Taking Back Control of Your Time by Centralizing All Your Tasks - Startup Stories with Julien Quintard
Anton Oparienko (COO, Upsilon): Today, I'm pleased to have Julien Quintard with me, the co-founder and CEO of Routine, the managing director of Techstars, and the founder of Infinit. Julien, tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get that interested in entrepreneurship?
Julien Quintard (Co-founder and CEO, Routine): Originally I'm more of a software engineer. I was doing this for quite some time, leading me to large-scale decentralized systems, which are now very popular because of blockchain, Bitcoin, etc. It was my passion, and I decided to get a PhD connected to designing and building a large-scale decentralized data storage system. It appeared that it had nothing to do with making real stuff for real people but more about researching and finding solutions to study specific problems. It wasn't for me because I'm a builder. I like to solve concrete problems. And I thought I could use this technology and build a company out of it even though I knew nothing about starting a business.
Anton: Do you think it would be possible to build two successful products without this academic background?
Julien: It wasn't necessary. But I think I wouldn't have been able to create Infinit, a company doing large-scale decentralized data storage, because the basic technology in science was too complicated to acquire without doing a PhD or doing a lot of reading and research. And it is one of the problems in the community of Web3. A lot of people don't understand the basic science behind just on a large scale, but that's another topic. But yeah, the PhD helped me develop that technology, but I don't think it helped me become an entrepreneur because I didn't really learn anything. At the end of my PhD, I was invited to the business school at Cambridge to do a five-day entrepreneurship program. And that was the first step in my journey. It required a lot of work to enter a new domain like entrepreneurship and discover all the problems and pure research areas. Though, in general, it's not necessary.
Anton: What were you working on after selling Infinit to Docker?
Julien: I sold Infinit to Docker in 2016 and continued working on the product. After a year and a half, I decided to move in and try something new, not connected to the DevOps environment. I was about to go on a yearly world tour, but seven days before leaving Techstars, an accelerator from the US, reached out to me and offered me a job. I needed to manage their funds and accelerator in Paris. Firstly, I wanted to decline the offer and help them find someone. But after all, I decided to cancel my holidays and take the job.
Anton: Do you think it was a good decision?
Julien: Yes, for different reasons. Experience is among them. I would say it is one of the best jobs you can probably hope for because you get to hang out with entrepreneurs and learn a lot from them. I don't regret it, but again, looping back to my PhD, I'm more of a builder. I like to build products and solve problems, and advising entrepreneurs, even though it is very satisfying, it's not who I am. I can't do that all day long, like sitting in a chair and giving advice. So, it was a great experience, but probably not for me to make a career in that.
Anton: Let's talk more about Routine. It was pretty risky to enter such a competitive market of productivity apps. Were you completely confident about your idea, or you had some doubts?
Julien: Yes, it's very competitive. At the same time, most of the competition is in the collaborative space. Companies like Asana, Notion, all of those are fighting for the collaborative space. We decided to position ourselves more as an individual tool, more about your personal time and work. The calendar is something very, very personal. And so that's how we position ourselves as the modern calendar for professionals by busy professionals. It is slightly different, less competitive, even though there is competition.
But also, I just think that this space is to be revolutionized because nothing is really happening. People are still using calendars like Google Calendar or Outlook calendar. It doesn't make any sense. We can do better than that. It doesn't take crazy AI to create a better experience that really supercharges your productivity. And by this, I don't mean you to become a robot and work 10 hours a day. I'm more thinking of putting some intelligence for you to spend less time working or less time doing stupid things and actually more time enjoying your life. That's our mission.
Anton: What are the key three features that make Routine the best productivity app?
Julien: First, we decided to combine calendars, tasks, and notes. We did this because when you schedule meetings, you do it through your calendar, and so your meetings end up in your calendar. So it's very clearly stated when you are in a meeting. And so which times are not available as opposed to your tasks, which live in another system. It could be anywhere, but it's usually not in your calendar, which means that there is an in-between the importance of your meetings as opposed to your tasks. And so what happens is that people define objectives at the beginning of the week. They don't reach their objectives at the end of the week because they actually filled up their calendar with meetings.
