Why I'm building Celi slow

Building the right product takes time that most aren't willing to spend

I’m inspired by Morning Brew’s ownership of the 🎯 emoji, which I learned about from Tom Adler’s recent strategy breakdown. I’m considering replicating this at Celi and could use your help:

The title of this piece is misleading.

I’m not building Celi slowly, I’m building it intentionally. Carefully. Deliberately.

Building the right product takes time.

That’s because the right product is a solution. It solves a problem that a majority experiences, has tried and failed to solve, and still wants to solve.

It’s these products that have a chance of becoming must-haves, instead of nice-to-haves.

Behind the scenes, I’ve been building Celi into a must-have.

Evolving Celi from MVP to MMP

When I introduced Celi as my first experiment all I had was a problem. I needed to understand other people’s relationship to this problem. That’s why I asked you a series of questions without framing or introduction.

It was in those 386 responses I learned, that like me:

  • 92.25% of you have forgotten a birthday

  • 76.23% of you have forgotten a friend’s significant life date

  • 89.07% of you want to solve this problem

Ripe for the right product, I used these responses to inform the build of Celi’s MVP.

An MVP is a prototype. It’s the minimum version of a product with just enough features to satisfy early users, test, and validate a thesis with.

Celi’s MVP has been live since late April, and despite being incredibly manual, it’s working.

Through 18 weeks, Celi’s MVP has:

  • 154 users

  • 12.61% week-over-week growth

  • 2.12 viral coefficient

  • 75.17% conversion rate

  • 93.51% activation rate

  • 305 person waitlist

  • 1.03 daily celi-brations (as a platform)

These are significant numbers. Very few products, never mind MVPs, ever find this type of traction.

Beyond data, the user experiences have been overwhelmingly positive too:

MVPs are learning centers. They allow startups to launch a product quickly, gain user feedback, and validate assumptions before investing more resources into product development.

In an exchange with Sweetgreen Co-Founder Nicolas Jammet, he encouraged me to “just gather as much info from the beta users as you can on how you can make the product as good as possible!”

That’s what I’ve been doing, de-risking Celi by making it as good as possible.

For 4 months, I’ve represented many elements of Celi’s technology, hosted feedback sessions, and improved the product as needed. It’s been grueling, but necessary. Only this experience can provide the necessary education to continue building the right product with as Celi evolves from MVP to MMP, a minimal marketable product.

One of the key learnings has been discovering that there are two parts to this problem:

  1. Knowing (the hard part)

  2. Remembering (the easy part)

Knowing is Celi’s point of difference.

The average Celi user has added 3.73 events to their profile and made 15.80 connections. This means that each year Celi discovers, captures, and notifies each user of 43 events beyond a birthday that they wouldn’t otherwise know were important to their friends or family.

That’s 43 more times to celebrate your friends, each year.

Discovering this two-sided problem confirmed that Celi needed to be a networked product with 3 core actions: Create, Connect, Celi.

  1. Create an account and add your dates

  2. Connect with friends, family, and co-workers

  3. Celi your connections, after you’re notified, by email, SMS, or Whatsapp.

Utility without effort.

That’s how Celi evolves from a nice-to-have to a must-have.

Having used Celi for 4 months, it’s already a must-have for me. With only a fraction of my relationships in the MVP, I already rely on it. Product-led retention.

It’s improved the quality of my relationships, created more offline interactions, and combatted loneliness.

Celi’s even allowed me to start exiting social media. Users have made this distinction too, with one texting me, “It’s the type of social interaction that you actually want, not doom scrolling IG.”

Soon you’ll be able to experience Celi’s MMP and can reserve your username today.

*459 have been reserved so chances are your preferrence is still available!

The perfect business

As a networked product, embedded in Celi’s DNA are product-led acquisition, product-led expansion, and product-led retention, which allow Celi to scale while remaining incredibly lean.

It’s also half of what David Skok calls the perfect business.

In his essay Viral Acquisition? Great if You Can Monetize, David writes that the perfect business is “virality plus monetization.”

