When he meets people who have never seen his product, it’s tricky for Trello’s CEO, Michael Pryor, to describe what makes it different from other project-management tools. “What I usually end up doing is saying, ‘Well, what do you do? What is your job?’ And then I give them an example that works for them in their particular life.”
What defines Trello, in part, is its utter lack of specialization. The product, which Pryor describes as a new “document type” like a PowerPoint presentation or a Word document, is basically a set of lists. Each item in each list is a card that can be moved, and on each card’s back users can add teammates, comments, attachments, due dates, and checklists. The back of a card labeled with a job candidate’s name, for instance, might include notes from the interview and contact information.
Trello is a tool for planning weddings. Managing sales pipelines. Cataloging recipes. Tracking job candidates. Coordinating online marketing campaigns. And, in its most basic incarnation, making a simple to-do list.
It was created in 2011 by a team at Fog Creek Software, a company that makes apps specifically for developers, and is inspired by a facet of a common software project management strategy in which developers move tasks written on post-it notes between columns like “backlog,” “waiting,” “working,” and “done.” Gobs of software management tools have adopted this same concept, which is based on a system that Toyota developed in the 1950s called Kanban.
Trello’s biggest differentiator is making it general. Not just “project management” general, which similar tools like Asana and Basecamp and Wrike accomplish admirably. But rather “everyone-and-their mother can use it for anything” general. Boards aren’t necessarily “projects,” cards aren’t necessarily “tasks” and collaborators aren’t necessarily “teams.”
At times, this approach backfires. A jack of all trades is a master of none, and products aren’t any different. Users have complained Trello doesn’t have features they need to, for instance, track software bugs. Others malign its simplicity. “Why aren’t there time reports or integration with CRM?” asks one critic. “Trello is great for tracking high-level information about projects, but it’s kind of lousy at tracking low-level details and individual tasks,” concludes another.
But this generalness also fits blissfully into Trello’s business strategy. “What we’re trying to do is build a product that has 100 million users, of which 1% are paying us $100 a year,” Pryor says. “Everything we do is motivated by the fact that the only way Trello is going to be successful is if 100 million people sign up.”
Here’s the philosophy: A general, simple tool is easy to pass on, which means more people use it, which means more people pay the $5 per user per month for premium features. “Trello might be picked up by a development team at a company,” says Pryor. “And then what happens is the marketing team starts using it, the sales team starts using it, and the CEO starts using it to talk to those different teams. And they’re planning their holiday party using it.”
By last summer, Trello, then still part of Fog Creek Software, had signed up 4.5 million users, and Fog Creek decided to make Trello its own company in July. The new startup named Pryor, who co-founded Fog Creek, as CEO, and raised $10.3 million in funding at the same time.
Since then, about 6 million people have signed up for Trello.
Only 94 million more to go.