At top of WorkFlowly founder’s to-do list: Keeping his app’s cult-like following happy

Jesse Patel
WorkFlowy founder Jesse Patel.

In January, when Jesse Patel announced plans to overhaul WorkFlowy, his quirky-but-powerful outline app, he appealed for mercy.

“If you are frustrated, just remember that we are trying really hard and that harsh words genuinely sting,” he wrote on the company’s blog.

It wasn’t your usual Silicon Valley product announcement, but this isn’t a typical app. WorkFlowy is basically a cloud-based list-making program with a cult-like following. Unlike other apps, like OneNote or Omnifocus, WorkFlowy places almost zero restrictions on how you organize your ideas. Just open it up and start typing. People speak of the way WorkFlowy structures information not as technology so much as religion.

But the app has hardly changed in its eight years, and calls for new features have grown louder among the WorkFlowy faithful. A feature-rich but less-charming WorkFlowy clone called Dynalist has been siphoning away customers. And in recent years, some have questioned whether WorkFlowy is even in development anymore. It’s not difficult to see why Patel and his team would be feeling a little beat up these days.

Now, Patel, 37, is rebooting WorkFlowy with new features and a smoother interface. He faces a tough challenge: How to win over customers demanding more features while staying true to the thing purists love most about WorkFlowy — its bare-bones simplicity.

This month, the San Francisco-based WorkFlowy launched a new and much-improved mobile app for iOS and Android. (Patel has called his previous mobile app “terrible.”) A new desktop app is in the works as well. And, where WorkFlowy had previously been run by just Patel and his business partner, Patel is now hiring employees for the first time. He has hired three additional team members and he says more are on the way.

WorkFlowy is quite possibly the strangest cloud app you’ll ever use. Open it up for the first time — in a browser or in the desktop app — and you’re met with a single bullet. There are almost no buttons and no windows to open; you just dive in and start adding stuff — your to-do lists, projects, random thoughts, goals for the year, meeting notes, grocery lists, ideas for a book you’re writing — anything. (You can see it in action in the video below.) WorkFlowy’s lists can be nested within lists, and every list springs open and snaps shut with a satisfying, liquid-like flourish.

Use it for a few days and you end up with an ever-expanding organic tree of information. (Patel calls it a “fractal.”). Everything is searchable, and you can use tags to surface cross-sections of your data.

“It’s just more satisfying than other tools,” Patel said. “It’s an extension of yourself rather than somebody telling you how to work and how to think.”

There’s an unmistakable bohemian vibe baked into WorkFlowy. The company’s slogan is “Make lists, not war.” In its eight years it’s become the productivity app for people who hate productivity apps. Patel said WorkFlowy has more than two million registered users, 130,000 of which use the site regularly each month. WorkFlowy is profitable, Patel said, with 15,000 people paying $50 each year for a Pro subscription. That number is all the more impressive when you consider that WorkFlowy has no marketing strategy and attracts new customers only by word of mouth.

WorkFlowy has been spotted on the screens of CEOs, journalists, screenwriters and startup teams, Patel said. Slack’s founders are said to have started their company with it. Ev Williams, who founded Twitter and Medium, is said to be a fan, as is Vanity Fair writer Nick Bilton who, legend has it, used WorkFlowy to write his book, “Hatching Twitter.”

A preview of Workflowy’s new desktop app. The design aims to improve navigation between lists. (WorkFlowy image)

I first learned about WorkFlowy in 2012 from tech writer Farhad Manjoo, who wrote a column about it in Slate. I’d been looking for an app that could keep and organize all of my reporting notes, source lists, story ideas and outlines. I’d try one app for a while then dump it and try another. Nothing ever felt like the right fit.

Manjoo described a similar history of trying apps then abandoning them because they were “complex and cumbersome.” WorkFlowy, Manjoo wrote at the time, “is the easiest, best-designed, and most-flexible note-taker I’ve ever come across, and it solves many of the problems I’ve had with other software.”

I immediately followed the link in Manjoo’s column over to the WorkFlowy site and set up a free account. I soon upgraded to WorkFlowy’s $50 annual pro subscription.

There’s something very satisfying about having all of your important stuff in WorkFlowy and drilling down to just the stuff you need. I actually enjoy opening it up and using it each morning; I can’t say that about most other apps. And yet, inevitably, you end up wanting WorkFlowy to do more.

For starters, I’d like it to be able to convert text to embedded hyperlinks. (Right now, full-length URLs sprawl across the screen, naked and ugly.) A lot of people want WorkFlowy to be able to attach photos and other files to lists. Another common request: Improved collaboration so you can see what other people are doing in a list at any time.

