Tools Been mostly let down

A Productive Space

Earlier this week a friend asked if I knew any 5-10 person start-ups that were doing interesting work in the productivity space. I knew a couple, but the always-full-of-opinion Twitter seemed like a good place to learn more, so I asked.

The following is a selection of the surprisingly large number of start-ups that responded. I spent max five minutes looking at each and grabbing initial thoughts. If they were in stealth mode and provided no pitch, I made up my own.

In one year, I’m going to return to this list and see who made it.

Here you go…


My first job in technology was building databases, so Airtable resonates. It looks like it’s lightweight databases for regular humans. This is a noble cause, but I worry when a new service tries to be everything to everyone rather than focusing on a single clear use case.

Would I try it? Probably not. I use specialized services like Asana, but I suspect this would be a solid small business tool.


AskWonder appears to be a service where you can ask questions of qualified researchers – a personal research assistant. I signed up, but you’re asked to pick your industry and there is no “engineering” industry, so I picked writing. A simple interface allowed me to ask a question, so I did, “Who are the five most profitable publishers of technology-related books?”

I was then asked to supply a credit card for the $29.99 fee to answer this question. So I stopped, closed the window, and stepped away from the computer.

Would I try it? Nope. I’d use Google.


ClubHouse is project management software that appears to be based on Agile. My impression is this is a crowded market where it is hard to differentiate. Also, I find it curious that in the past three companies I’ve worked at that we haven’t widely deployed these types of tools. There is certainly a market for this software, but it seems to be a personal choice for a team or two rather than an enterprise choice.

Would I try it? Not until I was at a start-up.

I’m already on It’s a combination of a tool to help you change/maintain habits as well as a tool to help you find a personal coach. As a serial evaluator of productivity software, I could definitely us the former. In terms of coaching, I’ve of the opinion coaching is a dish best served face-to-face.

Would I try it? Maybe, but not for coaching.


Meerkan is a service I’ve always wanted, but one that is usually hindered by edge cases. It appears that Meekan is designed to work inside of Slack or Hipchat as a means of doing scheduling and other business activities. Bots inside of Slack/Hipchat. Yes. Good idea. Scheduling? I am biased by the fact that my schedule is crazy, but even with a less crazy schedule, the amount of human intervention necessary in scheduling a meeting with four humans is surprisingly high. I’ll explain.

Please schedule a 30 minute meeting with Ryan, Angela, and Tony on Wednesday. This is not a complex action. The bot needs to look at four calendars and find a common 30 minute slot on the next Wednesday.

But what if there isn’t a slot? Well, I’d guess the bot would helpfully find the next available slot. Hey Rands, there is no open slot on that Wednesday that all the participants can meet. What about 1:30p the following day?

Thing is… the meeting must happen. If it doesn’t happen, we likely lose $100k. Can I require a meeting to happen? Yes? Ok, how does a bot know which meetings are high versus low priority? And, by the way, we haven’t even talked about conference room availability.

No doubt that there is a large market for bots inside of Slack-like social spaces, but bots have yet to prove to me they can do more than very simple tasks.

Would I try it? Maybe.


This is an app to help you keep track of all your numbers. They’ve created all sorts of interfaces to things that produce numbers and allow you to aggregate said numbers in one place.

This app stresses me out. I’m already at war with notifications on my phone and the idea that I’d build hooks into other services I’d use to give me more notifications appeals to the number counter in me, but no. So very no.

Would I try it? No.

Update: Shutting down on May 1, 2016.


The fact a good portion of the world still uses Lotus Notes (now: IBM Notes) tell us two things:

  1. The world needs collaboration software;
  2. Once collaboration software is truly adopted at scale, it’s nearly impossible to dethrone.

You might’ve giggled when I mentioned Lotus Notes, but take a look at your work life. Are you on Exchange? How about Gmail? It’s the same thing. A crap interface that you’re locked into because everyone else in the company is already there.

