Trello founder's startup formula and the power of Kanban

Joel Spolsky
Joel Spolsky
Francois Badenhorst
Deputy editor
BusinessZone and UK Business Forums
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Many entrepreneurs go their entire lives without ever coming across one killer idea. Joel Spolsky has had two: the web forum Stack Overflow and  project management tool Trello.

“Yeah,” he counters, “but you’ve only heard of the successful ones”.

If you ask Spolsky, he’ll tell you he’s just a programmer. His profession was foundational to his entrepreneurial success. In the early 00s, Spolsky began writing a blog called Joel on Software. Back then, he says, software developers were treated “like typists” and his blog was one of the first to focus on developers.

Spolsky diligently cultivated an audience and parlayed the blog’s success into a Q&A forum for developers called Stack Overflow (now one of the top 100 most trafficked sites on the internet according to Alexa). The seed for Stack Overflow’s success grew from his blog audience that was prepared to migrate onto the forum. 

Hot off Stack Overflow’s success, Spolsky launched Trello, the workflow management tool du jour. “The second time was certainly easier, people were paying attention to me,” he says.

Attention is the key point for web-based startups, according to Spolsky. It’s not just about attracting the amorous attentions of VC backers, but also dealing with the arduous task of capturing the attention of consumers.

When Spolsky’s specialist blog was launched in the early 00s the internet was terra incognito.

“I was the only person out there writing these things down and putting it on the internet and other developers reacted warmly. These days, it’s a lot trickier to find an audience.

People point to my story as a model, but I don’t think that successful blogger to successful entrepreneur is a formula that’ll work anymore. ​

“People point to my story as a model, but I don’t think that successful blogger to successful entrepreneur is a general formula that’ll work anymore. You gotta be first or you gotta be lucky,” says Spolsky.

In essence, the internet has become industrialised. 

What hope, then, for the next generation of web entrepreneurs? Spolsky says that the most successful startups lean very, very heavily on user interface (UI) designs that create the social outcomes they want.

“Look at the success of Snapchat. It and Twitter are sort of similar. But when you launch Twitter, you’re reading a feed. You're pushed into consume mode. But when you launch Snapchat, the camera goes on immediately, you’re already getting ready to publish. Snapchat guides the user into a broadcast mentality, which gets them the content they need to keep users interested.”

Focusing on the “sociology of the user,” as Spolsky terms it, is the best way for web startups to cut through the cacophonous din of the modern internet: “I’m always looking for the things you can do where you slightly encourage people to do something because your product just leans that way.”

It's the people that are paying attention to the minute details of how people consume that are winning the marketplace. 

In Spolsky’s case, both Trello and Stack Overflow are informed by the Japanese philosophy of Kanban (literally translated as ‘queue limiting’). Kanban, which was developed by a Toyota engineer named Taiichi Ono as a lean inventory-control system for manufacturing, encourages the removal of waste - if something's superfluous or non-useful it’s ruthlessly eliminated.

Trello, as Spolsky openly acknowledges, “becomes a pain in the ass if you have too much stuff in one list. It gently guides you into using Trello for high-level detail”. Through its UI, Trello focuses the user’s attention.

On Stack Overflow, the network software automatically deletes questions that meet certain criteria, including having no answers in a certain amount of time. If a post is non-useful, non-engaged or non-trafficked it’s automatically zapped.

“It's the people that are paying attention to the minute details of how people consume that are winning the marketplace,” says Spolsky. “It’s not just about creating a community, it’s about shaping that community through the products you create.”

This article was originally published on 7 September 2016. It was re-published on 11 January 2017 in light of Trello being acquired by Atlassian for  $425m (£350).

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12th Jul 2016 14:16

I thin his example of snapchat shows how people can still build an audience with content to seed their software userbase.

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to Davelab6
12th Jul 2016 15:33

Hi Davelab,

Thanks for reading the piece and commenting. What Spolsky is saying, I think, is that when he gained his audience, simply writing a blog was enough. The internet wasn't as noisy as it was now.

He isn't saying you can't build an audience, as you pointed out rightly Snapchat has done so. But they've done it by gently directing their users through their user interface.

That's the key point here. As Spolsky explained, the most successful web start ups now ignore the lure of the industrialised internet, and focus on what they want their users to do and how they can influence those users into doing it.

Thanks again for commenting, always nice to read feedback!

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to Francois
12th Jul 2016 15:34

Sorry, noticed an error in my post. I meant: "Wasn't as noisy then as it is now".

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13th Jul 2016 13:28

This is a great read. Lots of terrific lines in here. You can see why Spolsky has captured people's imagination with his words as well as his deeds.

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