There are millions of apps out there. Many are very successful, but most are not. What are the steps taken by successful app makers that distinguish them from unsuccessful ones? In addition, many people have ideas for an app but don't know where to begin. What are the steps you need to take to create a successful app? As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nenad Milanovic.
Nenad Milanovic is the CEO and founder of Clockify—the world’s most popular time-tracking tool. Apart from the time tracker used by millions, Milanovic and his team have built two more apps—a team chat app, Pumble, and a project management tool, Plaky. Fascinated with technology from a young age, Milanovic studied information science, so now he gives most of his attention to breathing life into tools that could enhance the workflow of people from all around the world.
Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
My story began miles away from the place I live now. I was born in Croatia but moved to Serbia when I was five.
The times I grew up in were uncertain. I witnessed conflicts, inflation, poverty, and overall confusion, which have all greatly shaped my view on both life and business. I quickly realized I needed to get really smart about where and how I invested my energy.
Somewhere around 2005, I decided to study information science. At the time, studying information technology in Serbia was like getting into uncharted waters—nobody really knew if it would be worth the effort in the end. But, I guess my deeply-rooted passion for developing technology was what kept me going.
In the following years, I went to the US to work in web engineering for a while, and in 2009, I started a consulting company. Although I knew in my heart that my purpose lies in building products, I also knew I had to take my time. After all, consulting was our only source of funds that could eventually lead us to product development. So, while never giving up on the consulting business, I spent almost a decade going back and forth between building products and watching them fall to pieces.
Then, with a bit of luck and a good deal of work and perseverance, we launched Clockify in 2017—and here we are today.
Most of us have been around a lot longer than apps have. What were your hobbies and interests in your youth before anyone knew what an 'app' was?
I was actually always very big on technology. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment this turned into a hobby, but I do recall one event that looks like a turning point now that I look back on it.
Me and my friends were around 15 years old, and we were all tired of undergoing the pains of playing games on dial-up. Back then, high-speed internet was extremely rare, let alone a wireless connection. So, I set up an Omni antenna on my roof, and this little experiment did the trick. Shortly after, we were all using the signal to share files and play games.
So, you could say tinkering with technology was my hobby long before I knew software development was going to be my call.
It has been said that our mistakes are our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or 'takeaways' you learned from that?
Back when we were still knee-deep in software development consulting, we were always on the lookout for a new project. But, when you’re in charge of other people’s projects, you always end up last in the food chain. So, we knew we had to launch our own product to romp ahead.
At one point, it seemed like we had finally earned our golden ticket. Long story short, there were certain changes to radio broadcasting regulations in Serbia, so radio stations needed a solution that would enable them to broadcast their signal and still comply with the new regulations.
And that’s where we jumped in with our first product ever.
We built this device for radio signal transmission and sold it to a bunch of radio stations in the Balkans. Then, it all worked fine up until the point it didn’t. And don’t get me wrong, the device worked perfectly. But that’s what the issue was—we made a device that targeted a limited market, and on top of that, it worked perfectly. It never needed fixing or upgrading, and we were at the finish line once we sold it to every radio station that needed it. So, the joke was on us. Perhaps we should have made a buggy device.
Now, all jokes aside, this project was a valuable lesson for all of us. Although the device we built turned out to be a one-way street, it helped us realize right from the start that we needed to focus on keeping our business sustainable.
I tend to meet two types of app developers; people who are passionate about app development and technology and people who started an app because they saw it as a means to solve a problem. Which camp would you put yourself in, and how did you arrive there?
Although I was always passionate about technology, practicality trumps passion. You cannot just instinctively follow your dreams if that move could potentially lead you to bankruptcy. So, I’d say I lean towards the problem-solving camp because that led us to Clockify.
In other words, building a time tracker was not just a whim we decided to cater to. Clockify was actually a practical solution to a problem we were facing at the time.
At that time, we didn’t have any projects on our hands. Then, almost out of nowhere, we received an email saying that the time tracker we used was about to go up in price. With time on our side and the lack of willingness to overpay, we ventured into building our own time-tracking tool.
However, at that moment, we didn’t even consider releasing the app. We initially made it for one purpose only—to ensure our team used a reliable time tracker that met all our needs. Then, after we realized other teams might be troubled by the same issues, we knew it was time to share Clockify with the world.
