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Christian Reber

By Christian Reber

In this interview, Christian Reber explains the challenges of building great software across multiple platforms. He also shares his opinion on what makes a good entrepreneur, and the benefits of doing a startup in Berlin vs Silicon Valley.

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“If you build a product for opportunistic reasons, you tend to make bad decisions. If you have principles and a clear vision for where you want to take the product, then I think you make better decisions.”

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Christian Reber is the heart-driven founder, serial entrepreneur and driving force behind Wunderlist. With his main roles as CEO and product manager he is fully realizing his childhood dream of building a company that not only creates software that is functional, but also well designed.
Founder of Wunderlist
University of Economy and Management
Zero to One
Steve Jobs
Christian Reber is the heart-driven founder, serial entrepreneur and driving force behind Wunderlist. With his main roles as CEO and product manager he is fully realizing his childhood dream of building a company that not only creates software that is functional, but also well designed.

Christian Reber - How to Build Great Software

Christian Reber
In this interview, Christian Reber explains the challenges of building great software across multiple platforms. He also shares his opinion on what makes a good entrepreneur, and the benefits of doing a startup in Berlin vs Silicon Valley.

N.B This is the unedited transcript of the interview.

Can you introduce yourself?

I'm Christian Reber and I started the company called 6Wunderkinder, based in Berlin. We're the makers of Wunderlist.

I'm a big fan of your product. I use it every day.

Thank you very much. It's great to hear.

Congratulations on your latest release. What's next?

We just arrived in 2015. Last year my big goal was to launch this new version of Wunderlist, Wunderlist 3. We were pretty focused on building an amazing real-time syncing architecture. We've done many updates after that and in this year, we actually worked on a bunch of pretty incredible improvements, starting with simple usability improvements like better due.

Then, of course, we have new platform updates, Windows 10 actually is being announced today. The Apple Watch is coming, iOS 9 will come, the next OS X version, so we're working hard to always be state of the art and support all major platforms, and then I think this year will be primarily about integrating with many services and tools people already use. Whether it's HipChat or Slack or Evernote or Dropbox, we want to create a connection between every single product that people use to stay productive and get things done, and therefore we are about to release our public API.

We’re investing heavily in making Wunderlist better for teams. As you know, probably as a user, the product works really well for individuals, also for collaboration but I think this year we will launch exciting stuff that makes Wunderlist just phenomenal for teams.

A lot of things, Christian.

A lot of things, I know. That really is the challenge of building a cross-platform product. I guess you wouldn't believe or many people wouldn't believe how hard it actually is to build a cross-platform software product.

A lot of people were waiting for Wunderlist 3. On the blog posts they would be saying, "When's it coming out?" Almost like fans for the next album. What did you learn from that moment of time?

What I think many people didn't know. They couldn't because we haven't really talked about it. Wunderlist 3 is not just a simple iteration of the product. It has actually been a big rewrite. Right after the launch of Wunderlist 3, you've seen that we've launched stuff incredibly quickly compared to the months before. I know that we've frustrated some users because there were no updates coming for quite a few months. It was incredibly challenging for us, as well, but I wanted to make that investment into building a really, really solid architecture.

We actually reorganized the entire company with the release of Wunderlist 3, and every developer can start a new project and build their own features and I have a veto right against everything, which I've never used so far. I try to use it carefully. We've learned that our team just really badly wants to improve the product as much as our users want to see it improved, and that really helps. It helps to motivate the team because everyone has more ownership and more responsibility at the same time but it mostly helps our users and customers to get more updates quicker.

A lot of your partners, the guys you mentioned, Dropbox, Evernote, they're based in San Francisco. Being in the Berlin, has that hindered your success. Could you be bigger if you were in San Francisco?

Bigger is a big word. I get the question quite frequently. As a disclaimer, I've never started a business in the US, so I can't really compare. I know a lot of founders over there and frequently visit.

How often are you there?

I think every three months, at least.

Doing what?

Working with potential partners. Obviously, meeting with investors, all sorts of things.

Berlin versus the Valley, I think both locations have benefits and disadvantages and I think in Berlin you have quite a few benefits. The costs are lower while the living standards are incredibly high. For us as a company, it's easier to retain talent, actually, because there is not as much competition as in the Valley.

Of course, SoundCloud and ResearchGate and many other amazing companies are here in Berlin but for the specific type of developers and designers, I think we're pretty unique and that makes Berlin for us an amazing location. Could I do this in the Valley, as well? Of course. Would I still exist if I would be based in the Valley? Maybe not because I think we had quite a few challenges starting this business and it's related to many things. We've taken a lot of risks, we've tried many, many different strategies.