In a second essay, Lessons Learned – Viral Marketing, he adds that “virality is not a marketing strategy that can be executed by the marketing department. It has to be built into your product right from the beginning. It’s a function that needs to be thought through by the product designers and developed by the engineers.”

This is why I’m building Celi slowly. These attributes can only be embedded in Celi’s product DNA during infancy.

As for the second half of Skok’s perfect business, monetization, that’ll come in time.

I’m often asked what Celi’s business model is, and while I have a strongly supported thesis of one-time purchases (gifting), direct monetization (subscription), and event-informed offers (advertising), decisions won’t be made until after the MMP launch.

This isn’t a new schedule. In 2013, Fred Wilson published Product > Strategy > Business Model, in which he shares that “one of the mistakes I see entrepreneurs make is they move to business model before locking down strategy. The way I like to think about this is get the product right first, then lock down the strategy of the business, then figure out the business model.”

Aristotle said, “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” For Celi, that fruit will be data from Celi’s first 5,000 users.

Strava Co-Founder Mark Gainey told me, it’s important to focus on how early adopters experience your product, “our focus was on engagement rather than growth. We found it was better to spend time ensuring that anyone who came to Strava had a great experience and kept using the service, than to worry about adding another new member. The added benefit of the engagement strategy: our engaged customers became our greatest source of new customers through word of mouth.”

Building slowly not only allows Celi to build the right product, but it allows Celi to respect you, the early adopters, — your time, curiosity, and efforts.

In a thread sharing everything to know about building consumer social apps, Nikita Bier, who sold Gas App to Discord, warns about “prematurely exhausting your audience's attention and limiting future shots.”

So many products rush to launch, only to launch a broken product. A process that itself is broken.

I have no intent to prematurely invite you to a less-than-product. I’m unwilling to ask you to make that compromise.

I intend to ask you to create your Celi account and invite 16 friends, only once.

As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”

When I ask for yours, it will be without any disclaimers.

Celi’s knowledge gap

The final item contributing to Celi’s slow build is my knowledge gap.

Since March, I’ve had to learn a lot of things. For example:

  • Legal things, like understanding the advantages of and selecting to incorporate as a C-Corp instead of an LLC, how to use promissory notes to make capital contributions to your C-corp, filing an 83(b) election, selecting which foreign qualifications Celi needs, and more.

  • Architecture decisions like selecting Celi’s database host and how to build the infrastructure of Celi’s notification system.

  • Hiring a founding team, including crafting attractive equity-only job descriptions, interviewing and evaluating candidates, and learning that most UX/UI designers don’t implement.

  • Recruiting advisors who will support Celi on product, security, technology, business, and growth.

  • Building a base of fundraising knowledge, especially on pre and post-money SAFES.

And more, all while representing the technology in a growing 154-person MVP.

More than time, this takes effort, attention, and energy, making context-switching all that much more difficult.

In overcoming this knowledge gap, I’ve had to learn how to speak to myself differently. It’s not “I don’t know how to do this,” it’s “I don’t know how to do this yet, but I’ll learn.”

A belief shared by Steve Jobs who acknowledged that “Life can be so much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call 'life' was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

That’s all I’m trying to do - build something that other people can use to celebrate each other a little more.


The next and last essay in this founder reflection series is a curation of quotes for soft people doing hard things.

I plan to publish that after the long weekend, so you still have time to share In Public with two friends or a Slack channel.

Until then, here are 3 quotes on slowness:

  1. If you want to build a great life, slow down. Long-term energy comes from alignment. And alignment requires feeling the subtle difference between energy created from anxiety and energy created from inspiration. (Cory Muscara)

  2. If you find that you're trying to force something to happen, let it go. Forcing often creates chaotic results that are not in line with what you originally aspired to. (Diego Perez)

  3. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away. (John Steinbeck)

I know Steinbeck’s was about love, and to be honest I do love Celi.

Is that the first time I’ve said that out loud?