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Productivity hacks: Brainstorming and project planning – episode 06

“Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits.” —Twyla Tharp 

In this episode, Mitchie and Amaury discuss the best techniques to use when brainstorming and project planning. Listen and learn how to structure your thoughts, how to spark new ideas and how to stick to what you decided on in your brainstorming sessions.

Pre-order a copy of Amaury’s new book, Startup Without a CTO, and get an early digital version two months before the official launch:

Show notes

  • How these CTO productivity hacks connect to knowing your customer
  • Some techniques when searching for your competitors
  • Why you should stay away from your screen when brainstorming
  • Why pen and paper is still the best
  • Other techniques you can use to put your ideas to paper
  • The big advantage and disadvantage of using Post-its
  • The importance of drawing your ideas and not just writing them
  • The first few steps of writing your specifications
  • What to do at the end of your brainstorming process
  • A good starting point when doing your app
  • What else you can print to have that visual stimuli
  • The pros and cons of freestyle brainstorming
  • Amaury's project planning template for startups
  • Other ways to help you stay focus



Mitchie Ruiz: Welcome to My CTO Friend the Podcast, where founders come to learn how to manage a tech startup. My name is Mitchie Ruiz, and I'm with Amaury Khelifi. Hi Amaury.

Amaury Khelifi: Hi Mitchie, and welcome, startupers, to today's podcast. In this episode, I’m going to share my best techniques when it comes to brainstorming and project planning. You're going to learn how to structure your thoughts, how to spark new ideas and how to stick to what you decided on [in] your brainstorming sessions.

Mitchie: For this series of the podcast, remember that we're working our way down Amaury's book [Startup Without a CTO], going through the tips and real startup experiences he's gathered throughout the years. So if you're a founder without technical background, listen up, because you're in the right place.

Now, Amaury, last episode we talked about knowing your customer. And that was a very heavy topic. We touched on a lot of things. So let's connect that topic to what we're going to work on today, the CTO productivity hacks.

Amaury: Yes. Whenever we start from your customer's knowledge, the goal for you as a founder is to position your product. And usually one of the first hacks I show my clients or startups I coach is the way I search things on the Web. That might be very simple, but sometimes it's a good reminder to go through this process.

In order to illustrate that, I have a very good friend who offers some coaching. He's a photographer, and he offers some coaching to other photographers. His hack is to search not only for photographers on the Web, but also photographers who are interested in personal improvement. Why? Because photographers who are more intent to buy his coaching program and to learn from his experience are also founders who have read a couple of books on personal improvement.

So that makes sense and that's the way you should search and target your clients whenever you want to offer them something. That's the first aspect of searching who you want to serve and how you can identify them. It's not only a way of you searching on Google, but also the way you use social media.

Mitchie: So basically, it would be just to identify some sort of characteristic that your customers would have, and doing that search based on that. Not just the basic—I don't know if you have an app for seamstresses and artisans and creators. Not only seamstresses and artisans and creators that are doing their stuff, but that want to get organized, because your app is going to help them with getting organized.

Amaury: Absolutely. And that's the basics of doing the growth hacking techniques. Growth hacking is just using tools and automations in order to hack and to find people in the market through social media again and again. I would say 80% of growth hacking techniques are based on the market and are based on where you can find people, whether it's Twitter or again, social media is the best place to do growth hacking techniques.

Mitchie: Now on the research part of it, you said you were explaining to your founders how they can actually search on Google. So what about competitors?

Amaury: The competitors, for sure, you're going to search on Google and put things in different ways, as many ways as you can. Not only your baseline or the service you produce, or the offer you produce, but maybe how people can get to the end result of your product. And always using, “How to do,” something, will help you a lot to find the best articles that cover your topics.

And then finding maybe not real competitors, but indirect competitors that can provide solutions that can be an alternative for your clients, and that maybe your clients will prefer compared to using your product. That's the basics. Then you can, of course, search on all startup directories to identify if there isn't any other startups who do quite the same as you, like on TechCrunch, on Product Hunt or

And another technique, which is very interesting too, is when you have a well-known brand that does something, you can just put the name of the company. We are using Zoom, for example, for this podcast, for this interview. We can search for the competitor of Zoom by just entering in Google, “Zoom, space, V-S, space.”

And then Google will give you lots of article titles that contain “Zoom” and “vs,” and then you will have a list of all the competitors of Zoom. That's a pretty easy technique. And after that, you have also websites like, “alternative of,” something that can help you find the alternative software for doing something.

Mitchie: Wonderful. Now, we're talking about using Google and computers to help us in our quest. But you usually advise people to stay away from screens.

Amaury: Every time when we talk about creativity, the screen, the computer, the keyboard, slow you down for sure. The best way to brainstorm is pencil and paper. And that's why I use pencil and paper for all my brainstorming, even remotely.

So you might wonder, “But how is he doing this remotely?” I just have a webcam on a support kind of arm that records my desk. And this webcam is a dedicated cam for sharing my desk and where I do all my drawings, all my Post-its, play, etcetera.

