Building Product at Pitch with Adam Renklint, co-founder and CTO (1/2)
Adam Renklint, co-founder and CTO of Pitch, gives us a peek behind the curtain into how Pitch hopes to change presentations forever
Hey, I’m Jacob ✌️ Welcome to all of the product people who subscribed since last time! If you’re not a subscriber yet, I hope you’ll consider joining this band of like-minded folks who are all learning how to build better products. Questions or feedback? Drop ‘em here.
Hey folks! 👋 As an OG Wunderlist user and Pitch beta-user, this interview with Adam was a really exciting one for me. I hope you enjoy it as well. There are three ways you can consume it:
1. You can watch the interview on YouTube 👇
2. You can listen to the interview in your Substack app 👇
3. You can read the interview below 👇
Disclaimer: The interview has been lightly edited for length and readability.
Microsoft To Do replaces Wunderlist
Jacob Jolibois: I have to start with Wunderlist because I was a long time Wunderlist fanboy back in the day. What were you feeling when Microsoft tasked you with building their Wunderlist competitor, Microsoft To Do?
Adam Renklint: Wow. Yeah, that's an interesting question.
So we had already worked for a while on integrating Wunderlist with the Microsoft ecosystem, putting Cortana in there, integrating it with the Microsoft project and things like that.
But at some point there, there was new management in place and someone had the idea of trying to solve one of the fundamental problems that we always saw for productivity software for a to-do list, which is:
you fill your to-do list…
you blame the software for not getting things done…
and you move on to the next thing.
So the idea for Microsoft To Do was very different to come up with a way that you could recommit to everything every day. So it was actually quite an exciting idea to build something new.
It was sad to leave the old behind and I wouldn't have made the same choice about leaving the brand necessarily and the design style. But it was quite an exciting project and I lead cross-functional teams working on the actual algorithm to suggest things. So that was a really interesting experience.
So yeah, I don't use it myself, anymore. I don't work on it, but yeah.
Jacob Jolibois: Out of my own curiosity, have you managed to find a personal task management tool to replace Wunderlist?
Adam Renklint: Yeah, so I'm mostly using something called Superlist, which is the spiritual successor of Wunderlist. Something that Christian, my co-founder and founder of Wunderlist, started together with a few of the old people from Wunderlist and a few people we met in different places like MetaLab.
So it kind of takes on a Notion-esque approach to tasks, more document focused. So we use that here at home for planning our renovations or shopping list or things like that.
Lessons learned from Wunderlist
Jacob Jolibois: Alright, so coming out of Wunderlist and out of Microsoft and toward Pitch, what were some of the important lessons that you and the rest of the founding team brought from your time at Wunderlist that shaped or colored the way that you thought about building Pitch from the ground up?
Adam Renklint: Yeah, so one thing that we experienced all of us at Microsoft was that it was very slow to affect change. There was lots of bureaucracy hierarchy. They have this magical role of a Program Manager who was kinda guiding everything. So it felt like it was just hard to get anything interesting done.
So what we wanted to do with Pitch was to not focus so much, in the beginning at least, on product management and more on very product-focused engineers and designers.
“…we tried to build a product that we were really excited about and not get stuck listening too much to our potential users, but really explore.”
And we tried to build a product that we were really excited about and not get stuck listening too much to our potential users, but really explore. And that led us to change our minds quite a lot in the beginning. But we did that standing on a foundation of actual knowledge and experience then and not just theory.
Going up against Microsoft PowerPoint
Jacob Jolibois: PowerPoint is probably the most ubiquitous presentation software on the planet and you worked for the company that built that.
So, coming out of Microsoft and starting Pitch, what was the feeling amongst the team when you landed on building presentation software?
Was there a degree of confidence because you knew how the sausage was made in Microsoft and you said, "we can beat that," or was there a little bit of fear knowing that Microsoft had immense resources and ubiquity through their Windows platform?
Adam Renklint: Not fear. I would say once we landed on the opportunity of addressing the presentation software and modernizing that, our brains started running at full speed and like imagining everything that we could do. We did a whiteboard session on one of our first days in our first new office filling a whiteboard with lots of things we would do.
