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AMA: Ollie Campbell, Co-founder & CEO @ Milanote, the notes app for creative work

over 1 year ago from , Co-founder & CEO at Milanote

Hello designers! I'm Ollie Campbell, co-founder & CEO at Milanote, the notes app for creative work.

Milanote is based on the idea that behind every great piece of work is a lot of research, thinking and planning that is often messy, unstructured and takes time to evolve. We've really tried to reproduce the feeling of working on a wall in a creative studio.

The support for Milanote from the DN community has been awesome—all the way from when we were in beta right up to our public launch 5 weeks ago. That's why I'm back to chat about design, startups and anything else :)

Some things you could ask me about:

Milanote

  • What we're building at the moment, how we decide what to build next, and where we see the product going
  • Our process for designing and building Milanote (and why we spend 4 hours a day sitting in silence)

Starting a startup

  • How we got from a brand new team to #1 on Product Hunt in 11 months
  • What it's like making the transition from a designer to a startup CEO
  • How we turned our design agency into a product company

Agencies

  • Ever wanted to start your own agency? I can tell you what it's like to quit your job and start one with 3 friends in your living room (when your wife happens to be 8 months pregnant)
  • Interested in UX teams in big agencies? In a past life I recruited and managed one at Melbourne's biggest agency (before I was escorted form the building—funny story!)

Career advice

  • Trying to decide between joining an agency or a startup? I've worked (and hired people) at both!
  • If you're feeling masochistic, I can also share my thoughts on whether designers should learn how to code (as a designer with a computer science degree ;).

Please note: I'm in Australia, so I might take a while to answer depending on your timezone!

26 comments

  • Hayden Dobson, over 1 year ago

    Hi Ollie,

    Great work on Milanote. Everyone should sign up ASAP!

    I have a few questions surrounding your team’s discovery and validation process, priorities and future vision.

    A. Before launching your beta, what were some of the activities that you trialled and the hypothesises that you wanted to test to validate your idea if customers were willing to pay for it?

    B. What is your definition of a great designer? … and how has it changed since moving into your role as CEO of Milanote? Have there been some unexpected trade-offs with this transition?

    C. What happens when your user research conflicts with your team’s product vision? How does the team weigh up the differences?

    Thanks, dude!

    3 points
    • , over 1 year ago

      Thanks Hayden!

      A. Short answer: lots of interviews and user testing. Long answer: we started with some simple hand drawn sketches of various states of the product, and took them around to lots of designers to see if there was any interest in the concept. That was really good, because the sketches were vague enough that people could say “and it would be amazing if it did X!” and kind of project their own ideas on them. Then we built a quick and dirty “alpha” which we used ourselves for a few months (and tested with other people a lot) before starting over with a beta (which became the final product). Milanote actually started as a tool just for UX research analysis, and gradually became generic as we tested it with writers, filmmakers, architects etc and they liked it too :)

      B. Oh man that’s a hard one. I think one really good sign is if someone asks lots of questions before they start working on anything (or even has an opinion about it). One of my mentors is Philip Fierlinger (co-founder & ex head of design at Xero) and when you ask him for advice on something to him about anything, he spends the first 15 minutes asking millions of questions before he’ll even think about offering it. I think that’s the sign of a great “designer” mind—someone who spends a huge amount of time trying to build a model in their head of the situation and the problem before trying to solve it.

      The other key thing is being able to switch between divergent and convergent thinking at the right times (check out the double diamond if you’re not familiar with the concept—I actually have it tattooed on my arm as a reminder). This is mostly a practice thing, but some people do it really naturally.

      Some other obvious ones: the ability to write well, great at building up other people around them, a love for learning, I could go on and on!

      C. I can’t really imagine this happening to be honest—the research is just an input, it’s not like we ask people “how should this feature work?”, it’s more like “tell me about your goals and what’s stopping you achieving them”, then the design comes from that. One thing to keep in mind is that users are great at pointing out obvious features you need to add, but they’re almost unable to see beyond the obvious solutions (because they’re not spending all day thinking about it). So with Milanote we’re trying to balance giving poeple what they ask for with giving them things they aren’t expecting.

      Hope some of that is interesting/helps!

      2 points
  • Chris Cacioppe, over 1 year ago

    Yo bro!

    Respect for building and launching something people love. And i know a guy who uses milanote and he does love it.

    1. Curious about this 4 hours in silence thing? hahha

    2. Building/launching tech in AU. Did your location have any impact? Did the fact that you're in AU limit you? Benefit you? How is finding the right dev/design talent for you? What about when launch time... did you need to make connections offshore to get the buzz that milanote got?

