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Introducing, Braintrust, my bootstrapped lean startup

I think an introduction to Braintrust in this blog is long overdue. While I’ve been writing a ton of blog entries about Tout (the web-app I built in 3 days), I wasn’t quite ready to officially introduce Braintrust up until now.

What is Braintrust?

First, let me explain the problem Braintrust tries to solve. I believe there is a magic spot between group e-mail collaboration and real-time chat. Historically, this has been filled by mailing lists and discussion forums, both of which now pale in comparison when it comes to the Web 2.0 user experience we demand from our tools.

Today, there are a handful of products trying to fill this void, trying to bridge the gap between e-mail and chat, keeping the organizational benefits of discussion forums, and introducing the snazziness of social networks, comments, and news feeds. Google Wave, SocialWok, and some others are examples of this space, and now, so is Braintrust. To be clear, Braintrust is not trying to be everything Google Wave is, it is simply trying to solve the same problem through my own vision of how the problem can be solved.

Simply put, Braintrust is a social collaboration tool that helps groups organize their conversations. I built Braintrust by combining the timeless elements of a traditional discussion forum and innovative features from popular social networks. Braintrust is hosted in the cloud, works in real-time, and provided as a SaaS offering.

For the impatient, here is a quick demo of how Braintrust works:

Why is Braintrust a lean startup?

First of all, up until a month or so ago, I never paid attention to the lean startup movement. After hearing/reading a lot about it, it just so turned out that my principles around starting a business by and large matched up to a lot of the practices that lean suggests. But, when looked at through the lens of lean, there are a lot of interesting observations.

When I started out with my idea for Braintrust, it wasn’t called Braintrust, and it didn’t look much like what Braintrust is today. As Steve Jobs said in his Stanford commencement speech, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” The Braintrust you see today is the result of atleast 3 major pivots (along with a number of smaller “recalibrations”) and a fair amount of customer development.

  1. My idea for Braintrust first started as a crowdsourcing tool where people could ask a question and have structured discussions (read: Q&A) on the best answer. I called it Recommnd. I pivoted away from this idea because a) UserVoice nailed it and b) I realized that I didn’t believe in crowdsourcing, I really just wanted to get the opinion of a select few that I trust.

  2. So my idea of Recommnd morphed into “Ask My Braintrust” — the idea was to take the interface I designed for crowdsourcing and apply it to a private set of “advisors” — a Braintrust if you will. While doing customer development around this product, I kept failing to reach “product market fit” — people loved the idea, but no one had a ready made group of advisors that they could tap into to create a Braintrust. And for the small number of people that did, the market just wasn’t big enough or wasn’t exciting enough. The best piece of advice I got during this phase was “You’re going after people and trying to convince them to create a group and then use your product… why not go after people that are already in a group?”

  3. And so, that lead to my third pivot. Instead of focusing on “advisors,” I focused on teams (a.k.a. existing groups). Also, instead of just trying to appeal to all kind of groups (e.g. families, social groups, communities), I decided to narrow my focus as well (this was one of the smaller re-calibrations).

  4. I don’t think I’m fully there yet, but I think I’ve reached a point with enough people loving the Braintrust product that I want to get it out to a larger audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are going to be a few more pivots in the path ahead, but I think the core product is by and large there.

The development of Braintrust has been lean as well. I did most of the development myself and used contractors when I could. With the size of Braintrust, and all of its moving pieces, it literally would have been impossible to build something like this without the use of open source and the common services on the cloud. So here goes the shoutouts:

  1. If it wasn’t obvious already, I’m a total Rails fanboy. Without Ruby on Rails, I don’t think I would be in the web business, and Braintrust almost certainly would not exist.

  2. Braintrust is hosted on EC2. Because it uses XMPP, ActiveMQ and ActiveMessaging to deliver the real-time features, going with Heroku like I did with Tout was not an option.

  3. Being a single founder, I didn’t want to risk wasting time on OPS, so I wanted to automate as much of my infrastructure configuration as possible. So I used Chef and Capistrano for infrastructure setup, packaging and deployments. Everything is automated. “chef-solo and cap production deploy” — you still rock my world.

  4. Not to boast or anything, but Braintrust has a ridiculously sick UI and User Experience. I mean it, but I can’t take credit for all of it. If it wasn’t for the AMAZING jQuery library and the even more amazing plugin development community, I’d never be able to get Braintrust to auto-expand text boxes, automatically embed Youtube videos using oEmbed, or show growl-like real-time notifications.

  5. I think special recognition also goes to the open-source community (and the magic of Github) in general, which lets not-so-talented developers like me bring my ideas to life. I really want to make it a goal to give back, I’m just afraid of whether the OS community is ready for my terrible coding skills. If I had to spend time writing G-Mail address book imports, or messaging libraries, Braintrust would never have come to market.

