🪄 Bringing back the magic of software - How Linear is helping build the next generation of startups

There is software out there for literally everything, but not many solve the problem of software development. Issue tracking, bug, and software management tools are not as evolved as they should’ve been.
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Priyanshu Anand
April 26, 2022

Look at the bright side

Great software supports human intellect. But magical software enhances human creativity.

Karri Saarinen and Jori Lallo had another startup idea before Linear was even ideated. This was back in 2012 when the two were part of the YCombinator batch. Although that didn’t take off, Saarinen recalls all the lessons learned from that experience which eventually matured into what became Linear less than half a decade later.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about starting a startup is the uncertainty of it. It’s the unpredictability of what might happen tomorrow that keeps you on the edge; it keeps you up at night, anxious as to what might happen, yet filled with adrenaline as to, again, what might happen. But the most beautiful things often exist beside the darkest. Saarinen and Jori, although great coders and designers at the time, didn’t yet realize how to prioritize tasks, set goals, and keep the momentum up week after week without tiring themselves out.

When you’re just starting out, it can seem rather trivial or even contrary to meaningful work, and it might even be accurate for early-stage startups. But as you progress, things get complicated, you start to lose track of things and you end up building silos in your attempt to foster transparency. Execution at early-stage startups should be fast-paced; you should keep the momentum up but that doesn’t mean you don’t set any goals. Your goal should be to keep the entire cycle as ‘lightweight’ as possible. This was also what we heard from the founders of another startup of a similar name - LinearB. The bicycle syndrome - If you move fast enough, you’re actually in better quality.

Working on an early idea is a lot about listening to what your users want. This could mean a lot of frequent re-iterations but the team should focus on ‘solving the problem and not the feature’ - meaning that users often just want a solution to a problem they see now and not the bigger picture. By steering the conversations away from finding a solution to a feature to finding a solution to a problem, you’re essentially reshaping your product into something more suitable for your market.

It’s tempting to solve everything at once but it’s also a sure-fire way to end up with your hands in the chipper. Only working moms and Jesus can work on way too many things at once and still nail it. The rest of us should stick to focusing on one thing at a time. Setting the right goals, prioritizing product roadmap, and focusing on making updates more frequently is what culminated their first startup venture. Although they went on to work and grow other teams for a while after that - Saarinen at Airbnb and Jori at Coinbase - these learnings eventually seeded what became Linear.

The magic of software

Tuomas Artman joined Saarinen and Jori in April 2019. His experience at Uber combined with their experiences at Airbnb and Coinbase gave Linear exactly the type of foundation that was needed. They wanted to bring back the magic of building software, the magic that has been lost in the noise of overwhelming technologies that have become ubiquitous with the advent of the 21st century. We’ve forgotten the miracles that revolutionized this period in time; we’ve forgotten what it was like touching a touchscreen phone for the first time, what it was like to execute the “hello world!” code the first time, what it was like to play Mario cart for the first time.

From left - Karri Saarinen, Jori Lallo (is it just us, or does he resemble a young Ewan McGregor?), and Tuomas Artman (source)

A lot of people don’t realize the extent of computational power that exists today. There are possible quantum computers being tested out, there are self-driving cars that are arguably smarter than most drivers out there, and yet, we’ve lost ourselves in the future we didn’t envision, but the one we’re unfortunately stuck in. Software that was supposed to make work easier is leading to noise and distraction, leading to less productivity and more time spent understanding what’s going on.

There’s more competition than ever and founders are more worried about pushing their product to the market, unwilling to unbundle and address the problems that lie within the team. We’re so focused on reaping the benefits that we’ve forgotten the seeds we’re sowing. The future is stuck in the past. We’re not as ahead of time as we should’ve been. We’re letting software dictate us instead of it being the other way round. What happened to being constantly amazed by the possibilities at large? What happened to the time we didn’t have to spend hours responding to emails?

Linear wants to bring back the magic of building software. They want to pull us back from the depths of noise, distractions, and unproductivity. Managing software development teams and keeping track of critical activities is almost as important as building those products. There is software out there for literally everything, but not many solve the problem of software development. Issue tracking, bug, and software management tools are not as evolved as they should’ve been. Having worked at goliath organizations and witnessing first-hand the issues that plague software development made the Finnish trio the perfect candidates for envisioning a product tailor-fit for today’s software teams. The pandemic further cemented their idea and the need for it.