Meanwhile, apps like Pingpad offers real time collaboration on notes, lists, photos, and message, too. Their sizes allows them to actually evolve and innovate, but the more I stare at Pingpad, the more I wondering… isn’t this just Slack?

Would I try it? Maybe.

Small Wins

In stealth mode, so I get to dream on this one. I hope these folks are building a tool which allows teams of humans to broadcast and share wins across the team in an attempt both recognize excellence, but also to slowly replace the antiquated system of yearly or bi-yearly performance reviews.

Would I try it? Can’t tell.


Kind’a excited about Sortd because I’m currently in a “use my inbox as a to-do list” phase. Gmail is designed by engineers so it has a bajillion knobs and dials to allow to me to adjust it… just so. This has resulted in a solid three weeks of close-to-inbox-zero, but the true test of any productivity is not the first three weeks of bliss, it’s what happens when something explodes. Reorg, unexpected travel, surprise resignation. The true power of your productivity is determined by it’s resiliency to the unexpected.

Sortd is Trello for Gmail. It allows you push mail to different lists like “To Do”, “Follow up”, or whatever list floats your particular productivity boat. Sortd merges your inbox with your to do lists and it appears to do it without imposing a lot of cognitive load.

Would I try it? Yes.


Kind’a excited about Superhuman too, but they’re all stealthy, so here’s their blurb:

Superhuman is not just another email client. We are rebuilding the inbox from the ground up to make you brilliant at what you do. We are specifically designing it for professionals and power users. Especially those with very demanding inboxes.

Superhuman is gorgeous. Blazingly fast. And comes with advanced tools and features that make you feel superhuman.

I’ve been waiting for a new view into my inbox for many years. Been mostly let down. Willing to be let down again.

Would I try it? Yes. Because email.

Canvas (R.I.P. Acquired by Google)

(Disclosure: I’m an investor in Canvas.) Canvas is also stealthy, so here’s their blurb:

Writing is the best way we’ve found to communicate, especially at work. But all the existing tools we’ve used are stuck in the past. We deserve a product worthy of our everyday notes as well as our greatest thoughts. A hackable, opinionated product that’s made for us, developers and designers.

Would I try it? Yes. Because writing.

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7 Responses

  1. Thanks for trying Meekan! Our robot makes all kinds of assumptions about meeting importance – For example, if it’s very rigid (you asked for a specific day and hour) it’s perceived as more important, and he will suggest to double-book it over what you have now . A “coffee sometime next week” meeting is more flexible to move.

    And goes without saying, he will find and book an available conference room that matches everyone’s availability. Just ask.

  2. Great list. It’s cool to see this new wave of tools that are enabled by new platforms. Slack in particular is enabling a new wave to tools.

    I think Slack will become the backbone of company communication and will create lot’s of winners in this space. Similar to what Salesforce did for customer data.

  3. I’m keeping an eye on ScribblePost, can’t get my colleagues to use it so haven’t got a view on how well it works with teams but I do like the UI.

  4. You can cross Numerous off of your list. They’re shutting down on May 1st.

  5. Email: fetchmail, bash scripts, vi/emacs. Anything I’m *really* missing?

    PS: I’m old.

  6. Joel Bryton 8 years ago

    This is not the book that you are writing. In fact, if you’re a frequent reader of Rands in Repose, I would suggest that even if you have a book in mind, that is not the book you’d end up writing. Having done this twice now, I can confirm that the only part of my planning process that made it to the published work is the title.

  7. As a happy user, I can recommend Airtable. Here’s how we use it: I manage about 100 people. We use Airtable to keep track of employees and all their information, in a little database. It’s so much better than pretty much any HR tool out there for that, because it’s flexible and super easy to evolve over time whenever you have a new need. For example: hey, we should keep track of who reports to who. 10 minutes of setup, and DONE. And unlike Excel or Google sheets it’s a database, so things are MUCH more organized and we have 1 source of truth.

    Highly recommended.