much more important than anything else.

Remember that, according to our market positioning statement, the To-Do Studio customer is a modern leader searching for a task management software that guides and directs teamwork (throughout the process). Is this a good market for a new entrant? It depends on the amounts currently spent by actual customers.cash-payment

According to analysts, for the year 2019, the worldwide size of the market for task management software is equivalent to 2 billion USD ($ 2,000,000,000). Plus, it’s a growing market. According to Reportlinker, the size of the global task management software market is expected to reach 4.33 billion USD in 2023, with an annual growth rate of 13.7 percent. Another source, Transparency Market Research, estimates that the market will reach 6.68 billion USD in 2026. This is a huge market that is perfect for a new entrant like us. There are many customers already looking for, trying and buying solutions that fulfill a function like the one we plan to offer.

Delays are inherent in software development. We must accept them with serenity. The important thing is to move forward each day, step by step, towards the right target, a market where customers are currently spending money on a similar but less innovative solution than yours.


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Enjoying the journey

It’s been eight (8) months since I left my job to focus all my efforts on developing To-Do Studio. Fortunately for me (and my sanity), I really appreciate my entrepreneurial journey. Having fun to pursue your business project is a necessity for any entrepreneur. This is the only option to persevere in the face of adversity. And adversity, there is. At each stage there are issues that make the work longer and more difficult than expected.

planandrealitiesFor example, recently, the programming of multiple identity support (OAuth 2.0 authentication) was much more complex than we had planned. Since it is very common for an individual to have multiple e-mail addresses, whether for personal needs or work, our service had to provide the ability for users to associate multiple identities to their unique account. This support allows a user to find all the workspaces to which he collaborates, regardless of the identity with which he is known by teammates (personal email or email from the employer). This is important because To-Do Studio wants to provide a global view that includes all facets of your life. We want to avoid multiple ‘sign in’ and ‘sign out’ repeatedly between different accounts. Multiple identities within a single account is a feature not much found in competing products such as email, calendar, to-do list, kanban board, or Excel spreadsheet. One of the reasons for this absence is surely the fact that it is not easy to implement.

With my business partner Erik Renaud, we managed to overcome this complexity by constraining ourselves to complete one goal at a time and setting a measurable goal with a short deadline.

The importance of completing one goal at a time

For several months, my work has come down to front-end programming with the Vue framework and Vuetify design system. It is a long-term job that requires many hours of programming. Every week, I work around fifty hours to advance my entrepreneurial project. Choosing your weekly goal is very important. I make sure I work on only one goal at a time and I do not start working on a new goal until the previous one is completed.

Very rarely, I manage to complete my weekly goal. Fortunately, almost always, I managed to complete this goal in the course of the following week. At some point, in the process of realization, I had to split a goal which proved to be too complex.

Every day, I identify the three (3) important tasks that I must complete. I usually have two tasks related to personal goals such as fitness or taking care of my family and a third task that aims to advance my entrepreneurial To-Do Studio project. Again, I do not start a new task until the previous one is complete.

The importance of setting a measurable goal with a short deadline

touching-the-voidRecently, I was reading the book “Touching the Void” written by Mountaineer Joe Simpson. He recounts the disastrous climb he made with Simon Yates of Siula Grande, a mountain of over 6000 meters in the Peruvian Andes. After reaching the summit, the expedition unfortunately turns into a tragedy when Joe Simpson fractures his right leg after a heavy fall against a wall. This situation is usually fatal for a mountaineer. Thus, during the descent, despite the help of his colleague Yates, unable to brake on such steep walls, Simpson ended up sliding over a cliff and was then suspended in the emptiness above a deep crevice. Seeing no other choice, Yates eventually cut the rope to save his own life, with Simpson falling into the crevasse. The book tells how, at the cost of superhuman efforts, Simpson will still manage to come out alive from the mountain after more than 3 days to crawl to base camp.

One of the important things I remember from the book is that, despite the pain and adversity, Simpson has managed to continue his journey by setting measurable goals with a short deadline. By crawling on the ground, he progresses by fixing a visible objective located less than a hundred meters in front of him, and, each time, giving himself less than 30 minutes to reach this target. Thus, firing with the strength of his arms and uninjured leg, for more than 10 kilometers, target after target, measuring his progress with the clock of his watch, slowly, he moves forward. This allowed him to keep the focus despite the suffering and delirium that inhabited him.

In any case, I cannot compare my entrepreneurial journey to what Simpson experienced. In my case, there is no suffering, no pain and the journey is pure happiness. However, I must recognize a similarity in the importance of setting measurable goals with a short deadline.


