October 12, 2021

Delibr delivers a note-taking app for product managers

Capiche sat down with Delibr CEO Nils Janse

by @klapicheza

Capiche moderator & admin. Digital whiteboarding fangirl. Open to commiserating on slim ATS pickings.
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For a function as fast-paced and collaborative as product management, a tailored note-taking solution — complete with integrations to regularly-used tools — may be a better fit than a general note-taking app.

Delibr is one such app. After noticing that several team members at the company are also active members of the Capiche community, we invited founder and CEO Nils Janse to talk about how product managers can optimize documentation processes and apply more structure to their thinking.

The Origins of Delibr

Q: How did you find your way from management consulting to founding Delibr?

I have an engineering background and had decided to start my own startup afterward, even before I joined McKinsey. One opportunity I noticed as a consultant was the value of structure in decision-making. This value came in the form of clarifying the central question, examining available options, and assessing pros and cons. Once that is clear, people often agree, or at least it is clear where the differences are, and thus they can easily be resolved. This insight was the starting point for what became Delibr.

Q: How has the current product evolved since your initial ideation of it?

It's been a winding road. We've made 3 pivots:

First, the app was for making political discussions more structured, aiming to improve democracy. It was hard to make politicians agree to joint truth-seeking.

Our first pivot was towards structured discussions and decision-making in a business context. It was appreciated when it was used, but tricky joint decisions didn't occur frequently enough to warrant a specific tool.

We found that some of our best use cases were tricky product decisions, and we figured out that those decisions came as a team was trying to figure out how to build a feature, and that the tool they were in then was a document writing tool, typically Google Docs.

Our second pivot was to create a document writing tool with amazing facilities for structured decision making. By then, we were also huge fans of Workflowy, and made our tool an outliner, thereby allowing product managers to think and write in more structured ways. We then played catch-up with Google Docs for some time to build a combo of an outliner and a collaborative real-time editor, before we could really convert users to Delibr.

With this approach, we were more successful. We worked directly with product teams to develop things that made their lives easier, such as a deep integration with Jira and integrations with the likes of Figma, Miro, and Slack. But the feature document is just one aspect of the work of a PM. We kept getting questions to help them in other areas of their work.

Our third pivot was to move into more of an end-to-end tool for product managers. This way, we could also help them across strategy, prioritization, and discovery, with different boards/tables and lots of templates.

Q: How has the field of product management changed since founding Delibr and how has Delibr’s product changed alongside the function’s evolution?

Two things:

Firstly, the COVID-19 pandemic created a situation that suddenly made remote work much more important, with all that implied, including increased reliance on written and asynchronous communication.

Secondly, the field itself has been developing rapidly with an emerging consensus on how to do things coming rather late. This can be illustrated by the release years of some of my favorite books: Marty Cagan’s Inspired and Empowered came out in 2017 and 2020, Melissa Perri’s Escaping the Build Trap came in 2018, and Teresa Torres’s Continuous Discovery Habits didn't come out until now in 2021.

For Delibr, this has meant both that we have experienced this enormous pull by teams into writing documents. We have had this push to really consider the position and elevation of document-writing within the product development process. We interviewed >300 PMs on the topic and I wrote a book on it, and Delibr the tool really encapsulates the insights from this work.

Problems Solved

Q: Why aren’t general note-taking apps the best fit for product managers?

General note-taking apps have lots of use cases to contend with. That means that although they can be rather good across them, they don't have the chance to deep dive into the specific use cases of a single group.

Some examples that stand out are our deep Jira integration that allows the PM to use the documents as the single source of truth and project info from there into Jira, our decision-making functionality.

Q: What major changes or “paradigm shifts” in their workflows do you think product managers would benefit from the most?

I think an increasing emphasis on continuous discovery, and the rapid iterations that go with that, are putting strains on traditional models of handover between different types of documents. PMs will benefit greatly from tackling this with tools that allow for emerging structures that can accommodate iterations and unexpected needs to e.g. split or merge different projects. A new breed of tools will help that, outliners with e.g. backlinks.

Q: What are the biggest challenges that note-taking apps help address for product managers?

  1. Lots of PMs are either new in their jobs or new to the latest best practices in product management, and they need support and help to adopt the best ways of working.

  2. PMs face the challenge of having an abundance of information to handle alongside having numerous decisions to make and running many small projects in parallel. Although the process is very iterative — it is hard for them to keep a good structure.

  3. PMs work across lots of different documents across multiple platforms, forcing them to spend valuable time copy-pasting across. Still, these different sources often come out of sync, creating confusion among team and stakeholders.

  4. All the way through the complexities described above, PMs have to ensure alignment with a diverse gallery of team members and stakeholders, which means they need to be incredible at collaboration and facilitating joint decision-making.

Q: How does Delibr address that?

  1. Our tool has been created with the latest best practices in mind, and we have lots of templates and guides to help them along the way through from strategy, prioritization, discovery, refinement, and on to development and roll-out.

  2. Since Delibr is an outliner with backlinking functionality, PMs can start out with flexible templates and then forge ahead at the speed of thought, have it all connected, let documents evolve, and benefit from an emergent structure that brings clarity yet is robust to change.

  3. Delibr helps PMs link their OKRs to roadmaps to discovery and on to epic documents that in turn integrate with Figma, Miro and Jira. We give them a single source of truth where it all fits together. No more copy-paste! No more outdated documents!

  4. By providing adherence to best practices and a single source of truth, in combination with real-time collaboration features and our unique features for structured and collaborative decision-making, we allow PMs to finally come on top and create epic alignment.

Q: As far as clients who have seen the most success using Delibr, what do you see as being a consistent thread across their experiences?

The one thing that has been striking is how people get this "aha moment," typically after working a little while with our outliner. It really helps them think faster and in a more structured way individually and when collaborating with others.

There is huge value in structuring your thinking in writing. Many have gone as far as to say that structured writing is one of the most important skills of product managers. Structured thought proliferates because it is so much easier to do so when writing in an outliner like Delibr.

Especially in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, where written communication takes an even more central place, this brings enormous value.

Q: What excites you the most about serving the product management space?

There is a quote by Marc Andreessen that goes “Software is eating the world." We have really seen this unfold before our eyes by working on the frontlines with so many product managers. SaaS companies are addressing and improving so many different parts and aspects of the economy and society as a whole, and it is a true privilege to be part of this development.

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