Workflolwy’s new mobile app, which was released last month for iOS and this month for Android. (WorkFlowy image)

Every now and then one of these missing features becomes a deal breaker for me and I set WorkFlowy aside and try out some other app with more features. Over the years, I’ve tried Google Keep, Trello, Evernote, OneNote, TodoIst, Omnifocus, Simplenote, Bear and others. They’re all terrific. But those apps make me bend my thinking to their way of doing things. WorkFlowy lets me work how I like to work, and that’s why I always come back.

Earlier this month I emailed Manjoo, who now writes for The New York Times, to see if he’s still using WorkFlowy six years after his column ran. “Yes, I still use it and still love it,” he wrote back. “What I love is that it just works. It loads up quickly, has almost no interface — no new windows to open, buttons to hit, you basically just get in and start typing — and, best of all, hasn’t gotten more complicated over the years. … For me, it just naturally fits the way I do everything.”

Patel created WorkFlowy for the very same reason Manjoo and I would eventually start using it. He was working a complex job and needed to keep track of a ton of information. But, he said, all of the apps he was using “forced [me] to work inside a system that doesn’t work for me. They all have this fixed, limited structure and it was driving me insane.”

So he built his own app. He sees it as a grand experiment on how to organize information and recall it quickly.

WorkFlowy isn’t for everyone. It seems to attract a certain type of thinker, but there isn’t much agreement on who, exactly, that person is.

I think of the typical WorkFlowy user as right-brained, a good brainstormer, who draws unexpected connections. Manjoo says it’s someone predisposed to thinking in terms of outlines. And Patel says WorkFlowy users can be very Type-A and looking to neatly sort and make sense of an avalanche of information.

Some people just take to it and love it just the way it is. Others want to use it more but say they need it to do things that OneNote or Basecamp or other apps can do — highlight text, attach files or jump more nimbly between outlines.

To win over those more demanding customers, Patel is going to have to make long-promised features a reality. It’s been a long, slow slog, and the WorkFlowy faithful have gotten creative. There are scores of articles about how to hack WorkFlowy or create workarounds with browser extensions, scripts and keyboard shortcuts.

For example, by installing two (two!) browser extensions you can highlight and color-code your WorkFlowy text. And, in a perfect illustration of what it’s like to live with WorkFlowy, you don’t highlight words by selecting the text and then choosing a color from a drop-down menu; you type a tag for the color you want at the end of the sentence — #red, #steel-blue, #yellow-green, and so on. WorkFlowy can be downright eccentric in the way it handles these sorts of things.

Other workarounds: Each list has its own URL, so you can jump between them by bookmarking them in your browser.  On a Mac you can add WorkFlowy shortcuts to your dock using a $5 app called Fluid.

The web is chock full of tutorials on how to create repeating tasks and how to import books and read them in WorkfFlowy. There are also plenty of guides explaining how to adapt myriad productivity methods to WorkFlowy — “Getting Things Done,” Kanban, the Eisenhower Matrix, bullet journals and even Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break the Chain!” method. People write long, thoughtful blog posts about how they structure their WorkFlowy data. It’s the ultimate productivity porn.

A WorkFlowy demo page on the company’s website. (WorkFlowy screen grab)

Patel said he sees the home-cooked hacks as both “flattering and frustrating.”

“I’m frustrated that we haven’t satisfied needs that people have,” he said. Still, he said. “People are building these things and there’s a community of people supporting each other in this. I take inspiration from that.”

Between 2014 and 2016, WorkFlowy languished as its developers turned to other pursuits. Patel had twins and turned his attention to his family. Co-founder Mike Turitzin eventually stepped away from daily operations and assumed an advisory role. “The project stalled for a long time,” Patel said.

More recently, Patel has been pushing hard again to improve WorkFlowy. In addition to the features customers are calling for, Patel wants to continue refining his novel approach to organizing and navigating information. An important obstacle to re-booting WorkFlowy, he said, will be overhauling the app’s front-end code. Patel said his team has to rework that portion of the app before they can add many of the new features people want.

Patel has been experimenting with any number of ways to change WorkFlowy’s interface and help people dive into their information in a more intuitive way. He draws up rough ideas of what the next version of WorkFlowy might look like, then sends them to his visual designer in Seattle, who brings the ideas closer to life. Mock-ups for the new desktop site include tabs to help people bounce between lists. Patel said he recently tried out a grid-style view. He’s also been talking about new ways WorkFlowy could aggregate data.

“I have this vision of this way of doing stuff that is amazing,” Patel said. “I want to make it. And we’re not even close.”