How Simplicity Brought German Startup MeisterLabs 8mln Global Users

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CEO & founder Michael Hollauf explains the hype behind the productivity startup that has been awarded "Best of 2015" by Apple and Google independently:

How would you describe MeisterLabs in a few words?

Our bold mission statement is “to inspire creativity in business and daily life” – in layman’s terms, we believe work can be fun too, and we want to support this with modern, great-looking and fun-to-use productivity tools.

What inspired you to create MeisterLabs? How did it all start?

About 10 years ago, while working together at a small tech company, we had the idea to start MindMeister. Google had just acquired a company called Writely and turned their product into what is now Google Docs, which we started using almost immediately to collaborate on projects at work. We were also using MindManager, at the time the only serious mind mapping software, to brainstorm product ideas and also to conduct and document customer meetings.

MindManager was nice but pretty expensive. It had to be installed locally, which made it very hard to share our mind maps with anybody else, as they would have had to buy the software as well just to look at our map. This made it really hard to collaborate with others, which is something quite important for a brainstorming tool. So, while using Google Docs – a collaborative word processing tool – and MindManager – a non-collaborative brainstorming tool – at the same time, we thought it might be a good idea to combine the two.

In order to realize this big project, we founded MeisterLabs and hired a few developers to get started. MindMeister’s first prototype didn’t win any design prizes, but with the help of a great team and amazing users we’re now proud to offer the top mind mapping tool on the web!

MeisterLabs is the company behind MindMeister & MeisterTask, two apps that combined, have over 6mln international users. What can you tell us about these two and what contributed to their success?

Actually, we’re close to 8 million now. I think the secret to the success of these two is simply … simplicity. This is our biggest goal when designing apps, to create something that’s very intuitive and easy-to-use, without the need for training or a steep learning curve. You must not overwhelm the user with features, but try to make common workflows as clean and fast as possible. Couple that with a beautiful, well-designed UI, and you have a winner. With MindMeister it of course also helped that we were the first ones on the market with a collaborative mind mapping app that worked in the browser.

What’s the most considerable pivoting maneuver that the team has undertaken throughout the journey so far?

Probably moving from a one-product company to a multi-product one. While you’re ramping up the resources, it adds a lot of stress on a small team that already has its hands full with one product. Then, you suddenly have two development teams, and some competition starts to appear. That can be healthy, but it can also have negative aspects – if you’re not careful and counteract it, it can start dividing the team. When we saw parts of this happening, we started making extra efforts to have the teams collaborate, rearrange desk positions, and even temporarily swap people between the teams.

Are you using your apps internally? How does that affect the viewpoints in the development team?

Yes, of course. We actually developed the apps for us initially, especially MeisterTask. I think that’s the best way to develop products, to solve a problem that you have yourself because you know exactly what you need, and when you get it. Many of our feature ideas come from inside the dev teams, and we also find issues or bugs much quicker.

Collaboration platforms are experiencing a hype in recent years – where do you think this trend comes from and how will it shape the future of work, considering more and more remote teams are being built?

I think it’s pretty clear where the trend comes from: effective collaboration breeds creativity and keeps teams happy, motivated and productive, and the most successful companies are the ones who’ve figured this out.

The future of work, and to some extent already the present, is going to be shaped by apps like Slack, Google Drive, and hopefully our tools as well, plus a few new entrants that we don’t know about yet. Workers are using these already to collaborate across geographical borders, in distributed teams, but also within offices. I’ve actually seen the trend to remote working slowing lately, if not reversing. Many companies I speak to start trying to bring their people back to the office, recognizing that, even with great software tools around, there is still value to the quality of personal interactions you get from having people in the same room. And I actually agree with that – when possible, having people in the same room would always be my first choice; when you can’t, e.g. with distributed teams or freelancers, make use of simple and fun collaboration tools such as ours 🙂

What is the biggest challenge that the company has faced?

I’ve spoken about this event a lot in interviews, but it’s still the first one that comes to mind – it was in early 2014, when Google decided that it would start counting some of our – totally organic – backlinks from our map embed code as spam links, and gave us a severe search-result penalty. We dropped from the first spot on the first page of Google Search to the second or third page — and that actually hurt a lot. It resulted in a sharp drop in signups, and with that in revenue, and our company growth stalled for almost an entire year. That had an effect on everything, including morale. We had to work hard to bring things back to normal, and we’ve learned a valuable lesson.

What is the most memorable moment throughout the history of MeisterLabs?

Three come to mind: first, when we hit 1,000 users a week after launching MindMeister in 2007 (watch my co-founder and me celebrate via Skype), then when a few months later my co-founder deleted our entire user database of 10,000 – he wanted to delete a single user, but for some reason the tool had selected ALL the users in the database, and we had a few very “exciting” hours until we managed to restore them all from a backup. And finally, when we won Best of 2015 awards from both Apple and Google in the same week for our second product MeisterTask – it felt so great to be able to repeat success with a second app – we still have a few million users to catch up to MindMeister but it’s looking good!

If there is one thing you could wish for in improving the European startup ecosystem – what would it be?

More of the American “who gives a damn” attitude – that means, just try out stuff, be open about your success or failure, and try again if it didn’t work out the first time. There are many great things about the European mindset – our thoroughness, sincerity, a decent work-life balance, but the US has a much lighter approach to everything – if they think it’s a good idea, they just build it. Granted, you then also end up with highway systems like the one around LA, but in between, you get the iPhone, Teslas, and Airbnb.

What’s one piece of advice you can give to fellow founders for their startup?

Build a great team – it’s not only more fun to work with nice and talented people, they also help you turn even mediocre ideas into great businesses, and by extension really great ideas into unicorns 😉

And, one more, this time relating to building your product: KISS – keep it simple, stupid. Above everything else, focus on usability and simplicity. If the user experience is good, and you’re also solving a problem for somebody along the way, you can almost do no wrong. This has been the key to our success so far, and we still look at every new feature or idea by first asking “does it make our app more complex”? If the answer is yes, we don’t do it. When you’re just starting out, also make sure that your business can be described in a very simple way so that people will understand it.



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