Of course it's an interesting challenge to have a behemoth like that as the incumbent. But yeah, I think that's nothing to worry about.
“Microsoft […] is very good at quickly copying other things that were successful without adding any original thought to it. We just have to be better at having […] original thoughts.”
I think Microsoft has shown in later years that they're very good at quickly copying other things that were successful without adding any original thought to it. They could do that with Pitch or any product. We just have to be better at having great design, better templates, and the original thoughts.
Advantages of building natively for the web
Jacob Jolibois: When you were dreaming up Pitch, what were some of the insights or the new technologies that were driving that vision forward?
What was the thing that you latched onto and said, "we have to build this because if we get this thing right, it will change the game for presentations?"
Adam Renklint: I think that one of the earliest things we were thinking about is how do we actually build it? Where do we put it?
“…part of the fabric of the web, that's built of the material of the internet…”
We're coming out of this era of desktop software still, and we started talking about building something that is part of the fabric of the web, that's built of the material of the internet and can be embedded or can embed things and can naturally fit together with everything else that's out there on the internet. That is a capability that we can leverage that is hard for desktop software to do.
I think another thing was we, we use a program language called Clojure which I'm very passionate about. I found it while working at Microsoft as a kind of escape from the day-to-day frustration. We decided to use that because it gave us a really fast workflow of building UI. It was also a language that has both a backend and a frontend version. So we don't have to think about backend and frontend engineers. We are just product creators or product developers. So that, that really helped us in the beginning to think holistically about our product.
You mentioned this Google Slides article and, I mean, that is really kind of an artifact of having many different teams disconnected, working on a single slice, trying to optimize that towards a specific metric and not thinking about a holistic product or building something that can give the user an arc of compounding capabilities.
Jacob Jolibois: Speaking of which, what are some of those compounding capabilities that were empowered by building natively for the web?
PowerPoint was a desktop based software. There were some inherent limitations to what users could do, but with the introduction of companies like Pitch, like Figma, we have these web-native applications that allow us to do a lot of really cool things.
Adam Renklint: One of the things that we were trying to solve for is this problem of having a file that you have to distribute and it ends up appending more version markers or…
Jacob Jolibois: Final, final, final. The most final.
Adam Renklint: Final v2. Exactly. So just the simple idea of putting your work in the cloud so everyone is seeing the same thing.
In the beginning, I talked a lot with the team about building a wormhole. So it really feels like you're working on the same universal computer. So everyone sees the same thing and that, in turn, informed or helped us understand how we would look at collaboration as something that is really immediate, not passing work back and forth, but rather being in the same room.
Yeah, that was an important realization that we felt we had to act on.
Building for yourself vs. building for users
Jacob Jolibois: Earlier, you mentioned you tried not to listen to users too much in the beginning. And I assume this comes from a similar place as Henry Ford's classic line, “if we ask people what they wanted, they would've said a faster horse.”
Is that correct or is there something more behind that?
Adam Renklint: That as well as like, if you're gonna work on something day in and day out, it has to be something that is exciting and is delightful and I think it's very hard to build something completely for other people.
“…if you're gonna work on something day in and day out, it has to be something that is exciting and is delightful…”
Jacob Jolibois: What were some of the decisions early on that maybe were cause of some of that early debate or struggle amongst the co-founders and how did y'all think through landing on a certain decision?
Adam Renklint: Yeah, I'd say like the biggest thing that we debated back and forth and actually changed our mind about was fundamentally how the canvas works. How the creative surface works. And our first version was a lot more like Notion, block based, much more rigid.
But as we used our own product to build presentations and then when we invited our first very early alpha users - we might call them Guinea pigs - we saw that there was not enough ability to express whatever you want to, to be creative on the canvas. So we went from that kind of rigid canvas to a very free form, more like a drawing tool.
That was much easier transition for other people coming from legacy presentation software. And since then we're gradually introducing these more magical interactions on the canvas that feels like a block based editor rather than just a single sheet of paper.
The role of product managers
Jacob Jolibois: I wanna go back to something you said a minute ago about not wanting to fit too heavily into the product management role.
