Haiku Deck Rises From the Ashes of ‘Mix-N-Match with Sir Mix-A-Lot’

After Giant Thinkwell flopped with its initial efforts—a celebrity based social game starring Sir Mix-A-Lot and later a social video play—the Seattle startup was falling apart. For a while, co-founders Adam Tratt and Kevin Leneway were the only ones left.

“At that moment of darkness, we realized we needed to sort of start over,” Tratt said at Xconomy’s Mobile Madness Northwest forum last year. “That was sort of a difficult realization.”

Communicating the pivot away from social games to existing investors required a presentation, and the two former Microsofties labored through PowerPoint, as have millions before them. Like good entrepreneurs in search of problems that need solutions, they wondered why it’s so hard for someone who isn’t a designer—they had lost theirs in the disintegration—to create a good presentation using the conventional tool. It shouldn’t be, they concluded, particularly not in the age of Internet connected mobile devices. And that was the germ of Haiku Deck, an iPad App that has been downloaded more than 250,000 times since Labor Day and is now getting an update.

(Incidentally, Giant Thinkwell may be the ultimate anecdote supporting the idea that early-stage venture investors should bet on a team, rather than an idea, and expect it to adjust to the market. When I asked Tratt about this in an interview at the company’s new dorm room-like Fremont offices, he demurs at first, but acknowledges that the only remnant of the company that brought you “Mix-N-Match with Sir Mix-A-Lot” is the team. “I am humbled enough by our initial experience to know that it’s not the team alone,” he says. “It’s as much about luck.”)

With the initial release of Haiku Deck, the company scrapped 90 percent of PowerPoint’s features, focusing on the ones Tratt says people really care about, and forcing them into “best practices in presentation.” That means one idea per slide, reinforced with a powerful image, and consistent formatting throughout.

The new version adds some features back—charts and graphs, lists, text management, easier sharing of the decks—based on “that flywheel effect of customer feedback,” which Tratt calls “the hardest part of starting something new.”

“You don’t have customers in the beginning, so you don’t know if you’re building the right thing,” he says.

Haiku Decks are quick and easy to make on an iPad and can be shared on other platforms. Of course, Tratt says, you will eventually be able to make them on other devices, but he’s not talking about which ones or by when. The company targeted the iPad first because of its leading market share, and “users who pay money for things.”

Haiku Deck is free, with premium add-ons such as themes and fonts, which Tratt says people are buying, though he declines to disclose sales. (A main competitor is Apple’s own Keynote, the iPad version of which costs $9.99.)

There may be a bigger business sometime down the road in subscription-based services, collaboration tools, and lead-generation through analysis of who is viewing decks posted online. When the company would add these features “depends how quickly we can grow the team,” he says.

Giant Thinkwell—a graduate of the initial TechStars Seattle class in 2010—has five employees plus an intern. The company has six job openings, Tratt says as he looks around a windowless conference room he painted a jarring orange.

“It might get tight,” he acknowledges, visualizing where added employees would go. He adds, “I wouldn’t be in this office space right now if I wasn’t very scrappy.”

With Creative Commons-licensed photos pulled from Flickr based on keywords in the slides (or your own photos), limited text, and the short duration the name suggests, Haiku Decks can have the feel of advertisements—which is perhaps a good thing in a presentation.

In some ways, this puts more onus on the presenter. You can’t fall back on a slide of nested bullet points to convey your information. You’ve got to know it cold and smooth to fill in the ample blanks imposed by Haiku Deck best practices. Also a good thing.

“We’re giving you a framework to do it correctly,” Tratt says. “Does that mean you’re automatically going to be Tony Robbins? No. We’re just helping you do it better.”

Haiku Deck has benefited from good publicity, but Tratt says its best marketing has been word-of-mouth.

“When you make a presentation it’s almost always because you want to share it with someone else, so the product is naturally viral,” he points out.

Early adopters have been the people you’d expect: entrepreneurs and marketers, professional presenters and salespeople, teachers and students. That represents a significant target market, where Giant Thinkwell is focusing now. (The company doesn’t see Haiku Deck as a tool for the most important presentations someone does all year—the ones you work on for three months with the help of a McKinsey consultant and a design agency, the ones a Microsoft middle manager gives to Steve Ballmer. Sage advice there.)

Beyond the current target market are consumers who are sharing more stories than ever—a “hidden opportunity” for the company to pursue in the future.

“You need look no further than your Facebook wall to see all the ways people are using photos and words to share stories,” Tratt says.

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2 responses to “Haiku Deck Rises From the Ashes of ‘Mix-N-Match with Sir Mix-A-Lot’”

  1. Haiku Deck says:

    Great story, Ben. Thank you! Your impression of the office has motivated us to invest in the decor. We’ll aim for more of a “first apartment” look than “dorm room,” by the time you visit the next time. ;-)

  2. Good story, Ben. Adam and Kevin are smart, scrappy entrepreneurs and the Haiku Deck product continues to impress.

    Someone please post a pic of “jarring orange”.