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thoughtbot's Incubator Program Mini Season 3 - Episode 05: Knect with Josh Herzig-Marx

December 12th, 2023

If you missed the first and second episodes with thoughtbot Incubator Program partcipant and founder Josh Herzig-Marks of Knect, you can listen to Josh's first episode and his second to catch up.

In the third interview with Josh, Lindsey Christensen, head of Marketing at thoughtbot, and Jordyn Bonds, head of the Incubator Program at thoughtbot, discuss the progress of Knect in the thoughtbot Incubator Program. Most of the conversation involves identifying and focusing on the right target audience. Initially, they considered startup enthusiasts, but after exploring other segments like journalists, they returned to startup enthusiasts with a more refined focus. Josh also talks about developing a prototype and its usefulness in getting feedback and refining the product concept.

The technical feasibility of integrating various communication platforms into their solution is a significant focus. They examined different platforms like email, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Telegram, and SMS to determine which integrations were essential for the minimum viable product. Looking forward, Josh outlines the next steps for the program, which include finalizing high-quality prototypes and making strategic decisions about the scale and funding of the project.


LINDSEY: Hi, everyone.


LINDSEY: Thanks for tuning in and joining. We're going to be checking in on one of our incubator program participants today. If you haven't joined us before, thoughtbot runs a startup incubator, about an eight-week program for the early, early, early-stage company, idea, founder project to validate that business, find the market, and start thinking about how you build that thing.

So my name is Lindsey Christensen. I head up Marketing here at thoughtbot. And today, I am joined by Jordyn Bonds, who heads up the incubator program at thoughtbot. And our guest of honor checking in once again, Josh Herzig-Marks, Founder of Knect, the company going through the program. Thanks for joining.

JOSH: Super excited. I'm always excited.

LINDSEY: How's it going? How is your founder sentiment this week?

JOSH: This --

LINDSEY: Are you on a high? Are you on a low?

JOSH: I don't think I'm on a typically high-high. I'm a pretty even-keeled, chill founder. I think it's appropriately enthusiastic but not excessively so, and definitely not at a low trough.

LINDSEY: All right, even-keeled. We love to [crosstalk 01:19].

JOSH: Appropriately enthusiastic because we're doing really cool stuff. And this is a lot of fun.

LINDSEY: Well, that's great. So, I mean, [inaudible 01:25] that you're working on and especially the last time I checked in with you in the really early stages, trying to find that target niche audience or invalidate, like, the problem with them. How is that going? How's that search for the people with the problem going?

JOSH: Yeah. So just to, like, rewind the clock for the folks who maybe haven't seen every one of these, you know, there's a few things that I was trying to figure out to validate whether this problem that I saw was an opportunity for business. And, Jordyn, help me out if I forget some of these.

So, number one, is this a Josh problem, or is this problem more broad? Question number two is, could we find an audience of people who are reachable, who share the problem, and who'd be willing to actually pay for this thing? And those little asterisks after pay, right? People pay for things with money but also with time or with reputation. Generally, we're thinking about money here, ultimately. But do they pay for this thing even in time? Would they be able to do that?

And the reason we're looking for that kind of a more narrow audience is because you got to build for somebody in the very beginning. This isn't, like, we're limiting ourselves to a narrow audience forever, but we wanted a set of people who we could design this thing for, have prototypes, share it, and hopefully get some consistent feedback so we can build a thing which they would find useful and use that from there. That was two things.

And the third thing: is this actually technically feasible? You know, the first time I was a founder, incidental to building our business, we built the world's fastest online transaction processing database that was processing, like, billions and billions of retail records in, like, the time it takes you to, like, click and drag and change the query that we're doing, which is really cool to say out loud, and it demoed really, really well. But that isn't actually a business.

And what I wanted is part of validating if this idea, if this problem was an opportunity or something that wasn't a science experiment. And I'd love to talk a little bit more about what we've been doing over the past week, maybe a little later on in this. Because I think it's been a big week for the science experiment or not validation stage of this thing.

So, two things we've also done over the past week and a half, two weeks since the last time we chatted, we have a prototype, which looks pretty good, which we can now use to show to people who we think are our core starting audience, our core starting market, and we actually have a core starting market. Both of these things are pretty exciting. I mean, I'm always excited. But we're doing it, like, we're doing the thing that we're supposed to be doing, and I like that.

