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Busy Work Has a New Enemy: A Sit Down With the CEO of Sticky

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

Sticky is helping people navigate their workdays with ease while killing busy work in the process. Who is leading the charge and how did this new workflow tool come to be?


Editor's Note: As part one of our three-part Founder Q&A series, we sat down with co-founder and CEO of Sticky, David Williams to learn more about the inspiration behind this noble mission. You can check out the rest of the series by reading parts two and three.


David Williams

The backstory on the CEO of Sticky

Let's start with the pandemic when the outbreak and shutdowns were happening. What were you doing professionally at that time?


I was running a globally distributed product team at an enterprise software company with a compelling brand, product, and great culture that revolved around teamwork.


We worked together online from research to planning to execution and tracking status updates regularly across several offices and time zones. We'd meet in person for quarterly office visits and project kickoffs to build relationships. Everything changed at the end of February 2020.


What was the moment?


I remember my boss walking out of a meeting with our CEO. We sat down for our one-on-one. He seemed concerned and said, “The CEO just asked me if we could run product development remotely, and indefinitely.” I was like, what are you talking about?


Days later, we canceled our global user conference scheduled in Miami—a big, in-person event that had been months in the making. Thousands of people were coming from our company as well as customers from around the world.


And a week later, we left the office for good.


sticky CEO

How did things change from that point?


The good thing was we were globally distributed, so we were already working well together using online tools like Zoom for meetings, Slack for messaging around projects, email, a company wiki, and project management tools for product development. These applications were already part of our culture.


The tools and systems were already in place.


They were, but their usage went through the roof once we went fully remote.


The immediate impact was that ad hoc things were scheduled online. As a result, we ended up with twice as many meetings to accommodate the meet-and-greets between new employees or teams, casual conversations, and Zoom happy hours. It was awkward, super time-consuming, and exhausting. Every spare spot on the calendar was instantly jammed.


The second order effect was that we couldn't do in-person project kickoffs, quarterly meetups, or off-sites for new initiatives. They all had to be done online, which meant coordinating dozens—and sometimes up to 200—people. That was painful.


The relationships we previously built over dinner, drinks, or hanging out in the office were fine, but the ones formed with new hires—the company was growing 15-20% year-over-year—never took hold the same way. You had a different level of connection with someone you’d only worked with online and had never met in person.


How did this show up in day-to-day work?


In-person discussions create a level of connection that you can draw on later. Trust and mutual understanding are harder to build online.


If you work together in person for a week, you can get through so much because there's no delay. You go from one session to the next, brainstorming, whiteboarding, and distilling things into a concrete project plan, and then retreat to the four corners of the world to work on stuff. A week like that equaled a month of online coordination, and the rapport developed was invaluable.


When everything is virtual, projects move slower because you don't know people as well. Mistakes and misunderstandings are more likely to occur, so you don't leave as many things to chance. You write down more details, which means everyone has to read more.


Can you talk a little more about the tools and systems, particularly the issues that stemmed from the business needing to rely on them more heavily?


The biggest problem was the sheer number of tools and volume of information. Let's use Slack, for example. As a company of 5,000 people, we had hundreds of Slack channels.



You could try to scan all the updates, but almost everything had an update. You would look for things where you were @mentioned, or only your direct messages. Unless someone called your attention to items in generic channels, maybe you looked at them once a week? You couldn't look at them every day because there weren't enough hours in the day to do it.


The volume of information became overwhelming. You couldn’t find the signal in all the noise. You just had to start picking and choosing, and things would fall through the cracks. You couldn't consume it all.


You experienced this as an org leader. What were you hearing from people reporting to you and across the company?


Everyone was absolutely exhausted. In the past, people commuted to and from work by car, bike, or public transit. You'd use that time to call, text, and catch up on email or Slack. You had logical breaks in the day that contained your work. When people began to work from home all day, that container disappeared. You could work 24 hours a day if you let yourself.


kill busy work

People were exhausted by the volume of information, the cognitive overhead of figuring out where to spend their time, and the level of engagement needed in an online meeting.


For us, the expectation was for everybody to be on camera. People were looking at you for 10 hours a day. It was exhausting because your level of focus had to be far higher.


Hindsight is what it is, right? You can look back and see the impact. But at the time, everyone was doing what seemed best during an unprecedented time.


We used all the things we had at our disposal, which was part of the problem. We used them all. There wasn't any pattern to follow, right? We applied technology like a blunt instrument.


 

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The founding of Sticky


How did Sticky come to be?


There were a couple of things. One was that I felt the pain of working remotely, an uptick of things that had been there for a long time.


Team chat notifications and email inboxes were overflowing, constantly demanding our attention. Our calendars were overloaded with unmanageable requests for our time. Drowning in double- and triple-booked back-to-back meetings, we found ourselves pushing “real” work into our evenings.


There were an increasing number of digital tools to use for work every day. “There’s an app for that” became a mean joke, right? How many apps do you have to juggle, search, copy, and paste between windows and tabs to get things done?


These problems were here before, but the pandemic amplified them overnight.


I was trying different things to keep up with the information I needed to remember, the information I needed to share with specific people, and the things I needed to get done.


I used Evernote for note-taking and experimented with Asana for task management for my personal work. In Slack, I started creating Google Docs for one-on-one meetings with my team members and pinning them to a channel with that team member as a way to manage 1:1 discussion topics and action items. I started coming up with workarounds and hacks to get things done and put structure around the chaos to make it more tolerable.


