The story of Cactus; the App designed to help you see yourself and the world more positively

The story of Cactus; the App designed to help you see yourself and the world more positively

Found on Product Hunt

The story of Cactus; the App designed to help you see yourself and the world more positively

Found on Product Hunt

Ryan Brown

Ryan Brown

Co-Founder

Cactus

Mindfulness, personal growth, and intimate sharing in a minute

🇺🇸 Based Denver, but we’re a remote team. So, “the Internet?”

📅 We started working on Cactus in April 2019

🏆 4 Founders

💵 Monthly Revenue = $0. Our product is free because we wanted it for ourselves and wanted to share it with the world. 

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Who are you and what business did you start?

I’m Ryan. I worked in coffee for a long time. A very long time. I worked for Peet’s, Ritual Roasters, Stumptown, Tonx, and Blue Bottle. And some others, but who has time to hear them all. I was primarily a coffee buyer, which means that I traveled the world, meeting farmers and tasting their coffee and buying beans to roast back in the States. While working for Tonx, which was a pioneering coffee subscription business, I transitioned into digital product management. When Blue Bottle acquired Tonx to build its digital commerce, I left coffee buying behind for good. Then, I wanted to try product management outside of coffee entirely, so I moved to Denver, where I worked at Craftsy, which was later acquired by NBCUniversal and became Bluprint (https://www.mybluprint.com/).

I met some really amazing people at Craftsy, and we wanted to start a company together.

And, we shared a surprising experience trying meditation. 

We wanted the benefits of mindfulness – reduced anxiety, better focus, improved presence – but we struggled with the practice of meditation. We figured that there must be another way, a better way, to practice mindfulness.

Working with a positive psychology expert, we built Cactus.

Our technology is primarily built by Neil Poulin, CTO. Our Chief Design Officer is Katie Blackman, and our Head of Product is Scott Rocher. We’ve worked together for years between Tonx, Blue Bottle, Craftsy, and now Cactus. While most of us are in Denver, we’re an entirely remote team. We use Slack and Hangouts to collaborate, and we use disconnecting to be productive. We do remote pretty dang well.

As for the product, Cactus is for people who want to achieve mindfulness in a minute. Your attention is a zero-sum game, and what you choose to focus on is important for your mindset. Cactus helps you boost your mood through a prompt or a question, helping you to focus on the positive forces in your life.

Walk us through your previous experience and the process of creating your product.

Scott and I worked together building tonx.org and later bluebottlecoffee.com. We built, from scratch, nearly everything you see on bluebottlecoffee.com today. Blue Bottle is not just an ecommerce platform. The underlying tech deals with fulfillment (via roasteries, kitchens, cafes), blog and brewing education, cafe hours and information, subscriptions, gift subscriptions (which had to be conceived and built separately), and more. There’s a lot under the hood to make it all work. It was a lot of work, and it was a lot of fun.

A process should work for the people, not the other way around. Also, a process rarely works, even for the same people, forever. So, our design and dev process changes to fit the current needs of our current team freely. One of my favorite headlines ever was in First Round Review . So often, process is used as a weapon to passive-aggressively, willfully sabotage the communication that humans need to have to build these complex products.

I know I’m not really answering your question. So here:

Our design and dev process is a lot like humans trying to communicate complex ideas as best as we can. We openly try different tools and methods. We try different tricks and hacks. We change our ways often. Sometimes we do well, sometimes we don’t.

How did you launch Cactus?

Cactus launched in June. It started as nothing more than a simple email list, and has since grown to include a website and (soon) an iOS app. We primarily leveraged our personal networks to get the word out, and we’ve been fortunate that those networks have helped us spread the word.

Our website and apps are built entirely in-house.

What are some of the most effective ways that you attract your customers and keep them engaged with your business?

Our success is entirely built on word of mouth. It turns out that a lot of people want to find mindfulness but, like us, struggle with meditation. This has made it easy for our growth.

We’ve sponsored a few newsletters and those have gone really well. But honestly, we selected them because we just already liked them and were subscribed to them. Plus, we figured that our product is (presently) so email-based, and we thought that the subscribers were likely to give us high-quality feedback.

Which Apps/ Tools/ Platforms are most important to your business?

Slack/ Hangouts: As a remote team, these are just so vital to our ability to connect and collaborate as a team.

Flamelink: This headless content management tool powers a lot of the day-to-day product experience. We’re partnering with them to develop the product to better suit our needs.

Otter.ai: A recording/ transcription product that is super helpful in customer research interviews. Allows me to instantly share with the team and search against the transcriptions.

What are your sources of inspiration?

Our team reads and shares a lot. We have a dedicated channel in slack called #reads (which is not remotely reserved for readable-only sharing).

Some frequent stars of the channel:

Masters of Scale podcast: Reid Hoffman has awesome guests who continually push us to consider our plans and methods more deeply. We recently spent weeks dissecting every part of his interview with Airbnb’s Brian Chesky. I recommend the uncut version here: https://overcast.fm/+I6DDTkqJo

We all read and loved Jason Fried’s most recent book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. I’ve never read a book by Jason that didn’t have me excited to change everything.

The Greater Good from UC Berkeley is a deep well of amazing information on wellness, mental health, and happiness. I’m thankful for it.

I am deeply helped and inspired by Cactus advisor, Virginia Bauman. A couple of us worked with Virginia in the past, and she is an honest, open source of continual help, no matter what the entrepreneurial challenge. My former manager, Lia Siebert, is someone I channel when working through difficult product problems. She had a knack for reframing problems and opportunities that has changed the way I see product innovation.

What’s been the biggest business challenge you’ve overcome?

We pivoted our product and slimmed our team. Both have been positive changes.

We started with a product, Kinecho, that aimed to help older adults record their memories, stories, and legacies.

Kinecho had difficulties selling, despite dozens of different distribution and business models. But what demoralized the team was that our handful of customers wouldn’t use the product for more than a few of days. Fortunately, we noticed something that led to Cactus: https://medium.com/@ryyyan/heres-one-way-to-pivot-3aa8b842d140

When we made this pivot, two co-founders left. At the time it felt like a big challenge, but with those departures, communication, velocity, and morale improved.

Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs?

Two things.

First, when sourcing and selecting co-founders, it’s not enough that they help you round out knowledge or skills of the team. They also need to share your values. 

You want your team to be diverse in every way. Except values. If you have a conflict of values, you will have a hard time making tough decisions. Your values are not just a list of words, they’re a rubric against which you should make every difficult decision.

If your team is not actually aligned on these, you’re going to risk a fracture with every turn of your startup or company.

Second, it’s common in product to talk about the problem vs. the solution. But we’ve found it’s important to go a step deeper than identifying the problem. When we had to prove that the problem was a real problem, it was far harder to lie to ourselves. How did we know when a problem was a real problem? 

A problem is real when you can identify people spending time or money, and ideally both, to address or resolve the problem. If people are not already doing this, it’s probably not a real problem.

Where can we learn more?

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