I was just talking with Nan who is the Head of Product at Linear, and they have a similar style where the engineers are actually a big part of that scoping process and a PM isn't really involved. They don't really have product managers.
So I'm curious to hear your thoughts on how Pitch started out and then maybe how y'all run product development today.
Adam Renklint: Yeah, sure. So when we started out, we had this idea of building a team of people who are writing code and designing screens very, very closely in tune to what we want. And we were. I mean, we're eight co-founders that it's quite a large group. And then our early hires, we were maybe like 10, 12 people in the first few months. So we were in one room screaming at each other if we needed to. It was very easy to resolve any kind of discussion. That becomes harder of course, as you grow.
“The role of thinking about product and evolving the product […] is the discipline that the product managers are experts at, but something that that everyone can take part of.”
And we've gone on a trajectory of being very… disorganized is the wrong word, but free form into having more structure and more process. Of course, today, like many companies, we have product, design and engineering as three equal legs. But the role of thinking about product and evolving the product and scoping and shaping and everything is the discipline that the product managers are experts at, but something that that everyone can take part of.
So it's a very collaborative setting of mapping the user problems to potential solutions and validating them. So if you talk with a Pitch engineer, they would not just talk about code, but also how do we measure that something is impactful? How do we know that we've done something worth keeping in the app?
Gathering user feedback
Jacob Jolibois: And on that note, how do you know? What are some of the methods for feedback or tracking interactions that allow you to extract useful data from it and allow you to say, "this is a feature worth keeping," or not?
Adam Renklint: I think it's a combination of multiple things.
Of course, we can use data, as in quantitative research, and see metrics and dashboards and everything to see that people are actually finding what we've built and they're using it and it's helping them to solve the specific problems we were thinking about.
But I think even more interesting is the user interviews. So we have a great user research team and, same as with the product managers, they are the experts on that discipline, but they bring engineers and designers along.
So when we build something, we usually try to build very small iterations at first. Building prototypes. We're testing the screens, internally a lot at first, and then also with users.
So I think really the most impactful way of figuring out if what you did was was good enough, is hearing it from users who were part of that initial problem statement. So like going from building for yourself, someone you know really well, to someone else, but you need to get to know them quite well. What their actual struggles are and not — going back to the Henry Ford quote — just what they imagined would solve it right away.
Jacob Jolibois: Another thing that I think is really interesting is your move toward presentation analytics.
This is one of those things that is birthed out of having that link instead of a file, right? You can build in things like analytics and track interactions with a particular presentation. Can you talk to me a little bit about, and, and then maybe segue into what will eventually be interactive presentations?
Adam Renklint: Before Pitch, you had tools to generate PDFs for the most part.
You generate this dead document….
you send it to someone over email…
maybe you get some feedback…
but it's hard to to know if someone is even getting past your first three slides.
So we felt that this was a very natural thing to put in to understand, “is someone even reading what I'm writing?”
“We wanna reduce feedback loops as much as possible to make everything more direct.”
We wanna reduce feedback loops as much as possible to make everything more direct. So you get a very fast feel for if you send your link out even to your coworkers to see are people picking it up. We have an internal beta now for slide level analytics, we can see how much time, in an anonymous way, people spend on each slide.
So you can figure out is the message on this slide landing if it's a text heavy slide that people skip over. Yeah. It's not working. And I think, we will also be able to build more tools on top of that to kind of help people craft their story, refine it, remove things that is not necessarily helpful to, to reach the outcome that you want.
Going beyond that, part of why we want to get out of the PDFs is, for many people it feels like a chore getting a presentation. Someone has spent a lot of time working on crafting a message for you to receive, but it, it feels like really work to read through it and not exciting.
And it's a very passive experience for the most part, except for clicking the arrow button. So, we want to make it much more fun and interactive and joyful on both sides, on the creator side, but also on the consumer side because every presentation is made to be shared with at least one person and usually many, many more.
And if it can give them some more incentive to go to the end of presentation or to interact with it along the way, we can have them engage much more. They'll have a more positive feeling about the presentation.