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Subscribe to my Newsletter

Since a few months I publish a newsletter for my family and friends. One of the objectives of this newsletter is to share my entrepreneurial journey. It contains the latest news about To-Do Studio, the startup I founded with Erik Renaud. Our company designs and markets a software service that allows leaders to empower others to take initiative. The newsletter is intended to offer a privileged look at the path of a startup company.

newsletterEncouraged by the positive comments I receive, I decided to give access to the newsletter to readers of this blog. That’s why I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter.

Here is the link to subscribe: Destination To-Do Studio

The newsletter is free. It is published every 2 months, 6 times a year. The subscription does not require any obligation on your part. The only information you must provide to register is your email address (it will never be shared with third parties). You can unsubscribe at any time. If you wish to preview the content of the newsletter, I invite you to read the first issue here.

PS. Following registration, if you do not receive quickly a confirmation email, check your Junk Email inbox.


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Market Positioning Statement

As I stated in a previous post, the first challenge facing startups is to find their Product/Market Fit. Product/Market Fit means that the solution (the product) is well suited to its target problem (the market who experienced the problem). To find the right Product/Market fit, you must not only fulfill a job-to-be-done but also ensure you have an obvious competitive advantage.

competitive-advantage

Startups that have a competitive advantage create a sustainable future for their businesses, with products that can grow and generate profits long after the initial launch.

During my master’s degree in Innovation and Technological Entrepreneurship, I learned to capture and formalize a competitive advantage using a “Market Positioning Statement”. Positioning is a choice of attributes that provides a credible, different, attractive and sustainable position within a marketplace and in the minds of customers. The positioning communicates what makes a product unique and different.

This statement usually comes in a form that looks something like this:

For [Target Market] who [Statement of Need], the [Product Name] is a [Product Category] that [Key Benefit / Reason to Buy] unlike [Competitors] our product [Primary Differentiation]

Here is the rendition of the Market Positioning Statement for To-Do Studio:

[Target Market]
Modern leader

[Statement of Need]
Want to avoid the hassle of follow-ups and tough talks that occur when pushing and pulling others to take initiative

[Product Name]
To-Do Studio

[Product Category]
Task management software

[Key Benefit / Reason to Buy]
Guides teams to self-organization

[Competitors]
Other current solutions such as chats, emails, calendars, to-do lists, kanban boards, spreadsheets or project managers

[Primary Differentiation]
Get things done because each teammate works in tandem with an automated assistant (personalized coaching), that not only provides a daily schedule, but guides and directs the involvement (throughout the process)

Here is the positioning statement in sentence form:

For the modern leader who wants to avoid the hassle of follow-ups and tough talks that occur when pushing and pulling others to take initiative, To-Do Studio is a task management software that guides teams to self-organization. Unlike current solutions such as chats, emails, calendars, to-do lists, kanban boards, spreadsheets or project managers, To-Do Studio get things done because each teammate works in tandem with an automated assistant (personalized coaching), that not only provides a daily schedule, but guides and directs the involvement (throughout the process).

The key competitive advantage of To-Do Studio is its automated assistant (personalized coaching).


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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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Virtual Studio: the Workplace of the 21st Century

The name of our software service To-Do Studio is a combination of two words: To-Do and Studio. We firmly believe that this name association correctly explains our product’s mission. We chose the word To-Do because the team work is performed via a common list of To-Do items, synchronized among teammates. We added the word Studio to indicate the creative and collective aspect of our service. A studio is a place of creativity, a collective workspace where teammates take initiative and assume responsibilities.

Just as Seth Godin, author and successful speaker on marketing issues, recently wrote on his blog, the studio is the modern workplace. Here’s how we paraphrase his words:

The success of leaders in a factory is based on compliance. More compliance leads to more profits. Do what you are told, faster and cheaper, and repeat.

The factory is a legacy of the twentieth century.

The studio, on the other hand, is a place of initiative and creativity. The initiative to create new things and better things. In short, a process that leads to better things.

It’s a peer to peer relationship. The hierarchy has virtually disappeared. All that remains is leadership.

This is the initiative coupled with responsibility. Authority is much less important, as are traditional measures of productivity.

You can distinguish a studio from a factory in minutes. Where do you work?

You can read the original post on Seth Godin’s blog here.

We are convinced that the studio is the future of work and that it will evolve toward a marriage between the physical and virtual world thanks to software such as our. We envision that each team will want to work with the help of a virtual studio. And we are determined to ensure that, for most companies, this virtual studio is To-Do Studio.

The virtual studio is the workplace of the 21st century.


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Software as a service (SaaS) in 2018 revolves around JavaScript

In 2014, on this blog, I wrote a post in which I announced that we intended to create native mobile applications for tablets and phones (IOS and Android) and that we had planned to use Xamarin.Forms as the main programming tool. At the time, web tools were not mature enough to design applications that target all classes of personal devices be it laptops (Windows, Chrome and Apple), tablets (Android and iPad) or phones (Android and iPhone). This is no longer the case in 2018, change is the only constant and we must not be afraid to review our previous decisions. As developer polls in recent years show, the reality is simple, native development on mobile platforms is no longer important.

