How a Chaotic Mess of Task Lists Gave Rise to a Whole New Approach in Project Planning
by Vikash Koushik
If you’ve ever managed the lifecycle of a product, designed a marketing strategy or got a startup off the ground, you know how hard it can be to streamline your thoughts into one cohesive plan. There are just so many holes between your sticky notes, whiteboards and to-do lists that most projects eventually turn into a chaotic mess. That’s the pain that we’ve been trying to solve with germ.io, our project planning software.
Today, germ.io is a powerful project planning and management tool that lets you start with an abstract thought, break it down into structured next steps and build a solid action plan from it.
Today, this project planning tool has over nine thousand users from all over the world building their content marketing pipeline, structuring growth hack ideas, planning every step of their startup, and even storyboarding and writing novels on it. But it wasn’t always like this. The germ.io story is one of experiments, adventure and an almost obsessive focus on making creative individuals and teams get their thoughts to a stage where they can start executing.
The Germ Beginning: Where does a project really start?
Traditionally, managing a project has always revolved around babysitting a pile of tasks — assigning to-dos, scheduling due dates and following them up.
But project planning doesn’t really start with a bunch of ready-made tasks that need to be completed. In fact, most projects are pretty abstract at the beginning — they still need to get pruned, broken down and organized to derive actionable tasks from them. That means more than 50% of a project, including the most significant phases of project planning and structure happened outside the current paradigm of project tools!
In late 2013, Vikram, Gautham and Subramaniam were working together at one of the fastest growing B2B software in the world. After trying their hands on a variety of tools including to-do lists, kanban style interfaces and collaboration tools like Google Docs and Evernote, they realized that there was something significant missing in the way current tools approached a project.
They needed a project planning tool that could help them build a plan around their thoughts and help derive the next steps they needed to take. And they decided to build this tool themselves.
Within the next couple of weeks of prototypes, wireframes and heated debates, the germ.io team was formed.
Choosing an ambitious ‘deploy as we build’ approach
We started work on germ.io with a great idea, the experience to execute, and the confidence to put it all together. What we did not have, though, was deep pockets. We knew that we needed to get active user feedback and participation from day one. We just could not afford to spend 18 months building the project planning product before we started inviting user feedback.
Instead, we decided to adopt a more radical ‘deploy as we build’ approach – launching germ.io in phases, giving it out to users and getting their feedback at each step of the way.
While this opened up a whole new can of worms from an engineering and product management standpoint, it gave us the luxury of winning users, showing them our big vision, and getting their input right from the start.
Roughly one year since we first put pen on paper, germ.io is a complete project planning tool — with thousands of users who use the platform to break down their project ideas, collaboratively structure their plans and turn them into action.
One of the biggest turning points in the early days of germ.io was when a user added the project planning product on ProductHunt, the popular voting website. At that time, germ.io was still just 5 months old as a project planning tool, and usage was few and far between.
Within one hour of getting hunted on ProductHunt, germ.io’s usage stats rose to over 60 percent. In fact, usage activities in the product took such a sharp turn northwards that we had to boot an extra server instance by afternoon.
The day ended with amazing feedback and germ being nominated as the most popular product. Since then, germ.io has been featured in numerous media and startup lists, winning even more love and feedback from users across the world.
Using User Feedback to Drive the Germ Product Roadmap
One of germ.io’s distinguishing traits as a startup has always been its obsessive focus on customer feedback. Right from its engineering and product strategy and all the way through to its marketing and communications. Actively seeking feedback, acting on it, and involving users at every stage of the product is part of germ.io’s core DNA.
For example, we regularly invite users to remotely participate in our product discussions, build our roadmap and suggest weaknesses that need to be improved over a Google Hangouts session (called Voice of the Germlet).
When you speak directly to your users, you start discovering patterns — friction points, pains and use cases that you’d have never thought of before.
For us, our Aha! moment came when we learned that a majority of our users got stuck trying to research and reinvent basics like “structuring a business plan” or “organizing growth hack ideas.” And so, in April 2014, germ.io first started sporting Project Templates. Templates are pre-built plans with the basic structure already laid out. With this, users could pick a template that best matched the problems they were trying to solve through their projects, start adding their own ideas to it, and churn out a plan in minutes.
Within 90 days of launching this feature, we had over 3,000 users using Templates for their project planning around Starting Up, Marketing and Product Management.
Subsequently, the team decided to push out a more expansive collection of user-submitted project planning templates ranging from topics like “Building a Quarterly Product Roadmap” all the way through to “Writing a Novel” or “Planning a Wedding.”
In the year and a half since we started work on germ.io, we’ve had users tell us how much they love germ.io. We’ve had users who fill our inboxes with praise every day. And we’ve had users who absolutely hated the way a button interacts and have screamed abuses at us till we fixed them. Every single user feedback has steered us closer to the big dream of germ.io.
For a 6 member startup that’s less than a year and a half old, we’ve come quite an impressive distance. And none of this would have been possible without the complaints, issues, feedback and love of our users. As they say — the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.
If you’d like to help shape the future of germ or have any thoughts or questions about germ.io, feel free to let get in touch with the team on twitter at @germ_io. Or shoot out an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.