Our product's journey, from Day 1 to now, told in pictures.

I wrote about Netflix back in 2020 and started off the post with this:

Every startup has a crisp, neat origin story. The one Reed Hastings tells of Netflix goes like this: He gets slapped with a $40 fine by Blockbuster for his late Apollo 13 rental. Annoyed by the crappy service, he thinks as every founder struck with an idea does, there’s got to be a better way. Netflix, a content behemoth, employs the power of narrative to draw its audience of talent, partners, and investors. But in truth, it was never clear in the beginning that Netflix was a good idea. The history of the video-streaming platform holds unfamiliar characters, complicated storylines, and a bit more mess than the edited final cut.‌

Just as we’re prepping for the launch of Clew 2.0, our biggest update ever, we thought it’d be fun to showcase a bit of our mess. 🤷 Clew might be in its early days. Even still, we want to be mindful of the story taking form in our brief history thus far. What better way than with a recap of all the twists and turns our product has taken? Hopefully it’ll tell a story, not of how we have everything sorted, but of the mapless, messy journey ahead of anyone building anything. So here’s how it began...

Clew started from Alcamy — an edtech product we worked on while in undergrad.

Alcamy let a community of users aggregate web content and create curated courses on topics they cared about to share with others. We described it to people as a mashup of Reddit, Coursera, and Wikipedia. 😅

The core product was a web app but we’d built a mobile version called DIP that presented courses in a quick, digestible format. At the time, we wanted to up engagement and encourage users to build a habit of exploring topics.

We wrote down what we cared about, in the order we cared about them. But there was no denying we had a monetization problem. This was around the end of our third year in university. Udara and I knew we wanted to work on something together after graduating, but was Alcamy going to be it?

We let ourselves explore some other ideas and problems that seemed interesting.

This was the earliest mockup of Clew. Rather than organizing web content for self-learners, we thought, what if we just organize company information for employees? It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time on paper, given there was a clear path to monetization, but it led us wandering around a vague problem space for a while.

At the same time, we were tinkering with another idea. Tobi at Shopify had a problem with his inbox and wanted something that would let him better delegate his emails. For once, it looked like there was a problem at least someone was willing to pay to have solved.

But honestly, we weren’t that excited by email. We didn’t have a strong opinion about it, or a strong vision of what we thought the experience should be. Was this something we wanted to work on for the coming years? 🤔

Meanwhile, something kept pulling us toward Clew. Organizing knowledge around work was a complicated problem and one we were happy to toil our brains over. This was our earliest version.

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We showed people.

And we showed more people.

But when we got the product in the hands of users, they didn’t actually seem to want anymore what they claimed to have wanted. Weird. 

This was one of those moments where we realized the very obvious advice of “build something people want” is simple, but hard.

We noticed though, users were interested in the tiny search bar at the top-right of the page that let them search across multiple tools at once.

And this led us to the version of Clew centered around search. We described it as “Spotlight Search, for all your cloud apps.” Here’s what it first looked like:

Here’s when we got our first integration working. 🙀

And sometimes, you just need a feel-good corny thing in there.

We updated our landing page. Tbh, still proud of the name puns on the app (this was when Toronto won the 2019 NBA Finals).

We launched the app publicly and got more people trying it. It felt great to talk to real strangers who used Clew. We kept making improvements.

We sped up our search. Built new integrations. Added collaborative features.

We got paying customers! That was a great day.

But standalone search wasn’t enough.

We had to find more ways to make Clew useful to users.

It took a lot of experimenting. Trial and error. Talking to users (which is another piece of advice that’s simple but hard). This is what the app looked like as of October 2020.

What a before and after it’s been for Clew this past 2020.

And what a before and after will it be for Clew in 2021…

Until the next recap, you can keep up with us on Twitter. ✌️