At To-Do Studio, with my business partner Erik, we are convinced that the best technologies in 2018 to launch software as a service (SaaS), revolves around JavaScript (at least for the front end).

We have decided to build our SaaS using one codebase, with familiar tools and web technology. In this regard, we chose Vue.js for web development. Vue.js is a library for building interactive web interfaces. It simplifies managing states in the front-end and provide composable view capabilities with an API that is as simple as possible.

vue_and_vuetify

I just spent the last four months learning to program with this framework. Vue is one of the easiest frameworks to learn and master, the learning curve is gentle and there is a well-defined ecosystem. Furthermore, since I already know the basics of the web, the transition was easy enough. I am not yet a pro in javascript but I am improving every day. Since I’m in charge of UI integration, I mainly focus on mastering Vuetify, the UX component framework for Vue.js that we have selected.


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An assistant does not have to be a chatbot

Last winter, after realizing that one of the super powers we had to offer was a productivity assistant, we worked hard to find the best solution to include this feature in our product To-Do Studio. As a recap, the purpose of the assistant is not only to provide a daily schedule, but also to coach and direct teammates’ commitments throughout the process.

It was a long and winding journey and, today, I am happy to share the solution we have chosen.

As soon as we ruminate about a feature that resembles an assistant, we immediately think chatbot. A chatbot is a software program that converses with humans in a natural language, such as English or French, rather than through a graphic interface or via computer-language commands. Mainly because they are cool, seemingly very smart, potentially a little dangerous, and everyone wants to get to know them, recently, chatbots were widely talked up as the future of human interaction with technology. However, it is important to remember that the goal of most chatbots is not to match the capabilities of a human — to pass the Turing test — but to help people achieve specific goals without needing another human to be involved.

Conditioned by the bubble hype around chatbots, we initially tried to create a user experience driven by human-to-machine conversation.

Since we do not need a very sophisticated solution, we quickly identified that a simple notification assistant could meet the needs. A notification is an act of bringing something to the notice of someone, so he can act upon it. In addition to having to notify, we also identified the requirement for a rule-based bot with a limited set of commands that represent the potential responses to the notification.

chatbotThrough all our experiments we discovered two improvements to simplify user experience (UX):

  1. No need for a chatbot: Interactions with a notification assistant do not behave like a conversation. The conversation is limited to a notification (the starting context) and a response (a choice limited to a set of predefined commands). In this perspective why use a significative part of the screen space with a chatbot.
  2. Need to display answer choices: As most bot developers could tell you, giving end users a box to type in rarely ends up being just a simple question and answer. We must provide shortcuts in the form of commands and commands must also be displayed in the conversation area if you want them to be easily visible and accessible.

In the end, after several iterations, we abandoned the user experience based on a chatbot. Similarly, we abandoned the idea of displaying the answer choices in the conversation area.

We opted for something simpler and proven, a menu-based conversation. The advantage of the menu-driven approach is that we can highlight the presence of the assistant with an extremely visible button, floating throughout the screen (Floating Action Button), and we can guide the user with a notification area.

notification_bot

The user has no difficulty discovering the commands because they are displayed as a menu that also floats above the screen.

menu_bot

Now that the bot hype is dying down, we recognize that a bot is just another frontend for accessing software services. An assistant is not necessarily a chatbot especially if it aims to help users perform specific tasks within a software service. A menu-based conversation is as valuable a choice as a chatbot.


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Customers don’t buy products they buy better versions of themselves

Samuel Hulick at User Onboarding wrote an incredible post and graphic, showcasing how customers use products to design a “new me”.

mario-water

This is basically what I discovered through my readings about de “Get-the-job-done” approach.

Recently, equipped with my new skills, for our product To-Do Studio I tried to discover what superpower is needed when people team up with others.

Clearly, for many, getting things done WITH others is not high on their priority list. Mainly, because it is hard to work efficiently with others. There is always someone somewhere who does not do his share of the work. For them the desired superpower is to be able to get things done BY others. Currently, they do not have a high success rate.

The only ones who see teamwork positively are leaders, managers and entrepreneurs. In fact, for them getting things done with others is very high on their priority list. Therefore, they desire the same superpower; to be able to get things done by others. Currently, they are struggling to do so because of the burden of tracking and moving forward work progress.

Following my interviews, here is the system of progress that I see:

system-of-progress3

Clearly, we need to improve our studio to add a productivity assistant. A studio is a creative space to team up. We need to figure out how to add something like a chatbots in this creative space. In the coming months we will rework the user experience to add a productivity assistant. Back to the drawing board again…