We sit down with co-founder Jason Ward to talk about the earliest days of the Boardable platform.
J. Heath: Let’s talk a bit about your nonprofit background. When you were at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, what department were you in? And what were you working on?
J. Ward: I was in the research department, working on a couple of big projects—one with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and one with the Salvation Army. Both had a similar goal in describing the nature of need and response to need in the US and beyond. The first was the Million Dollar List and the second was the Human Needs Index.
JH: So you come from a nonprofit background. On LinkedIn, you posted about the earliest days of what would become the Boardable platform, which happened while you and Joe—Boardable’s developer—were at Gravy Lab working on a prospective engagement with United Way of Central Indiana (UWCI). What was it during the course of the United Way engagement that sparked the idea for Boardable?
JW: The folks we were talking with at UWCI had investigated out-of-the-box solutions for managing and communicating with their board and wanted to explore a custom build. They ended up not moving forward on a custom product, but even so, I think the kernel was in the need that was articulated. Specifically, there’s this group of people—in the case of UWCI, a group of 93 people—that need board related information communicated efficiently. Board members’ time is valuable. Staff members’ time is valuable. No one is focusing on the board every day, so the solution needs to be easy to use. And there’s additional nuance; the need was unmet not because there weren’t board management solutions out there, but because there was a lack of solutions that they wanted to use.
JH: When you were originally defining that need was it around meetings or was it around board contact information?
JW: It was around meetings. We saw the need for this board to go to one place to see everything needed for an upcoming meeting. Matt Cooper, with whom I had worked on several projects, and a couple of his coworkers, came up with a features list—a handful of must-haves for a software platform. They had found some of these features in other platforms, but not this combination. We used that list to create the first user stories and that was the first step to building the platform.
JH: So you worked with Joe to mock up the software based on the user stories?
JW: Yep. I did the wireframes and initial platform layouts, but ran everything by Joe to make sure everything was possible from a code standpoint.
JH: Tell me more about February to May of 2016 when you went from wireframes into the first version.
JW: February and March was when I was doing the wireframing and user story writing and Joe started prototyping. It was then that we began exploring beyond the initial requirements articulated by UWCI. In April we released the MVP to beta users.
JH: When did Andy and Jeb get involved?
JW: I showed Jeb the wireframes in March. Jeb was one of the founders at Gravy Lab but not involved in the day-to-day, so he hadn’t seen anything about Boardable yet. Jeb said, ‘Yes, I think this is a good way to be spending time. Let’s get some other people involved and see if it has some legs.’ Jeb reached out to Andy. From there, it snowballed, and a lot of people wanted to get involved.
JH: Which boards were you serving on at the time?
JW: At the time, I was on a Montessori School board and on a committee at WFYI. I was seeing from the perspective of a board member the challenges of communicating, wrangling, and organizing things.
JH: Do you use Boardable at the Montessori School?
JW: Yes, we do. It is where all of our communication flows. We meet once a month and are in the platform quite a bit.
JH: How has it helped you make progress?
JW: Moving from using email and Basecamp to Boardable has allowed us to have a more inclusive conversation. There were certain people who wouldn’t check their email fast enough to respond to the conversation or who wouldn’t see that the email or vote required rapid response. Having it in one place allows us to put some heat in the correspondence; it’s obvious whether there’s a need to look at it quickly instead of letting it sit in the inbox until the weekend. I’ve noticed it improves the quality of the conversation because there are more voices and a greater degree of comfort with conversing in Boardable than in Basecamp.
JH: So you are seeing better engagement?
JW: Rather than having six out of eleven of our Board members engaging regularly it is closer to nine or ten out of eleven.
JH: What else do you want our Boardable ecosystem to know about the early days?
JW: I think the biggest story for me is that sometimes failing is progress. And we saw that obviously with Gravy Lab winding down and Boardable coming out of it… that until you make the decision that it is okay to fail and move past it, you aren’t really ready to progress. Fail fast, fail strong and learn from it. I think we are carrying that over into Boardable; we experiment, we iterate, we fail forward. We take feedback from everybody, get buy-in from everybody, and it allows us to be more adaptive and make a better product in the long run. Just like we were able to build a better idea and company out of one that was failing.