Can you tell me about yourself?
I am a software designer and I design software design software. I live in Sunnyvale, CA and I grew up in Santa Cruz, CA. I am married and have a baby daughter and a boy on the way.
How did you come up with the idea for Flinto?
I was working as the designer of Echofon which was a popular Twitter client back in the days when Twitter clients were still a thing. Prior to that I worked as a front-end web developer. When I worked on new Echofon features I mapped them out in a large document. I always felt like tapping through my screen designs instead of explaining a big document would be a better way to discuss these designs. As a web developer it was easy enough to build a working prototype that could run on a phone, but it would take a few hours. I could explain it to somebody in less time than building it. I knew the right tool would allow me to create a prototype in a few minutes. I just thought about what that tool’s interface would look like. I would want to quickly define click areas and targets and generate the website to put on my phone.
How did you come up with the name for Flinto?
Flinto is a nonsense word I thought up because it was short, the dot com was available, and it was also easy to pronounce and spell.
Can you talk about which design tool you used to design the initial Flinto Lite app?
I have been using Photoshop like most designers for a really long time. My dad was in the graphic software business so I was exposed early to Photoshop and graphic design software. I was using Photoshop as a little kid probably when it first came out. I was a Photoshop power-user. One time I did an Adobe user research study. They wanted to observe people using Photoshop for Web design. They watched me design something and talked to me. I complained a lot that Photoshop was bloated and didn’t feel native to Mac OS. This was before I was aware of Sketch. I told them that I thought eventually a more Mac-like tool focused on UI design would come along and I would switch to it. That’s totally what happened with Sketch. When Sketch came out I switched to it pretty early on while I was working on Flinto. It was buggy but worth it. Flinto was my first non-Photoshop project.
What made you not go the traditional corporate route and decide to work on your own company?
I pretty much always wanted to do work on my own company. Probably my dad was a big influence. He started a few companies when I was growing up. Since I was exposed to that, I saw it as a “normal” option for my career. I like to make software my own way and I’m very opinionated about it. Working at a big company, is not as conducive to that. You need to make more compromises and sometimes I just can’t bear to do that. If I feel it’s right I want to do it my way and trust that I know what’s right. Starting Flinto has felt like a bit of validation that my way of doing things can work.
Do you have advice for people wanting to start their own company?
Don’t feel like you need to raise money. It’s never been cheaper or easier to start a software company. You can start a simple business and make a living from it. If you raise money, you need to be ready to work hard to grow fast and become a huge company. That’s fine if it’s what you want, but it can be a stressful gamble. Operating a small business can give you enjoyable flexibility.
What’s your process like for building products or thinking about new features to add?
With Flinto, there are so many features we want to add that it could occupy us for years. We get requests for features, and they are almost always things we have had in mind for a long time. There’s a lot to do, the harder thing is prioritizing and being disciplined to not try to do everything at once. When it comes to actually building a feature, it kind of becomes obvious that the feature needs to exist. I usually write something, draw sketches, sit down with Kaz (Flinto co-founder), go back and forth for days or weeks, talk and sketch, argue about it and then I start making more hi-fidelity designs. He starts coding and then we just take it day by day and we are both on same page as keeping the scope narrow as we can. It’s easy to get carried away with the scope of features. Any success we have is due to being disciplined about the features we add and the scope of those features.
What are things you should and shouldn't do in this industry (tech)?
I think people should focus on building things for their intended purpose. By that I mean, when you build something the goal is usually to solve some problem that the user of that product has. A lot of times it’s not people’s top priority to solve that problem. Sometimes the top priority is building a product to make the most money or gain the most users. Too many people set out to make a profitable business or some other ultimate goal besides the product itself. Sure that’s great if you make a bunch of money but I wish more people make the product for the sake of the product. You should give yourself permission to make something cool, not every decision needs to about maximizing revenue, but sometimes making your product great would actually solve your revenue problems. I think a lot of people think starting a business that the focus has to be making a lot of money but it doesn’t have to be. You should kind of like take the stance that you are willing to abandon the company if you can’t stick with your values.
Can you tell me a story of hardship and how you overcame it?
When we were transiting from building Flinto Lite to Flinto for Mac we basically put all our effort into Flinto for Mac. We had built Flinto Lite and it was going perfectly well. We didn’t need to create a new product, but we wanted to build Flinto for Mac. It took 14 months and during that period we didn’t really touch Flinto Lite. Halfway through those 14 months, there still wasn’t much to see. It was stressful to have spent 7 months and having no idea how long it will take or finish. A lot of software products never get finished, it felt like it was too late to turn back, but what was ahead of us was still unclear.
One day walking to office I got hit by a big truck. I didn’t get hurt that bad, just a big bruise on my arm. I went to the hospital to get it checked out, and the doctor said I was fine. The doctor said, “let us know if you have trouble breathing or anything like that”. I woke up a couple days later and I thought I was having trouble breathing (it was probably just congestion from a cold), my heart started beating fast, I thought something was really wrong, then the feeling of adrenaline kicked in and symptoms kept getting worse, which reinforced the idea something was wrong. I was scared and felt like something could be seriously wrong with me. Turns out it was a panic attack. I didn’t know what that was at the time.
