Turning Great Ideas Into Reality
In this interview we talk to Meister CEO Michael Hollauf about his company and experiences.
Tiffany studied Language and Economics, and now likes to write about business topics and conduct interviews with interesting people. She spends her free time looking after her plants and with her dog.
Michael Hollauf is the Co-founder and CEO of Meister. Founded in 2006, today Meister’s flagship products, MindMeister and MeisterTask are globally well-known as top creativity and productivity apps. Michael’s team of international experts works hard on helping over 15 million people to let their ideas become reality every day. Today he’s with us and we have the chance to ask him some questions about his company and experiences.
I wouldn’t get through the day without… ?
My team. As we continue to grow as a company, the scope of what we need to do on a daily basis expands at the same time. I wouldn’t get close to completing everything without input from others — genuine experts with huge depths of knowledge. I have to trust my team in order to get the best results for Meister, and that trust invariably leads to happy employees who are proud of their work.
In order to work productively, I need… ?
MeisterTask! Here at Meister, we don’t just talk the talk: we are avid users of our own software. MeisterTask helps us to align with each other, to keep track of ongoing projects, and to work more consistently throughout the company. As a CEO and Co-Founder, I can use features like task and project watching to maintain an overview and contribute depending on how involved I would like to be in each process.
I love it when people say my company… ?
Creates beautiful, intuitive products that make people’s lives easier. It’s what we created Meister to do, and we are convinced that our strong focus on user-friendliness is the key to a successful online business.
An important characteristic a good CEO should have is… ?
Vision. We are defined by the products we create, which is why everything we do is guided by a clear, big-picture philosophy about what sort of company we want to be. It’s more than just overview though, I want to be hands-on, involved in the products and the day-to-day of Meister. When we started the company, I had to wear a lot of different hats in sales, marketing, customer support, you name it. Nowadays, when I talk to the people responsible for these topics about their work, I’m able to understand the challenges they face and offer advice from first-hand experience.
I should put my phone away and invest more time in… ?
Yoga. Or CrossFit. We’ve actually introduced classes for both here at Meister, with video links to help our remote-based team stay in shape. It’s important to keep a healthy balance and to relieve stress wherever possible.
Let’s dive into your work life. Today, millions of users collaborate with MindMeister and MeisterTask. To make this possible, an international team of over 80 employees is working from offices in 3 countries! Wow! How did it all start with Meister back in 2006?
It started with a need. Although mind mapping has been a popular technique since the 1970s, no collaborative online mind mapping tool existed by the time we founded Meister in 2006. We realized this was a void that we could fill, but we knew we’d have to start slowly and build from the ground up.
The response to the first version of MindMeister was incredible. Although the initial release was limited to only 200 like-minded friends and associates, we were so overwhelmed by the positive feedback that by the time we opened the beta version to the public, there were already 10,000 sign-ups just from invitations, each of the initial users inviting up to 10 friends and so forth.
From there, we moved on to a freemium model, which we’ve kept to this day. The opportunity for everyone to use MindMeister for free (at least to some extent) is something that’s important to us. Our idea was that once people were convinced of the benefits of mind mapping, a good number of them would pay to get even more out of the technique.
However, there is a difference between creating great software and a successful company, and while MindMeister has matured well as a product, our infrastructure needed to be upgraded to handle this too. We’ve grown steadily and added new coworkers wisely, always wanting to maintain that special startup feeling that keeps our work fun and drives our creativity.
MindMeister, your first tool, was launched in 2007 and is now the world’s leading online mind mapping solution. Your other tool, MeisterTask, was launched in 2015 and is an intuitive and collaborative task management solution that is fully integrated with MindMeister.
When creating these two tools, how did you envision the perfect creative process using both of them?
I see the realms of MindMeister and MeisterTask as split along the lines of “what” and “how”. MindMeister is about generating ideas, fueling creativity, and developing concepts beyond a level that would be possible with more traditional techniques.
On the other hand, MeisterTask’s place in the workflow comes after the ideation stage: the key tenet here is the ability to transform ideas into reality as quickly and efficiently as possible. The integration between the two programs is designed to make this transition smooth and efficient, allowing teams to focus on their work in a way that strikes a balance between speed and functionality.
Let’s talk about MindMeister. Since it all started in 2007, over 30 million mind maps have been created with your tool, with over 1.5 billion ideas generated worldwide. That is an incredible number.
Do you regularly get feedback on how your clients are working with MindMeister? Is there one super successful story a client told you about, that resulted from ideas developed with MindMeister?
There are so many examples of companies using MindMeister to develop ideas collaboratively that it wouldn’t be fair to pinpoint just one. I like to think that MindMeister is about the ideas, not the software. However, what has made me particularly proud is how MindMeister has really taken off in other sectors, especially education.