    3. What was your biggest challenge during the build/launch?

    4. Im sure you've got alot of feedback about your product, maybe alot of suggestions? How are you working with that? How do you deal with suggestions that feel like good ideas at the surface but conflict with your vision. Got any tips? Developed any processes?

    Thanks ma man!

    3 points
    • , over 1 year ago
      1. I wrote an article about it a while back, it’s basically about having some time to focus and concentrate without interruption. A bit weird but it works for us :)

      2. Nothing to compare it to really, but from what I read about the startup scene in the US it’s pretty different. I think it’s much harder to get investment here (although we haven’t had any problems so far). On the flip side, I think it’s easier to attract talent, because people have less options if they want to do the startup thing (i.e. we’re not competing with big tech companies). Because Australia is a rich, educated country there are lots of talented people around and not a lot of interesting jobs. Slack and a few others have recently opened offices here which I think is a smart move.

      3. Technically speaking, one thing that comes to mind is we spent a long time figuring out how to turn a 2D canvas of elements into a 1D list that would match the way a human would do it. Still haven’t quite nailed it! The two big challenges that are on my mind at the moment are figuring out the right business model/pricing and marketing :)

      4. During our beta, we got a huge amount of the same feedback, so before we launched we built a poll which let people vote on common features (rather than everyone telling us they wanted an iPhone app). This has been a great as an input into our roadmap, but also as a way of taking the load off support while still giving people a way to voice their opinion. This is a great tool which just came out which does the same thing. If someone suggests something we don’t want to do, sometimes we’ll explain why (although this can be hard) and other times we’ll just say “we’ll think about it” ;)

      Some other ways we think about prioritising features:

      • Is it consistent with our vision?

      • Will it unlock other features?

      • Will it add new capabilities for minimal work?

      • Does it solve a fundamental problem with the interface?

      • Could it get us lots of new users?

      • Will it fix things which are broken or unfinished?

      • Will it enhance the app for our most important users?

      • Is it a boring thing we probably need to do?

      1 point
  • Joe Crupi, over 1 year ago

    Got a few for ya!

    1. How did you juggle 'business as usual' paid work vs working on developing Milanote?

    2. Did Milanote start as a project that was mostly done in personal time? Did this change over the course of it's development?

    3. If time was spent on it during business hours, did you manage it like a typical client project?

    (c;

    2 points
    • , over 1 year ago

      Hey Joe!

      1. We'd tried to build a few products "on the side" at the agency in the past and pretty much failed to finish anything—client work would always come up. I think the secret to getting Milanote done was just that we went all in on it, we switched a few people to working on it full time (and nothing else).

      2. Nope, all as part of the agency—although at one point we did was tell our clients that we were taking an extra week of xmas holidays, then we spent our first week in the office just working on product ideas (prototyping whatever we wanted etc). It was lots of fun and super productive, and one of our ideas turned into Milanote :)

      3. It was totally separate from client work, but we did manage it using a lot of the things we'd learned working with clients in terms of how we thought creating a product should be done (process, product management etc).

      1 point
  • Thomas GreenThomas Green, over 1 year ago

    Hey Ollie,

    Congrats on launching Milanote. Excellent work.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on whether designers should learn how to code ;)

    In particular, where do you think designers should focus their efforts?

    At the moment I'm torn between spending time learning and keeping up with new tech and frameworks (e.g PostCSS, Webpack, Angular, React) on the one side and UX (e.g research, user validation) on the other, not to mention the proliferation of new design tools.

    1. For product designers, how much "code" is beneficial/realistic to learn?

    2. How would you articulate the responsibilities of a designer vs. developer?

    3. How is the product designer role changing as tools become more fragmented?

    Hope these questions make sense.

    Thanks for the AMA!

    1 point
    • , over 1 year ago

      Hey Tom—alright, you asked for it! That's a really tricky question and the answer will be different for everyone. Here’s my 2 cents:

      Let’s assume that your career will last about 50 years in total (roughly from 20 to 70—retirement age keeps going up). That means that hypothetically, spending 4 years on a degree in computer science would cost you 8% of your working years. Assuming you’re planning to design digital stuff for the other 92% (big assumption) that sounds like it might be a good use of your time.

      Now a whole degree would be pretty extreme, but hopefully you get my point—I think in general people designing digital things should invest much more time in learning to code than they do, and I think in the future the line between design and code will blur more and more. This is already happening (as you mentioned). I also think that the tools people use to design digital stuff will start to look more and more like a combination of design and programming. I already think it’s more useful to think of individual “product” people as sitting somewhere on a continuum.

