Michael Hollauf, CEO and co-founder of MeisterTask, about effective task management.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Michael Hollauf: We’re fine, thank you! Obviously, no one likes the pandemic, but I think perspective is the key here. Yes, we’re a bit bored. Yes, we miss socializing with our friends and the wider family, especially in a great city like Vienna where the café culture is so symbolic and central to our feeling of normality. However, it could be so much worse: there are millions of people around the world who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus or who are struggling as a result of the economic impacts of lockdown. I’m just thankful that my family (and the Meister Family, of course) is safe, warm, and well.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded MeisterTask.
Michael Hollauf: I founded Meister, together with Co-Founder Till Vollmer, in 2006. Essentially our flagship product, the collaborative online mind mapping software MindMeister, came first, and the company sort of formed around that. Without MindMeister, the company wouldn’t exist, so our drive to found the start-up is inextricably linked to the concept of mind mapping itself.
Like the great mind maps made with it, MindMeister all started with an idea. What we saw was a gap in the market: although mind mapping has been a popular technique since the 1970s, no collaborative online mind mapping tool existed at that time. We realized this was a void that we could fill, but we knew we’d have to start slowly and build from the ground up.
MindMeister has grown from a tiny beta group of 200 volunteers to a powerhouse with over 20 million users, albeit slowly and steadily. We recently celebrated the 14th anniversary of the initial beta, which is remarkable: if you think of all the software startups that have boomed and busted in the intermittent time, I think our longevity actually speaks louder than the size of our user base.
However, there is a difference between creating great software and a successful company, and while MindMeister has matured well as a product, our infrastructure had to be upgraded to handle this too. We’ve taken concerted steps to broaden our base — adding a task management software (MeisterTask) to our portfolio, working on a new collaborative documentation app (no spoilers, sorry), and hiring wisely. We want to maintain that special startup feeling, which keeps our work fun and drives our creativity, for as long as possible.
How does MeisterTask innovate?
Michael Hollauf: Innovation is such a broad topic that I think the key to defining it (and therefore achieving it too) is to narrow down the areas in which we can really bring progressive change. In short: what are we actually good at? At Meister, we’ve always been clear about what our strengths are, namely our knack for creating beautiful, easy-to-use software products that help teams work more productively together. Whether this is during the ideation phase with mind mapping or the implementation process in task management, our contribution to innovation is to find ways of making these tools easier to use, taking focus away from software and onto productive work. So, in a nutshell, that’s what we do. We choose our features carefully based on user feedback and our vision of what our tools should and should not achieve. Then, we apply the principles of stunning design and simplicity to technical concepts in order to do things no one else on the market is doing. Et voilà… innovation!
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business? How are you coping?
Michael Hollauf: In terms of COVID-19, we’ve been lucky in quite a lot of aspects. Firstly, the restrictions haven’t been overly stringent in Vienna, where most of our team is based, which means that the office is still available, even if we encourage the team to work from home whenever possible. It’s not exactly life “as normal,” but it’s a normal sort of life in comparison to the experiences of many companies.
Then there is the question of the products themselves. With so many companies forced to change their ways of work in such a short space of time, remote working solutions are in demand. Interest in both MindMeister and MeisterTask has grown significantly as a result. Naturally, a big part of our own adaptation process is to make sure we sustain our recent success by convincing the market that our tools are for life, not just coronavirus, but I think it’s something we’re doing quite well. The value-for-money proposition for both products will still be excellent for our customers, even when they return to the office.
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Michael Hollauf: In terms of “letting people go” difficult choices… no. Our team has actually grown significantly since the pandemic began, which is great: I’m thankful we’re not in a position in which we need to cut down on personnel costs, because that can be extremely damaging to team morale.
However, business is all about tough choices, whether you’re in a pandemic or not. The coronavirus crisis will define the landscape of the tech industry for a long time to come now, but the main question here is this: when the coast is clear, will people return to the office as before? It’s always been my view that people need direct personal interaction to thrive at work, but many huge companies — Twitter, Dropbox, even “traditional” firms like HSBC — don’t see things the same way. Although our own corporate style may not change so much, our market offering may need to adapt permanently to reflect a more remote-based global working culture.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Michael Hollauf: We use our own tools a lot. MeisterTask is perfect for teams who work remotely: we reduce pressure on online meetings by keeping as much information — task descriptions, checklist items, comments, attachments, etc. — as central as possible to the task itself. This helps keep everyone in the loop without the need to sit in video calls all day.
We’ve also recently restructured the team to accommodate growth. As much as we enjoy our special startup vibe at Meister, the reality is that as we head towards a three-figure employee count, a certain amount of “growing up” is required to maintain efficiency and long-term success. We’re defining processes better, splitting the group up into smaller, more dynamic teams, and distributing responsibilities more evenly across the more experienced team members. Of course, these changes may have been necessary with or without the pandemic, but the unique strains of remote work make clarity and efficiency absolutely essential to getting things done.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Michael Hollauf: We have different competitors for each product we make. For MindMeister, the question is quite complex: our tool is one of just a few dedicated online mind mapping platforms (others like XMind do exist) but many other providers, like Miro, integrate some sort of mind mapping capability into a broader product.
Task and project management, as a software type, is a little more “mainstream” — most companies employ some sort of digital method for handling the workload. This means that the potential market is enormous and, consequently, that the competition is vast. The principle applies both for “hardcore” solutions like Jira or “lighter” tool types, like Asana, Monday.com, and Trello. The latter is more similar to MeisterTask in their look, feel, and functionality, and we target many of the same market segments.
Obviously, a good few of these competitors are considerably bigger than us, can access substantial marketing budgets, and have more aggressive investment models than our own, spend-what-we-earn strategy. Despite the challenges, I don’t personally feel like these factors matter as much to gain an advantage as vision and a positive attitude in the team. How we stay in the game and get ahead is by continually improving our products: producing the most intuitive, best-designed tools on each market we access.
Another part of our strategy is to create tools that can be used in conjunction with one another. We don’t see our tools as standalone, they integrate with each other to provide value to the user at each point in the workflow. For example, many of our customers use MindMeister to brainstorm and create project plans, then MeisterTask in order to implement these, aided by the smooth integration between the tools. The next addition to the Suite will further increase our range, but you’ll have to push me for the details closer to the time!
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