Steve Whitfield

The sooner you get something into people’s hands the better

May 12, 2023

You are the creator and founder of Metro Retro. Can you talk about what it is?

Metro Retro is a collaborative whiteboard app optimized for agile software teams, but useful for anyone who wants to work with others online. We have features that you won’t find in other competitors that are focused on streamlining the task of generating and processing ideas as a group. An example of this is our “Topic” tool, that lets you easily and intuitively group sticky notes together in a visual way.

What was the main problem you wanted to fix?

Right now, we are aiming to be the preferred tool for software teams to run their collaborative meetings with. It doesn’t matter whether they are fully bought into scrum, or using a totally bespoke methodology… We aim to be the tool they reach for to capture, structure and process ideas. If you read the agile manifesto, it doesn’t tell you how to work, it provides a philosophy to help you find the best way to work with your team. Our product is the software answer to that philosophy. If you want to run a meeting following a strict pre-made plan, that’s okay. If you want to just make it up as you go, that’s okay too.

On the website you mention how Agile methodology is sometimes just disorganization. What is your take on it, can Agile be taken in all development companies? Do you use it on Metro Retro?

I don’t want to sound like an Agile fanatic (because I’m not), but Agile is a philosophy, not a methodology.  Teams need to find ways of working together that are efficient, productive, and enjoyable for those involved.  The agile manifesto sets out principles that should be the guide for the way of working a team selects.  If a team is disorganized, that’s because they haven’t found their way yet.

Within our company, there is just myself and Jamie day to day, and we have worked together for nearly 10 years across 3 different businesses.  In Metro Retro, we’re operating a way of working that is very lean and very product based.  As we grow our team, that will have to change, as it’s not suitable for more than a handful of people, and that is okay.  Change is how we grow.

How Metro Retro was built? What is the technology behind it?

The very first version of Metro Retro was built in 24 hours as part of a hackathon at a company I was working for at the time.  It was built with React, Node JS (with Socket IO), and Mongo.  We ended up winning the hackathon and it became the foundation of the product we have today.

The original hacked-together version has (mostly) been retired, and now we still run using React and Node JS, but our collaboration tech is bespoke and built using Elixir and the OTP stack.

How did you validate your idea?

It basically validated itself.  After the hackathon, it was left running on a random EC2 instance for around a year.  During that time, I discovered that some people from the hackathon (some who had moved to new companies) were actually using it to run retrospectives.  To be honest, I started working on it again because I felt bad that they were using such a buggy piece of junk!  And once I had started, I didn’t stop…

Did you have an entrepreneurial mindset or just happened because of White Retro

Early in my career, I would not have imagined starting a business.  In the end, it happened through a combination of hard work and luck, which is probably a common story.  The first bit of luck was working at an agency that was highly dysfunctional but with a great client list.  Around 2017, Jamie and I left that agency (with two others) and took their biggest customer with us.  We set up on our own and worked for them directly for 2.5 years (one guy is still working there!).

The money earned from that enterprise is what funded Metro Retro and has enabled us to get to where we are without any outside investment.  The 2nd bit of luck was the pandemic, although it would have been better a little later, it put a rocket under our growth and totally changed everything.  

I think the key is to know when your luck is there and to make sure you grab it with both hands.  Walking out of an employer and essentially stealing their main client was not a risk-free situation for us, it would have been easy to not do it, but in the end, it was the catalyst for everything that has happened since.

What makes you keep going when building? You mentioned that took more time than it should have, how do you motivate yourself to continue?

Because I fucking love coding.  I had this conversation once with someone who was a building architect about the differences between their job and mine.  What I realized during that conversation is that being a programmer is basically like being God.  If you're designing a building, you have to get someone else to actually build it and they are probably going to change a bunch of stuff along the way.  When I design software, I just make it be.  Everything is literally at my fingertips.  When you build a building, if you realize there is a big flaw in the design, it’s kinda too late if it’s already built.  With software, you can build it, and then change it, reshape it, and update it, and there is barely any cost to that apart from time (which I guess is why it took us longer than expected).  Why would you want to do anything else?