LINDSEY: That's really exciting. So, core starting market is happening. Do you want to talk about maybe how you got there?

JOSH: One of the reasons why I was excited about doing this program is Jordyn, and I share the understanding of its importance. But when you're, like, actually the founder, it's really hard to see this, right? Jordyn is like the...I don't know quite how to describe it, but Jordyn is the person who, like, made sure we stayed focused on this part of the effort. And, like, it's a really key part of the thoughtbot incubator. And it's one of the reasons why I'm really appreciative of having gone through the program.

JORDYN: So, Josh walked into the program with a problem that he had, which is frequently how products get made and companies get founded. Like, that's fine. It's a great starting place. And as he listed, his question was, is this a Josh problem, or is this a problem for more than just Josh? Because Josh isn't a market segment. Josh is an individual human [laughs]. And a lot of us have product ideas that we would love to have exist so that we can use them, but that doesn't make them good market opportunities. I may or may not be speaking from experience in that regard, ahem. Anyway, so part of the programming here was to figure this out.

And it's great to start with, like, okay, well, if Josh is our primary user, who is Josh? Is there a market of Joshs, right? So, we actually started off talking to those folks. And, you know, we're human beings, and we tend to hang out with people like ourselves. And so, Josh knew a lot of people like Josh.

One of those people that he knew was me. I am like Josh in regard to this pain point. I also had it. And then I was connected to a bunch of people who had this pain point. So, we broadly spoke to a lot of those folks at first. I don't know that we really had a persona name for this. I don't know, how would you frame this?

JOSH: As you know, I only have poor pejorative names for people like us.

JORDYN: [laughs] Pejorative?

JOSH: There's, you know, a class of people who are at tech companies and startups, and sometimes they start their own companies, and sometimes they work at companies. And sometimes they do coaching. And sometimes they do a little bit of an investment. And sometimes they're on advisory boards. And, you know, when you kind of smoothly move from one thing to the next, sort of often doing several of these things all at the same time.

And there's not a really good name for them, but they're kind of people, like I might go so far to say the three of us, and maybe a lot of people who work at thoughtbot and a lot of people we've all worked with in the past and, hopefully, a lot of the people who are listening to this conversation because they, too, could slip into the founding a company stage of this business.

JORDYN: So, we've kind of loosely called those people, most recently, startup enthusiasts is our nickname, and there are a lot of folks under that umbrella. But as we talked to those people at this kind of high level, it was very broad. That maybe sounds fairly specific to some of you out there listening, but it's not specific, nearly specific enough to address with a product.

So, we were talking. We were listening, getting people to talk to us, "Hey, tell us about how you keep in touch with folks. How does that go? What do you do? Have you ever built your own spreadsheet to keep track of people you know? Tell us about that." Broad questions. And we were learning things and hearing about trends. It wasn't coming into focus. We weren't hearing enough repeatable things. And we certainly weren't hearing about red, hot pain points. It was like a, "Yeah, this is kind of a problem sometimes, but not all the time. My system works more or less [inaudible 07:11].

Then we kind of found this range of personas. Some folks were just like, "I'm awesome at this. It's not a problem. I don't know what to tell you." Okay, well, clearly, that person doesn't need a product because they're feeling good. Great. At the other end of the spectrum, you have people who are just like, "I don't even know what you're talking about [laughs]. Like, this isn't [laughs]..."

There were people who were like, "I know what you're talking about, but I'm good at it." There were people who were like, "I don't know what you're talking about. I don't care to ever do this." And then, there was this broad set of people in the middle who were like, "Yeah, I have a problem with this." But we were hearing a lot of different things.

In the course of that, Rami, one of the folks on the team, ended up talking to a journalist. And that conversation was very interesting because it did seem like way more of a red, hot pain point with, like, something on the line. And we were like, oh, maybe we've been barking up the entire wrong tree and, like, startup enthusiasts aren't our people; journalists are our people. So, then we did a whole sprint with journalists and realized that journalists is a very broad umbrella [laughs]. There's a lot of different kinds of journalists in a lot of different kinds of contexts. And they have widely varying pain points, habits, needs, wants.

