FF 016 Chad Fowler, CTO @ Wunderlist, App Of The Year 2013

Summary Notes


In this episode of "20 minutes VC," host Harry Stebings interviews Chad Fowler, CTO of Wonderkinder and creator of the widely acclaimed productivity app Wonderlist. Fowler shares his unconventional journey from music to technology, emphasizing the importance of simplicity and design in software development. He discusses his approach to feature requests, focusing on enhancing user experience and habit formation without adding complexity. Fowler also reflects on the transition from a startup to a large corporation following Wonderlist's acquisition by Microsoft, highlighting the alignment of visions and the retention of startup culture. Additionally, he offers advice for startups considering acquisition, stressing the necessity of shared goals and comfortable working environments. Throughout the conversation, Fowler underscores the significance of protecting intellectual property for entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Chad Fowler

  • Chad Fowler is the CTO of Wonderkinder, creators of the productivity app Wonderlist.
  • He has previously served as senior VP of technology at LivingSocial.
  • Fowler was CTO at InfoEther, a Ruby and Ruby on Rails consultancy.
  • He organizes tech conferences and authored "The Passionate Programmer," a career guide for software developers.

Chad is the CTO at Wonderkinder, the brains behind the wildly successful productivity app Wonderlist, previously cited by previous guests Michael Tresco of Axel and Mattius Lungman of Atomico as their must have productivity app.

The quote introduces Chad Fowler as the CTO of Wonderkinder and highlights the success of their app, Wonderlist, which has been highly recommended by influential figures in the tech industry.

Chad Fowler's Background and Career Transition

  • Chad entered the technology field with a mindset similar to that of a musician, driven by passion rather than the pursuit of a conventional job.
  • His technology career began with an interest in video games and a passion similar to his for music.
  • Fowler transitioned from a potential music career to technology, which he has put on hold for over 20 years.

I came into technology via music... I was really into video games and wanted to learn how they worked. And so therefore discovered a passion that was similar to that that I had for writing music and performing music...

This quote explains how Chad's interest in technology was sparked by his curiosity about video games, leading him to find a new passion that paralleled his love for music.

Chad Fowler's Role at LivingSocial

  • Chad's company, InfoEther, was acquired by LivingSocial, where he became VP of engineering.
  • He eventually took over the entire technology team, stepping into the management role of the CTO and co-founder Aaron Battalion.

My company, Info ether, was acquired by living social as a talent acquisition... I ultimately took over the entire technology team, filling in the management responsibilities for the CTO and co founder Aaron Battalion.

Chad discusses his experience with LivingSocial, detailing his progression from the acquisition of his company to taking on the role of managing the technology team.

Transition to Wonderkinder and Wonderlist

  • Chad was approached by friends in Berlin to move there and work on Wonderlist.
  • He describes the transition as a result of being convinced to take on the new opportunity in Berlin.

I was approached by my friends in Berlin and convinced to move to Berlin and work on Wonderlist.

The quote captures the moment when Chad was recruited to join the Wonderlist team, marking a significant shift in his career to a new venture in Berlin.

Europe's Competitive Advantage in Tech

  • Chad suggests that Europe's competitive advantage over the US in tech may not be clear-cut or even necessary.
  • The importance of location has diminished with global connectivity.
  • Cultural differences and conservatism in the European tech industry are fading.
  • Berlin, specifically, offers a low cost of living and operation, making it attractive for startups.

Maybe there is no competitive advantage over the US and maybe that doesn't matter. It used to... It doesn't really matter where you are in the world.

Chad reflects on the changing dynamics of the tech industry, emphasizing that geographic location is less critical due to global interconnectedness.

Berlin as a Startup Hub

  • Berlin is considered an excellent place to start a business due to its desirability as a place to live.
  • The city's cool factor and affordability make it attractive to entrepreneurs and investors.

Oh, absolutely, yeah... It's just a cool place. It's cool if you're young and sort of alternative or you're interested in even t

Chad endorses Berlin as an ideal location for startups, highlighting the city's appeal to a diverse and youthful demographic.## Berlin as a Hub for International Talent

  • Berlin's mix of conservative, old school European values and diverse culture makes it an attractive destination.
  • Wonderlist found it easy to attract international talent, including from the U.S. West Coast, due to Berlin's appeal.
  • The city's lifestyle and standing in Europe were significant factors in drawing talent to Wonderlist.

"You get kind of everything in Berlin. So when my wife and I first heard about the opportunity for wonderlist, it was first Berlin that made me even open the email at the time because the subject said, CTO Berlin, and we just love Berlin."

This quote explains how the city of Berlin's reputation and lifestyle were instrumental in garnering interest for professional opportunities, specifically for the position at Wonderlist.

