Turning My Love for Productivity Into a Profitable Business

Can you tell us about yourself?

Hi, I'm Malcolm Ocean. I've been a productivity nerd since high school. I remember thinking, "I've probably spent more time reading ZenHabits than I am ever going to recover by being more productive." Well, Complice definitely reversed that trend. But beyond that, I've since realized that all of these productivity techniques actually can generate enormous amounts of value... if you actually use them.

I'm highly interested in figuring out how people work, on every level from motivation and addiction to relationships and communication. Complice is in some ways just one particular piece of that. The central spot is my blog, where I share mental models I've invented around these topics.

What is Complice?

Complice is a system for achieving your personal and professional goals. It looks a lot like a "to-do list" app... and it is, but there are several key differences. Where most to-do list apps focus on dumping a long list of random tasks to do and organizing them, Complice instead starts with "What are you actually trying to achieve? What's important to you?" and then each day prompts you to work on something related to that.

Complice is used by a wide variety of people, but it's particularly valuable for people who have goals that they want to work on self-directedly. This could be a startup or some other technical or artistic project, or it could be something more like writing a PhD thesis or changing fitness or other habits.

You know how you sometimes have this clear sense of what you really care about, but then it's pretty easy to end up just spending your days on... other stuff? This is the phenomenon that Complice fixes. It guides you to be more intentional and helps you prioritize your long-term values even while you have a whirlwind of day-to-day responsibilities.

There are also a variety of other features, from an integrated Pomodoro timer to accountability partners, and weekly/monthly/yearly reviews.

What were things like in the beginning?

When I started Complice two years ago, it was initially just a bunch of my friends paying me to bug them about making progress on their goals. I tried to get them to do a bunch of strategic thinking up front, but they basically didn't — turns out that strategic thinking is very important but very not-urgent, so by default people just won't do it.

So I said, "Just pick some goals!" and I switched focus to the question that Complice still asks now: "What are you doing towards your goals today?" This worked a lot better.

I started out emailing people manually, or queuing up emails using the Boomerang Gmail extension. Then I got a server set up that would do that. The Complice server is still called complicemail in some places, because that was its original role. It wasn't for another month that this server actually received and stored the emails... they were just all going in my inbox at first.

Having this close personal connection with my users at the start was really valuable, because it taught me a lot about what they needed. Ultimately Complice now runs as a web app and I don't have much interaction with most of the users at all, except when they have questions or feedback.

One of my top recommendations if it's at all possible is to charge people from the beginning: ideally get 10 people to literally send you cash for their first month's subscription before you do much work. Message friends and other connections directly rather than setting up a huge sales site, and then gradually automate it with software. (Before you get monthly payments running on your app, you can run them with Moonclerk, which uses Stripe so it's a seamless transition.)

By following the above paragraph, you know that at each step of the way, you're building something that people will pay for, because you have people paying for it. This also forces anyone you talk to for advice to take you more seriously. I was seeking advice from someone who was very skeptical about my value proposition and thought what I was doing didn't make sense, but when I pointed out that I'd been making $100/mo for several months, he realized that the reason my idea didn't make sense to him was that he didn't understand it, not because it was senseless.

How much revenue does Complice generate?

My goal from the beginning was to make enough money to live on, so that I wouldn't have to get a job when I graduated from university (about 1.5mo after I started working on it). Based on past expenses and budgets, I estimated my "poverty threshold" to be about $1000/mo. It took me until some months after graduation to actually hit that figure from software subscriptions, but in the meantime, I had picked up some 1-on-1 productivity coaching clients, which was a very valuable supplement to my income.

I've now grown to about twice that, although I'm still living basically as frugally as before and spending the rest of the money on paying down my line of credit from school. One interesting thing is that to a large extent having all of my time be under my own control makes me not feel like I need to spend money on things. I'm in a very different situation than someone who is working full-time and making the same income per year, because my stress is way lower, and because I can spend less money (and perhaps more time) on leisure.