I've started other businesses before, like an agency, but starting a global international software business is a whole new challenge. I think I would have had tremendous challenges in the Valley. There are many perspectives you can have. Fundraising, for example, if you decide to involve investors in your business, Berlin, of course, is more challenging. I remember when I started talking to investors and when I explained that I want to build the next generation of project management and task management, I only saw rolling eyes.

Because it's a consumer app. I don't think the investors in Berlin understand that space.

There isn't as much capital, of course, in Europe as in the United States or now in China. I think many, many investors are very hesitant, very selective. Also, you can't find that many software businesses at the same time, so there isn't as much experience as you would hope for here, as well. Pros and cons, I think, for developers, for designers, for founders, it's an amazing place to be. For some companies, it makes sense. After you started and experienced the first challenges and found your product market fit, it sometimes makes sense to go to the Valley.

In our case, it made incredible sense to stay and for me as a founder, I started this company because I wanted to build a software business and I lived in Berlin at that time. I was super happy in Berlin. I never even thought about moving somewhere else. For me, it never was an option.

Before we started recording, I asked you, "Do you think you're successful?"

Do I think I am successful or why ... I think you asked why am I successful. Right?


I think my answer was because I haven't given up.

What challenges did you face in the early days?

Many, many challenges. I've never built a cross-platform product before. Never built a consumer product before. I've done many mistakes but the biggest mistake I've ever made in this company was building two products at the same time. I started Wunderlist, actually, as an experiment to showcase that this company is able to build and this team is able to build software. We've learned a lot and I've started this company to actually build the next generation of project management software, as boring as it sounds, and I developed a concept for a product called Wunderkit and the challenges we've had to build that product were enormous.

We had Wunderlist at that time, we've had around 3 million users, and I was just defocused constantly. I was trying to build two successful products as a first-time entrepreneur with limited resources, whether it's cash or development resources, I was just overwhelmed enormously. When we've launched Wunderkit one and a half years in development, we get a lot of attention because we talked about it a lot, people tried it out. Almost half a million users, I think, tested it in the first months and I knew that the technical fundament was shaky and not very reliable and I decided that if I continue trying both, I will most likely fail, so I decided to focus and took Wunderlist and everyone in the company was super happy at that time because everyone knew how to make Wunderlist better whereas with the other product, no one knew what the path could be or will be on how to make it better or simpler, so that was for me personally the biggest challenge I've ever faced.

How did you get so many users straight away?

When we started building Wunderlist, we've had a few key principles. We wanted to build a cross-platform product that works for individuals and teams. Whether you organize your personal shopping list or your house renovation or your student work, or if you run a big project and organize multiple companies, we wanted Wunderlist to work for everyone. We, I think we're pretty innovative in the way we've built this product. We were one of the first, as funny as it sounds, that allowed users to easily share lists across all devices, and I think that made it incredibly useful for people. It obviously was a free product from the beginning and I think the first million users we've gotten in nine months or something and there was no iPad at that time, no App Store, and we've literally just released the website and thousands of people downloaded it within a couple of days.

One of the key factors, I think, in the beginning, why we got attention was the design. It was very unique. Many users still remember the very wooden interface. It was very unique. We tried many new things and yeah, that's I think how we got attention. Nowadays, it's a mixture of things. Obviously, we are very present in all App Stores in all platforms. We get a lot of promotion, users invite each other through list sharing, for example, so that's really how we've grown.

We've never actually spent money on advertising and yeah, are pretty successful with it. The product has grown to more than 11 million users now. Totally organic. It's pretty awesome. I'm super satisfied where we are now.

How are you getting users to upgrade? I assume that that's where the business is, getting paid subscription.

Exactly, that is.

Or is there not the pressure to do that because of your funding?

There is always pressure to be a sustainable and reliable business. Our business model is we go the freemium path, we give the product to people for free, and as soon as they want additional features, we offer them a premium version. For individual users, we have Wunderlist Pro, you get additional features like even to upload larger files and assign tasks to each other, which is mostly used in among professional users, and then we also have the business version, and the business version is in its early days and will get a lot of improvements this year.

This is our business model, essentially.

Tell me about Christian and your persistence and this idea of not giving up?

I think there were rough times for us as a business and I think one of the key skills I've learned is that founders need is persistence. It's not to give up. It's trying to find the next path. I learned that no matter what you read on tech blogs or anywhere, every founder has some serious challenges and you're never alone. It's either user growth or revenues or finding the right manager, like CTO, for example, or even the first engineer. Finding the right team.

How have you been able to acquire so many talented designers, developers?

It's difficult to answer. I think we've always had a unique position. In the beginning, we've launched Wunderlist. We've made people sign up to the newsletter, to the company, and product newsletter, and every single time we wanted to hire a new developer or designer, we've sent out a newsletter to our user base. We essentially hired our users and our users knew exactly how the product needed to be better. I think in our case, it was very unique. I think you can't do that with every company, especially if you do something B2B. It's harder.