The market has been fragmented between to-do lists like Todoist on one side and note-taking apps like Evernote on the other. And you've got everything that is treated as a to-do list and everything connected to notes, you can have a layout there, but you don't have any task management functionalities. So either you use two tools or a single one, but you don't get the benefit from the other one. We think that it just doesn't make sense. It should be one tool for your data. You put it, and if it is an actionable item, you benefit from task management functionalities. Otherwise, it's notes. So the first aspect is to combine these three elements because they're all in.
The second aspect is that your work is scattered. Work lives in the project management tools because you work within the team, but you also have requests coming from chat. It could be Slack, could be WhatsApp. Also, you receive emails that contain some actionable items as well. So basically what we tend to say is that you cannot plan what you do not see. And if you don't have an overview of all of that work, there is no way you can effectively plan your week. We bring all that stuff in Routine next to your calendar. Now you can plan everything that is in your life.
The third element would be intelligence. You could have two events back to back, two meetings at different physical locations, that's fine, the tool doesn't really care. Tools are completely oblivious to what is happening in your life and even to the basic logic of moving from one physical location to another. And again, it's not rocket science, but that would help a lot if a calendar were to do the heavy lifting for you so that you don't end up in a just impossible position. So that's the third element is what we call a productivity assistant, a tool that works for you, not against you.
Anton: Potentially, Routine's audience can be huge. But who are the first users? Are they primarily individuals, small teams, or larger businesses?
Julien: Yeah, 70% of our users are professionals. It could be anyone working in a company, could be a freelancer, it could be an entrepreneur. Our target audience is managers because their calendars can become very chaotic when managing people. When you're not managing people, what happens is that you have what we call a hacker schedule, which is that at the beginning of the day, you continue what you were doing the day before. So there is not so much chaos in your life. You could have chaos in your personal life. Let's say you have a newborn or something like this, then it becomes chaotic, but it's much easier to manage than when you manage other human beings.
That's why the manager is our ideal target because those people have meetings to schedule, and they need to take notes to report to their boss as well. So it becomes a lot. You probably need to manage projects. You have personal tasks that you need to do as well. So you've got to find the balance between helping the people you manage but also doing your own stuff. And so that's where it becomes very, very complicated, and you need to manage your tasks really well.
We do have a lot of students as well, which was surprising at first. We have almost 30% of students, and we found out that after professionals, students use calendars the most because they have classes, have various precise deadlines and also want to take notes in their classes. So that's why it makes sense as well for them. We don't see them as clients because they would probably not pay us. But it's still very interesting to know that they have real problems.
Anton: In the previous interviews and even during our talk, you emphasized the importance of user research. What methodologies and approaches to user research work for you best?
Julien: I started my user research when I was still working at Techstars. Routine came out of couch sessions I had with the entrepreneurs. They were asking me questions about how to better organize themselves, what are the methodologies or the techniques that experienced entrepreneurs have put in place over the years. And I started answering those questions. Then I started putting together a presentation and thinking about what would be the modern version of the productivity tools we have today. That's how I came up with Routine. I started researching how those 20 people I am working with organize themselves. Later, I interviewed even more entrepreneurs about the tools they use, their pains and needs. You should not look for a solution, you're here to look for a problem to solve.
So, I had a lot of interviews, a lot of time being spent talking to people, which I continue to do today. If I can get on the call with our users, I am trying to understand what is missing, why they churn, etc.
Anton: You already integrate with many essential tools (Google Calendar, Slack, Notion, etc.) What are other integrations coming soon that will make the workflow in Routine even smoother?