But also build tools that allow us to make maybe shorter presentations where information can be hidden or revealed or presentations that are split between the take-home version and the present-on-stage version. So there's lots of interesting ideas that we will explore there to really leverage the power of the web.
Presentations as APIs
Jacob Jolibois: I don't know if you've gotten a chance to play with The Browser Company's new Arc browser, but they have these live screenshots that you can take in the sense that, if it's screenshotting a chart or something, those charts will be updated in real time.
Is there something similar in the sense of interactive presentations, having this connectivity to other parts of the web through integrations, specific integrations with tools, or even potentially through something like a live screenshot that would allow presentations to become less about a static instance and more so be this long term dashboard where you keep coming back to this presentation because it's kind of aggregating different parts of the web and bringing it together in one place for you?
Adam Renklint: Yeah. So we've explored this idea a little bit and we will probably look at it more in the future.
So we have a few data integrations where you can you authenticate your provider, and then you can pull the data and refresh the data all the time so you can get away from screenshotting charts. Our idea with that was also that it means that not everyone has to be logged into every tool to be able to update all the data.
There's another interesting perspective of it, which is presentations themselves. They can be both a consumer of data but it can kind of be an API itself. They are filled with information.
So in the future we will look a lot at leveraging the information that's in there and connecting even more things from the outside so that you can generate decks from an API using our templates or just very quickly updating a lot of things in your decks.
Like a salesperson has a deck and then you just need to fill out a few fields of the person you're talking to, and suddenly you have a sales deck that is customized for a client and you didn't have to go through each slide to customize it.
“…we can allow people to create at the speed of thought rather than have to think about what the hand should do with the mouse…”
So we think that way we can allow people to create at the speed of thought rather than having to think about what the hand should do with the mouse to drag around a box.
Yeah, I think there's a lot, lot to explore there.
The Grand Vision for Pitch
Jacob Jolibois: I'm really interested in the vision for Pitch.
As a founder myself, I know that the conversations amongst founders that happen behind closed doors are always so much more ambitious and wide casting than what is typically shared with the public.
Would you be willing to share some of the biggest ambitions of what you envision Pitch to be?
Adam Renklint: Yeah, I think it's actually not a secret at all because we talk about it a lot, but I think that the format of presentations is a kind of a universal storytelling format. It's pages of text and images and some doodles or shapes to illustrate your point. It's a sheet of paper that you can draw on.
“…what if we can put a computer on your sheet of paper?”
And very early idea was what if we can put a computer on your sheet of paper? Like, we can make it really, really interactive. The thing is, it takes a lot of effort to build all of that. So I think a more interesting idea, and something that we will work towards or are working towards but it will take us a long time, is making it so that users can express anything in Pitch.
There are no blockers on the creativity and that we really take it to the next level from this old era of cellophane sheets and an overhead projector to something that feels truly digital. And I think with that, you can think less about presentations or decks and more about stories which are told in a linear or non-linear way.
Over time, I would like for our users to be able to customize this much more to express anything, but I don't want them to have to learn how to write code with text. That takes a long time to master. I think nowadays, there's lots of interesting research and new ideas of how to bridge the gap between professional programming and what we could call “end user programming.”
The Weirdest Presentations
Jacob Jolibois: We're gonna wrap up on this final question, which is, what is the weirdest thing that you've ever used a presentation deck for?
Adam Renklint: Weirdest thing? So I use it for programming, for trying to decipher data structures and could put the data structures text there and then I can draw lines, and I found that, since I started working on Pitch, I use much more visual artifacts in programming or trying to understand different parts of code. It's usually never for someone else to see. It's a tool for thought in that sense.
Yeah, but otherwise, we use presentations for almost anything.
Someone has a birthday, we make a deck.
Someone leaving the team or joining the team, we make a deck.
One of the, the rituals that have really stuck with us is that every week we make a deck of our accomplishments.
We did this when almost the first version was running and we could store presentations in the cloud. And this has really stuck with us as a way of both making sure that everyone in the company uses our product at least once a week, even if they didn't have to make a deck. But also just to continuously take pride in what we do.
I hope you guys have enjoyed this interview with Adam as much as I did. It’s clear that he’s not only a great engineering leader but a great product visionary as well.
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