We Built A Digital Whiteboard Tool Used By Over 17K People

Vít Kalisz
Founder, OrgPad
$1K
revenue/mo
4
Founders
0
Employees
OrgPad
from Praha
started December 2018
$1,000
revenue/mo
4
Founders
0
Employees
2.6M
alexa rank
136
followers
288
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We Built A Digital Whiteboard Tool Used By Over 17K People

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi! My name is Vít Kalisz. I’m a co-founder and the CEO of OrgPad. We started working on the project about four years ago but the idea had been forming since the early 1980s. Today, we help over 17,000 people with their studies and work.

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OrgPad is a universal digital whiteboard, a web-based tool that lets you create dynamic “crime boards” like the ones you see in almost every crime movie. It’s a great tool for students, especially when preparing for exams, a great decision-making tool for managers, and a big help for anyone who regularly faces complex problems. Just place all the information you have in front of you and start making sense of it.

Our team’s decisions are based on three core values: ease of use, universality, and connecting people. We believe that a good tool is one you don't even realize you're using. Ideally, a toddler should be able to use the product by pure intuition. At the same time, the tool must remain as powerful as possible. If you balance out the first two values, you have a good product. If you want a great product, it's the people around it who make it and that’s doubly true for OrgPad. That's why we've been building a strong community of people around OrgPad since day one, people who are fanatical about our product and support us wherever they go. This is what’s made the project grow organically without us spending a single cent on advertising. Today, we earn roughly a thousand dollars a month and our revenue is growing rapidly every month.

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The Universal Digital Whiteboard

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Four years ago, I visited my university teacher in Zurich, Switzerland: it changed our lives forever. Over four days, I convinced my former tutor to leave Google and instead start OrgPad with me.

However, the whole story began decades earlier with the university professor Zdeněk Hedrlín, an ingenious Czech mathematician, sociologist, philosopher, and teacher. He was concerned with the question of how to store and transfer knowledge while preserving structure. He tried many different approaches with his team, including forms of hypertext. After many iterations, they concluded that the base for the method they were looking for had to be a visual structure, and so the theoretical foundation for OrgPad was laid.

My former teacher, co-founder, and CTO of OrgPad Pavel Klavík were one of Zdeněk Hedrlín’s last students. Shortly before Prof. Hedrlín died in spring 2018, Pavel visited him in hospital, where he promised to turn the theoretical work behind transmitting and capturing ideas into a practical tool. The problem was that Pavel had no partner to work with, and was also employed at Google in Zurich at that time. That’s where I came in. I had been one of Pavel's students since 2016. Between 2016 and 2018, I got acquainted with Zdeněk Hedrlín's ideas and was completely amazed by them. When Prof. Hedrlín passed away, I didn’t want these ideas to be forgotten, and so I crossed paths with Pavel again in Zurich.

The theoretical work behind OrgPad has been proven correct again and again over the years. Nevertheless, it wasn’t clear how to translate it into practice. Since I have a supportive family and Pavel had some savings, we were able to bootstrap the project the whole time. From my point of view, we were extremely lucky to find each other and be in a position to start working together.

In the summer of 2019, Pavel’s wife Kamila joined our team as a UX designer with programming skills, after finishing her undergraduate studies in bioinformatics. Pavel met Kamila during her university studies when he was showing first-year students the idea, and she’d loved it ever since. It completely changed the way she works and organizes her life. A year later, my brother Adam joined our programming team and he’s in charge of our infrastructure. He has many years of experience in running and designing large networks, which allows OrgPad to run cheaply and without any problems.

