A few days ago Apple accepted our Nozbe iOS apps and I celebrated 6 years of running Nozbe. I can’t believe how time flies. I launched Nozbe on February 1st 2007 and although 6 years have passed, I feel like I’m just getting started! To celebrate this anniversary I wanted to write a lengthy blog post summarizing what happened in that time… but I decided to do it a little differently.
I’m very happy to report that the story of Nozbe has served as inspiration for many young entrepreneurs and startup founders who (like me) are dreaming of making a small dent in the universe by running an app that serves thousands (if not millions) of people all over the world.
That’s why I’m quite often humbled to be asked for an interview - mostly in English (a few examples: Firepole Marketing, Startup Success Podcast, Productive Superdad, The Daily Saint, Work Awesome, Daniel Gold or Take Permission Media) as well as in my mother tongue - Polish (like: MamStartup, Megafoni, Produktywnie, Mediafun or AK74).
That’s why, to celebrate my 6th-year anniversary of running Nozbe and to create a resource where hopefully you can learn more about me, my story, the good, the bad and everything in between… I decided to publish this as an interview with myself. Enjoy! Here goes:
(The interview is rather long, so make sure to bookmark this page or save for later using Instapaper or Pocket or something… :-)
What triggered the idea of Nozbe?
It was mid 2005 and I was running a small Internet Marketing consultancy back then. Basically I was helping my customers sell their stuff on the Internet. And I wasn’t bad at it… so when my client list started growing and number of my commitments increasing, I had hard time keeping up and had to figure out a system to manage it all.
This is when a good friend of mine suggested I read the book by David Allen: “Getting Things Done. The Art of Stress-free Productivity”. I loved the book and wanted to implement the “GTD method” right away in my life… but being a geek, I wanted to implement it digitally as I was spending most of my day in front of a computer anyway.
And you decided to build Nozbe then?
Not yet. I didn’t want to build anything. I was too busy serving my clients. I actually started to search for a tool that would help me implement GTD and there weren’t that many back then. After reviewing most of everything that was out there and subscribing to almost all of the productivity blogs on the Internet, reading reviews of web-based or Windows-based tools, I found nothing that’d work for me.
Most of the tools were too complicated (like they would force you to fill out a giant form to add a simple task), too slow, too bloated or simply they wanted to embrace the entire GTD concepts where all I needed was a simple way to add projects, tasks and mark some tasks as “next actions”. That’s all I needed at that time.
I don’t have a computer science degree but learning how to program was my hobby and helped me serve my clients better. That’s why finally over one weekend I sat down and built a first version of Nozbe using just a few PHP scripts and a simple MySQL database. This web app was just a very rough prototype… but it got the job done. I had my bare-bones GTD system and started using it right away the following week.
It was 2005 and you launched Nozbe in 2007, why wait so long?
Again, I really didn’t want to launch a product. I tried four times before with four different startups with a very low success rate. I figured I had this career consulting clients and I should stick to it… and use my home-made app to manage all this. But then I discovered this AJAX thingy and “entered” the Web2.0 era…
Let me explain. Until then all I knew was that when you did something on a web page, you clicked a button or a link, the page had to reload completely. These new AJAX/Web2.0 techniques together with the new browsers like FireFox and Safari enabled you to program a web app in such a way, that only a part of the site would reload… actually making the web app more like a real, desktop app.
I’m a computer geek. When I discovered these new techniques I started playing with them and improving my home-made project management application. It was pure fun and a great learning experience. I started using Gmail and loved it. This was when I basically “stole” the idea of “starring” from Gmail to easily mark a task in Nozbe as a “next action”.
I re-wrote my tool. And I loved it even more then. And when I showed it some folks they were like: “this is cool, I want it too!”. This is when I realized I was on to something. I started tweaking my tool even more… and in mid-2006 I decided to call it Nozbe and to launch it by the end of the year. One of my good friends is a very successful SaaS (Software as a Service) entrepreneur so I decided to follow his lead and also launch Nozbe as a SaaS. I missed the deadline by a month and finally launched on the February 1st, 2007.
Why did you call it Nozbe?
Nozbe was a name me and best friend came up with back in college for our small project. It was supposed to be a “reminder service” reminding you about important dates and tasks. We had great time building it but we shut it down after a year of operation. The name came from a loose play of the phrase: “To Be Naturally Organized”… which led to “OZ Be” and later “Nozbe”. We liked the name. The domain name was free so I bought it. I kept paying for the domain and since the name was still cool for this new project of mine and fit perfectly, I decided to look no further and called my new GTD tool Nozbe.