Wonderlist's Differentiation in the To-Do List App Market

  • In 2013, despite the commonality of to-do list apps, Wonderlist stood out due to its simplicity.
  • The app's design, led by Chief Design Officer Benedict Leonard, focused on technology, design, and simplicity.
  • Wonderlist's approach involved removing as much complexity as possible, which was counter to the trend in business software at the time.

"Simplicity, primarily. Our chief design officer, Benedict Leonard, he always says that the advantages we had and have are technology, design and simplicity and the design of it, it's absolutely beautiful."

The quote summarizes the core principles behind Wonderlist's success: technology, design, and simplicity, with an emphasis on the aesthetic appeal of the app's design.

Critique of Business Software Complexity

  • The historical relationship between customers and suppliers of enterprise business software has been a "self-defeating fight for features and complexity."
  • This complexity is often driven by fear-based negotiation tactics during the purchasing process.
  • Suppliers agreeing to every customer demand leads to overly complex software that degrades user experience.

"It's all about the historical war between customers and suppliers of enterprise business software, where it's like this self defeating fight for features and complexity."

This quote criticizes the traditional dynamic in enterprise software sales that leads to bloated and complex software products due to a feature-driven sales approach.

Improving Consumerization of Enterprise Software

  • There is still significant potential for improvement in making enterprise software more user-friendly.
  • Wonderlist serves as an example of a consumer-first approach, but enterprise needs extend beyond simple productivity apps.
  • The industry is burdened by a legacy of complexity, making it challenging for companies to adopt a simpler, more human-friendly approach.

"We're headed in the right direction, but definitely. And the reason I say definitely is that Wonderlist is a to do list application, although I like to say technically it is a multimaster, cross platform, mobile friendly distributed database system."

This quote indicates that while progress is being made toward simpler enterprise software, much work remains, using Wonderlist as an example of a complex system presented simply to the user.

The Challenge of Maintaining Simplicity in Software

  • Even companies aiming for simplicity can fall into the trap of complexity, as seen with Wonderkit, a failed project by the Wonderlist team.
  • Recognizing and breaking away from industry habits requires an introspective process to find the essence of software.
  • The Wonderlist team's ability to return to basics and build on simple blocks was key to their success and recognition.

"But Wonderkit was their experience of going in with that mindset immediately and completely losing their way. They made something incredibly too complicated and they replicated the mistakes of the past."

The quote highlights the difficulties of maintaining simplicity in software development, exemplified by the initial failure of Wonderkit due to complexity.

The Role of Wonderlist as a Connector

  • Wonderlist aims to be a connector for various tasks and inputs in a user's life, such as emails, calendar invitations, and conversations.
  • The team is committed to guarding the simplicity of the product, despite potential pressures to add more features.
  • The philosophy is to keep the core product simple while allowing it to interface with other aspects of a user's digital life.

"That said, wonderless can and should be the thing that connects all of the other things in your world that you need to get done."

This quote reflects the vision for Wonderlist to act as a central hub for tasks without compromising its simplicity, indicating a strategic direction for the product's development.## Wonderlist's Integration and Prioritization Features

  • Wonderlist aims to become a central tool that organizes tasks and integrates with external services.
  • It helps users not to forget tasks, prioritize, and accomplish them in the right order.

saging, applications, whatever they happen to be. Wonderlist can and should become the glue that recognizes those things, or at least allows you to explicitly input them in a seamless way and helps you make sure that you don't forget them and that you're doing things in the right order, that you're able to prioritize and then integrates with external services that could then help you accomplish them.

This quote outlines the envisioned role of Wonderlist as a comprehensive tool that not only organizes tasks but also integrates with other applications to facilitate task completion.

User-Requested Features for Wonderlist

  • The most significant user-requested feature was the addition of folders.
  • Folders were requested since the initial launch, but the team delayed adding this feature to promote simplicity.
  • The team sought alternative ways to organize without adding new features but ultimately added folders for power users.

In the past, the biggest one that we held off on for an incredibly long amount of time was folders... And we held off for a crazy amount of time, really, in doing that, even though many of us on the team sort of knew we wanted it, it was an internal battle to hold off on doing that as long as we could.

This quote discusses the internal debate over introducing folders to Wonderlist and the team's initial resistance to adding this feature, emphasizing the importance of simplicity in the app's design.

Habit Formation in Product Design

  • Living Social and Wonderlist are inherently habit-forming products.
  • The teams focused on simplicity and avoiding complexity to encourage habitual use.
  • User retention was a key focus during product development, with emphasis on engagement and active usage.
  • Advertising was not a priority, with more attention given to user experience and retention.

But I would say in both scenarios, the teams, the product designers and technology teams at living social and on wonderlist were radically driven to simple solutions and to avoiding complexity at all cost.

This quote highlights the product design philosophy of prioritizing simplicity and avoiding complexity to create habit-forming products.