We were like, okay, we're hearing some really interesting things in here, but they don't seem like early adopters because they are not the kind of people that just try an app who are just like, "Sure, new app, cool. I'll try that." Startup enthusiasts are people who just, like, try stuff. They're, like, on Product Hunt. They're friends with a bunch of founders, and those founders are, like, "Try this." And then they're like, "Sure, okay. Sure, I'll try it. I'll login." Login to anything once, right? Is kind of the attitude of this group of people, journalists not so much.

And so, it felt like it was going to be a really hard thing to address those folks. But we learned a ton. And we really ended up mapping the emotional train in a lot of detail. And as a group, like, we came to a lot of alignment. There was a lot of, like, really good understanding, deeper understanding having gone on that journey. But where we ended up back was like, okay, startup enthusiasts really actually seem like [laughs] a place to start. And it feels like there's enough of them that they could create some kind of early adopter market.

But now, with the information that we had, the new information we had, we were like, let us sub-segment this group of people. It's not everybody in that umbrella. Doing that whole journey enabled us to kind of come back to the question with renewed focus, but, like, conviction about how valuable it was going to be to do that, right? And sometimes that's what it takes. You kind of have to do the wrong thing for a second to appreciate doing the right thing, and that's totally fine. The fact that we were able to do that in, what, five weeks is, like, fine.

JOSH: And I think the way that we found the sub-segment that made sense was actually pretty simple, right? Once we understood what are the dimensions that are actually important, we did a quick brainstorming session. This wasn't actually a very long process at the end of it, a quick brainstorming session. What are the different kinds of people who fall into this segment?

And we just scored them on all the easy things you'd expect to score people on, namely: are they easy to find and easy for us to reach? Do they advertise this quality of theirs someplace publicly, like, perhaps on LinkedIn? And are they easy to find? Like, do we have enough of them inside of our network so we could, like, search for these kinds of folks? And as it turns out, we've already spoken to a lot of these kinds of folks as well. And primarily, we're talking to repeat founders and/or chiefs of staff at startups.

JORDYN: If you are one of those people, please reach out to us. We'd like to talk to you.

JOSH: We would love it.

LINDSEY: Call to action. So, Josh, you mentioned one of the benefits of the program has been Jordyn's ability to kind of laser-focus on finding the target market. Jordyn, how do you do that? How do you keep the team coming back to that? Especially as sometimes it maybe doesn't take that long—sometimes it might feel like you're kind of circling around and around and still aren't finding anyone—and keeping folks motivated to do that or understanding, you know, when are we going to say, "This is it, you know, we're not finding someone"?

JORDYN: I'll talk about how it worked in this case. And every team is different and is motivated by different things. And this process is a little different every time, so it's hard to make generalizations. But in this case, what was interesting is that after we did our journalist sprint and we were like, we do want to refocus on startup enthusiasts, but we need to understand a little bit better what we're doing, we actually prototyped a little bit given what we knew, which seems like a bad idea [laughs] on the face of it. It seems premature.

The purpose of doing that, then, was to really take a different path to drawing out of each of us what was in our lines. That's, like, so much of the work of a team at this stage is, like, making sure that we're externalizing the things that we're thinking and the assumptions that we have. And it's strange. You would think you would just be like, "Hey, tell me what's in your mind?" But minds don't work that way. You can't just be like, "Hey, mind, what's up?" And then articulate it perfectly in a way that everybody in this group is going to know what you mean.

So, prototyping actually drew a bunch of that stuff out. It really...I think that was the moment...I don't know, Josh, how you feel about it. We had been kind of in the doldrums because we did get to the end of that journalists' sprint. And we were like, what are we doing? What have we learned? And prototyping at that moment enabled us was a different way of understanding what we had learned and what we were all now thinking. And it really drew a bunch of dynamics out that it was super helpful.

JOSH: It brought some real sharpness to what we thought we'd be able to...the kind of value we thought we could deliver in the early versions of this thing, right? Fast forward two years, who knows? But it brought some sharpness to the kinds of problems that we thought we'd be able to fix and the kinds of problems we thought we couldn't solve. And that also clarified for us, certainly for me, why, oh, here's why this isn't really landing with the journalists, right? And here's why this isn't really landing with some other kinds of folks we were talking to. And --

JORDYN: Biz dev folks. We talked to a bunch of biz dev folks. It wasn't going to land with them, but yeah --

JOSH: They weren't at all excited about it, and then we can kind of understand why. One of the ways that I think about a prototype and I talk about this a lot, and I love doing this. Somebody called this a Pinocchio prototype, the wooden child who wants to be a real boy. Once we had a prototype, we could actually put it onto our actual phones.