OK, so you launched Nozbe and it was an instant success, right?
Not so fast. I was “nobody” on the Internet. Just a guy who was passionate about GTD and about productivity. On a personal note, my wife is the “organized one” in this duet. I needed GTD and productivity principles and my tool to “get myself organized”.
Anyway, the site launched in “beta” and I got only a handful of signed up users in the first week. Meanwhile I was discussing my tool on GTD blogs and forums with other productivity geeks like me… and one of them happened to be a blogger for ZDnet. His name was Marc Orchant. Without telling me anything, he wrote about Nozbe on ZDnet and it started everything.
Gina Trapani wrote about Nozbe on Lifehacker. Other blogs followed… and my server almost crashed. Nozbe.com appeared on the home page of Delicious, which was the top social bookmarking site at the time. Everybody praised Nozbe’s simplicity. I was completely blown away and started working even more to improve the app as user suggestions kept coming in.
What happened next? How did you manage to convert this initial success into a successful business?
It wasn’t that easy. Remember, I was still working as an Internet Marketing consultant for my clients and had previous commitments. I just worked a lot. And I was a one-man-shop. Until about 4 pm every day I’d work for my clients and then I’d literally put a “Nozbe CEO” badge and from 4pm to about 9pm I’d work on Nozbe. I didn’t have kids then and my wife was working for a top law firm… which basically meant she’d work long hours anyway. I had plenty of time to work. And I did.
After about 3 months of “beta phase” around 5000 users signed up for Nozbe. I knew I was on to something and decided it was time to start charging for Nozbe’s premium plans. Until then the premium plans were temporarily “free” because of the “beta phase”. In May 2007 I started charging and got my first 100 paying customers within the first week. It wasn’t much, but it was something. A lot more than what I had hoped for initially.
Was it enough to start working on Nozbe full time?
All throughout 2007 I was working on Nozbe part time. But with each month passing by I was falling in love with my new job more and more. I gradually started finishing work with my “old customers” from my client work and I didn’t want to take up new ones. I loved Nozbe and mostly the users that kept coming in. I loved the thrill of building my own thing and shaping a great productivity tool that’d help thousands of people from all over the world get things done. Finally in January 2008 I decided to work on Nozbe full time. The rest, as they say is history.
Apart from initial launch, what else happened in 2007 to convince you to keep doing Nozbe?
In September 2007 I got invited as a speaker to Office 2.0 conference in San Francisco. It was my first time on the West Coast US and in Silicon Valley, first time as a speaker, and first time at a major industry conference. Exciting stuff. I went there with my wife and we traveled all over California after the conference.
In early 2008 something magical happened. David Allen came to Poland to do his GTD Roadmap seminar for the first time in Warsaw. Through my connections from the September conference I managed to get in touch with him before and convince him to dine with me after the seminar. David and his wonderful wife Kathryn together with my wife and myself had an amazing dinner that night. Just think about it. Just one year after launching Nozbe I got to eat and laugh with my guru. It felt surreal…
In 2008 you decided to work full time on Nozbe, right?
Yes, 2008 and beyond were a roller-coaster years for me. And still are. And I’m loving every moment of it. In Spring 2008 I hired my two employees. Delfina to help me with customer support. She was a no-brainer. I couldn’t handle the email load anymore and I was working with her before as she helped me manage my previous clients. Now she’s the head of our Customer Support deparment.
I also hired Tom - my first developer. This was a big moment. Until then I was coding Nozbe myself but I knew that in order to take it to the next level, I needed a better programmer than myself. After all, I was just a hobbyist. Tom fit the profile. It was painful to give him my source code… my entire Nozbe app… and trust he’ll do a great job. And he did. And he’s my CTO now and we still love working together.
There were other milestones. Most of them indirectly caused by Nozbe customers. Like the managers who loved GTD and Nozbe asking me if they could set up a “team” Nozbe account for them and their peers. They’d come to me and say: “Michael, I know GTD, people on my team don’t. And they even don’t want to read a book. I think if we signed them all up for Nozbe they’d learn “by doing”. Delegating tasks and managing projects would help them learn about the GTD concepts like “Next Actions” or “Contexts”.”… This is how the multi-user plans came to life.