      Now obviously keeping up with all the latest fancy frameworks and technologies is a different question. Personally, I think that’s very difficult/impossible to do that once you get a bit older, have kids etc (but until it happens to you it’s hard to appreciate). For me, UX and design skill are much more intuitive, enduring and require much less “upkeep”, so that’s the direction I’ve gone in. It’s also worth reading one of the million threads on Hacker News about what happens to developers when they reach the age of 40 (still with 60% of their working life to go!).

      Sorry for the long rambling answers, hope you get something out of it! :)

      1 point
  • Jonathan NemargutJonathan Nemargut, over 1 year ago

    I have one simple request.

    Can you change this...

    Before header

    To this...

    After header

    Just that little bit of height real estate being taken up bothers me so much

    0 points
    • , over 1 year ago

      It's a deal if you can answer one question: what happens when the breadcrumbs get long? (i.e when you're viewing a "deep" board) :)

      0 points
      • Jonathan NemargutJonathan Nemargut, over 1 year ago

        I'd be okay with either:

        1. If an overflow is reached have the breadcrumbs flow down one line. (Making the height of the header larger)
        2. Resort back to the original view if the overflow point is reached.

        I'm sure there's a ton more UX options as well. Just my quick thoughts :)

        0 points
  • Chris Cacioppe, over 1 year ago

    How are you guys measuring success? And how do you communicate that to the team? Or is it a team thing like did you all come up with some goals?

    Have you always had the same goals or has it changed over time?

    I'm guessing your vcs hold you to some kind of performance metric .. is that aligned to your products definition of success?

    0 points
    • Ollie Campbell, over 1 year ago

      Great question! At the moment, the metric we care most about is active users. If that's going up, we're doing OK, if not, we're in trouble. So far it's been going up by double digit %'s every week, but we're not taking anything for granted :)

      We use Intercom to measure activity, and we have quite a complex way of deciding who's active and who's not (i.e. has created X pieces of content, has had Y sessions, has been seen in the last Z days). I think what we count as "active" is probably a bit stricter than the average SaaS product.

      We’re also working on implementing cohort analysis (couldn’t find the perfect of the shelf solution so we’re building it ourselves). This will basically let us see what happens to groups of users over time. It’s still pretty early, but I’m really interested in being able to see how long it takes different people to become active, how long it takes before they decide to pay, refer other people, invite team members etc.

      Revenue is also a pretty obvious metric and it's been fun watching it going up, but to be honest I'm trying not to get too distracted by it—we're still really early in terms of the business, so I'm trying not to get too attached to our current business model. Going for a more "pure" freemium model (i.e. making the product much less restricted for free users) is still an option we’re considering.

      In terms of communicating about metrics to the team, I post some graphs to an internal Milanote board once a week and write a short update on Slack about how we're doing. All of our stats, dashboards, analytics etc are all completely open for anyone on the team to check out.

      In terms of investors, we've tried to find people who are prepared to let us experiment and change our minds rather than get too attached to a particular metric, so we haven’t felt any pressure to do things we’re not happy about so far :)

      1 point
  • N SN S, over 1 year ago

    Hi Ollie

    I'd like to hear about what a typical day or week for the Milanote monks is? Now that the product has launched what does the next 1,6 and 12 month marks look like? Will you ever open a beta testing program again for new features?

    In terms of an agency becoming a product company how does that even work? I imagine there would be a transitional period but at what point - if any? - do you drop your clientbase to focus entirely on in house products?

    Finally I need to know the events up to and including being escorted from DT dig!

    Cheers

    0 points
    • , over 1 year ago

      A typical day starts with a standup meeting. There are two things we do differently here: the first is we ask "how's everyone feeling today?". This is a bit of a weird question, but the idea is that if you find out someone is stressed/miserable/grumpy/tired then you can treat them differently (or figure out a way to help!). The second thing we ask is "is there anything preventing us doing quiet time today?" if not, then everyone spends the first 4 hours of the day in silence getting shit done :).

      The rest of the day depends on who you ask, but the common things are:

      1. Everyone does a lot of interacting with customers, answering support messages etc

      2. Developers get to write code all day (they only have meetings one day a week)

      We’re working on an OSX app at the moment, and planning to put out a call for beta testers soon—same will go for various native apps over the next year or so :)

      In terms of the agency thing, we’re planning a one way transition to the product side eventually—at the moment we’re 50-50, some people are just doing client stuff, some people just making Milanote. It’s just a case of the right roles opening up for people on the agency side (and having the money to pay them to do it).

      And in terms of being escorted from the building, it’s pretty simple—the four co-founders our intention to leave (but offered to work out our notice period) they were upset and kicked us out straight away. The lesson is: if you’re planning a new business while working for someone else, don’t assume they’ll be supportive.

      1 point
      • N SN S, over 1 year ago

        Great article - I would be interested to see how I would cope with a silent 4 hours. I am up for any testing help I can offer :) Can't wait to see whats next.

