Build the bridge is a series of articles that showcases international entrepreneurs who foster business collaborations across the world.
Co-founded by Michael Pryor, Trello is a visual collaboration tool that helps people organize their businesses and everyday lives. One glance is all it takes to get an overview of a projects’ status: who is working on what, what is in progress and what has been done. Originally developed by Fog Creek Software in 2011, the project was initially called “Trellis” before becoming Trello a few months later. In 2014, Trello split with Fog Creek Software to turn into Trello Inc. Michael Pryor became the CEO of Trello.
He continues to run Trello as a standalone service after the company’s acquisition by Atlassian in 2017. The co-founder of Fog Creek Software and board member of Stack Exchange currently lives in New York with his wife and two daughters. When he’s not taking care of the office saltwater aquarium, he’s probably playing Kerbal Space Program.
Last year, we had the pleasure of welcoming Michael Pryor on stage at La French Touch Conference New York. We thought the company’s successful expansion after its launch in France in 2015 would be inspiring, which is why we asked Michael Pryor to share his experience as the CEO of Trello Inc.
1) What sparked the idea of launching Trello?
In 2011, Joel Spolsky and I were running Fog Creek, a company founded by developers who built products for developers. We didn’t have any particular product in mind when we started the company. We just wanted to build a great place to work.
We used to do “Creek Weeks” every once in a while where employees would take one week off from their current work and dedicate themselves to working on a new idea. One of the ideas we had was a to-do list that only had five slots: 2 things you are working on now, 2 things you would work on next, and one thing you explicitly would not work on. The idea was to constrain yourself so other people could quickly tell exactly what you were focused on. Everyone in the company would then put their list up on a board for the rest of the company to see. We were going to call it “Five Things”.
This idea matured into the idea for Trello. On September 2011, we launched the first version of Trello at TechCrunch Disrupt, and although we didn’t win, 25.000 new users signed up the next day. The rest is history.
2) Why did you choose to expand to France?
It took us about… a couple hours to decide to launch in France! France was a really obvious option at that time for us: it was a fast-growing country in terms of sign-ups, we had a really active user base, and we knew there were little barriers to enter the market. Another advantage was that our international manager was French; he could give good insights on the market.
From a market perspective, there was a clear boom of startups and innovation, not only in France but also in the center of Europe. It made total sense for us to be part of this growing adventure.
2) Based on your experience of launching a business abroad, could you share your development strategy with our readers? How would you explain your success?
When going international, we made sure to stay true to our brand and at the same time understand local users’ needs.
Every country, every culture, every language has its own characteristics. At Trello, we take great pride in delighting our users, and naturally took that value with us when we started growing globally. This meant to understand what our users wanted locally and figuring out what we could do to surprise and satisfy them. We also made sure to invest in the long term, we believe that in order to build a brand in a new country, you need to show that you are coming to stay.
I believe our international success comes from the fact that we were not afraid to test and learn and constantly move forward.
We decided to expand internationally in 2015. We already had a lot of users using Trello in English in different countries and we wanted to give them the best experience possible. We first translated the platform into Portuguese, German and Spanish. We decided to understand what launching internationally would mean. We initially took three steps:
- Explored several marketing channels to launch in Brazil and create a momentum
- Communicated to our German users that we were available in German
- Did nothing in Spain to see if just translating in a language would have an impact.
The main lesson we learned was that if you want to grow in a new market, simply translating is not enough. If you want to expand in a market, you need to let your users and the market know that you are here. After this first experiment, we wanted to push the lessons further and decided to see if we could crowdsource our product’s translation.
We picked the French language to run this experiment: France was a fast-growing country and our international manager was a French native. The experiment was a huge success: in less than a month, 40 French users had translated our product into French! We were ready to launch.
We decided to follow Brazil’s example and created a big momentum: we hired a PR firm, created a French landing page (trello.com/france) which was shared on social media by our users and went on a tour to talk at 17 events! I was a speaker at France Digital Day, had dinner with President Macron (who wasn’t president yet) and toured different incubators and co-working spaces to explain Trello’s trajectory. This was a very successful launch. A couple of months later, I spoke at La French Touch Conference. It was great to connect with French companies again.
After that success, we decided to go even further and started a program to translate Trello into 16 new languages. About 500 crowdsourcers took over the challenge. Within four months, they helped us make Trello available in 21 languages! Since then, we launched our product in Japan and the Nordics, with a dedicated marketing strategy and in-market support.
To pursue our expansion, we now focus on empowering our existing users in local markets – as they are our best passionate advocates – and leverage pre-existing networks by creating co-marketing campaigns with local players.
3) Do you have any advice for foreign entrepreneurs who have the ambition of expanding to France?
Going to new markets requires starting from zero: your brand has much less traction than in your original country, you do not have a local network and most likely you do not know the market characteristics very well. If you have no experience in France, you will have to go through a learning curve to get to understand it better. Nonetheless, France has a large structure to welcome new companies from La French Tech to BPI, through Invest in France and with a French touch, you will be able to meet the right people much faster. Also, French corporations are going through this “digital transformation” phase. After being in France a couple of years, we can see a clear mind-shift and work with all kinds of companies who want to move towards a more agile and digital way of working, from CAC 40 corporations to local associations. France has a large pool of highly qualified workers who have international experience ( often speak several languages), which can be very helpful.
4) How would you define the French Touch in business?
What struck me the first time I went to France for business was how formal people would be at startup events: people would dress much more formally than Americans and there would be fewer laptops, cell phones, and tablets in people’s hands than at American events. I was happy I had packed accordingly!
But when I got to better know French people, I was delighted by the importance they give to human relationships in the business environment: small talk is important to start a conversation, and a lot of deals are closed during business lunches or dinners. I learned that when you schedule a meeting you need to schedule an hour, not 30 minutes as it is very common in the US. Getting to know those details was very important and today I pay more attention to how I interact with my French employees: I always start our conversation by asking how they are doing!
5) What’s your entrepreneurial dream?
I had the privilege of growing up in an environment that gave me access to a good education and personal development. When I joined the labor market, I became an entrepreneur very early on, launching Fog Creek Software in 2000 with Joel Spolsky. After launching 16 products in the course of 17 years, I was able to learn a lot both as a professional and as a person. I was also able to help several employees grow, and I have been working with some of them for more than 16 years now. My dream was to be able to build a company with a successful exit. Today, after the acquisition of Trello by Atlassian, I realize that not only has my dream come true but it was reinforced by the fact that we landed in a company that lets us keep doing what we love. This is my true entrepreneurial dream.