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From left to right: Vít Kalisz, Kamila Klavíková, Pavel Klavík, Adam Kalisz

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From left to right: Kamila Klavíková, Pavel Klavík, Adam Kalisz, Vít Kalisz, Nikol Vypior

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Work on OrgPad began during the Christmas holidays in 2018. During the first couple of months, we were very occupied with the absolute basics like creating and deleting cells or allowing them to move around. At that time, the first automatic system was introduced to OrgPad. This system automatically determines the sizes of the cells, thus significantly improving the user experience while also increasing productivity. Back then, the tool had a rather rough look. We were experimenting with colorful backgrounds for the cell's contents, and different borders, and styles and the rest of the application was just the absolute minimum, as you can imagine. The list of all OrgPages was just an unordered list in the middle of the screen, buttons had their backgrounds filled with thick red, green, blue, and yellow, and we had Escher’s triangle for our logo.

In summer 2019, we came up with the idea to make OrgPad’s canvas a little gray so the cells could have a white background with no borders. We elevated the cells by introducing shadows and made them beautiful with the current color palette. Colors in OrgPad play an essential role, allowing you to seamlessly group cells together. It was essential for all the colors to be distinguishable without any significant discrepancies in contrast, so no color attracts your attention more than others. Moreover, OrgPad has always been designed for long work which further shrinks your color options: you can’t work with bold colors. That's why our palette may seem a bit dull at first glance but after a few hours spent using the tool, you'll understand the decision. Trust me.

One of the biggest game-changers was the introduction of permissions to OrgPad’s server in August 2019. Ever since then, anyone can create an account on OrgPad. There was a brief period before that where we had a server with no permissions management and all documents were public for editing. :D Tough times. In fall 2019, we introduced the second automatic system. This system moves cells aside and makes space when the contents start to overlap. We also bought the domain for $3,000, and finally made the MVP public.

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Evolution of OrgPad

Describe the process of launching the business.

The whole project started in Christmas 2018 with us writing the very first lines of code. The first half of the next year was a bit strange because Pavel was still working at Google and I was continuing my studies at Charles University in Prague. As of August 1, 2019, Pavel quit Google, I dropped out of school and OrgPad became our full-time job.

Building a functioning business is a huge and long-term challenge, so it's the people you go in with that matter most.

I think it's important to highlight at this point that OrgPad is a self-financed venture, which has a huge influence on the whole team. The one-for-all example is that to reduce expenses to a bare minimum, I moved with Pavel and his wife Kamila to a small village in the Czech countryside at the end of summer 2019. The house had a wood-fired water boiler and was heated by coal, the dishes were of course washed by hand and the latest kitchen equipment was an electric stove from 1960. For half a year, I slept there on the ground.

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At the start of February 2020, we were invited to a small gathering of progressive Czech primary school principals. This put OrgPad on the map and when COVID hit Europe, we slowly started gaining traction in the Czech Republic. We experienced the fastest growth during the lockdowns a year later in the winter of 2021. Over the summer of 2021, we introduced pricing, and currently, we’re focusing on increasing revenue from the Czech education sector and growing abroad.

It took us nearly three whole years to get to a point where we started to see some results moneywise. This put me in awe of anyone who has built a successful business – it’s really really hard.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

As OrgPad is a self-funded business, advertising isn’t suitable for us. It’s a huge expense with an uncertain outcome that could jeopardize our ability to continue working on the project itself. Therefore, we’ve relied on building a strong community around the tool from the very beginning. We started by spreading the word about the tool on all social media platforms, which also led to the invitation to this meeting of progressive principals I mentioned earlier. I believe this initial phase is more or less the same in every startup: you take any chance you get to show your product to the masses, hoping that you’ll reach people who’ll help expand your business further.

It took us about six months before the first fans started showing up. Since the Czech Republic is a relatively small country, we have the luxury of meeting all of our supporters, which makes building a strong core community much easier. However, not all our supporters come from the Czech Republic. We try to keep in touch with them at least through video conferencing and chatting on Discord. These people are very important to us, so we pay close attention to them.

