For those of you who happen to look at other parts of our site, like the portfolio, you may have curious about our personal productivity tool, Todo Zen. It’s a great example of a viable product that was too slow to the market to make an impact, derailed by the success of an incompatible business. So what happened, and what can you learn from our experience?

Todo Zen origin

After trying out our first product that was getting limited traction in a small market, we realized it was time to move on. My cofounder, Federico, suggested that we try creating a task management tool, and introduced me to Kanban. That evening, we went to a restaurant, and wireframed most of what would be in the product with torn up napkins.

Problems with launching the product

The Mac App store was coming in a couple months, and we wanted to try to package a web app that we could launch on multiple platforms. This was our first mistake, since we were beholden to a dev with limited availability, who had some slightly exotic knowledge. This added at least three months of delay to the process, and we gave up first mover advantage in the store. I also was a bit perfectionistic about the design, and a redesign and implementation cost us another 3 months. Clearly we went well beyond MVP to get this out the door.

Service business wins out

While all this development was going on, around a year and a half ago we met our first major service customer at a conference where we were demoing Todo Zen, and saw a new business model that could be scaled. Success in the app store seemed like it would be a lightning strike at that point, and I felt like we were competing for a small segment with a lot of devs who are obsessed with productivity too. Faster cash flow also won out, given a couple years at product attempts that had limited traction.

Conclusion

I think the experience was valuable, as it allowed us to learn what’s involved in making product, and it felt like we experienced almost every single one of the pitfalls involved. If we had to do it over again, I would start by choosing a larger market, and leveraging areas where we have an unfair advantage. From the Oracle of Omaha:

In business, I look for economic castles protected by unbreachable ‘moats’.
-Warren Buffett

Buffet is looking for lasting competitive advantages in his investments. Understanding your team strengths, and where it can uniquely exploit the opportunities in front of it, is a recipe for great success. If there’s a large market that has an opening for a different approach, with very few people capable of executing, the odds will be stacked in your favor. According to the Small Business Administration, around half of businesses fail in their first 5 years. My advice? Take every advantage you can get.