How I Built a To-do List App
Based on Cognitive Psychology
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Nikita, I’m the creator of Todorant. It is a simple todo list app that uses cognitive psychology to trick the mind into craving task completion. Think how you like sugar — this is what Todorant is trying to do with productivity.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been developing various software for the last 8 years. I am fortunate enough to have over 20 000 000 people using the products I’ve built. I’m passionate about self-improvement and I can be one of the laziest people you know. I don’t like working so I always automate, improve, quicken all processes.
In early 2019 I picked up personal productivity as a topic for the year. I’ve read plenty of books and tried basically all the productivity methodologies you can imagine. At roughly the same time I also began to get into behavioural psychology and read research about it.
Turned out that there were plenty of things in the existing productivity methodologies that either hurt the productivity or don’t improve it. So I wrote down all the rules from all the methodologies and picked the 20% that bring 80% of the results. I wrote an article about the remaining ones.
After I shared the article with my blog subscribers I noticed enough traction to pursue the idea (and I wanted to build a product for personal use as well). So I sat down and built it. In a couple of months it turned out that people were willing to pay for the product, even though all the methodology rules were out in the open. This was the moment I decided to put a bit more effort into this venture.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
Oh, the hardest challenge is actually building the thing alone. I’ve built mobile and web apps, as well as the server — all by myself. Fortunately, I already had the matching skillset (knowing how to do all of it and having lost the fear of learning new things) — but doing everything alone still slows down everything.
This is partially why I automate most of the development process. A good example of such automation would be my article about how I’m able to release new iOS and Android versions of the app with just one command in a terminal:
Another challenge is keeping the feature set minimal. I obey the feedback-driven development process — whatever users ask, I build. However, most of the time I have to politely reject features proposed by users because they won’t fit the methodology. My competitive advantage here is the strong focus on getting users to complete the tasks, not just to store, organize and automate them.
For example, no competitor on the todo managers market can imagine rejecting a feature like “Projects” and “Repeating tasks”. And this is where they all get it wrong: to achieve higher levels of productivity you not only have to simplify and move faster, but also have to slow down at the right moment. I explain it better in another one of my articles.
Who is your target market?
My target market at the moment are probably people who tried a variety of productivity methodologies and failed to improve their productivity in the long run. One can be surprised, but this is the majority of people who picked up GTD and tried to leave with it for over 1-2 years. In the end they start to spend more time maintaining the system then benefiting from it.
I’m not sure on the exact demographic at the moment — which is probably pretty bad — but I’m rolling with it until the next marketing push later this year. I usually split the product development in cycles: a programming cycle followed by a marketing cycle, each lasting 1-2 months. You have to adapt when you lack human resources needed.
If you come back in 4-6 months, I’ll definitely be able to tell you more about who my customers are. Currently, I have just ~1200 DAU and I’m trying to find the best channels to increase this number as well as to encourage people to tell each other about the product.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
So far I haven’t tried any paid channels (this is going to change soon though, I’d like to give it a shot). What instantly comes to mind is my little experiment when I posted Todorant to over 120 places on the Internet and built a simple table with the results:
The most successful channels so far were my personal blog, Reddit, Indie Hackers and BetaList. Unfortunately, neither Hacker News nor Product Hunt has given me much traffic, even though I almost hit 1000 upvotes on Product Hunt. Honestly, I didn’t have any luck with those two websites!
Another cool thing I did was adding “Powered by Todorant” to my Telegram bots and other products developed by me. There was a substantial spike in registrations after I introduced it, but we’ll see, it can all just be an aftermath of getting to the Product Hunt daily newsletter.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
I’m always extremely open to all of my customers. Well, I can afford it — there are a bit over a thousand of them anyway. I always encourage all of my customers to contact me personally or join the Telegram support chat, where I answer all the inquires personally. This allows me to stay in the field and not to diverge from the main goal — getting the product more and more useful.
Another cool side of this approach is how many people tell me their success stories with the product. I should probably start collecting them and showcasing them, but for now they just keep my heart warm. Everytime a person thanks me for Todorant, I make a mental note that I just need to keep going.
The best thing that increases retention, from what I’ve noticed, is the everyday benefit of the user. The more benefit you provide — the more eager are people to use your app.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
Currently I work alone on this product, so the team communication is out of the question for now. I’m not sure when I’ll hire my first team member. Maybe on the 2000 paying customers?
However, I can share a piece of advice that helps me to stay sane in this crazy startup world — I take scheduled offline rests. I usually don’t tell anyone about them (because no one depends on me being online and reachable) but feel free to actually notify your team about your down time. During the scheduled breaks I’m completely unreachable.
First of all, I sleep 8 hours a day and go to bed at the same time daily. In fact, I wake up at 5am (find out how you can easily do the same!)
Secondly, once a month I go offline for the whole weekend (especially the long weekends). It allows my mind to unwind and I usually go camping. Getting some fresh air never hurts.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
I’m trying to either build everything on my own or to use self-hosted solutions. For now I use:
- Telegram and email to talk to customers
- Firebase for analytics (transitioning to the self-hosted solution at the moment)
- Ghost to run the company self-hosted blog
- Trello public boards to show development roadmap to the customers
- GitHub for storing the code
- My own lightweight self-hosted CI solution
- My own self-hosted translation management tool
- Yandex PDD for the mail send out (it’s free and easy to use)
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
- Validate ideas quickly, 1-2 weeks of development time should be enough to validate anything
- Don’t pursue the ideas that no one uses (I have a number of products that gained traction and a number of them that are abandoned now)
- Always backup the databases automatically
- Always try to write less code
- Listen to your customers
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Freedom of expression and ability to see the beneficial solution scale. When millions of people benefit from my code I feel happier. Something in my brain is hardwired to gain pleasure from building systems that scale and seeing them working without issues 24/7.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Uncertainty. I’d like to just buy a farm, grow crops and invent stuff in my barn (obviously decorated like the Iron Man lair depicted in the movies) — but currently I don’t have such an option and I’m not sure what will happen to my products in 2-4 years. Are they going to be as successful as they are today? I doubt it.
This is why I have to race against the time. It can increase the productivity but I’m afraid this race takes a toll on it instead.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
I read a bunch of books, like 50 non-fiction books a year, and my list of favourite books is ever-evolving, adapting to my current life situation. Out of the most recent useful books, I can name Rework by David Heinemeier Hansson, Trust Me I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday, and The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. I definitely used them the most over the last two years.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
Hopefully on a farm with my Iron Man barn, ha-ha. But most likely Todorant is going to grow to a team size of 10-30 people with 100 000+ paying customers, I’ve seen it one too many times in the startups I worked with to recognize this pattern.
This process has started and the only thing I can do now after I validated the business idea is to keep getting Todorant better and to keep telling people about it. Hopefully I’ll come back to this article, read it again and validate my predictions.
The next 2-3 years will definitely be fun! I’m looking forward to them with my chin up!