I think for us nowadays, I see myself as a hybrid between an engineer and a designer. The company was incredibly design-oriented and it still is, and I think that attracted great talent and great people. I've always treated people nicely and I think that's why they stayed.

What's nice?

What's a nice boss? What does a nice boss look like? Yeah. I'm incredibly passionate about building great products. I think, personally, I want to build a product or I want to build products with great purpose that truly help people and I think that attracts a lot of thoughtful and intelligent people. In terms of being nice, it's just I pay people really well and I treat people really well.

For example, the stuff I've talked about earlier, how we let designers and engineers start their own project. I'm not a CEO who dictates the product, at least not anymore, I should say, because obviously when you start a company, you very much dictate what the company needs to build in the beginning, that's just how the nature of starting a business, but I've pretty quickly learned that it's unsustainable.

If you hire great people, you need to let them thrive by giving them ownership and responsibility and I've just always tried to be nice.

Being nice. Can that go the wrong sometimes?

I think so. I think it can be the wrong way. I think if you always try to please people and please your team, of course, it can go wrong. Probably you would have to interview my entire team because I think maybe some people would disagree that I'm a nice guy. No. I think it can totally go the wrong way but in our industry, I think CEOs and founders sometimes tend to take their aggressiveness into the team and we all are incredibly ambitious and always want to be the number one and sometimes you just bring it too much to your own team and you frustrate people, you're impatient, incredibly pushy, you request a lot of overtime or whatnot. I've learned a lot that it just doesn't work.

Also, by the way, secrecy is a big disadvantage of many founders. I think that is where everyone in my company would definitely agree. I'm also pretty terrible at keeping any secret, whether it's a birthday present or how much money we have in the bank. I share everything. I talk with my team about literally everything they know. Almost every single detail about the business and I think also that makes people connect really well with the company and business.

When you see yourself as a CEO, what do you use to judge whether you're performing well or not as a CEO?

The job of the CEO varies. It always depends on the stage of the business. It depends on your team. I have incredible team. I have an amazing CTO, I have an amazing Head of Product, an amazing CFO. A lot of the really serious responsibilities I can delegate so I can focus on the future of the business, I can work with partners on integrations, and my ultimate responsibility is everything. The success of the company is my responsibility. I need to make the hard decisions and if there aren't many, I should stay quiet and let the business thrive.

I think the way I judge my own performance is definitely persistence. I think the job of a good CEO is to always move the company forward and send the right impulse at the right time but yeah, it's a difficult question. On the one hand, your only job is to have enough money in the bank to pay people's salaries. On the other hand, it's your job to take the biggest risks to reach the next level as a company, and I think I want to build an amazing team and an amazing company. I'm incredibly passionate about my team, I'm very emotional about it, and as long as I have that, I think I've done a great job because bringing a team together and keeping them together, that itself is a phenomenal challenge.

Christian, a lot of people look up what you've accomplished. I can imagine people are always scheduling meetings. "Hey Christian, let's meet. I want to get some advice." Where are founders going wrong?

That's a tough one. First, I take my responsibility especially in Berlin, really serious towards the community and new founders and aspiring founders. I mean that I regularly take lunch breaks with new founders and discuss their ideas. I really like being honest at those moments because I wish sometimes people would have been more honest to me rather than just saying, "Everything is awesome." I tend to be really critical at ideas, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Sometimes people don't like me for it by being too honest, I guess.

I think I see tremendous opportunities in Berlin and I see many more thoughtful founders than I saw a couple of years ago. I don't think people do anything wrong. The only thing that matters is maybe if people do something wrong, it's that they stick for too long with bad ideas, but sometimes you just need to follow bad ideas because no one knows if your idea is good enough until you've tried it.

Some people worked for too long on the same idea, the others pivot too early, jump too quickly. Some founders work laboratories, they have a thousand ideas, but no real passion for what they're doing, and I think I'm a productivity nerd myself. I built the product primarily for myself and I wished that there are many more millions of people who would like to use the same product. Some really follow money and opportunities and that's just bad. It doesn't make sense.

Why not? It's a business.

Sure, it's a business but, I struggle with founders who have an idea and immediately run to investors and talk about it and try to raise money because that makes the industry look bad. That makes a lot of company fail. I've invested my own money for many years in building my agency. I've failed miserably at many, many projects I've launched and I've learned the hard way how things can work and cannot work and I feel that sometimes because of the Internet, obviously, people, founders share their experiences and others read about it and they immediately want to do the same things. They want to raise money from the same investors for similar product ideas and it just doesn't make sense.

It's like we're back in school.

It is, yeah. Don't follow the cool kids. Do your own thing.