I think the last thing I want to mention is that lot of people think being lean means not having a vision. This wasn’t the case with Braintrust. Through customer development and pivoting, there were numerous times I could’ve slapped on a ToDo list to Braintrust and turned it into a project management tool and called it a day (otherwise known as Product-Market-Fit) — because that is what the people I was talking to were asking for. But, I stuck with my vision and my goal, that this would be a tool around conversation management and not about project management. I still don’t know for sure whether this was the right move, but helping people communicate better is what excites me, and so I stuck with that goal and to this day still continue to find a better product-market-fit. I have this vision, and I’m sticking to it.

So…what’s next?

Well, I’m still bootstrapped, but I’ve given my resignation at my day job to work on this full time. Whether I go in for angel funding or whether I keep bootstrapping this while doing consulting on the side is still unknown. It really depends on how much $$$ Braintrust starts generating with the PR and Marketing push I’m kicking off with this blog entry. That and the apetite for risk my wife OKs.

Ideally, I would like Braintrust to get a decent number of paying customers so that I can build out my team. There are so many more ideas I have to move Braintrust forward, but I don’t want to continue development at this point until I see whether this thing can truly fly at the level I need it to.

In Conclusion

Wow, what a ride. I’m excited, I’m jazzed, and I’m scared shitless. But, I need your help. No really, I do. Please go to Braintrust and set up a FREE account and give it a try. Then, email me and give me your honest, brutal, unfiltered feedback.

Also, please RT this article and help me spread the word. Countless hours have gone into this, I truly and deeply care about this, and I really want it to succeed.

Thank you for reading.

  • I can’t remember the last time that I actually left a comment somewhere, but am doing so to let you that while I haven’t used it yeah, this looks awesome, and I will definitely put it through the testing that it deserves. Great work, hope to see more of this from you in the future!

    • Thanks for your kind words Brian!

  • Amit

    You look really good web developer. Your advice on tools you used for building this site is very helpful. Tout in 3 days. awesome. But don’t want to try out your website. I did not get unique selling point. And how come is it not one more way to keep track even though you say it is not.

  • aj

    Sadly, I’m in no position to have a use for this project, yet. But I must say, it’s beautiful, well designed, and definitely well thought out. Bravo! I look forward to using it in the future!

  • roob

    The first impression I got when I visited the site was that you seem to have almost entirely copied the 37signals design. This does not leave a professional impression of your web app, where I’m potentially putting sensitive data in. I think it’s a major drawback. Don’t copy.

  • Ben

    ^ I don’t know how many times I’ve read that 37 signals comment about various sites. Is it the same guy or do people really think that they own the patent on gradients and curved edges?

    BrainTrust looks really well thought out – the Facebook Wall and Twitter communication models have much potential in business. Will definitely check it out next time I need something like this.

    One thing – as it’s slightly hard to communicate the USP and ‘what Braintrust is’, maybe have a trial I can use without signing up? I’m really reaching my limit in terms of sign up forms, logins, passwords etc and I need to a push nowadays to make me fill one in. May just be me though.

  • justin

    is there a typo in the second line of the “about braintrust”?

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  • exciting stuff man! did you see braintrust. com is for sale? im gonna try your product now will let you know what i think of it!

  • My very first thought is that you don’t have your “See Plans and Pricing” anywhere above the fold. It looks like it would fit nicely in your little call out below the red text. Perhaps consider doing some A/B testing while moving that button around.

  • You might see Google Wave and SocialWok as comparative apps. But the P2 WordPress Theme is pretty much your “vision”.

  • @Ben, thats great feedback, I’ve set up a sample braintrust that you can check out with 1-click. See http://braintrust.io/demo.

    @justin, yes, there was a typo. I’ve fixed it 🙂

    @jeff, yeah thats exactly what I’m doing. Good job.

    @diederik, They want 7 figures. I can’t afford that.

    @Corey, thanks for the feedback. I’ve tweaked the page based on your advice.

    @brad, P2 is close to what Braintrust looks like, but there is a lot more that goes into making this effective — (e.g. how to send effective email digests, the tools around it to make people coming back, the real-time aspects and how notifications show up, and most importantly, how you can set this up and get it up and running without having to installing/setting up/downloading anything)

  • Make that demo link above public (button on front page?). I setup an account not realizing I’d need a group of people to test the utility.

    Also, kissInsights probably shouldn’t popup for 1st time users. It’s too early to do anything but close it.

  • @brad really? theres no negotiating? because when i bought: http://www.mditv.com they wanted 7 too and then in the end we bought it for 1000 bucks…

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