And I'm not sure how many other people did this on the team besides me but, like, I would carry my phone around with a prototype on it. And every time I thought I might use it, I would pull the damn thing out of my pocket and, like, tap away on the phone. It gave me, again, a very clear sense of the kinds of things I thought we were moving towards solving and the kinds of things that we weren't really solving.

LINDSEY: Yeah, Josh, you mentioned there were some exciting developments in the past week. Is that around the prototype?

JOSH: This is one. Having the prototype on there was good. It's also really nice to have this be part of a larger team. I was having a hard time. I had been playing with, like, our design team's paper prototype. I was having a hard time communicating what I was trying to do inside of my head. So, I built my own parallel prototype in Google Slides, which was exactly as awesome looking and as functional as everybody listening is imagining it must have been. If you would like your own copy of my Google Slides app development template, please reach out. I will share it [laughs].

But it let me think a little bit, again, the same thing, like, here's how these things fit together. And then it started moving really, really fast. Once we were all putting things down in a way that we could play with, and touch, and talk about in a concrete way, it felt like that part of things started to move really fast. And the quality of our conversations improved with people we were talking to as well. I would say that's half of the things that are really exciting.

LINDSEY: Just to continue on the prototype for a second, Jordyn mentioned a major outcome of starting to use the prototype; well, I guess [inaudible 14:37] that you all as a team got better aligned around what you were envisioning for the solution. And then, it also helped you, again, kind of identify the true target market. Are there other things you're already learning from using the prototype and getting it in front of people?

JOSH: Yeah, I think there are. By the way, this shouldn't be surprising. This is, like, the classic diverge-converge model that I know thoughtbot uses all the time with not just startup clients when you're building something new. One of the things which, you know, rewind the clock six and a half weeks ago to when we started this thing. I didn't realize how much intelligence would be required behind the scenes to make this thing actually sensible to the final users.

And the more we show it to people, the more we realize that, like, intelligence to make things look simple is going to equal people actually using the damn thing. I think we started to see that ourselves in playing with it. But it's really important to have that be validated by actual potential users who aren't, like, in this shit themselves.

JORDYN: I mean, immediately, you know, we were able to start showing the prototype to the folks that we were having interviews with, and there's just nothing better than that because they're not going to pull their punches with you. And we got a lot of great immediate sort of spicy feedback [laughs] from people, especially if you're showing them to people who are, like, startup people [laughs], they're just not going to be nice. And so, there was a lot of [crosstalk 15:59].

JOSH: They're like, "Have you considered making this suck less?"

JORDYN: Yeah, exactly. "I wouldn't use this at all [laughs]." You're just like, "Okay, thanks." Tell me how you really feel [laughs]. But it's great. I mean, like, there's nothing better than that. Like, I would way rather that than a bunch of people trying to be polite.

JOSH: And it also prompts feedback that we wouldn't necessarily have thought of, which is the idea of this. We [inaudible 16:20] thought of this on our own. Like the idea that sometimes you might want to not take an action when you don't really care about a person. But sometimes you really, like, dislike a person so much who you've been talking to you want to never see them again, right? Never show me this person again. It's a thing that we never would have come to, I think, if we hadn't, like, actually been showing the prototype to end users.

LINDSEY: Okay, what is the second half of the exciting thing that happened in the past week?

JOSH: This is very much a thoughtbot thing. thoughtbot is full of really talented engineers. And over the past couple of days, we've been able to bring a lot of those folks to bear on the question of like, is this thing technically feasible or not? Which was one of my big concerns. And it turns out, that was probably too large a question for the team that we started with.

And to be able to, like, do this, like, little discovery spike with, you know, going beyond the three-and-a-half thoughtboter team that we had to some of your most talented, most experienced engineering leads, not forever, but just for, like, a short moment is kind of, for me, at least, like, a real taste of, like, the thoughtbot value is, you know, Jordyn gets to put out a call for assistance, you know, across the company, and people raise their hands and put real-time in.