I guess the purpose behind Clockify, coupled with its aftermath, is what made my ties with the problem-solving camp even stronger. We set out to build a time tracker for our own personal use, and it achieved massive success almost immediately after launching simply because we took our own issues with the tool we were using as a starting point.
Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint—though I suppose sometimes it's both at the same time. What kept you motivated to develop your first minimum viable product, and how have you kept your momentum since then?
From the very onset, we aimed at building products, but I knew we shouldn’t just recklessly break off from consulting at all costs.
So, we’d invest resources into launching a product, see it come to nothing, and go back to consulting once again. Since this went on for almost ten years, I have to agree—my business venture was almost definitely a marathon.
But having a clear goal in mind is what kept me going. I knew we shouldn’t settle for anything less than our own product, so I kept trying relentlessly.
Whenever a product launch didn’t go as planned and we ended up disappointed, it really seemed like we were on the verge of giving up. But that didn’t last for too long. Shortly after, I’d be back to trying and trying and trying.
Until Clockify happened.
As soon as we made Clockify available for the public, we saw it soar. The app reached more than 17,000 users in just five days.
Still, I knew I shouldn’t let this initial success blind us. We didn’t even consider breaking off with consulting until we conducted thorough market research and ensured a stable cash flow.
To keep our momentum, we ensured that we kept a close eye on the market trends, took our time with expanding our team, and tried to give our users enough room to voice their needs. We had to take things slow, especially since we were entirely self-funded and had no money to splurge. But taking our time paid off in the long run.
I’m well aware there’s no such thing as a safe bet in business. What worked for us might not be a one-size solution for every business out there. However, doing one thing at a time and basing our decisions on customers’ genuine needs helped us not waste time on sidequests. And when you put such a valuable investment into a business idea, you’d like to see it return.
Can you tell us a bit about your app? How does it help people? What do you think makes it stand out? What are you most proud of?
Essentially, Clockify is a tool built from a genuine need to keep track of our productivity. We were fed up with giving a tidy sum every month only to end up with an app that didn’t have everything we needed. We knew we’d benefit from a no-fuss tool—the one that would not require investing additional time just to gain insight into how we spend our time.
So, right from its jumping-off point, Clockify was intended to be a simple solution to a team’s issue with tracking their time. In the beginning, that team was us. As time went on, we realized our time tracker might work just as well for everyone else. So, the teams grew in numbers.
It might seem like our tool gained such huge traction only because we offered its core options completely free of charge. But its success owes something to honesty, too. No matter the size of the team, time tracking in Clockify comes with no hidden costs whatsoever.
Since Clockify was initially built with real-life users in mind, it quickly attracted millions of people worldwide. With large numbers came requests for new features, so we wanted to deliver a standout customer experience.
At Clockify, we are user-centric to the core. We put great emphasis on prompt and efficient service, and that’s where our customer support jumps in. I’m personally particularly proud of our 96.6% user satisfaction rate, which wouldn’t be possible if we gave all our attention to the product only.
No user deserves a below-par experience, especially when they put something as valuable as their time in your hands. This is something we came to realize early on. You can have the most revolutionary product in the world, but if you don’t put your heart and soul into every interaction and make your customers feel heard, you risk seeing it flop.
Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you've taken to build such a large community?
Right now, we have around 5 million users, with more than 130,000 newly registered users each month.
To arrive at that point, we had to push through all the ups and downs that came along with starting off as a consulting business. And I have to say, that took a lot of back-and-forth steps. But, if I had to sum up our journey up to this point into three major steps, I guess they’d be:
- Filling the market gap — Even though we initially built Clockify for internal use, our starting points were the features and options the app we were using at the time fell short of. So, we figured out what the time trackers out there were missing and offered a sharp set of initial features. Although these were just the basic building blocks, this approach led us to fill the market gap. Instead of trying to come up with the next big thing, we focused on what was already there and built up on that.
- Listening to users — Nine times out of ten, it’ll be your customers who’ll tell you exactly what your next step should be. You just need to give them room to share their opinion. So, we make sure that we always listen to our users’ feedback, pinpoint their requests, and do everything in our power to address them. You cannot stay ahead of the competitive curve if you don’t take notice of your customers’ genuine needs.
- Building our brand around value — Giving our users the option to take back control of their time breeds value on its own. But, when you also focus on the content marketing process, you speak directly to your customers and ensure steady growth. Taking deliberate steps to offer our users practical value beyond products is what leads them to associate our brand with trust and reliability.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
Clockify’s core features are completely free. So, no matter how many users you invite or how long you wish to use the app, its basic functionalities will always remain free.
