We’re drawing to the end of the year, and rather than my usual “Hello All” style blog post, I wanted to write something a little more personal, and a little more reflective.

If you’ve ever thought “I wonder what they’re up to”, or “I wish Andy and the team would just do some work” (!), or perhaps are creating something of your own and would like some insights, I hope there’s something for you.

Our Achievements In The Last Year

I haven’t mentioned it until now, but Cyber Monday, back in November 2012, was incredibly transformative for ActiveInbox. I don’t mind opening the figures: in less than 24 hours we pulled in $25,000 (to contrast, it took two years of donations to make our first $20,000). It was a tremendous day. And crucially, gave us the *confidence* to embark upon investing everything we had (and more, it turned out) back into ActiveInbox.

It gave us some of the triumphs of the last few months:

  • Making Gmail finally feel like an elegant task manager
  • Stripping out the distracting cruft that has slipped into Gmail
  • Letting you focus better by ranking emails and giving them next steps
  • Stopping things slipping away from your attention by seeing Previous Emails whenever you reply
  • A due-date system for email that actually works
  • A clear plan for how the mobile client will work

Where We’ve Made Mistakes

It’s very natural to focus more on the wrongs than the rights (especially when the ‘rights’ are obvious just by using ActiveInbox, but the wrongs are more human, more subtle).

Software development, especially on top of Gmail, has been frustratingly slow. Gmail changes constantly, and so at the very least, with every 2 steps forward we’ve had to take 1 step back.

This slowness caused a peculiar psychological turbulence. We’d set our goal of building all the really exciting things we wanted in V5 by July 2013. It was arbitrary, but it was based on a real desire to make ActiveInbox as great as it could be, as quickly as could be. And as V5 slipped behind schedule, we became frenzied, almost myopic, in our prioritisation.

Previously when a support issue came in, we’d always operated with “stop everything until the customer is up and running again”. But the desire to reach the mountain-top of V5 meant support suffered for my attention, as we had to make hard trade offs on our time…
Do we fix bugs in parts of ActiveInbox that may not exist next week? Do we fix that quirk affecting one person instead of improving the product for thousands of people? Would improving the product now increase sales so we can finance a bigger support team soon?

There’s another flaw that compounded that issue: programming is dangerously addictive, and because it requires you to hold entire systems in your brain, delicately constructed like a house of cards, it’s difficult and wasteful to stop focusing on the “big thing” you’re working on. It’s been said that “It consumes you, body and soul. When you’re caught up in it, nothing else matters. When you emerge into daylight, you might well discover that you’re a hundred pounds overweight, your underwear is older than the average first grader, and judging from the number of pizza boxes lying around, it must be spring already.”.
As the often sole developer, I cannot risk becoming so engrossed again. But I want us as a team to maintain that coder’s culture, because it leads to the exploration and passion that produces brilliant products.

Do I think we made the right prioritisation?

It undeniably means we created a product of which I’m immensely proud, and I personally find very useful and know most of you do too; as fast as was possible.

But the one thing I’m sure of is that I hated doing this to, and physically felt pain on account of, every individual who has had to patiently wait for me to get back to them.

(To be candid for future posterity… if I had last year again, I would not be the sole founder AND mostly sole developer. That’s the root cause of why we couldn’t easily progress the product and simultaneously provide support. For us, that would have meant no longer bootstrapping (growing out of only revenues). There have been strong signals from the beginning that people want what we’re trying to solve with ActiveInbox, so investment would have been justified. Bootstrapping taught the hardest of lessons, and I do recommend everyone else’s first project is through their sweat and theirs alone, but it has ultimately held us back.)

How We’re Improving For The Next Stage

The good news is I’m making changes, now that V5 is almost ready:

  • New development will only be conducted by Tom and Mark. I will not be coding much any more. And the next big job for them is mobile!
  • I’m going to clear the backlog in support. All my focus is now on eliminating every problem, even if it’s an individual quirk. And there is a backlog… It’s going to take a while.
  • Lisa and I will tweak the way we work, so that any product issues are instantly escalated to the top of the pile. An “all stop” will once again be issued when a new technical problem occurs, ensuring it gets dealt with first.
  • I will resume our old habits of spending time talking to you all, to understand what frustrations you still have in your daily work, to refine the future direction of ActiveInbox.

Musings On Why We Make ActiveInbox

I don’t know how much you know of our history, but by sharing a little of our mindset I hope it enlightens us both about why the great things became great, and the bad things inevitably happened.

ActiveInbox began life as a side project of mine, in a theatre even smaller than the mythical “garage startups” you hear of: it was in a backroom, upstairs in my home.

There was a certain inevitability to its creation. I’ve always just found myself tinkering with software products, at least since I was 10. And so when a startup we were working on needed a way to do customer support, and we didn’t have any money to spend, I took a week out to build something that modifies Gmail to give it the control we needed.

You see, I, and everyone I’ve ultimately enjoyed working with, are product lovers. I don’t necessarily care for the internals of technology (although thankfully Tom does), I don’t particularly enjoy marketing (although I do love where it intersects with a complete “experience” for a customer)… the two things that have always made me happiest are anticipating how much a customer is going to love a new idea we’re working on, and the words of warmth when we finally get it right.

If I may step on my soapbox for a moment…

The Web is incredible for crafts people like us, and for many of ActiveInbox’s users. It’s the first time in history where quality is truly rewarded, and where anyone can join the creation process.

History’s earlier big communication breakthroughs – the printing press, radio and television – all required big capital to participate. And because only the fattest wallets got to advertise, the products that won were the ones with the most money behind them. Small players and quality be damned.

The Web changed that. In the last 15 years, the cost of creating something for the Web has fallen from millions to thousands. It’s a giant canvas that absolutely anyone can paint on. And in the last 5 years, social media has pushed word of mouth to the Web’s top table. Thus if you create something that is amazing to one person (a “purple cow” in the words of Seth Godin), they’ll tell other people who are just like them. Quality, not just money, becomes the Darwinian winner. And we all win because of that.

But it’s not a magical garden, where everyone can grow the sweetest rose and live happily ever after. There is a so-small-you-might-miss-it clause in there: “create something that is amazing”. And that is incredibly difficult.

Here are some of the unique difficulties we’ve faced:

  • We’re product makers. That means we’re not particularly experienced at doing business deals, at prioritising our workflow, at jump-starting word of mouth with old fashioned promotion.
  • To make something worthwhile, we made ActiveInbox work where you want to work: inside Gmail. That means building on the soft-sand foundations of someone else’s product. And it means nearly every single user has a slightly different environment, a slightly different way it can go wrong.
  • We bootstrapped (which means we started with no investment). We did this, perhaps naively, to be true to the craftman’s dream of only serving customers (not the interests of investors). But it means we’re perennially short of cash, which is at the heart of all the trade offs we’ve had to make.
  • We’re trying to innovate something that hasn’t been done before: to fundamentally change something as institutional and old as email. That means we’re going to make mistakes and follow wrong intuitions. It makes product development expensive, which is at odds with bootstrapping.

But the remarkable thing is, despite all that, we’re getting there.

It has not been without regret though, and I’m absolutely determined that we’re going to obliterate those regrets over the next few months.

Until next time,
Andy

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This post was written by andymitchell9496