Mitchie: And that is a little sneak peek on the next episode for our actual tools for startup founders. But that's true, pen and paper actually allow you to put your ideas into something, let's say, that's fixed a lot faster.

Amaury: Absolutely. Our brain needs to see things in order to make connections. When you watch movies—cop movies, there is always a guy, the forensics guy who is going to put pictures on the wall, put strings between pictures, between maps, between journals, and they are brainstorming.

And their eyes need to be able to see the big picture, as we say. And it's almost impossible on a screen because there is resolution and there is always something inside a folder. So, if you have some key components in your company, brainstorming research, just print them and put as much information on a big wall in your office.

And then just put your feet on the desk, as I would recommend you to do, and just look at that wall and just let your mind flip through all the ideas that you went through. Because something might be nothing today, but in one month or two months, or three months, because you met someone else or because someone talked to you about a new opportunity, maybe a tiny sign that wasn't important at two or three months ago might be very important for you. It might be the opportunity for you to thrive and have a real success with your product.

Mitchie: That's a really good advice. So the idea would have to be putting everything that has to do with your idea and with your concept and with your planning, on a wall. And to have that visual feedback all the time, what do you advise people to do for that visual, let's say, stimuli? What kind of techniques should you use to put your ideas on paper?

Amaury: There is one that is well known, which is mind mapping. It's just drawing a simple circle in the middle, and I would recommend you to start with you as a person, as a founder. And maybe put your co-founders, and then the ideas all around. And put all your knowledge, all your expertise, who you are, what are your passions, your hobbies, where you live—almost everything that come to your mind because it might be helpful at some point.

Let's assume that you have a big ecosystem or a big network. You know people in large brands. Maybe you will find opportunities not because of the market or because of a brand, but because you know someone in a certain company. And this is the result of a big brainstorming of a founder’s team, it's to see what are our possibilities, what are our opportunities, and to pick up the right one.

Mitchie: Interesting. What else should we use? What else should startup founders use to see those ideas on a wall?

Amaury: We were talking about pencil and paper, but you can also use Post-its. Of course, I am a huge fan of Post-its. The big advantage of Post-its is that it allows you two things. It allows you to brainstorm as well as restructure your ideas, which is not always suitable for long-term brainstorming like we mentioned.

If it is something that needs to stick on your wall for three months, with Post-its, you run the risk of making them fall down. But if it's just brainstorming, a quick one, and you need to restructure, like it would be for course content—that's the way I use it, because usually I put my content, and I structure it right away. So that's very helpful.

And for mentoring, coaching startups, that's very helpful too because we start with a first idea, and at the end of the meeting, we have a concrete result, and I take a picture of all the Post-its. And then I just throw them in the bin.

Mitchie: On our previous videos, interviews, preparation, you've also talked about drawing. Not just writing, but drawing your ideas.

Amaury: Yeah. Drawing there is a well-known technique which is called graphic facilitation. Large companies use that for very important management meetings. When they brainstorm strategies, they hire someone. I also have a friend of mine who does that. And this person is not going to speak at all. He is just going to draw every idea that comes up.

So if they think of a country, maybe he is going to draw this country. If they think of someone who is going to do this stuff, he's going to write down the process of this person walking down the street. And having all that visualization will help the brainstorming, and people will have new ideas by just seeing visually what they said, and having the picture of what has been said since the beginning of the meeting.

So, you as a founder, even if you are not a very good drawer, you can keep drawing. It doesn't really matter. What is important is to be able to go through what are your client's processes, what do you want them to feel, where do you want them to go and how do you want them to use your application. And that leads me to, of course, draw what your application should look like, and that's going to be the very first step of writing your specifications.

Mitchie: So if you're in the first stage of your startup and you're just imagining your idea and your concept, you should still try to think about how it's going to look on a screen?

Amaury: That's the second step after imagining what will be the customer's journey, the process that your customers will go through, and how they’re going to use the app. Because just before having the app installed on his mobile, this is someone who doesn't know you, who needs to get to know you. He needs to understand what you do, and then decide if he is going to install the app or to subscribe on your website. So the journey does not start on the first screen, it starts when someone talks about your brand or your concept.

Mitchie: You mentioned something before about when you're doing the brainstorming process with the Post-its, and you take a picture at the end of the meeting. Is that something you should do every meeting or every time you have that?

Amaury: All the time, all the time. Any type of brainstorming, take pictures. Try to recall as many things as you can. We're going to touch on that, but I record also with voice recorders. I try to recall almost everything I do. And it can be a picture of your own brainstorming, but you can also use a picture of someone else’s content.

Like if you want to design an application, and I often use this same example, like an Airbnb for something. You can just Print-Screen the Airbnb interface and print it on a piece of paper, and draw on it, put your logo on it and imagine your own concept. And then, of course, you're going to change the color, then the graphic designer will change it.