Then, there are multiple extra features that come with different paid plans. In case a user wants to build up on Clockify’s functionalities, they can upgrade to one of the paid versions.
We decided early on that we wanted to keep Clockify’s basic features free forever. To be able to do just that and still remain profitable, we introduced paid plans aimed at customers who simply need more than time tracking.
We started off with this idea that you don’t need to break the bank just to track your time. But, to be able to keep it intact, we stay true to our initial monetization strategy.
Can you tell our readers about the most unconventional tactic you've used to test, market, or gain feedback on a product? What did you try, what was unique about it, and what was the outcome?
Honestly, apart from building a product for our own needs and testing it internally, we didn’t do anything out of the box.
But the fact that we were the ones using the app first helped us catch all the shortcomings on the spot. We didn’t have to wait until the release to find out what was missing. Especially since we initially didn’t even plan on making Clockify available to the public.
However, as time went on and we did launch Clockify, we eventually needed both customer and market feedback. You need external input to know exactly where you should be heading. This is especially important if you want to perfect your product and keep your business profitable. But, at first, our use of the tool was enough to capture and resolve all the critical issues.
What are some of the strategies you have used to improve your products and build on their success?
Find the formula that works and stick to it sums up our core strategy. This is something we realized we should be doing ever since the moment we got caught by surprise by Clockify’s success.
And this may sound obvious to the point that it might not even sit right with some people. But, it was a strategy we replicated with Pumble and later on with Plaky.
We took our remote team’s needs as a starting point, built a team chat app and a project management platform, made sure we were the first to use and test them, and then we sent them out into the world. Yet again, with free-forever core features, just like we did with Clockify.
Then, to be able to perfect our tools further, we focused on harnessing our users’ feedback. It really doesn’t matter how good of a product you might have if you brush aside the voice of your customers. After all, they are the ones who’ll decide whether an idea will be a hit or a miss.
Thank you. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Put sustainability over innovation. I wish I had known this one sooner. This information would have perhaps helped me skip a few steps and get to the point we’re now at quicker. Trying to innovate at all costs will not get you anywhere most of the time. We did that with the radio station device, and it led us nowhere. But, the moment we decided to elevate what was already there and capitalize on the weak spots we detected, we stumbled across a market gap. Ultimately, this is what helped our app stand out.
- Release early. Whether you’re about to release a feature or launch a brand new app, releasing early is what you should be aiming for. It does sound daunting, but however long you put it off, you are never going to be ready. Sooner or later, you’ll need to launch your app. The moment you do, you’ll be one step closer to success—since you’ll gain valuable feedback and direct your further actions based on it.
- Don’t optimize too soon. There’s really no reason to waste your energy trying to build an app that’ll handle hundreds of thousands of users from day one. This goes hand in hand with avoiding to release early. If you’re putting off the launch because you’re stuck in premature optimization, yet again you’re missing out on acquiring important metrics that’ll help you give your users the exact tool they need. Wave goodbye to premature optimization. What matters at the beginning is that you know exactly what to do when the moment to scale your app comes.
- Measure and track everything. Pay attention to analytics. If you don’t keep a close eye on performance and engagement metrics, you won’t be able to spot the critical moment to optimize your tool.
- Make sure to invest in what your users need. Find out what your users will mostly benefit from and invest in that. Obtain user feedback, do market research, and pay attention to your own analytics. The information you get will help you direct your energy and resources into meeting your customers’ expectations and ultimately create a loyal customer base.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Although it sounds challenging to generate one idea that would help a vast number of people, acting on the premise that all lives are valued equally is a good starting point.
That’s the premise we built our team around and the one we are fully committed to.
And even though we aren’t perhaps able to start a movement, we directed our energy towards supporting a wide range of educational and humanitarian causes through our COING Foundation.
We're all responsible for creating a better society on an individual level. But, I believe that companies are the ones that need to make the first move and engage in creating a lasting positive impact.
At least, that's what we're trying to do. We try to live up to our values by using our presence to promote inclusion and diversity and speak out on social issues.
Still, to make sure we're actually making a difference, more companies need to take a public stance and use their influence for a greater cause. The sooner we all start empowering others and embracing diversity, the earlier we can bring the best to most people.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’m most active on LinkedIn, so you can connect with me there.
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