Nozbe is a fantastic collaboration tool now. As my team grew and client base grew we started adding more features to support “team” collaboration and joint “getting things done”. Apart from sharing projects and delegating tasks, you can now comment on these tasks and this way discuss issues and ideas. This way we send less emails to each other and finally really communicate through tasks now.
How about mobile? When did you decide it was important?
It was all iPhone’s fault, right? The iPhone changed everything. In 2007 we were one of the first apps to have an iPhone web app, but when iPhone started accepting native apps in 2008, we were not ready. I outsourced app making to a company in Far East and because I didn’t have enough expertise there, the app wasn’t really that great. After a year of so-so success with the app, I convinced another company in Poland to help me improve the app and they did an amazing job of making an iPhone and iPad apps for Nozbe.
It was a good solution at the time and worked great for a few years but the times were changing even more… Native apps started making more sense than the web apps and I realized the route that companies like Evernote are taking makes more sense. Android was gaining momentum. We had to build native apps for different platforms and make them all sync together in the cloud. So we did. We started with and Android client and later a Mac and Windows app.
Boy it wasn’t easy. Suddenly I had to hire more developers and we needed to make some tough technological decisions… and we made a few bad decisions and lost many months on building stuff that didn’t work well. Finally we did make a good turn, hired some talented guys and now we have native apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android, Android tablets, Windows, Mac and even Windows phone. Nozbe is a productivity platform now. Not just a web app. And we’re just getting started!
What do you mean “you’re just getting started”? After 6 years?
There is a saying that the deeper you enter a forest, the more trees you see… and that’s exactly what I see now working on Nozbe, Productive! Magazine and Show. There’s so much more that can be done, there’s still so much more to improve, there are still great things ahead of us and some real game-changing improvements in productivity. It sounds like cliche, but when you’re passionate about something, the work never stops. And it’s just getting more exciting.
Moreover it’s a fascinating growth curve. I started as a one-man shop, now we have 15 people on the team and we’ll have 20+ by the end of this year. I’m becoming a real CEO and it’s a terrifying and also exciting ride. I’m forced to get out of my comfort zone on a constant basis and I love it even though I sometimes hate it as well :-)
Are the Productive! Magazine and Show also “fruits” of your productivity passion?
Exactly. When I started the magazine (and another good friend actually convinced me to do it) I thought - I give people a tool (Nozbe) - what I should also give people is the inspiration to get better, to be better and to do better. I just tapped into my contacts in the “productivity blogosphere” and had a bunch of articles ready for the first issue and it all grew from there. Oh, and I convinced David to be the first interviewee :-)
The Productive! Show is just a video journal of all the productivity hacks and techniques I’m learning from my audience, listeners, readers and users. I’m just eager to try some of these techniques on me first and I record my outcomes. I tried “Inbox zero”, “Pomodoro technique”, “speed reading magazines”, different kinds of inboxes, traveling light… you name it, I tried it. And love doing it.
You are also re-modeling your home office almost every year and post it on your blog…
Yes, because I still work from home and I hope this will not change. Everybody works from home in my company and this is just the way we roll. Sometimes people ask me at which point (i.e. with how many employees) we’ll finally “grow up” and get a proper office… and I say that hopefully never. MySQL had hundreds of employees working remotely and they did pretty well. Most of the people I hire work from different cities and I don’t want to force them to move. And I simply don’t want an office. Someone once said: “A job is not a place to go, it’s a thing you do”.
Ever since I was in college I had a dream of being independent and working from home. I imagined myself only needing a good Internet connection and a laptop. It’s pretty funny now as I meet my college friends. They’re like: “Wow Michael, you’re actually working the way you always wanted to work… this is so cool”.
Now, I’m remodeling my home office every year as the way I work changes. Now I use the stand-up desk a lot more. I work on the iPad a lot more. Times change, I change, my home office changes with me. Because of my CEO responsibilities I finally decided to divide my day into two parts. In the morning, until noon I don’t check email or any other form of communication, it’s my “creative time” when I get work done. In the afternoon I’m all responsive and communicative. This is when I schedule my phone calls, reply to emails, Twitter and social media. Otherwise I’d be responding to other people all of the time and would get nothing done…
The end… (for now :-)
Question: Do you have any other question for me? I will be happy to reply in the comments below and update the interview as I see fit. Fire away!