Currently, it's all about influencers for us. They’re the ones who show the tool around, create content, organize events, and train people and companies on how to use it. They’re the ones who create high-value content and show it to others. You might be surprised that this group doesn't even have to be that large. In our case, it's just a handful of really passionate people, but because their work is beautiful and full of true enthusiasm, it’s enough to grow.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Over the last year, our focus has shifted from growth to profit and, as expected, growth has slowed a bit and sales have increased significantly. May 2022 is the first month when we’re safely in the black, making over $5,000. It's still too early to say for sure, but I think we've reached the point where OrgPad is becoming profitable. If that's the case, now is the ideal time to consolidate our position within Czech education and gather strength for further expansion.

We’d like to start expanding to the western markets this summer. There are already some preparations going on in Germany and Denmark, and the US will follow. Since scaling up an online app is easy, it’s again mainly about the community. Maybe this article will be a breakthrough in this regard.

While the economics of a company is very important, we must never forget about the product. We have big challenges ahead of us, such as full support for mobile devices and speeding up the entire application. These are the goals for the next two to three months.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Each member of our team has certainly learned a lot on many different fronts. We've improved on the technical side, we've learned how to communicate with others better, and we've come to understand a lot about the workings of our government. As a result, we’ve gained a lot of respect for everyone who’s managed to build a successful business.

Building a functioning business is a huge and long-term challenge, so it's the people you go in with that matter most. While I don't think this is anything new or surprising, I get the impression that a lot of people don't fully realize how important it is. At this point I’d like to highlight the qualities of each member of our team. They’re all good, honest, conscientious, and hardworking people and I consider it a privilege to work with them.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

OrgPad is entirely written in two programming languages: Clojure and ClojureScript. Clojure runs on JVM and can use any library from Java. We run Netty, Postgres, and Minio on the server. ClojureScript compiles to JavaScript, and again we can leverage the entire JavaScript ecosystem: we use React and Material-ui. We also have a small separate server written in ClojureScript, running Puppeteer (headless Chrome) on NodeJS for taking screenshots of documents in OrgPad. Our entire architecture can be explored on the following OrgPage.

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These languages are amazing and allow us to be 10x more efficient than in anything else. Code is much shorter, easier to read and hence cleaner, faster, more secure and so on. It’s also possible to use REPL to modify the code while the application is running, which allows fast iterations and prototyping. I’d like to thank Rich Hickey – the creator of Clojure – for creating this wonderful tool: he’s made our work significantly easier and more pleasant.

Otherwise, at OrgPad we have a philosophy that it’s good to be dependent on as few things as possible, so we hardly use third-party software. The only external service we use is Stripe, which processes payments for us. Stripe has prepared a very nicely documented and easy deploy copy & paste solution, but the moment you need to go beyond that, it’s quite painful. Luckily, we were able to develop our integration quickly by reloading code with REPL and building it on our testing services directly.

We use OrgPad for almost everything in our business, from development planning/documentation to planning business meetings, or even running our landing page. Other tools include Figma, Affinity, DaVinci Resolve, and Google Workspace (email, calendar, automated emailing).

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

The most influential resources were recorded talks and interviews with Steve Jobs. He was a brilliant designer and deeply understood human nature – his work has influenced us in every way.

Another influential person is Paul Graham and his essays. The insight that creating an amazing product and finding a few people who love it is essential. He nicely describes startups and we’ve rediscovered many lessons the hard way. The entire YC Startup School available on YouTube is great, even for a bootstrapped business like OrgPad.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

In general, I think it's important to think deeply about life-changing decisions, and starting a business is certainly one of them. The only thing that’s limited in life is the time we have left, and ill-considered, rash decisions can cost us a lot of it. It's also good to remember that starting a business entails a lot of responsibility: to your employees, partners, family and customers. This pressure isn't for everyone, and that's perfectly OK. In many ways, it's easier to get hired. Please think about it before you start your own business.

Besides that, be careful about the people you surround yourself with. It’s likely a bond for many years ahead of you. Be humble, work hard, and most importantly, don’t do it for the money. There are much easier ways to earn a lot of money than startups.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, please contact us at [email protected].

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Vít Kalisz, Founder of OrgPad
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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