How does Complice grow?

Three ways:

  1. Word of mouth has been a driving force in the background for quite a while. I don't have that much more to say about it: build something people talk about, and their friends will sign up too. One interesting note is that I tried adding some viral referral features, and a bunch of people used the links, but I got very few signups from them, and almost no conversions. It seems like most people were using them in blog posts, but 1-on-1 recommendations work better.
  2. The second is via an online community. I'd been a long-time member in a particular virtual co-working chatroom, and it became apparent to me about a year into running Complice that it would be great to combine the two. So I spent several dozen hours and made it happen. This brought me lots of new users. I'm trying to spread to other online communities, but it can be hard to seed a chatroom so that it's consistently not-empty. Get in touch if you know an online community that might benefit from a cultivated co-working space.
  3. The third is via Beeminder, which in other circumstances might practically be a competitor of mine. I think it probably is the case that each of us leaks a few users to each other now and then, but the net value is definitely positive: Beeminder handles more quantitative goals with strict commitments, whereas Complice handles complex goals with rougher commitments, so we work well together and you can now automatically track a bunch of stats from Complice, with the Beeminder integration.

The general principle from two and three is to integrate yourself with existing systems that have lots of potential users. A substantial fraction of the effect is from the announcements and PR, so official partnerships are better for that reason, but unofficial integrations can also be valuable if they solve a key problem that users of the other system have.

How has Complice handled competition?

By being weird. It would be silly to say that Complice has no competition—similar tools include everything from paper journals to software built by companies with $100M of funding.

But there's nothing quite like Complice. It's not a commodity. It's not just "to-do lists but better". It's not "WorkFlowy but better". It's its own thing. Some people won't like it — which is fine — but those who do will swear by it.

In some ways, this is actually abstractly similar to blogging platforms like WordPress and Ghost, who will let you use their software for free, but also they host the software themselves and you can pay them to host your site for you, perform regular upgrades, etc.

Complice is a piece of software, but it's also a philosophy: track what you do towards your high-level goals every day (and a few more subtle points). You can use the philosophy for free, but if you're sold on the philosophy, it's pretty immediately apparent that the Complice software is the best system for it.

What have been some of the biggest challenges?

I started off super lean-startuppy: I had ten paying customers before I had written any code or even named the business. But then by a couple months in, once things seemed to be working at all, I spent the vast majority of my time on product development. I started 2014 with ten users, and ended it with 18 or so.

To some extent, I was playing to my strengths. Having acquired ten people who were invested in this goal-tracking philosophy, I knew I just needed to build a system that would be way more awesome for that than the simple email-based system... and I'm good at making apps, so I did so. This made sense, but also, if I hadn't ended up with coaching clients I would have gone broke during this phase. It probably would have made sense to spend at least a little serious time on marketing and so on. But marketing is challenging, and building software is way easier.

The important distinction from what I did and what so many people do is that I already had paying customers. I mainly credit AppSumo's How to Make Your First Dollar course. I've taken a bunch of online courses, and this is the only one that was clearly worth it for me.

What tech stack does Complice run on?

I've got a sort of unofficial "MEAN" stack: Mongoose, Express, Angular, NodeJS. These work really well together, so I'm very happy with the results, even though it wasn't a deeply strategic decision originally.

Where can we learn more about you and Complice?

I post articles regularly to my personal blog and the Complice blog. My personal blog is focused on personal psychology, metacognition and motivation, and the Complice blog covers topics more related to productivity and the app itself. There's some overlap though.

You can also follow me on Facebook for thought-provoking articles and discussions.

The most important link though is to try out Complice! It's been profoundly life-changing for many people, and you could be next.

You can also leave a comment below, and I'll try to get back to you!

Malcolm Ocean , Creator of Complice

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    Really cool interview, Malcolm. Appreciate the suggestion on the AppSumo course too. Will definitely be signing up for that!

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