        PS. Your DT story is badass!

        1 point
  • Ben OliverBen Oliver, over 1 year ago

    Ollie, I love Milanote, keep up the great work. I only do design work as a part of my job, but I find Milanote really handy for anything in the planning stages, including the beginnings of database schema design.

    My employer was so impressed with it that they paid for 12 months of it for me.

    One question: do you have a dark theme coming? I work under a rock and milanote is blinding!

    0 points
    • , over 1 year ago

      Glad you like it! "Dark mode" isn't something we'd planned (I tend to fall into the camp of less options for customisation for products) but people keep asking for it, so it's something we're thinking about. Some kind of f.lux style automatic colour shifting would be interesting now that I think about it :)

      If you're really desperate in the meantime, a couple of people have done it themselves using custom stylesheets (!).

      1 point
      • Ben OliverBen Oliver, over 1 year ago

        Haha It's far from a deal breaker, and it's surprisingly hard to come up with a dark theme that people are happy with.

        I agree about the customisation too, it's just more stuff to break...

        0 points
  • Mike A.Mike A., over 1 year ago

    Hello Ollie, great work with Milanote!

    1.) How many people built Milanote? And what are their roles?

    2.) How easy (hard:) is the transition from agency to product company? What's the best way to launch own product while servicing existing clients?

    3.) When do you expect break-even point and how many time have you invested in the product?

    4.) What does "mila" in the name mean?

    Good luck!

    M.

    0 points
    • , over 1 year ago

      Hey Mike, thanks for the questions! Switched from numbers to letters since the automatic markdown in this editor is killing me!

      A. We’re a pretty small team, here are the different roles:

      • Me (product design & management, marketing, PR, fundraising, recruiting etc etc)
      • 2 full time developers
      • 1 part time visual/brand designer
      • 2 part time customer success/support people (onboarding, support messages etc)
      • 1 part time operations/finance/sales etc.
      • 4 official advisors (few hours a month)
      • 1 external board member

      We’re planning to add soon:

      • 1 full time mobile developer
      • 1 full time growth/marketing person

      B. Mentioned this in another answer, but it’s pretty hard, we tried and failed a few times before getting it right. I think the key is really committing to it, by putting people on it full time for good (i.e. not trying to mix it in with client work). I was a founder & am still a director at the agency, but I don’t have a single conversation or meeting about client stuff any more. I really have no idea what’s going on there :)

      C. Hopefully next year sometime, but it’s really unknown at the moment. Depends a bit on where we go with the business model, which we’re still considering at the moment. We bootstrapped the first 18 months of development (using agency profits) and we’ve just wrapped up our first round of investment to keep going.

      D. Milanote is a portmanteau of “Milan” (the great design city) and “note” :)

      0 points
  • David SvezhintsevDavid Svezhintsev, over 1 year ago

    I'd like to hear about your Startup & Agency stories, because me and my business partner are in very similar situation right now.

    How did you guys pull it off, found clients, promote yourself? What was the driver: the product, deadline, or the money? If the two later, would you ever considering sacrificing quality of the product? Or shrinking budget? How did you go from 3 people to something big?

    It's very stressful to start your own company while working full-time. Especially when you and your business partner have problems on the side. Not really sure how you can stay sane and not loose your mind in midst of that.

    0 points
    • , over 1 year ago

      Hey David—in the beginning, we basically found clients by using our existing networks. We'd all worked in pretty senior positions at other agencies, so we had a reasonable network, and we just hustled it pretty hard :)

      A few other tips:

      • When we were brand new, we didn't have any case studies to talk to clients about, so we made one up! We did a pretend UX project (designing a recipe app based on research in kitchens, homes etc) as a freebie for a well known client. Then we put together a fancy Keynote presentation which showed all the steps we went through, all the way from research to fancy looking designs. We used that case study for months, it was a really effective way to demonstrate the way we thought about design.

      • In the early days, we had god success meeting potential clients by asking them if we could talk to them as part of our market research. Then we'd run card-sorting and other UX exercises with them to learn about their business. It was a great way to learn and increase the network.

      • While we were planning the agency, we had a regular weekly catch up at my house on a Wednesday night. We were pretty disciplined about giving everyone "homework" which they would work through during the week. It took a few months, but we gradually inched our way to starting a business. I still remember when the company registration letter showed up in the mail :) Then when we thought we were ready, we quit our jobs and went shopping for office space.

      And yeah, we've always been about quality of the work over everything else. It makes it harder to grow, but I think it's much more satisfying.

      It is pretty stressful starting a business ("will anyone buy what we're selling!") but it's also great fun, highly recommend it. Good luck!

      2 points