Why is there no dominant to-do list app?

October 16, 2017

A month ago, I led a dinner talk on the future of work with twelve fellows from Interact, a community of young technologists devoted to social progress. Interact attracts the best and brightest: founders, AI-researchers, engineers and other driven self-maximizing young people. I took the opportunity to make my icebreaker a bit of market research: I asked them to introduce themselves and please share what software they use for task management.

 

It was a relevant question for me, as I realized quickly upon becoming a VC that my brain was simply not up to the task of keeping track of everything there is to do-follow-ups, process juggling, turn-downs, involved replies, etc. I had gone through a handful of methods (paper, an excel sheet, using my calendar, tasks in Gmail Inbox) and finally settled on one I thought worked the best, which I'll reveal later on. 

 

To my surprise, there was almost no overlap among the thirteen of us at dinner in terms of what software we used. Some used pens and paper, still others used massive Google Docs, others still used a menagerie of different online platforms. Thirteen smart people, easily ten plus solutions. For this big, basic human problem of keeping track of and prioritizing time, there's simply no dominant category leader.

 

Why is it this way? Here are some potential culprits.

 

1) A tough productization problem- Software products emerge at the overlaps of tons of different individual use cases. I tend to think of it as a sort of gravitic dynamic with each use-case being a particle- some forces pull particles together into a big central mass, but in other cases that force isn't enough and products stay fragmented into smaller collections of use-cases (the analogy has lots of potential but also room for improvement, admittedly- I'm working on it!). Anyway, in the case of task management tools it often seems that people just like to interact with them differently- different categorizations, frequency of use, key platforms, approaches, settings etc. which makes serving everyone with one product a real bear to pull off. The use-case mass is too evenly distributed to for gravity to pull it into planets and we're left with a rocky asteroid belt. 

 

2) Human weakness- This relates to #1 but I think for all but the most concrete and diligent of users to-do-lists are another theater in the battle between the short and long term. We all know it is good for us, but in the moment it can feel unproductive to take time writing things down, or to remember to cross them off, amidst the constant interruptive flow of more reactionary actions (email replies, messages, etc.) If you go through cycles of task management and haven't settled into a rhythm, you're part of the problem which makes it hard to software makers to attract and retain customers- it may be that no software is good enough to keep some people using to-do lists.

 

3) Lack of network effects- Network effects are one of the core elements of productization, functioning as a key bit of gravity that helps pull individual use-cases together into shared product. No product will be a perfect fit for everyone, but if there are big advantages to using the same product as everyone else, people tend to get over it. Salespeople aren't fans of all the data they have to enter into Salesforce.com, but the benefit to the organization makes all the tedium worthwhile. Task management is largely lacking in this respect, except for in the teamiest of projects like developing software where being up to speed on the rest of the team's tasks is crucial. For the rest of us, including users managing tasks for their own productivity rather than as a result of some corporate edict, there simply aren't many advantages to using the same software as everyone else, lessening the forces that would normally pull us together.

 

Is there hope? Can we imagine a world with a large, dominant provider of task management, either at the corporate or personal level? I'd like to think so, and as a result we're always on the lookout at Matrix for startups that have innovative ways of combating the barriers to innovation here and unleashing something truly different on the market. If that's your company, or one you know of- let me know! 

 

For my part, I'm currently using Todoist, which wins for its broad set of platforms, intuitive UI and ability to handle the three core use cases I have: daily habits, scheduling longer term follow-ups and typical daily task management. Even the team there seems to have raised the white-flag to some extent, revealing a new product meant to be competitive with Slack. That said, I'm always open to suggestions for something knew or better- Todoist is a fantastic product, but I'm not sure it is the end-state. 

 

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