Measuring User Engagement

  • The team used various methods to measure engagement, including analytics frameworks and user testing.
  • New features were sometimes launched without prior testing, but the team was quick to make adjustments based on user feedback.
  • There was a shift from a data-oriented approach to a more human-centered approach, involving real user testing.

We experimented with a lot of different things... But we also built our own feature testing system, our own analytics frameworks, and we have recently made quite an investment of time and energy into user testing of features, sometimes even before we develop them.

The quote explains the team's experimental approach to measuring user engagement, including building custom testing systems and investing in user testing to validate features.

Transition from Startup to Microsoft

  • The acquisition by Microsoft was perceived as joining a larger version of Wonderlist's own team.
  • The alignment of visions between Wonderlist and Microsoft was surprising and seamless.
  • The question from Carolina Brachardo inquired about the experience of moving from a small startup to a large corporation.

For us at this point in time, joining Microsoft has been just like joining a larger version of ourselves to some extent.

This quote reflects the smooth transition experienced by the Wonderlist team when joining Microsoft, emphasizing the synergy in vision and culture between the two entities.## Integration into Microsoft

  • Microsoft acquisition has provided more resources and colleagues to learn from.
  • The startup culture has been retained post-acquisition.
  • The team in Berlin operates as before, with the same decision-making process.
  • There is now more help available when needed.

"But joining Microsoft has really just meant that we have more resources, we have more people to talk to and learn from, more colleagues, I guess. But otherwise it's very much like it was before, only kind of amplified."

This quote emphasizes how the acquisition by Microsoft has enhanced the company's capabilities without changing its foundational culture and operations.

"Yes. Yeah, really, nothing has changed. We're operating in Berlin, we're a solid team, making decisions the same way we did before."

The quote confirms the continuity of the company's culture and operational approach despite being part of a larger corporation.

Advice for Startups Considering Acquisition

  • Evaluate potential acquirers as one would a prospective employer.
  • Consider alignment of goals and understanding of the company's vision.
  • Assess whether the team will be able to work comfortably post-acquisition.
  • The speaker acknowledges the role of luck in their success.

"We evaluated whether there would be a fit in the same way that you would evaluate an employer when you're being interviewed and essentially interviewing them for a job."

This quote suggests that startups should scrutinize potential acquirers to ensure compatibility and shared vision, akin to a job interview process.

"And for us, the answer to that just consistently was a yes."

The speaker's experience was positive, as the criteria for a successful partnership with an acquirer were met.

Quick Fire Round Responses

  • Favorite book: "The E Myth Revisited" by Gerber, due to its systems thinking approach to business.
  • Career highlight: Starting a development center in Bangalore with GE, a culturally enriching experience.
  • First person that comes to mind as a successful founder: Steve Jobs, though this is attributed to being "brainwashed."
  • No current favorite newsletter or blog due to not reading them anymore.
  • Angel investing with sidestage is ongoing, with more to be announced in the future.
  • The next five years involve deeper integration with Microsoft and spreading the Wonderlist culture.

"Maybe it's not my favorite, but one I always reference is the e myth revisited by Gerber."

This quote reveals the speaker's appreciation for a book that provides a strategic framework for business applicable across various scales.

"Steve Jobs. But only because I'm brainwashed."

A candid acknowledgment that the perception of successful founders can be influenced by popular narratives.

"There is more to come, yeah, and I'm quietly doing some things now that I'll get a little louder about later."

The speaker hints at future plans in angel investing, indicating ongoing activity that will be revealed in due time.

"So for me, in wonderlist it is integrate deeply into Microsoft. Be the layer that connects things in terms of tasks, things you need to get done."

The quote outlines the strategic direction for Wonderlist within Microsoft, aiming for deep integration and influence.

Show Closing and Additional Information

  • The host thanks Chad Fowler for his participation.
  • The audience is encouraged to participate in a book giveaway.
  • Importance of trade secret rights for startups is highlighted.
  • Contact information for legal support is provided.
  • The host invites feedback on the show.

"Well, Chad, it's been an absolute pleasure having you on the 20 minutes vc, thank you so much for joining us today."

A formal expression of gratitude towards the guest for sharing his insights on the podcast.

"And don't forget your chance to win the signed copy of Venture deals by Brad Feld."

Promotion of a giveaway to engage the podcast's audience and encourage interaction with the show's content and social media presence.

"So ensure that you have trade secret rights in place, allowing you the right to take action against anyone who breaches an agreement or confidential relationship, or even who steals or uses other improper means to obtain secret information."

Advice to startups on the importance of protecting their intellectual property and trade secrets, which are essential for maintaining competitive advantage.

What others are sharing

Go To Library

Want to Deciphr in private?
- It's completely free

Deciphr Now
Footer background
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon
Crossed lines icon

© 2024 Deciphr

Terms and ConditionsPrivacy Policy