For nearly a year, dealing with panic and anxiety was a primary concern. Stress of work and getting hit by a car triggered it. At that point the fear of having more panic attacks was causing panic attacks. This was one of the bigger challenges I’ve had to deal with. I slowly got over it by just learning as much as I could about panic and anxiety. Going to groups learning how to deal with it. I was very worried that I was just going to be like this the rest of my life. My wife wasn’t as worried as me. She said, “you are going to get past it, you’re good at figuring things out”. I learned to manage my anxiety and I haven’t had any major issues in the years since, but it’s still something that will always be with me. I used to think of depression, anxiety and related problems as being sort of “made up”, but this experience really opened my eyes to how helpless they can make you feel.
My advice for dealing with panic and anxiety is to really understand what’s happening in your body when you experience panic. You have to bravely face your panic, if your scared, it’s a feedback loop that causes it to get worse. Solutions are different for everyone, so talk to experts and figure out what works for you.
For a long time, I thought everyone should start a business, but in part this experience taught me it’s not for everyone. It can be massively stressful and that’s not for everyone.
Your team is currently remote correct, do you have advice on how to manage and run a distributed team?
I think if anything, I need advice on managing a distributed team. It’s hard to keep up with everybody. I’m not the most outgoing person so it can be hard to make sure I’m checking in with people who I’m not seeing face to face. We have one contractor who’s in Thailand, doing development work for us 6 hours a day. I’ve never met him in person and we don’t communicate frequently. He sends a short update once a week and he’s been working on a large project for nearly 6 months. The details of his project are really complicated, beyond my level of understanding, so it’s kind of funny to be paying someone on the other side of the world, who I don’t hear from often and is working on things I don’t quite understand and just hoping that it works out. That said, I trust him and he’s very smart. He did a small project for us before his current one and it went perfectly. Aside from all that, we just just live on Github Issues and email.
What’s currently in your toolkit when designing an app? Can you go over any software you use and anything else you want to share?
I spend a lot of time making tutorial videos now. One piece of software I think is great is Screenflow. It lets you record your screen and you can also record from your webcam and record audio. This app does so much, and I usually think an app that does too much is not going to be as good as a few special-purpose apps, but screenflow works great.
Another good app I find useful from time to time is Claquette. It lets you record your screen and export it as an animated GIF. It does a pretty phenomenal job at that. It somehow manages to get smooth playback and small file sizes.
I do a lot of sketching on either paper or increasingly on iPad with an iPad pencil, using Linea which is favorite drawing app on iPad. I use Figma, and I bounce around between Figma and Sketch and Flinto itself. Sometimes I code things when I have an idea. I’m playing with React a lot and sometimes use it to build different UI ideas.
Any cool stories you want to share from users of Flinto? For example I think you or somebody mentioned at a Flinto event that they heard people use Flinto to demo a prototype to secure some funding from investors. I think those types of stories are awesome to hear.
A lot of people told me they used it to pitch VCs. One friend made an app that bars would use, he went around signing up bars using his prototype as part of the sales pitch. It was a Flinto prototype, and as far as they knew it was already finished.
It’s always cool when when we hear about Flinto being used to design something other than a phone or computer app. There are people using it to do in-car UI.
Peter Nowell from Sketchmasters, uses Flinto extensively for motion graphics for his tutorial videos. If you’re doing simple animations, it’s a lot easier than using After Effects. He was using 3D rotation effects in Flinto to produce some pretty great results. It’s not the intended purpose of Flinto, but it works!
For a lot of entrepreneurs finding an idea to work on can be a bit challenging. Do you have advice on how entrepreneurs can find ideas to work on? Is there some sort of process you have for that?
Just be observant of problems you encounter day-to-day. If you have to specifically think up an idea, it might not be something you care about so much. It’s better if it’s something you really want to fix.
Remember, the idea you have is a multiplier of its execution. Almost any idea executed well can be successful. Most people want to find a really great idea that they can execute poorly. That’s just a sad way to go about things.
What inspires you?
Steve Jobs era Apple. The run they had from the original iMac up until the iPad was just so incredible. Whenever I hear stories about the product design process at Apple during that time, I find it really inspiring. Same for watching the old keynotes. I went to a lot of the Steve Jobs keynotes when that was happening. My brother and I, paid extra to go to MacWorld Expo. If you buy a more expensive ticket, you got access to the keynote. We would go line up 10 hours earlier to make sure we got in. We saw the intro of the iPod shuffle, intro of the Intel Macbook, and the intro of the iPhone. That was just the most spectacular product announcement of all time. They managed to keep it secret and have it be such a transformative, well designed product, when does that ever happen.
Few WWDC keynotes, iPhone 4 announcement, iCloud announcement, Steve Jobs last keynote. But yeah, so glad I made the effort to do that since I live in SF where it was happening.
Thanks for letting me interview you Nathan!
You can follow Nathan Manousos on Twitter @trafnar