Hello? is this thing on?
I’m not sure if I even know how to operate this “blog” device any more. It’s been a year since my last post. I’m retired from blogging, remember?
Want to hear something funny? The only way I can post blog posts is by remote-desktopping into a carefully preserved Windows 7 machine which we keep in a server closet running a bizarrely messed-up old copy of CityDesk which I somehow hacked together and which only runs on that particular machine. The shame!
I do need to fill you in on some exciting Trello News, though. As you no doubt know, Trello is the amazing visual project management system we developed at Fog Creek.
Let me catch you up. As legend has it, back in yonder days, early twenty-oh-eleven, we launched a modest little initiative at Fog Creek to try to come up with new product ideas. We peeled off eight developers. The idea was that they would break into four teams. Two people each. Each team would work for a few months building a prototype or MVP for some product idea. Hopefully, at least one of those ideas would turn into something people wanted.
One of those teams started working on the concept that became Trello. The idea seemed so good that we doubled that team to four developers. The more we played around with it, the better we liked it. Within nine months, it was starting to look good enough to go public with, so we launched Trello at TechCrunch Disrupt to great acclaim and immediately got our first batch of users.
Over the next three years, Trello showed some real traction. The team grew to about 18 people, almost all in engineering. We did iPhone, iPad, Android, and Web versions. And Kindle. Oh and Android Wear. The user base grew steadily to 4.6 million people.
Here are some things that surprised me:
- We’ve successfully made a non-developer product that actually appeals to civilians. We tried to avoid the software developer niche this time, and it worked. I think that’s because Trello is visual. The board / card metaphor makes every board instantly understandable, which seems to attract all types of users who traditionally had never found online project management to be useful or worth doing.
- It spreads like crazy. It’s a gas that expands to fill all available space. Somebody finds out about Trello from their reading group and adopts it at work; pretty soon their whole company has hundreds of Trello boards for everything from high level road maps to a list of snacks that need to be bought for the break room.
- People love it. We regularly monitor Twitter for mentions of Trello and the amount of positive sentiment out there is awe-inspiring.
We launched something called Trello Business Class, which, for a small fee, provides all kinds of advanced administration features so that the larger organizations using Trello can manage it better, and Hey Presto, Trello was making money!
In the meantime, we started getting calls from investors. “Can we invest in Trello?” they asked. They were starting to notice that whenever they looked around their portfolio companies all they saw was Trello boards everywhere.
We didn’t really need the money; Fog Creek is profitable and could afford to fund Trello development to profitability. And when we told the investors that they could take a minority, non-controlling stake in Fog Creek, we had to start explaining about our culture and our developer tools and our profit sharing plans and our free lunches and private offices and whatnot, and they got confused and said, “hmm, why don’t you keep all that, we just want to invest in Trello.”
Now, we didn’t need the money, but we certainly like money. We had a bunch of ideas for ways we could make Trello grow faster and do all kinds of astonishing new features and hire sales and marketing teams to work on Trello Business Class. We would have gotten around to all that eventually, but not as quickly as we could with a bit of folding money.
Which lead to this fairly complicated plan. We spun out Trello into its own company, Trello Inc., and allowed outside investors to buy a minority stake in that. So now, Trello and Fog Creek are officially separate companies. Trello has a bunch of money in the bank to operate independently. Fog Creek will continue to build FogBugz and Kiln and continue to develop new products every once in a while. Michael Pryor, who co-founded Fog Creek with me in 2000, will be CEO of Trello.
So, yeah. This is the point at which old-time readers of this blog point out that the interest of VCs is not always aligned with the interest of founders, and VCs often screw up the companies they invest in.
That’s mostly true, but not universal. There are smart, founder-friendly VCs out there. And with Trello (and Stack Overflow, for that matter), we didn’t take any outside investment until we already had traction and revenue, so we could choose the investors that we thought were the most entrepreneur-friendly, and we kept control of the company.
In the case of Trello, we had so much interest from investors that we were even able to limit ourselves to investors who were already investors in Stack Exchange and still get the price and terms we wanted. The advantage of this is that we know them, they know us, and they’re aligned enough not to fret about any conflicts of interest which might arise between Stack Exchange and Trello because they have big stakes in both.
Both Index Ventures and Spark Capital will co-lead the investment in Trello, with Bijan Sabet from Spark joining our board. Bijan was an early investor in Twitter, Tumblr, and Foursquare which says a lot about the size of our ambitions for Trello. The other two members of the board are Michael and me.
Even though Fog Creek, Trello, and Stack Exchange are now three separate companies, they are all running basically the same operating system, based on the original microprocessor architecture known as “making a company where the best developers want to work,” or, in simpler terms, treating people well.
This operating system applies both to the physical layer (beautiful daylit private offices, allowing remote work, catered lunches, height-adjustable desks and Aeron chairs, and top-tier coffee), the application layer (health insurance where everything is paid for, liberal vacations, family-friendly policies, reasonable work hours), the presentation layer (clean and pragmatic programming practices, pushing decisions down to the team, hiring smart people and letting them get things done, and a commitment to inclusion and professional development), and mostly, the human layer, where no matter what we do, it’s guided first and foremost by obsession over being fair, humane, kind, and treating each other like family. (Did I tell you I got married?)
So, yeah, there are three companies here, with different products, but every company has a La Marzocco Linea espresso machine in every office, and every company gives you $500 when you or your partner has a baby to get food delivered, and when we’re trying to figure out how to manage people, our number one consideration is how to do so fairly and compassionately.
That architecture is all the stuff I spent ten years ranting on this blog about, but y’all don’t listen, so I’m just going to have to build company after company that runs my own wacky operating system, and eventually you’ll catch on. It’s OK to put people first. You don’t have to be a psychopath or work people to death or create heaps of messy code or work in noisy open offices.
Anyway, that’s the news from our neck of the woods. If the mission of Trello sounds exciting we’ll be hiring a bunch of people soon so please apply!