A few years ago, Michael Pryor watched a software team collaborate on a white board, with sticky notes. As they worked, they moved the colorful Post-its around to represent new ideas and indicate progress.
This process became the inspiration for Trello. A digital organization tool, Trello recreates a bird's-eye view of the brainstorming process with boards of searchable, sharable and stacked item cards that can be moved from one list to another.
It launched with a unique strategy: not telling people how to use the tool. Growing in such an organic way, letting users find their own applications, seems to have worked. Since launching 4 years ago, the company gained more than 10 million users who have created more than 30 million Trello boards, planning everything from vacations, to product launches, to house hunts and grocery runs.
We met Pryor, Trello’s CEO and co-founder, at his company’s New York City offices this fall. We talked about what Trello has taught him about collaboration and how cloud-based tools are shaping the future of management.
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Entrepreneur: Trello is very visual, and users continuously move cards around a web page. Why is that so important?
Pryor: If you look at people’s refrigerators or their computer monitors, they’re putting up Post-its that represent something to them -- you know that the note in the top right hand corner is the bank number for your wife’s account. It has a place in your brain. Trello recreates that feeling. What we were trying to create was bigger than a project management app. We were trying to invent a new document type that people could apply to things they would have never thought of as project management tasks, and make them fun.
Entrepreneur: It's interesting to hear a project management tool described as 'fun.' How did that inform your design process?
Pryor: Our goal was to make planning enjoyable. A lot of it is being able to show off your work. In Trello, people won’t archive their cards: instead they’ll move it to a done list. It’s almost like a trophy wall, to show you progress. It's very visual.
Even the act of dragging a card…it's not the most efficient way to change the status of something. In fact, choosing from a drop down would be quicker and easier, but the tactile nature is important.
Entrepreneur: After you launched Trello in 2011 at TechCrunch Disrupt, you didn’t invest in a marketing budget. Why was that?
Pryor: Our entire marketing budget was just making it free. The hypothesis was that it would spread throughout an organization. Because it’s so collaborative, people would have to adopt it and find value in it for themselves. Then people could say 'I have this kitchen renovation project that I’m doing at home and my contractor and I can never get on the same page,' and they'd start using it for other things. We would anecdotally start to see that happening, Trello transitioning from work to home. It was all organic.
Entrepreneur: Why don’t you tell users the best ways to use Trello? Is this lack of direction confusing for new users?
Pryor: We had this vision of letting people work the way they want to work, instead of proscribing a workflow. It can get tricky, because a lot of time people come and they’re like, ‘I don’t get it. How do I use this?’ And we’re like, ‘however you want!’ But sometimes they’re like, ‘I don’t know how I want. Just tell me!’ But being super flexible is important to us. We knew that we were never going to dream up all the different ways that people would use Trello. Teachers use it, journalists use it. We want people to make Trello work the way they work, not the other way around.
Entrepreneur: A number of digital tools – Twitter among them – have been shaped by their users. How did that play out for Trello?
Pryor: What we see anecdotally is that people write these long blogposts about how to use ‘Trello for X.’ Unbeknownst to us someone would write a long article with 18 screenshots of how to use Trello to plan a wedding, and it's on a wedding blog where she's talking to other people about planning their wedding.
I recently saw a couple use it for house hunting. Their broker kept sending them to houses they’d seen before. So, they put together a Trello board and when the broker put four houses on it they could be like, 'we don't need to see this one because we're not interested,' and skip the 50 minute drive to see a house they don't want to see. Having this kind of visibility makes the process more efficient.
Entrepreneur: How do digital tools like these change the way teams are managed?
Pryor: When you are running the company, you’re interested in what other people are doing -- you want to ask them, ‘what’s the status of X?,’ but even the act of asking can cause anxiety in the other person. Instead, I can look at the Trello board and see what’s happening because it’s all here.
I think in some ways Trello takes away responsibility from managers so they can focus on other things. It used to be that part of what you did as a manager was move information around your organization. But if everyone can see what's happening, you don't need this management function. Instead of spending time passing along information I can spend time coaching you on your career or getting things out of your way so you can get more stuff done.