When the coronavirus crisis began to take hold at the beginning of 2020, we made an enormous effort to reach out to educational institutions and to get them using MindMeister (for free, obviously). We were determined to help keep teaching on its feet, and it was hugely successful. MindMeister was adopted by hundreds of schools and universities, which helped people keep learning in turbulent circumstances — it is something that we can be very proud of.
MeisterTask has been listed as a top app by the Apple App Store, the Google Chrome Store, and many more. With so many task management apps on the market, what would you say makes a really good app?
Even before we launched MeisterTask, there wasn’t a shortage of task management tools on the market. What makes us special is our focus on user experience and, perhaps even more importantly, design. In terms of functionality, a tool like MeisterTask cannot be an end in itself, it’s a means to get more work done and to do that work better. Design goes hand-in-hand with functionality in this respect: we’ve focused our energy into creating something that looks simple and effortless, and that approach pays off in the way our customers use the tool.
My advice to anyone looking to launch a new app would be this: keep it simple and make your users feel good.
MeisterTask also integrates seamlessly with Mailbutler. What is the biggest benefit of having a direct connection between your inbox and MeisterTask?
There are obvious problems with trying to use your inbox to do too many things: people all around the world waste huge proportions of their time reading and replying to emails that should really be dedicated tasks. By syncing up with services like Mailbutler, we allow users to seek out “tasks in disguise” in their inbox and send these to MeisterTask, where they can be completed according to structured workflows.
The most obvious benefit of this is that tasks don’t get forgotten, which means fewer delays, more consistent results, and a more enjoyable working experience for everyone involved.
Do you think working with a combination of Mailbutler and MeisterTask can help level up your productivity and improve your work-life balance?
Of course. I think Mailbutler and MeisterTask share a common goal in that they are both designed to help users work more efficiently. One of the key topics to touch on here is the rise of “work creep” — excessive mobile communication causing people to think that they always need to be available.
Receiving “covert tasks” by email tends to add to the problem with an unwanted degree of urgency. On the other hand, task management tools can help solve the issue: with well-communicated due dates and well-structured information flows, no one should need to disrupt their work-life balance.
Both MindMeister and MeisterTask are all about productivity. Apart from these tools, are there other (maybe even offline) techniques you would recommend to enhance productivity and creativity?
Anything that stops or minimizes procrastination is going to be a huge help to your personal development. Standing still is the worst thing you can do when you’re looking for ideas and motivation, so look for anything that helps you keep ideas flowing and allows you to bring them to reality. The tool you choose will depend on how you prefer to work and learn, so don’t be afraid to try out a variety.
Let’s talk about your company and your team. What does the daily working life at Meister look like? I’m sure creativity and productivity are not only a priority for your products but also for collaborating within the team
Despite the fact that we now have more than 80 employees working at our various offices worldwide (and indeed remotely), we’ve made a big effort to keep that special startup vibe. Creativity is at the forefront of this culture, it comes down to creating the right environment for our team to shine. We have a wonderful office here in Vienna and we invite our team to use that as best they can, given the current restrictions. However, throwing a pool table and a fridge full of beer at a team doesn't spawn a creative startup atmosphere on its own.
It’s about people. The team at Meister consists of enthusiasts: they all love our products and genuinely believe in what we are trying to achieve with them. Lots of this comes down to hiring— there are no “bad eggs” in the current team — but you have to trust people and, as a CEO and founder, really listen to your team and accept criticism where it is justified. Using collaborative software like MindMeister and MeisterTask allows us to do that in a structured way: the best advert for Meister’s products is Meister itself.
Since the pandemic of COVID-19, many companies have had to adapt to the current situation. Was there anything that Meister needed to change?
In terms of COVID-19, we’ve been lucky in quite a lot of aspects. Firstly, the restrictions haven’t been overly stringent in Vienna, where most of our team is based, which means that the office is still available even if we encourage the team to work from home whenever it is possible. It’s not exactly life “as normal”, but it’s a normal sort of life in comparison to the experiences of many companies.
Then there is the question of the products themselves. With so many companies forced to change their ways of work in such a short space of time, remote working solutions are in demand. Interest in both MindMeister and MeisterTask has grown significantly as a result. Naturally, a big part of our own adaptation process is to make sure we sustain our recent success by convincing the market that our tools are for life, not just coronavirus, but I think it’s something we’re doing quite well. The value-for-money proposition for both products will still be excellent for our customers, even when they return to the office.
In the next few years, where do you see Meister? Is something new coming up?
There are always new projects, new challenges on the horizon. At the moment we’re focused on building on the ever-growing popularity of our current tools while also looking at new branches where we think we could make a positive difference to the ways people work. The team is working on a third product as we speak, which we’re confident has the potential to reach the same success as MindMeister and MeisterTask.
The eventual goal is to create an entire suite of tools that allows users to stay creative and productive in everything they do. Of course, this is a long-term aim: in the meantime, we’ll keep doing what we’re good at and good things will come.
Thank you so much for your time, Michael! All the best to you!
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