Julien: We cover a large spectrum of integrations. One is that users use those tools for their work which is happening there. As I mentioned, one of our key objectives at Routine is to bring that work for you in Routine where you can plan it. It doesn't mean that Routine is supposed to replace those tools. Quite the contrary, it compliments them. What I mean is that some of our users, for instance, want to see the content of their Notion pages in Routine. That's not gonna happen because we're not trying to replace Notion or we're not building only on top of Notion. Notion is a partner work and collaboration takes place in Notion. It's a great tool. But it's impossible for you to plan effectively your work in Notion, because, firstly, you don't have a clear integration with your calendar. And secondly, because not all of your work is in Notion. And so we need to do this with Slack, JIRA, GitHub, GitLab, and so on. So a lot of tools that we need to cover and we'll do this. We already have almost a dozen integrations we need to develop.
The second reason is the transition to Routine, because most of the time you have a lot of data in existing tools. Maybe you are using Todoist today or Apple Notes and you are thinking, I'd like to make a transition to Routine and I need to bring all of my existing data with me. If the tool could do that automatically, it would be a lot easier. So yes, that's some why we need to develop integrations to ease the process of transitioning to Routine.
Anton: We saw on your website that Routine has a wait list already. Is it a marketing trick to get more attention, a part of MVP testing or you kind of restrict your user base to get more out of it? When do you plan to finish the Beta testing and launch it for everyone?
Julien: It was not a marketing trick. We put the waiting list in place because we only supported macOS and Google Calendar when we started. Then we launched Windows, which opened the waiting list to more people. For now, Android is not supported. If you subscribe to a waiting list and say that you use only Android, then we can't send you an invitation because Android is unavailable. Likewise, if you subscribe to a waiting list and you say that you're using Apple Calendar, we can't send you an invitation because we don't support Apple Calendar.
So my point is that the waiting list was first and foremost introduced not to create frustration because we didn't support all the platforms or all the calendars providers. Now we also integrated a mechanism, which was the marketing part of it, which works very well. I think 43% of our users come from referrals.
I guess we will be able to get out of the waiting list and open it up to everybody when Routine becomes mature enough and we support all the platforms. Maybe it will be next year.
Anton: Who is your role model among entrepreneurs?
Julien: I would say that I don't have an idol, but I do respect some human beings more than others in other fields. For instance, I'm a tennis player and I have a lot of respect for Federer and Nadal because they have very different natures, but they have a lot of respect for each other in the game. And this humility to me is quite extraordinarily given the amount of money that flows in that game. That's something I respect a lot, but I wouldn't be saying that those are my idols in entrepreneurship.
Anton: What advice would you give young entrepreneurs who are just in the beginning of their journey?
Julien: I would say there are two things. The first one is passion and managing your energy, which are very much related. Most people nowadays are going into entrepreneurship because it's shiny, it feels cool to be an entrepreneur and maybe to raise a few million dollars. But actually what you do on a daily basis as an entrepreneur is managing and solving problems. You're trying to find the solution quickly with as little information, time, and resources as possible. It's really complicated. Not shiny at all.
The related thing is going to entrepreneurship only if you are passionate about a problem or a subject topic because it's going to be a marathon which means that it's going to take maybe 5, 10 years for you to succeed or even to fail. And if you're not passionate, you will stop because it's just impossible to do this if you don't have faith in what you do.
It brings me to my second point, which is perseverance. You've got to be persistent until the end. And that goes with the first point: if you don't believe in yourself or what you're trying to do, you will end up facing many reasons to stop.
For example, when I raised capital a year and a half ago, I talked to more than 150 investors, and only 10 said yes. I had 140 rejects. If you're incapable of taking those nos and still believe in yourself, it will be too hard for you. But remember that nobody knows. Nobody knows yourself. Some people can believe, but if someone tells you there's no way your business works, just remember that nobody knows. But again, you've got to be strong, believe in yourself, and continue doing. So perseverance to me is the one trait that is going to make the difference between someone who succeeds and someone who doesn't.
Anton: Thank you, Julien, for sharing your story. And thank you for this exciting conversation!