And, you know, we're able to do something in a couple of days that we probably couldn't have done because we have enough people. And, you know, all those, like, network effects of people coming together that could have taken us, you know, weeks or longer just kind of toiling on our own.

LINDSEY: For those technical challenges, maybe you don't want to get into specifics, but in broad strokes, can you talk about what some of those considerations are? And maybe at this point, maybe it makes sense to also talk a little bit about, like, how the solution, how you're thinking about the evolution of what the solution is and provides.

JOSH: I have an Android phone. I live in the world as a green bubble in a world of blue bubbles. My partner and I are in an interfaith relationship. She has an iPhone. I have an Android phone. And forever, people are accidentally trying to hit up my, like, iMessage account tied to my email address, and the things don't come through. And, all of a sudden, this company someplace in the U.S. figured out some way to, like, reverse engineer the Apple messages iMessages protocol, so I can put iMessages onto my Android phone. They built this thing. It's been, like, all over the tech news recently.

This is the problem, if you're trying to bring together all of somebody's social network, is that there is no, like, handy-dandy API for iMessages. There is no handy-dandy API for regular SMS or RCS or any of those other variations of that. There is no handy-dandy API for WhatsApp, for Telegram, sort of ish, kind of maybe for Slack, not really for Discord. It remains to be seen how mature it is for LinkedIn. By the way, email works great, right? If we just build our entire lives off of email, we'd have none of these problems, but we can't.

And we had some hypotheses about ways that we could make connecting these other accounts easier. And we just took, like, an awful lot of hands, right? More than two hands. It took more than two hands to figure out if these things were possibilities if those things turn out to be true. And the answer is if they are true, which we're still working to figure out, though it's looking better and better, this isn't a science experiment, right? And if it's not true, then step one is an awful lot of engineer hours to go do what those Beeper Mini folks did and reverse engineer a whole bunch of protocols and systems that were never intended to be open in the first place.

JORDYN: I would like to say --

JOSH: Which is why we should all donate to EFF and promote an open internet so that startups like mine don't need to exist.

JORDYN: To loop back to your earlier question, Lindsey, about how to keep the team focused on who something is for, this conversation seems like it's not about that. But, to me, this conversation is also about that because we have a long list of messaging platforms that we have heard from folks, like from interviewing them would be useful to have brought into a single place.

This was one of the key pain points that Josh has that we heard from other people, which is, like, you connect with people across platforms, right? You might be connected to some on LinkedIn, but you're also emailing with them. Your email history with them is not a complete history of your life with them. None of your online stuff is going to be a complete history because sometimes you actually interact with people [laughs] in reality, which is still, at this moment, not being recorded all the time, but probably not for long.

JOSH: As little as possible.

JORDYN: [laughs] But still, even within the online world, you're communicating with people across platforms. Maybe you text with someone, maybe you message on LinkedIn, whatever. And having complete context for your relationship with them in a way that makes it really easy to kind of, like, boot up that context in order to reach out to them for some reason, like, maybe you haven't talked in six months, and you just want to remember, where did I leave this relationship? What's going on with this person, right? You're like, where was I talking to them? Oh, I was talking to them in these four places that don't have very good protocols for being brought into the same interface, right? So, like, the stuff is, like, all connected.

But to get back to the who question, we have this list of places we'd heard from people, like, in the early interviews and places that Josh was trying to do this connect with people, et cetera. So, it's, like, Slack DMs, and it's email, and it's LinkedIn, whatever. But we also heard Telegram, and we also heard other things. If we don't sufficiently focus on a narrow enough group of people, we risk making the MVP way too big because it needs to connect with every one of these things. And we can't go to market with something that doesn't connect with 12 platforms or something, right?

But because we're sufficiently focused, we could actually do the thing where we're like, okay, well, out of this list of platforms, what are, like, the top five? Where is the line? Where's the minimum viability here with what we can connect with that will actually bring value? And I also am an Android user living in an iPhone world. And Josh and I at least have enough awareness to be like, you know what? Maybe Android isn't necessary, even though we would love [laughs] for it to be there. Nine times out of 10, the people that look like us are using iPhones, right? So great, cool. Let's just do the thing.

