I first learned about Kinopio from the report on Personal Knowledge Management niche done by Nesslabs.
I was looking for a place I could visualize my thoughts and ideas, connect them together, connect my notes from other tools and see everything in a new light.
Kinopio definitely is a different kind of tool in the PKM niche. It doesn't have that academic feel like Roam Research, no fun-corporate-productivity of Miro and 0 of Notion. And what is it in that case?
I'd refer to you to use Kinopio if you want to create something that has no boundaries, no rules. Kinopio is an anti-clean-cut tool, where you don't need to have a structure, and all you need to do is be yourself.
I talked to the founder of Kinopio Pirijan to understand who is on the other side of the screen, where Kinopio is being developed.
Key stats about Kinopio
Number of customers: 100 paying customers
Number of spaces created by signed in users: 18070
Anna: Why you started Kinopio?
Pirijan: After leaving my last job as co-creator of Glitch, I wanted to build a different kind of software which felt inherently fun but was also useful. In my own life, I'd noticed that before I wrote specs and other planning documents, I'd often think things out in a sketch document or on paper in a very non-linear way.
At the root of Kinopio is a simple premise: that putting your thoughts out there without structure and then connecting them spatially is a really great way to solve problems and come up with new ideas.
Anna: Is this your full time project?
Anna: What pain are you trying to solve with Kinopio?
Pirijan: We have these super computers, on our desks and in our pockets, but we still can only write things down linearly from the top-down – because that's how typewriters worked. I think better tools can help us think better too.
Anna: Who is the person that uses Kinopio? Can you describe your customer?
Pirijan: I can't really, so I asked them to describe themselves and how they found Kinopio. From designers, parents, friends, teachers, programmers, accountants, project planners, people using it for fun, or for work and meetings, there's a lot of range. I try not to build things for specific people or personas.
I like making creative tools that are easy, invited, but have a lot of hidden depth and expressiveness – this way I get to be surprised by what people do with it.
Anna: Kinopio has a very specific aesthetic. Did you come up with it right away or it appeared later?
Pirijan: The aesthetic is a product of evolving the visual language I made for Glitch, using 90s electronic music instruments and other tactile feeling things. The core aesthetic was defined pretty early, here's a mockup from over 2 years ago (https://www.are.na/block/4225887), obviously very much has changed but you can see the origins there.
Anna: What is your most favorite feature in Kinopio?
Pirijan: Of course I have a Kinopio account myself, but I love that you can use Kinopio without having to sign up or read through a marketing page first. On the surface, it seems like such a basic thing, but to do this means that every part of the application (the web client and server) had to be tightly designed and architected around this idea.
My favorite kinds of features are the ones where engineering and design are really tightly woven together.
Anna: What was the most requested feature in Kinopio?
Pirijan: With all the issues I go through on the support forum, it all seems to blur together these days. I think currently the number one request is card resizing, which will be coming in a couple months.
Typically the people requesting features are already expert users so it's important for me to balance those requests against building things that I think will benefit new users as well.
Anna: How did you come up with the pricing? It's relatively low from it's competitors in the space.
Pirijan: Oh is it? That's certainly not intentional, but pricing is always a dark art because everyone's expectations are anchored by different products. That said, I started intentionally low at $4/mo when I was less sure of the demand, and last year increased prices to $5/mo for new customers. I suspect that next year I'll increase prices again, and adjusting from there.
I guess my strategy is to incrementally evolve pricing, and to reward early customers.
Anna: You launched twice on ProductHunt in the span of almost 1 year. What did you learn from the launches?
Pirijan: Mostly I learned a lot about how ProductHunt works, it's deliberately not the most straight-forward system. I wrote some detailed thoughts at my blog.
I think the most important point to remember is that Producthunt is a ranking of immediate popularity and influence – which is not necessarily correlated to product quality and value, especially in the long-term.
First version of Kinopio's launch is Product of the Day on Producthunt.
Anna: Was the iOS and Android apps a frequent request?
Pirijan: It came up from time to time, but Kinopio was built from the start to work on mobile. What I realized is that no-one expected that to be the case because it's not how most web apps are built. Because of this, the real value of providing 'apps' was to meet people's existing expectations of mobile.
Anna: I noticed you have Discord community. What was the purpose of the community?
Pirijan: The Discord chat probably wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Ben Tsai proposing the idea and offering to moderate it in order to bring community members together. Real-time chat is too high-bandwidth for me to keep up with on a regular basis, but it's proven immensely useful for everyone.
Anna: How are you growing your product? Is it just word of mouth?
Pirijan: For the most part yes, it's word of mouth from people who love it, and from me regularly sharing what I'm working on, what's new, and what cool spaces I've seen.
Anna: You have a biweekly newsletter for Kinopio called Bulletin. How do you choose what to highlight in the newsletter?
Pirijan: Although each Bulletin is a freeform HTML document, I generally like to stick to three sections: "A life anecdote or thought", "What's new with Kinopio", and "What's Upcoming". The first section is by far the hardest one to write. In some cases, the first section will be an announcement of something important, but most times I approach it like I'm writing an olde tyme letter to a dear friend I haven't seen in awhile.
Anna: Kinopio also has public API. Where customers requesting it?
Pirijan: I built the API well before anyone requested it. I think the process of building an API for the public helps when designing even internal APIs, it helps clarify the design because it has to be straightforward and explainable.
Also, on principle, I think that it's important that tools are accessible in lots of ways and don't live in a silo.
Anna: You are very open with your process of building Kinopio, I'm curious why you didn't make it open-source then?
Pirijan: In the early days I got asked that a lot more often. I think in software we think that if something is made by individuals, then the code should default to being open. But I think this assumption kind of demeans creators by implying that only big companies can make 'serious' software.
I'm open with the process of building Kinopio because I think that's the kind of 'open' that really matters, because it benefits everyone (not just coders). Especially for a project with a huge interface and hundreds of files, I think that knowing the thinking behind a project says more than a stack of code in a github repo does.
Anna: On your personal website you have a section talking about Kinopio's life and (possible?) death. Are you considering Kinopio a sustainable business yet?
excerpt from My Plans for Kinopio
We don’t live in a deterministic world. I could do everything right and still run out of money without being able to turn Kinopio into a healthy, sustainable business. If that happens, you won’t lose any data and Kinopio will still be usable.
The client app is like a cockroach, it’s tiny, free to host, and doesn’t depend on a connection to the server app.
Pirijan: I think from that time I've gained a lot more confidence that people really do like using Kinopio and will pay for it. Because of this, I consider Kinopio an endeavour with real long-term promise, but until I can at least pay my rent with it it's not yet economically-sustainable. That being said, the current pattern of steady and consistent growth is very promising.
Anna: What do you think is missing in the note taking/visualization tools in general?
Pirijan: I think there's a lot of same-y-ness out there. It seems like everyone's aspiring to compete for the same enterprise dollars. I get it, there's a lot of those dollars. But because of that I think they're designed with conformity to an apple/corporate-y aesthetic in mind.
Or possibly it's because designers are all exposed to and influenced by the same things (vintage braun, modern apple, etc.), which creates some kind of circle-jerk of taste?
Anna: Is your mom still asking you to find a real job?
Pirijan: Nah she's given up lol
Anna: What are your plans for Kinopio in future?
Pirijan: There's still a couple of key tentpole features that I want to complete for Kinopio. And along the way, there's those little everyday improvements and fixes.
Looking up from that, I want to eventually explore contracting artists for things like physical goods and card frames. I think I'll be able to do more of that when I'm in a more sustainable place.
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