The other thing was that several years ago, I toyed with a startup idea. There were a lot of hybrid meetings where 80% of the people were in the room, 20% were remote. Those meetings were difficult to deal with, between people setting up technology to present things in the room while having others join remotely, so I came up with some ideas on how to improve that workflow.


In late 2021, Shawn Carolan of Menlo Ventures, a friend, 20-year venture capitalist and entrepreneur, reached out about an idea and a team he was trying to put together. As he started telling me about the concepts, it immediately clicked!


What was the idea?


The basic concept is this; we're overwhelmed with information coming from many different places and all the things we need to do. We have information that we need to consume, respond to, synthesize, share with others, and apply to get work done, and it's becoming harder and harder to do that. We waste time and energy using a bunch of siloed apps every day.


Some companies are trying to build the all-in-one product that does everything—you buy it and throw everything else away. That's a pretty tall order. If you have infinite resources, time, and money, you can build a big, broad product that replaces five or six tools and hope that a company will buy it and replace the others. But there are different opportunities, different possibilities.


We help people capture information that matters, synthesize their thoughts, and turn those thoughts into the actions and resources they need to get things done.

The concept behind Sticky is to eliminate the busy work that comes from capturing thoughts and info, deciding what to work on next, and copying and pasting between apps and tools to pull together the info to do it.


Instead, we’ll help people capture information that matters, synthesize their thoughts, and turn those thoughts into the actions and resources they need to get things done. We’re not trying to replace all of your apps but rather to simplify the workflow between them. That’s it.


I believe from my own experience and from what I witnessed people going through over the last few years, there's a real opportunity here. If we create something that relieves that burden and anxiety and saves people time, we have a compelling product. That's a noble mission, right?


There's no going back in the other direction. It's not like in two years, there will be less information coming at you, fewer tools, and fewer online meetings. It’s unlikely that things will be easy, people will kick back, and work and life will be in balance. No, it's trending the other way, and that's the spark for me.


How did you and your co-founders come together?


I met my co-founders, Andrew Lassetter, Chief Design Officer, and Tamzin Selvi, Chief Technology Officer, through an introduction by Shawn Carolan, a Menlo Ventures partner and founder of Menlo Labs, and Mike Lee, the Head of Talent. We started having conversations and “founder dating” in October of 2021 and continued through the end of the year.


How did you decide what to tackle first?


We started kicking around note-taking possibilities. Notes are often fragmented across scraps of paper scattered all over the place. What if you want to write an email to someone about the meeting that just happened? You have to find your written notes, perhaps type them up in a Google Doc, and then you can share it. But over time, these docs just pile up in your cloud drive and the only way to see them again is to explicitly search for them. There are some emerging ideas about “networked thought” and crude products in the marketplace to address this. Note-taking does not work for people today because it generates more busy work.


For managing tasks, we found that only a fraction of the people who take notes use software for task management. It's just too much overhead. Many people are not that structured in getting things done. They'd like to be, but there's so much busy work involved that they don't bother. Or if they start doing it, it's like a New Year's resolution. They try it for about two or three months, and then they're done.


You use notes to capture ideas and thoughts, and you use tasks to identify things that have to get done. In other words, they help you capture ideas and turn them into action. While notes and tasks were core to the initial concept, we weren’t sold. Notes and tasks were interesting, but there are lots of existing apps that people can use.


We looked at online meetings, which had exploded during the pandemic. Zoom, I want to say, from pre-pandemic to peak pandemic, increased traffic by 30X. That happens to no one. No one keeps up with 30 times the size of their business, but they did. They had a few rough spots here and there, but they met the demand for 30X the volume.


Suddenly, grandparents were Zooming.


Right! They were reaching entirely new audiences that were never on the roadmap. Audiences who never planned to get on a video conference call, yet all of a sudden, they were. And business people who were already using videoconferencing ended up with 2-3 times as many of them. So we talked through that.


As we started talking about online meetings, that was the spark we rallied around, and what my co-founder, Andrew Lassetter, found initial user research participants responded to. They wanted to take notes, capture tasks and check them off in the context of online meetings to put some sanity to it.


Today, when people attend a meeting, they get a notification on their desktop. They click it, which takes them to their calendar. The calendar has a link to a meeting. They click on the link, and it pops to another web page. That web page launches an app on your desktop, and then you're in a meeting. If you want to take notes in that meeting, you open another app or pick up a piece of paper. At the end of your day, you have to comb through scattered Google Docs and scraps of paper to copy over all the action items so they don’t fall through the cracks. It's crazy, right?


People were really excited about the idea of a meeting where you press one button, it creates a new note and adds the meeting details automatically. It launches the meeting, and you're ready to go. All that overhead goes away.



Then there's another part of how this concept combines tasks and notes. In the context of a meeting, your notes capture the key points and action items you want to take away. With Sticky, if you captured the tasks in your meeting notes, you're not going to lose them. And they automatically end up with all of your other tasks in one spot.


Brilliant. That breakthrough moment must have been exciting! In a future post, we’ll cover how you, Andrew, and Tamzin set about building a product and company to go after this opportunity and address the pain we all discovered during the pandemic.


Looking back, is there any other advice you would give your 2020 self to better deal with the struggle?


Yes. There are two things.


Number one, I would say establish new work-life boundaries quickly. You don't have to do it all, you don't have to consume it all, and you don't have to respond to it all. Set some time boundaries for yourself.


Number two, find a way to prioritize what matters most. With all the information coming at you at five times the volume, you need to make better decisions about where to focus your energy.


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