JOSH: Obligatory iPhone test device.

JORDYN: Right. I have one, too, but I don't know where it is. So, like, the question of who really matters. Who, like, really helps you focus? If your answer to "Who?" is anybody with a smartphone, well, like, it's going to be really tough to build an actual MVP that's buildable. So, this question that Josh brought in to us, which is, like, "What's technically feasible here?" really intersects very directly with this question of who are we building for? Because you really want to be able to start somewhere.

And, you know, if you have a sufficiently red, hot need and it's not, like, to time travel or something that is, like, probably impossible given the laws of our universe, you can find a way, right? And so, the question was, like, why don't we find that so that we can focus on whether it's worth finding a way? And then that intersection of who it's for, what their pain points are, and what's possible with what amount of effort. It all fits together. No single one of those pieces is sufficient for figuring out a path forward.

LINDSEY: And are you taking the, you know, okay, we've gotten really good sight on these startup enthusiasts, and these are their top four communication methods; let's try to solve them? Is that the approach?

JORDYN: More or less, yeah. Yes. It's like, can we interface with those top...I think for us, it's like a top five, maybe six.

JOSH: Five or six.

JORDYN: But, like, the first one on there is email, and that's not a problem. Like, we don't...that's fine. LinkedIn is also not a problem; one and two are email, and LinkedIn: good. We're cool with that. That's okay.

JOSH: Because every individual has their own thing. So, you know, you may be talking about long tail services, you know, but for the person who uses Telegram as their, like, daily driver, which isn't most people in the U.S., but there's a lot of people abroad, not having Telegram means it isn't useful. And I think that's one of the things hard about this, right? This is a hard business potentially, or it's really easy. We have no idea yet. And that's part of what I find exciting about this is because over the next, you know, week or so, we'll find out how hard a business this is actually, or at least where are the technically difficult parts?

LINDSEY: Great segue. What does the next week look like as we've got market niche, prototype, technical feasibility intersectioning, figuring those things out? What exciting things are on the horizon? What's next?

JOSH: So, we have about two weeks left, and at the end of two weeks, we're going to end up with a set of high-quality prototypes, which, you know, are easy for any of us to have on our phones, and to flash around to rando strangers we meet at the grocery store because there's no better way to make friends than product testing. And we'll have a good sense of how big and complicated, and complicated in what ways might it be to build this thing.

And then, it's time for Josh to make some decisions around, you know, the whole goal of this was to figure out, like, how big of an opportunity is this just to go and do that? What could growth look like? What could pricing look like? Where might the costs be? What would the cost be to build this? Is this, like, a side gig scale thing? Is it a small, you know, angel-funded startup thing? Is this, like, a VC-size thing? I really hope it's not a VC-size thing.

And then to think about, you know, what are the resources that would be required to build it, and where might those resources come from? So, at the end of this, two weeks out from now, I think we'll have all the information, you know, that we need. And then, I know a whole bunch of people inside of thoughtbot who are in a great place to provide their own thoughts and advice and experience and feedback on this.

And I'll take this to my personal board of directors, including my family, but also, you know, other experienced entrepreneurs and investors I know, and we'll talk through this. And we'll have to go make some decisions, which is a little scary and a little bit fun, but a nice way to kick off 2024.

JORDYN: And a lot easier to do after this program.

JOSH: We'll have some real information, right? [laughs]


LINDSEY: That's the goal, right?

JOSH: Yeah.

LINDSEY: Of the incubator to get you in that spot where you can make educated decisions and get others up to speed really quickly with all that research.

JOSH: That's right.

LINDSEY: That's great. All right. So, you had a call to action earlier. What was that? Oh, if startup enthusiasts are listening, we want to chat with them and talk to them about the solution.

JOSH: If you're a founder, if you're a multi-time founder and either done it a couple of times in the past or you're still doing it, reach out. If you are a startup chief of staff and you can define that role for yourself, please reach out. We'd love to talk to you there as well. If you would like a copy of Josh's free wireframing template for mobile apps, please reach out, and I will be happy to provide you that as well.

LINDSEY: Amazing. Thank you once again, Josh and Jordyn, for joining and catching us up. It definitely was an exciting update. I can't wait to hear what happens in the final stretch.

JOSH: Me too.


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