The keys to Trello’s incredible growth

Iconic Products episode 001

In this Iconic Products series, we’ll investigate why and how famous products reached for the stars. 🔭

For the first episode, we’re looking into a very special product: Trello.

Trello has a massive user base of about 25 million users, which they acquired with very little marketing and almost zero advertising. Crazy, right? 😵

Wondering how they did that?

They just set out a big vision and went for it. Like a boss. 💪

Trello’s vision: building a product for 100M users

From the start, Trello’s team dreamed of a product that 100 million people can use.

That’s 1 million x 100. ⚡

While setting that big hairy audacious goal, they figured that there’s no product 100 million people will pay for… so they opted for a freemium model.

Their take: if only 1% of the 100 million people pays them $100 per year, they still end up with a $100 million business. 🤑 The other 99% of the user base drive the marketing of the app to new people.

I hear you thinking: why would this 1% pay them, if all the others use Trello for free? 😏

Well, over time, Trello introduced different smart plans for those who don’t mind paying:

  • Trello Gold 🎖: a subscription for the super fans who want to pay for their favorite app, with custom board backgrounds and other fun stuff
  • Trello Business Class 👔 & Enterprise 🏢: subscriptions for larger companies who don’t mind to pay for business features

Cool, that should work 😎

Now we just need to get these 100 million people on board. 😅

To achieve that, Trello decided to focus on three key things:

  1. They set out to make their app super easy to start and keep using it.
  2. They made a horizontal solution for all humans, not focused on any group or application in particular.
  3. They made the world their market, instead of only the US. Trello is now available in 20+ languages. 🌍

Let’s see how that works. 👇

Trello makes planning easy and fun

Trello is built for people. 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦

Recognizable concepts and zero learning curve.

The software is built to match a metaphor that everyone gets: post-its or cards on boards. It’s just like sticking post-its to your fridge or to the office wall.

… or to your face. 😂

To avoid complexity and any learning curve, the app deliberately avoids abstract concepts. No brainfarts.

Cards have a title on the front. You can also stick some colored stickers to them to label and categorize. 🏷 On the back you can keep a checklist, start a conversation by writing comments, …

You can immediately get how the app works. 👇

Many competing apps allow you to create lists of lists. Lists are nice, but they are not visual and definitely not fun. 😜

Trello instead allows you to create columns of cards, which makes organizing your things much more tangible.

Trello actually takes an experience that isn’t super exciting — planning — and makes it fun. 🕺

The team understands that an app’s features can be copied, but emotions and feelings surrounding an app can not be.

Trello’s color, the husky dog, the tactile nature of dragging the cards… are all aspects Trello has spent an inordinate amount of time on to optimize them.

Now, easy and fun is cool, but what if you are looking for something a bit more advanced and specific?

To solve this, the Trello team decided to offer power-ups such as time tracking. ⚡ These are advanced features that you can turn on and off selectively.

Look at all these possibilities. 😍

Trello is built for everyone

If you want to build a tool that 100 million people can use, you can’t just build for developers, sales people, or recruiters.

You need to build a tool for humans. 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦

Trello gives structure to any process you’re working on.

It’s agnostic about data structure and content, much like a grid in Excel, a document in Word, or slides in PowerPoint.

All these apps match a real life concept that leaves a lot of space for creative use.

The cards in Trello are flexible post-its. They are not just tasks. They are whatever you want them to be. You can let your imagination go wild! 😀

At some point, when you entered Trello, the columns had pre-set column names: ‘to do’, ‘doing’, and ‘done’. That seems like a logical thing to do, right? 😊

This however implied that Trello was a to do list. This limited Trello’s potential. The team therefore decided to remove these column names again.

Also, the early adopters of Trello were mainly developers. The team had to ignore many feature requests that were aimed at facilitating the development process.

The Trello team consciously decides not to focus on individual feature requests. They wait instead until they see trends in the requests, look for the workflow behind the requests, identify the pain point in that workflow, and aim to solve this in a generic way. ⚙

At some point however, they made a mistake. They put up a board where people could vote on features. Again, seems like a logical thing to do…

It however created unnecessary stress between Trello and its users, as the fact that a feature had many votes did not necessarily mean that these features were aligned with Trello’s vision. 👀

The Trello team doesn’t consider users good product designers who should come up with new features themselves. Instead they choose to really listen to their users and ask questions to find out how they can solve their problems in the best way. Like a doctor making a diagnosis.

here's the doctor now

Trello grows through collaboration

The nice thing about a naturally collaborative product is that it breeds word of mouth. 📣

Trello got some early eyeballs as it was founded by the founders of StackOverflow and FogBugz. Then they got a push from an early Life Hacker article, were featured at TechCrunch Disrupt, … but, from there on, most of the growth has been organic. They have never done any real advertising.

To maximize the word of mouth around Trello, a few things are key:

  • People can add friends and coworkers to their boards
  • Trello gives a month of Trello Gold to people who add others
  • They focus on building a product that people love and recommend

They make people sign up other people. Join the Trello movement. ✊

wolf of wall street guys chanting, 'one of us!'

When people get others to try Trello, the next step is turning that word of mouth into active user growth. 📈 Getting people to really use Trello through a seamless onboarding experience.

Onboarding people who join an existing Trello board proves to be relatively easy. They enter a place that is active already. For the others, “empty board syndrome” is a real issue.

john travolta searching trello

Trello therefore focuses on writing lots of content to inspire new users. They also create sample boards that showcase the app’s endless possibilities.

Mind that, for Trello, sample boards are not meant as templates. They are for inspiration, not to use as a starting point.

Templates don’t make much sense in Trello’s case, as people only need to name a few columns to get started. Changing a sample board is most often more work intensive than creating a new board.

To help people to keep using the software, and to use it as a team, Trello gave a lot of importance early on to building a solid notification system, so you can easily stay up to date on what others do. Moving cards, writing comments, …

When used in a team, Trello is as much a communication tool as it is a planning tool.

This doesn’t only make people invite others. It also keeps people active on Trello.

Trello is on a journey to greatness

The Trello team is always keeping an eye on their long term vision and is taking the journey step by step. 👣

They didn’t go out and raise funding as soon as they could get the cash. Only years after the first VCs offered Trello money, when they were ready to take on the challenge to grow quickly and consistently, the founders raised a series A. 💰

While I mentioned above that Trello internationalized their product and marketing and made it available in 20+ languages, they didn’t do this from the start.

True, merely translating an app is not a lot of work. But it adds complexity and slows down the organization along the way.

They therefore only focused on localization as soon as it started making sense in the growth trajectory of the company.

The Trello team always has their eyes set on the future and they won’t let go off their vision. 👀

They now have around 20-25 million users, and about 1–2 million using the app every day. That means they consider themselves now 20-25% of the way there towards the 100 million. 😏

sherlock holmes

Or like Michael Pryor, Trello’s CEO, said in an interview last year:

We still have a long way to go.
I tell people when they join our company: our mission is to Mars. We’re passing the Moon right now, but it’s a long way. It’s like 4 days to get to the moon and 4 months to get to Mars.
We’re not sitting on the launch pad, we’re just taking off. There’s a lot of risk that’s been removed but there’s so many things and low hanging fruit we need to go after.

Go team Trello! We’re with you. 🚀

easy to use CRM

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Jeroen Corthout
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