But that allows you to have a visual overview of what your application might look like and what might change compared to what already exists, and how you can do things differently. I don't recommend you to copy, but just to get inspired by a successful startup.

Mitchie: And these would be applications that have been developed over and over again. They are going to be a little bit more elaborate, of course, but they also have a lot of research behind them. So it's a good starting point to get into that. Now, we were talking about writing and drawing. You mentioned printing screenshots. What else can people print to have that visual stimuli?

Amaury: There are lots of templates on the Web. When it comes to printing your customer experience, to define your customers like we mentioned in the previous episode: the persona canvas, the empathy map, the Value Proposition Canvas, the Business Model Canvas. There are also lots of techniques like the Design Sprint technique, they all come with lots of templates that you can fill in. And they’re well-known templates, in fact.

You can put them on the wall and they will describe who your customers are, maybe put a name on them and what will be the process. And having that brainstorming structured data in front of you, in your office, will help you again in a week, in a month, or three months, or maybe six months from now.

Mitchie: And these come pre-structured, so it would be a way of leading your thought process. Because brainstorming can be a very messy process. Your ideas might be all over the place, so it's a good place to start. To have a canvas, to have some sort of design that people have already thought through, and you can base your ideas off of that.

Amaury: There are pros and cons. Because I also like to do freestyle brainstorming. Because it's when you do freestyle brainstorming that you might find something that you might not be able to find, thanks to these techniques.

And then when it comes to funneling down and prioritizing, and keeping only what is essential, I highlight with a pen what is important on my map, or on the brainstorming support I was using, and then we structure things in the canvas that is available. And that's basically the process I recommend to use.

Mitchie: So you're combining those two?

Amaury: Yeah.

Mitchie: What about project planning?

Amaury: So whenever you have ideas, and you know what you are going to develop, the features, what your application will look like, you need to put a to-do list, an action plan. And then this action plan, usually you are going to define deadlines. Over time, I find it very useful to have that planning just in front of your face all the time.

I shared the template on one of the blog posts I published—we're going to put the link in the notes, just a simple PDF page, one for each month, where we put the KPI on the top. There is a checkbook to validate all the KPI, and there is the calendar just below, where we can put each day and each week with a goal for each week. And then putting the Post-its on each day. You need to use small Post-its. It works better with the small ones.

And that is very useful because that allows you not to have a big list without dates. It also allows you to not plan things on a daily basis and then forget them if you skip them, but rearrange with Post-its your planning, depending on what comes up.

Mitchie: So it's flexible and it depends on each day, each week, each month. You can move things around so you can keep up.

Amaury: And when you come back to your office, you will have that plan every morning in front of your face, as I said. So that will always remind you what your goals are for this month, for this week.

And talking about that, I also have another technique which is not mine—I think I got it from someone else, I don't remember who, which is having on your mobile phone—I have it on mine, my yearly goals. On the wallpaper that you have on your mobile, you can put all your goals for that year.

This means that several times a day, whenever you unlock your phone, you are going to have your goals in front of you. And that's a great reminder. That can be goals, that can be mindset quotes. And that helps a lot to stay focused and to focus on what is important for you, and not being disturbed by new opportunities or whatever.

Mitchie: That's a great advice actually. And I'm thinking, riffing off a little bit, but you have your goals on your lock screen, and once you unlock your phone you can have a wallpaper of something that matters to you.

So you could have, let's say, an entrepreneur that you admire, or your family, the people why you are doing this for. Or your dog, or your best friend, just something to inspire you why you're moving forward. So you have your goals, and right after you lock your screen, you have your inspiration and your motivation. That seems very powerful to me.

Amaury: Yeah, that's very useful. That's very useful, definitely.

Mitchie: We've covered a lot today, Amaury. Is there anything else you want to share with us?

Amaury: No, I think that’s it for today. We set aside all the technical tools and the software, and the toolbox that I use on daily basis as a CTO, and I think that's going to be the topic for our next episode, right?

Mitchie: That's right. Next episode, we have CTO Productivity hacks: The founder's basic toolbox. But coming back to this episode, if you're interested in looking at the links and notes of today's episode, just add a slash after, and the episode number. So, in this case, it would be

Now, you can also get all of the other episodes of this podcast by adding slash podcast []. If you want to see more of this startup tech management, Amaury has produced a lot of content. Isn't that right?

Amaury: Yeah, I think it's more than 100 videos that are already available out there. And by the way, as you might notice in the previous episode, if you are interested in my book,, if you get there, you can pre-order a printed copy of the book. And if you do it now, you will get an early digital version, two months before the official launch. So, just get on

Mitchie: Wonderful.

Amaury: Thank you, Mitchie.

Mitchie: Thank you, Amaury. Wonderful conversation. Thank you all for listening in. See you or hear you on the next podcast.

Amaury: Yes, and don't forget you can also contact us on That is the place where you can share your thoughts, your feedback. And also, leave a review on iTunes. That's going to be very helpful, and we will thank you for that. Thank you again for staying with us, and talk to you next time.

Mitchie: Until next time.