Linear was born like a lotus that springs through muddy water. The three things that make Linear different from the crowd:

  • Make it appealing i.e. great UI and UX. If you want software teams to keep checking back without letting out an exasperated sigh, you have to make it user-friendly and appealing. ⌘K calls up the entire menu of shortcuts to perform basically every possible action using a keyboard shortcut.
  • Automate as much as you can. Optimize bug tracking, code branches, and status updates by automating workflows.
  • Planning and roadmap can be aligned seamlessly with the product which makes it reliable and essentially easier to execute rollouts.

The shape of progress

We believe there is a much better, modern workflow waiting to be discovered. We believe creators should focus on the work they create, not tracking or reporting what they are doing. Managers should spend their time prioritizing and giving direction, not bugging their teams for updates. - Karri Saarinen

They chose to call it Linear because it signifies progress. They wanted to make the concepts easy yet powerful, grounded in the daily lives of engineers who are always looking for shortcuts to everything. It wasn’t late before investors realized what Linear was capable of. They raised their seed round in November 2019 led by Sequoia Capital for $4.2 million. Since the product announcement, thousands of companies (small and large alike) signed up for the waitlist. Engineering teams from companies like Pitch, Render, Albert, and more, started using Linear for their production lifecycles, giving the product the validation that it needed.

Linear dashboard - source

In under a year, Linear raised their Series A for $13 million, again, led by Sequoia Capital. Hundreds of startups had started using Linear at this point. Not only were they using it but also building extensions and integrations on top of it. They soon included the OAuth feature in addition to their GraphQL API, to make it easier for developers to build and use integrations. Linear itself integrates with the most well-known tools like Slack, Github, Zapier, and more. As the company continued to layer more processes, its customer base grew stronger. Their goal to make software magical again seems more plausible with each passing day.

Reflecting on their achievements of 2021, the Linear team recounted over 50 new features and over 700 fixes and improvements. They looked back on 56 projects completed projects last year and are looking foward to a lot more this year. Most of the features updates, fixes, and issues that they committed came from a community of product users.

Let’s take a deeper dive into their community.

The advent of community

The symbolism of linear growth isn’t just for the sake of it. What good is an idealogy if you don’t practice what you preach? To the folks at Linear, one thing trumps everything else - the urge to bring back the unhindered, uninterrupted magic of building software. They realized that to influence a bigger impact, they should hear from the people about what they would want from software like Linear. How can it be better? How can it be more agile? More robust? More in sync with the world?

The answer was community. Take it from the people to give it back to them, but better.

A Slack Community

Linear’s community on Slack is a thriving group of close to 4,500 software development leaders, groups, and professionals who are there helping each other, and Linear, work better.

The community is new but not uninitiated. You can see a flurry of introductions and messages from people who love the product and are now a part of the community, helping others in ways that helped them.

Weekly announcements from Erin Frey, responsible for leading customer experience at Linear.

And a lot of feedback and feature requests.

Product Changelog

Linear’s changelog has been a part of the ride since the very early stages. Saarinen argues that although adding a changelog to your company’s portfolio isn’t uncommon for startups, it doesn’t seem to be part of early-stage startups where updates are more chaotic than they are systematic. Changelogs are the way to communicate your public persona and cultivate a culture that resonates with your community of users. It’s a tried and tested way to align the 3 pillars of sustainable growth - goals, team, and customers.

Features and improvements updated as of 21st April

In talking about how writing changelogs have helped Linear be more aligned with its missions, Saarinen notes down 6 things that are directly impacted by it:

  • Momentum - Consistency is key to progress and momentum is key to consistency at startups. It keeps the internal system functioning while keeping everyone aware of everything that’s happening.
  • Early Adopters - The very first set of customers who use the product are the true fans who believe in it. Keeping them in the loop and honing transparency with them is an undeniable way to ensure loyalty.
  • Culture - As mentioned earlier, changelogs cultivate a culture of building in public. Which, these days is becoming synonymous with community-led growth.
  • Marketing - Changelogs can be a great way to create noise. In the early stages, it might seem insignificant, but compounded over time leads to thousands of people reading and sharing these updates -  be it with their team, friends, or other colleagues. In some cases, it might even come up as a conversation starter. Long story short - it leverages organic growth over time.
  • Recruiting - A company that’s open to the public eye gives candidates more resources to look into which acts as a natural filter for the company to hire talent that best suits its goals.
  • Investor relations - Funded startups are answerable to their investors. Changelogs are a great way for VCSs to be up-to-speed with what the company has been up to.

