Over two years after leaving Aol (now known as Oath) back in September 2015 to build a new startup, serial entrepreneur Ryan Block, with co-founder Brian LeRoux, is finally taking the wraps off the new venture: Begin, an intelligent app designed to help you keep track of things that you have to do, and when you should do them, as they come up in the stream of a messaging app.
By extension, Begin is also solving one of the more persistent problems of messaging apps: losing track of things you need to remember in the wider thread of the conversation.
Taking tasking apps to task
As you might have already seen, there are a lot apps out there today to help you track tasks and larger work you have to do, from software based around project management and specific to-do lists like Asana, Todoist, Wrike and Microsoft’s Wunderlist/To-Do, through to those geared more to planning performance management, like BetterWorks.
The problem is that while some people have found these various dedicated apps useful, for a good proportion, task apps are where tasks go to die. Block — despite a pretty productive resume that includes editor of Engadget, co-founder of Gdgt, and VP of Product at Aol — was one of the latter group.
“Every time I’ve ever tried using a task management app I found it sad and discouraging to use,” he said. “You just end up getting a massive backlog of tasks and you lose sight of what’s really important.” (I’m guessing he is not the only one: the proliferation of these dozens of apps, without any single, clear market leader, you could argue is one indication of how none of them have achieved a critical enough mass of users.)
So Block and LeRoux started to think about how you could fix task apps and make them a more natural part of how work gets done.
They thought of messaging apps and their role in communications today. And more specifically, they turned to Slack. With its rapid-fire conversations and ability to draw in data from other apps, Slack has not only been one of the fastest-growing services in the enterprise world, but it has changed the conversation around business communications (literally and figuratively) .
“Slack to us is more than just enterprise productivity,” Block said. “We see Slack as a primary tentpole in the future of work.”
But, if you are one of the tens of millions of people that uses a messaging app like Slack at work, you’ll know that it can be wonderful and frustrating in equal parts. Wonderful because messaging can spur conversations or get answers quickly from people who might not be directly next to you; but frustrating because messaging can be — especially in group chat rooms — noisy, distracting and hard to track if you’re not paying attention all the time.
Begin has honed in on the third of these challenges of messaging platforms, and specifically in how it pertains to being in the working world.
Sometimes in the course of a conversation an item might come up that you or a coworker needs to follow up. Sometimes you might not even be a part of the conversation when that item comes up. In the course of a chat, the conversation might abruptly turn to another subject before you’ve had a chance to address an item. Begin is for all those moments.
Or, as Block described it to me, “It’s the difference between synchronous versus asynchronous work. Slack is good for certain things but for tracking things, it can be very hard.”
With Begin, the idea is that, when something arises that you need to follow up, you set yourself — or someone else — a reminder by essentially calling Begin (@begin) into the conversation and making a note of that task using normal language. (Example: “@begin Check in with @katie and @lynley about the earnings schedule tomorrow”.)
The two people I’ve tagged in my example don’t have to be there when I’m mentioning this, and they won’t have to look through Slack mentions to find what I said, nor do I need to leave the conversation to write the reminder. For all of us, we can turn to Begin itself to check out the tasks when we have time, and on Begin those tasks get ordered by their timing.
It’s a simple solution that is surprisingly not a part of the Slack experience today.
Aside from Slack, other investors in Begin’s seed round (of an undisclosed amount) include SV Angel, 415, SV Angel and General Catalyst, which took a stake in Begin as its first “bot” investment nearly two years ago.
Fast forward to today, with bot hype subsiding, Block is happy to say that while Begin has a degree of intelligence, particularly around reading natural language and turning that into an action of sorts (an action for you to do), he plays down the bot aspect. “We think of this as a Slack app, not as a bot,” he said.
Begin is, in fact, beginning small when it comes to features.
It’s only on Slack, you can’t draw in other apps or data into your tasks, it doesn’t give you a lot of short gradation when it comes to timing (days are currently the shortest increment for setting a task), and it doesn’t synchronise with any calendars.
Those are all areas that Block says that the company is working on for future iterations, either by being baked directly into the app by Begin itself, or there for others to integrate by way of an API.
Does Begin have a way of setting a task to look at your tasks? It’s one question that underscores the fact that ultimately you will still have to, at some point, look at a list. That may be something that the Begin team might try to address over time, too, but for now, it’s the simple creation that is the focus.