I like what you touched on. You touched on something quite interesting that you spent the early days being self-reliant, putting your own money into your own ideas. I think it sharpens the blade. It's good practice to develop that intuition for knowing what's going to work and what's not.

Absolutely. Take you. You just moved to Berlin, you do your own podcast and probably many other projects, and you learn and you struggle. You talk to founders quite frequently so you learn from them, and then one day you maybe start the next billion dollar business, which is awesome. There are too many people who come directly out of school, have never worked at a company, have never tried to start their own company, have never built a product themselves, but want to start a startup. What is a startup? Even the term is weird because it's a business and you need to invest money and you need to get money back one day, and ideally more than you invested. That's it. I think there are some founders who have a lack of business sense.

Design has been at the core. You said that throughout this interview.

Even my agency before was very design-oriented. I think it's primarily me. I just love designing products and see software development as a craft and I love doing this and we've started this company very design-driven. We've did some mistakes with it, too. In the beginning, the design team dictated everything, what features, where buttons should be positioned and everything. That was really frustrating for engineers and I think I have in that time forgotten about engineers and haven't valued their work enough and that has totally changed.

Today, the way we operate. Some projects are led by designers, some projects are led by engineers, and our team just really closely collaborates with each other. It isn't design-oriented anymore but we take huge pride in how we build our product, I think.

Users email and say, "We want this feature, we want this feature." At the end of the month you have, I don't know, 5,000 emails from users saying, "Feature request." What happens? Do you review those emails and go for each one and then tally, okay, this is what people want. Let's build this. How do you know what to build this?

It varies. Sometimes because of opportunity, I think the Apple Watch, for example, is a big productivity-oriented device. Wherever you are, you get notified about what to do. I think Wunderlist makes a lot of sense on watches and in general we just want to be on every single imaginable device, whether it's in a car or even on a fridge where you have your shopping list, so you should be integrated with your fridge and I think many ideas and many future ideas are born out of opportunity. Some are just problems we're trying to solve and usually emails I get from users are full of problems we need to solve and we are very much aware what Wunderlist or what we're good at and what we aren't good at.

We know that there are some things that you just constantly need to make better and believe me, if cross-platform development wouldn't be so challenging, we would have probably 100 more features. We have many, many, many ideas in store, which we just need to build, and I've talked with many other founders, even in the same space, they all have the same challenge, and I think we've done pretty good job, actually, at delivering a good feature set across all platforms and it will just get better.

It's opportunity, sometimes it's better usability, product improvements we want to do.

Let's say somebody wants something that’s currently built to be refined. Is that bottom of the list and at the top of the list is to develop for the watch?

I think if you build a product for opportunistic reasons because you know it can grow really fast or this could generate more revenue, you tend to make bad decisions sometimes. If you have principles and a clear vision for where you want to take the product, then I think you make better decisions and I think we're very much value-driven. We try to help people to get stuff done, whether it's personal life or business life, and we always try to build features first that are necessary to everyone. The more people would use a new feature, that's the probably the one we're building because it solves the most pain points.

Yeah. I think it's always different. Again. It's where the company is, where the product is, what your next goal is with the business, so it always varies. In general, we will just want to help people to get stuff done and whatever contributes the most, we'll build.

You said something that a lot of tech companies all have this problem there's just so much to do. So much things to build. Why don't you just hire more people?

I would love to do that. I would love to double the size of our team immediately to increase speed of development. Unfortunately, it's not how the world works. I think adding people too quickly ruins the company very often, very regularly, and I have done that mistake quite a few times by just hiring people too quickly. I'm not taking enough care on integrating them well and, yeah, sharing the goals of the business. Maybe in Berlin you could hire incredibly quickly but I don't want to. I want to find incredibly talented people that just share our values for product development, for engineering, and those kind of people are really hard to find.

Why is it hard to find good people?

You need to reach out to a lot of people, you need to interview many people. It's a process to find the right ones to fit to you.

I know your focus now is partnerships. How important is it to be a good deal maker?

I think it's a key skill for founders. If you don't have it yourself, you need to have a cofounder that has that skill. I think talking to partners of any kind, whether it's for product integrations or investors or media partnerships, I think you need to be a deal maker and you need to be able to connect with others on a personal and business level. It's a key skill for founders.

Coming to a close now. What is it that you wish more entrepreneurs did?

Many founders just tend to take a successful product and try to think of different ways how they could execute something similar, how it could ideally grow incredibly fast, ideally for free, they don't care about the business model. But I think it’s changing now. One of our investors, Earlybird, Ciaran O'Leary, the great partner there also wrote about this, the new development and the next stage of Berlin entrepreneurs and Berlin companies. They all become more technical at the moment.

We've had a e-commerce phase and even community phase where people copied Facebook or whatever other communities and now you see a lot of technical companies arriving.

Berlin looks hopeful, then.

Yeah. It's a good time.


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