They also have a newsletter dedicated to changelog updates with 16,500 subscribers and counting.

Linear.fm

Innovation is riveting, and the Linear team has done exactly that by conceptualizing linear.fm which gives a voice to startup Founders, CTOs, and Engineering leaders who have introduced Linear as a part of their company culture and now can’t imagine working without it.

This series highlights the restraints that startups face in a fast-paced environment and how did Linear help re-order the noise into musical notes.

In the 10th episode of the series, Christophe Pasquier, the CEO, and Founder of Slite talks about how the simplicity of using Linear pushed them towards better synchronization and productivity as a team. The product's philosophy about doing everything that they possibly can in a product has truly made everything apart from the process of development itself, extremely manageable.

Linear Method

A recurring theme that surrounds Linear’s existence is the mission to make software building magical again. Linear Method is a best practices guide (or method) to improve project management lifecycles within your company. This comes from decades of experience from the founders who have built and scaled product teams and projects before Linear was a thing. It’s divided into 3 parts:

  • Introduction - Advice on starting a startup. What are the principles you should question before you embark on your journey? Best practices such as setting up weekly or monthly goals, setting up a changelog, keeping track of work done and progress made, focusing on as much quality work as possible, and so many more such invaluable tips and tricks.
  • Direction - The idea of setting up goals, setting up product releases, the art of prioritization, leeway for flexibility, scoping for projects that matter, and a lot more.
  • Building - The art of progress. Generating momentum to keep moving, finding what the problem and not what’s convenient. Managing projects, building in public, fostering a community of users, and the importance of building in public.

A lesson from Linear Method, about the importance of launching

Documentation

Official documentation - a deep dive into the product, how it functions, how to optimally use it, features, integrations, APIs, basically everything that has anything to do with Linear.

Most popular documentation as per reference

A sizeable Twitter community

Linear has over 22K followers on Twitter. And software professionals absolutely love it.

Building towards a utopian future

Somewhere between a tech-driven future and a tech-absent past, we forgot that we’re the ones responsible for the utopian future that we’ve imagined. What was once a miracle of science and evolutions gradually became a dreadful plague that consumed software teams of any joy that comes from building software. Linear wants to remind the world that building software is still a noble pursuit, a magical realm of creating something out of nothing. This profession should have to find a way to be pure again, be free from the grips of noise and competition.

However, they believe that the tools are merely a medium. The real protagonists are us, the creators. We define the narrative that we desire. We define what the status quo should look like. Companies like Linear are just trying to aid us in that process. Gradually, as their reach expands, so does a community of wonderful creators who also want to bring back the magic of software.


To Summarize

Look at the bright side

  • Saarinen and Jori’s learnings from their first startup attempt.
  • The realization that software teams lack proper project management and tracking tools.
  • In the chase for productivity, startups end up creating silos and roadblocks.
  • This led to the birth of Linear

The magic of software

  • Tuomas joins the team and Linear is officially founded.
  • Linear’s take on software management and how something that was supposed to be magical started turning chaotic.
  • The need for proper project tracking, roadmap, and automation tools.
  • What makes Linear stand out.

The shape of progress

  • Linear’s funding and growth through the years.

The advent of community

  • The need for community.
  • A Slack community - close to 4,500 software professionals on the group talking about everything Linear.
  • Product changelog - Building in public and Saarinen’s take on the importance of it.
  • Linear.fm - Founder stories of how Linear came to the rescue.
  • Linear Method - Best practices to improve your startup journey.
  • Documentation - complete guide to learning and working with Linear.
  • A sizeable Twitter community - Over 22K followers on Twitter and counting.

Building towards a utopian future

  • The magic of software is right around the corner.


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