I am happy to be a founder again

Hiking on a recent family trip | Photo by Brian de Haaff

August 28, 2023

I am happy to be a founder again

by Brian de Haaff

Editor's note: Aha! Notebooks has been split into Aha! Knowledge and Aha! Whiteboards.

I never wanted to be a CEO. Believe it or not, this is true. I just wanted to build and bring to market great products. Aha! is now a +$100-million business. And that demands attention — operating it requires a CEO’s close attention to many administrative tasks. I am deeply involved. But I have to make difficult tradeoffs that can sometimes pull me from the work I find most compelling.

My work as CEO is vital. But I also wanted to go back to being a founder again — being at the forefront of creating value for our customers. Is it possible to do both?

Value exchange is what keeps a business alive. If you cannot achieve value and get paid for it, a founder suffers as a startup dies. I feel fortunate that our team at Aha! drives real value exchange for our customers every day — doing so at an incredibly high level. It is awe-inspiring to witness and fuels me when those urgent administrative tasks seem to occupy most of my day.

But recently I felt a pull to get back to my roots. I felt it was time for me to re-engage at a deeper level with customers and our products and I saw exactly how. I decided to work really closely with our talented product management and UX team, putting myself at the front of our new product — Aha! Notebooks.

Of course, I am involved in the direction and evolution of all Aha! software products. But I wanted to work on Aha! Notebooks like it was the only product that mattered, as if we were just starting out all over again. I wanted to do it like a startup founder — who must fight against failure as an existential threat.

It started with really engaging with the team and customers. We need to deeply understand what customers need, not guess or accept what other people tell us. I have talked to more than 30 customers over the last few weeks. I skipped regular meetings and told the team I just needed to do less. And those learnings have informed everything, from defining features to positioning to bringing the new product to market.

I am so happy. The last few months have been rewarding, especially hearing positive customer feedback and seeing the team’s growing pride.

The satisfaction is mounting. Customers have a product that they need and want. And some have already signed up with a meaningful number of users. Aha! Notebooks gives them a place to centralize all product notes and whiteboards, so they can bring everything and everyone related to product development together. It also makes it possible to achieve what is so elusive — true stakeholder alignment.

Our own product team is moving faster than ever as well. People often connect the concept of founder to startup. I think the entire team has adopted a startup mindset. These folks stepped forward into a new level of excellence with an urgent view towards achievement that pushes them along into the unknown.

Success is never guaranteed and most new products fail. I am also working harder than ever before. (This is difficult for some to imagine because I do work very hard already.) But I feel satisfied. There is contentment in doing what you really like and with people who share the same vision.

The last few months have been a good reminder that sometimes what you think is important really is not. What drove joy in the past can do so again. And in going back you can learn new ways for the future.

See what we have been working on for the last few months. Try Aha! Notebooks and tell me what you think.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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