Metro Retro was 5th on Product Hunt on the launch day. How did you market it for launch? You already had users at that point?

Yeah, we came 5th on Product Hunt on the day of launch.  It was just me back then.  I had no users, did no marketing, and told nobody.  I got a few regular users almost immediately, and it grew slowly but nicely until March 2020, when everything changed.

How did you get your first customers?

Our first users came from the Product Hunt post.  Our first customers came through conversations with them about what they would pay for.  One of them even approached us with a prioritized backlog of the things they wanted to add to the free version.  

Our approach has been completely product-led.  The product spread through word of mouth and people have bought it because it’s good.  There isn’t really anything else to it.

What is the next step for Metro Retro?

We have a long-term goal to becomethecollaborative canvas/whiteboard app for every team.  There are a number of very large players in the market at the moment that are essentially first-generation products.  They are good, but they will be limited by their size and existing feature set in a way that will make it hard to compete for them as the market evolves.  They are the Skype of this category.  We are planning to be the Zoom.

When Jamie started at Metro Retro, what gap were you looking to fulfill?

Broadly, everything that wasn’t coding or design.  Most urgently though, I needed someone who was experienced in product management to help figure out how to take us from “Free” to “Freemium”.  This would mean things like market research, surveying users, and competitor analysis, all with a view to building a freemium offering and a product roadmap to get us there.  

As mentioned already, I’d worked with Jamie extensively before Metro Retro and knew his skill set would be a good match.  Initially, he was hired as a consultant with a fixed remit to deliver the objectives above, but ultimately this was to see if he would like to work for us and if he would work within the company.

Obviously, it went well as we made him an offer and he is now a co-founder.  He now handles the above items as well as interfacing with customers, and sales and help with app development in areas such as testing and product planning.

What marketing strategies do you use?

To date, we’ve basically spent no money on marketing.  Our free tier and product quality have driven our word-of-mouth spread.  We’ve done a bit of content marketing, but otherwise, it’s all been product led.  There is that old saying, “If you build it, they will come”... I don’t think that is actually true in a lot of situations, but in some it is, and if you are building tools for software people, they like shiny things and they will want to use your product if you make it good enough.  We leaned into that heavily and made the app have enough “wow” that they would want to use it with their colleagues.  Because it’s a collaborative app, you only need to get one person to want to try it to end up with 10+ new people at once, and from there they multiply.

Why you decided to have a free tier on your planning? Did it affect at any point the sales?

I think if you are small and have a limited budget, a free option is a matter of life or death.  This likely depends on the domain, but for our kind of product, it really is that simple.  If you want people to try it, you have to let them do it as easily as possible, and you also need something in there that makes them go “Hey look at this app”.  For us, that was the confetti cannon integrated as a tool in the board.  I’m pretty certain that you can attribute that function in particular to the success we’ve had with word-of-mouth marketing.  It has no actual function, aside from just being fun, but we are lucky enough to be in a product category where being fun is actually a benefit for users, and it worked really well.

Word of advice?

Just ship it.  I heard someone else say this once at a talk, and I think it’s really good advice.  The sooner you get something into people’s hands the better.  It’s also deeply ironic coming from me because I am really bad at it, but I know I need to be better.

Favorite tool and why?

When I started full time on Metro Retro I also made the switch to using Linux as my development operating system.  Previously I’d been working with .NET so had to use Windows.  You need a good six months to get really used to it, but now I feel like I’ve lost an arm when I go back to another OS.  I use the Zorin distribution if anyone is interested.

One book, one person to follow on Twitter, and one music?

I built a crazy amount of Metro Retro (maybe 80%) listening to the mixes of a single fairly unknown DJ called The Scumfrog.  There’s just something about his mixes that are good to work with.  He’s not my favorite artist, but it seems appropriate for this question given his impact on our product.

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