How We're Building A Super Fast Productivity App & Got Into YC
Hello! Who are you, and what business did you start?
My name is Julien Quintard. Years ago, I was a researcher in a field that recently became very popular with the blockchain. I founded my first startup in 2010, named Infinit, which I sold to Docker in 2016. I then took over the management of Techstars’ accelerator program in Paris from 2018 to 2020.
I started Routine because none of the hundreds of entrepreneurs, investors, and managers I talked to were happy with their productivity tools. So at Routine, we are building the next-generation personal productivity app by combining tasks, notes, and time with automation and a blazingly fast interface.
The company is still pre-revenue as we are focusing on building the best experience possible for busy professionals.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been a productivity geek for years now, first as a computer scientist automating as many things as possible, and then as an entrepreneur, trying out all the productivity tools on the market and hacking them to do even more.
Unfortunately, none of those was good enough. I talked to hundreds of entrepreneurs throughout the years, and they all felt the same.
We design with one question: how can we make this more efficient than what is available in the market?
For instance, all productivity tools fall into two categories: task management or note-taking. Therefore, it did not make sense for me to constantly switch between tools to save, organize, and act upon information based on its type: task or note.
As a result, most people pick only one of both tools, e.g., a to-do app, and then bend its use to remember everything. As an example, when someone wants to remember the phone number of their plumber, they will create a to-do list and create a task under it with the phone number in question even though this is not a “to-do” per se.
Likewise, while to-do lists hold the things you need to do, your calendar represents the events you will attend. Those two concepts are so close that, once again, it did not make sense to split such information between two tools.
At the same time, while mentoring lots of people, I saw how disorganization was a recurrent topic among first-time entrepreneurs and how it directly impacted the velocity of the company.
I, therefore, decided to tackle that challenge because I believe the product that will solve this problem will have a massive impact on people’s lives.
I decided to take a modern approach with natural language processing for users to quickly; capture a thought, create a task to perform later, or even schedule a meeting.
Take us through the process of building the MVP.
We design with one question: how can we make this more efficient than what is available in the market?
We realized that the users of traditional productivity tools are conditioned to expect a specific type of function or experience without realizing they could be getting a much more efficient experience with a little more nuance.
Our designers work to ensure that you as the user are enhanced by the tool and not distracted by it. Hence, we decided to make the tool console-based because it feels more native and intuitive. Every design and product decision is made to ensure that the experience feels better than any other productivity tool out there in the market.
The product has changed a lot since we first started, and through a qualitative feedback process, we have been able to refine our product to focus on core functionalities.
To give a bit more context, when we started thinking about Routine, I was focused on allowing users to define slots of preferred times for them to easily block time for their most important time. Think Calendly but for all your activities: focus time, internal meetings, etc. Below is one of my very first sketches of the app:
When we started implementing the app, we therefore focused on this feature, as the screenshots of the early days of the app show below:
We received a lot of feedback, first from our investors, all entrepreneurs who directly feel the pain. Then, we received equally valuable feedback from peers and mentors when we went through Y Combinator in early 2021. Finally, our users constantly give us feedback, helping us steer the ship in the right direction.
This pushed us to simplify the app at first to execute and iterate more quickly. As a result, we’ve put this very first feature. We’ll likely re-introduce it later but that was the direct result of users’ feedback.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We officially started working full-time in October 2020, right during the COVID crisis. So the first thing I did was to contact people from my previous company to see if they would be willing to join this new adventure. This was how I partnered with Quentin Hocquet, my previous company’s (Infinit) CTO.
We quickly assembled a small team and started building a prototype. Then, in November 2020, I decided to raise some funds to finance the early days and, most importantly, to surround myself with the most innovative entrepreneurs I know.
All was good so far. This is when friends advised me to apply to Y Combinator. I hadn’t thought about it, and to be honest, some people advised me against it. Given my extensive network, they thought it would be foolish to give away equity.
I talked to some alumni and to Nicolas Dessaigne (Algolia’s founder and former CEO who now is Visiting Partner at Y Combinator), who I have known since the early days of Algolia, and decided to apply. The logic was the same: it is not because you know how to build a company that you do not need help, advice, and support. We applied past the deadline but were lucky enough to get an interview and got accepted shortly after.
Through Y Combinator, we learned to simplify the product and ship faster. The feedback has been quite exceptional since day one. Most users told us that this is the product they had been waiting for for years. It does not mean everything went smoothly :) The product was unstable at first. This is why, right after Y Combinator, we spent 2 months just polishing the existing experience to make it consistent.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I believe Routine’s ability to marry the three most essential functions of productivity is our key selling point at the moment, add NLP to this and you have a tool that is a must-have for anyone serious about productivity.
Our users stick around because when they see what we are doing, they think, “This is what I have been looking for.” Our investors felt the same thing.
Our very first users came organically following a message I sent on LinkedIn announcing that I had decided to go after this problem. It naturally resonated with a lot of people who jumped on the occasion to be early users.
We’ve barely marketed Routine, only launching on ProductHuntat the end of Y Combinator. Yet, we ended up as the #1 product of the day, another proof that the market is waiting for a product to solve this huge problem.
We are now at a point where we feel we are ready to invest in marketing, more specifically in content marketing activities that can evangelize more potential users to discover better ways to organize their day and how Routine can help them do just that.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We have currently opened our private beta to users. We have several thousand people on our waiting list. We know a lot of people have been waiting for months to get access. We are doing our best, opening up to several hundred users every week.
In the next couple of months, we are looking to refine our product and open it up for everyone. But, long-term, we want to challenge the incumbents in our domain on the standard for productivity apps in terms of functionality and experience.
And obviously, we are also rapidly expanding our team to keep up with production demands.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Nothing particularly new, but maybe worth repeating.
When we started building the prototype, we added too many functionalities at once. Even though our team is quite experienced and executes quickly, we ended up not being able to launch fast enough during Y Combinator. We decided to cut corners, deactivate many features, and stick to the bare minimum to ship something. Thanks to the pressure of Y Combinator’s Demo Day, we stopped thinking long-term and got back to shipping.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We’re big fans of tools that complement Routine. So, we use Notion extensively for knowledge management and our internal communications are handled primarily on Discord.
Apart from that, we also use a few tools for marketing that include Ahrefs, LongTailPro, & Buffer. As for automation, we rely on Zapier.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
We are big on mental models at Routine, so Farnam Street has been an excellent resource for us. We also love business podcasts that are lean and provide value without engaging in a lot of fluff, so we’d recommend podcasts like IndieHackers & Acquired.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
We believe that in-depth user research is critical to any venture. We started Routine because we understood the shortcomings of the tools in the market, so we set out to address that. Along the way, there were a few aspects of Routine that we had to prioritize over others, which comes from knowing your customer.
The next piece of advice I would like to share with your readers is about collaboration and partnerships. Be open to partnering with allies and if you are careful enough, you might find a proposition that could potentially supercharge your growth trajectory. For example, we learned a lot from Y Combinator and from talking to the partners there. Had we not taken up the opportunity to apply to YC, we might have never gotten the exposure to that network which has been critical in Routine’s journey.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are constantly on the lookout for great talent. Right now, we are looking to hire a senior front-end engineer who can help us ship Routine to thousands of productivity enthusiasts. We are accepting applications at [email protected].
Where can we go to learn more?
The best way to learn more about Routine would be through our website. We are constantly updating it with new feature launches, open positions, etc.
Our DMs are open on Twitter, so if you’ve got any feature requests, collaboration ideas, we are all ears.
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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