We talked to Harlan Hugh of TheBrain Technologies about organizing information like the brain.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Harlan Hugh: We are doing well, all things considered. As a result of the crisis, we have had to make some major adjustments to help close relatives who have been adversely affected quite dramatically by the social restrictions put in place to slow the spread.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded TheBrain Technologies.
Harlan Hugh: I am a self-taught software designer and programmer. Since I was a child, I always thought that most people underestimated the power of computers to change the way they think and work. It occurred to me that the metaphors used in computer user interfaces were at the core of the issue – desktops, files, and folders are not exactly the most inspiring and flexible ways of organizing information.
The human mind is capable of so much more… Intricate relationships can never be expressed by the hierarchies that folders impose. Real-world information is connected in networks of associations, and this is how you think. When you think about a person, you might also think of the place they work, who they know, who introduced you to them, the projects they are working on, and so forth. Likewise, when you think about a project, you might also think of the various tasks within that project, the stakeholders, budget, and so on.
So, with that in mind, I looked for a better metaphor for organizing information, and the brain was an obvious choice. The software lets you connect all your digital content in a way that makes sense to you and presents it in an interactive visual graph with powerful note-taking and file syncing capabilities so that you can have access to anything at any time.
How does TheBrain Technologies innovate?
Harlan Hugh: One aspect of innovating is in combining existing technologies in unique ways. For example, the core premise of our system combines the principle of a social network with notes that are typically stored in a linear fashion. Another example is our primary user interface, which leverages animation techniques that are common in video games and employs them in a productivity application.
Once you have a product out there, I think one of the key challenges is striking a balance between doing what your customers ask and giving them what they don’t necessarily know they want. We are fortunate to have a strong user community that does not hesitate to tell us what they want. It is often tempting to focus on fulfilling requests based on demand, but ironically I believe doing this exclusively or even primarily leads to stagnation. You have to invest in long-term foundational technologies that will be potential game-changers.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Harlan Hugh: Our userbase is growing since more people are working remotely and looking for effective ways to organize, communicate, and collaborate. TheBrain helps people by linking together networks of information visually so it can be understood and shared more easily.
We also have a number of users who are working specifically on digital brains to develop new solutions and do pandemic planning. In fact, we recently hosted a webinar on this topic with two high-profile Brain users. The recording of this event, and example, Brains to browse, can be found at https://thebrain.com/events/covid-19-webinar.
We are putting in extra efforts to keep up with growth, and in fact, we are actively hiring. Like a lot of companies, generally, we have switched to remote work. I would say the worst part about this change is that the social connections we all enjoyed as a team are suffering, but we do our best with virtual meetings.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Harlan Hugh: There are now a lot of note-taking applications that are scratching at the surface of what we endeavor to do. Things like Evernote, Microsoft OneNote, even Apple’s built-in Notes App and newer takes such as Roam Research. But really, all of these are focused almost solely on text and lack the ability to let you intelligently organize things.
Our key challenge is supplanting the existing ways of doing things that are thereby default – the files and folders on your desktop, the endless stream of email messages in your inbox, and the disorganized piles of notes and web bookmarks you might have strewn around.
Changing ways of thinking and working is hard to do and only happens when the alternative is a paradigm shift enabling an order of magnitude improvement. This is what we are working on every day to deliver.
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