Interview with David Clay Smith (ThetaBoard)
ThetaBoard is a collaborative project management tool.
I interviewed David Clay Smith, ThetaBoard founder to find out more. This is the hundred and sixty fourth in a series of DW startup interviews. Big thank you to David!
Describe ThetaBoard in under 50 words.
Thetaboard is a web-based application that allows organizations to collaborate on projects in real-time. Users create boards containing tasks or “cards” which are then grouped into columns. Cards can be enriched with comments, checklists, color-coded labels, images and files. All changes are reflected in your teamates’ boards in real-time.
Tell us a bit about your background. What made you decide to start working on ThetaBoard?
I’ve been developing web applications for fifteen years and have never stuck with any single project management tool for more than a few months at a time. I always felt like they were bloated with features I wasn’t using or they would force me to adopt a workflow that they defined. There were a few tools that came close (mainly kanban tools) but even those applications were a little too strict for my tastes. ThetaBoard is my attempt to find the sweetspot between simple and powerful.
There are many web-based project management tools out there. What advantage does ThetaBoard have over its competitors?
I’ve placed a big emphasis on simplicity and configurability. There is a very minimal set of features at ThetaBoard’s core–boards, columns, cards and users–any additional features can be toggled on or off to suit your project management workflow. I think it’s important that a project management tool provides all of the features you need but isn’t cluttered with features you don’t need. Also, ThetaBoard doesn’t force you to use it in any particular way–no arbitrary limitations or structured workflows–just a simple set of tools you can use how you want.
Has ThetaBoard got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?
Yeah, it’s been exciting. I’ve mainly relied on word of mouth, blogging, and other “free” marketing channels but have been really amazed at the growth. It’s not hockey stick growth but the people who sign up seem to really enjoy it and provide great feedback and suggestions. It started as a tool to scratch my own itch and has grown way bigger than I imagined it would.
What was technically the most challenging part of developing ThetaBoard?
My strength has always been on the server side. Creating a real-time, HTML-based application with a rich UI took me way out of my comfort zone. I leaned heavily on libraries like backbone.js, JQuery, and socket.io to do the heavy lifting but it took several rounds of refactoring to find a maintainable, extensible pattern that could support the realtime updates.
How long did it take to put together ThetaBoard?
I started working on ThetaBoard in the Summer of 2011 and would use it to manage personal projects. In March of 2012 I showed it to some friends and got a good response so I decided to dedicate more time to it. Over the last year I have redesigned the UI, added real-time synchronization, and began adding new features every couple weeks.
Do you have any new features in the pipeline?
Definitely, but I want to make sure they don’t threaten ThetaBoard’s simplicity. It’s easy to take new features and duck tape them on with popup windows and nested drop down menus but I want to keep the UI as streamlined as possible. Sometimes that will mean leaving features out but usually, it just means taking the time to do it right.
Where do you see ThetaBoard in 5 years time?
Much the same on the surface–a simple tool that can be configured to fit your needs. In five years, I imagine the list of optional features will have grown considerably for those who wish to use them. In 2013 I hope to add a mobile version (either native apps or an HTML5 version) and a public API so people can start integrating ThetaBoard with their own apps.
What’s the start up scene like in Ireland?
It’s awesome. There are a ton of big tech companies who have a presence in Ireland, a bunch of startups doing really innovative things, and the government seems to be really supportive of the tech community. Over the last year or so I’ve gotten more involved in local meetups and conferences and the number and quality of people who attend these things is really impressive. London and Berlin seem to get a lot of press but Dublin is right up there I think.
What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?
Working on ThetaBoard by myself has meant constantly juggling programming and marketing. Some weeks I’ll get really stuck into product development but that means less time for blogging or looking into other marketing channels. Other weeks I’ll change hats and see what I can do to drum up traffic or improve conversion leaving the product alone. It’s been hard finding a good balance between the two.
Which entrepreneurs do you most admire?
There are a couple of Irish entrepreneurs that are doing really impressive things. The Collison brothers from Limerick left Ireland, went to MIT, sold their startup Auctomatic and then founded the payments company Stripe (which is awesome). It would be a great life’s work except they are 24 and don’t appear to be letting up.
There is another young guy from Dublin named James Whelton who co-founded an organization called CoderDojo which helps get children and students interested in programming. It’s pretty amazing for someone so young to be giving back in such a big way.
What one piece of advice would you give to budding startup founders out there?
Make sure you enjoy building things and growing things. If you place too much importance on getting rich or living some sort of “startup lifestyle” then the inevitable bumps in the road will really hurt. If you are passionate about the product and making it better, I think you’ll find it easier to weather the tough times.
Can you convince the reader to start using ThetaBoard in under 100 words?
No, not all of them. I feel everyone has an idea of what the ideal project management tool would be for them. It’s one reason so many developers like me choose to write their own project management tools. Unfortunately what’s good for one person is rarely good for another. ThetaBoard aspires to stay out of the way–providing a basic set of tools and letting people use them how they choose. If you’ve ever stopped using a project management tool because it was too rigid or was cluttered with unused features–give us a try.
Finished reading? Check out ThetaBoard!