Why a serial entrepreneur is taking on checklists as his next big thing

by Andreas Rekdal
May 24, 2016

For those of us who lack the organizational skills to keep track of our daily tasks, checklists can be real lifesavers. In fact, highly trained professionals like pilots and doctors depend on them for ensuring that planes don’t take off without necessary safety precautions, and that patients aren’t sewn up until all tools are accounted for.

Though neither a doctor nor a pilot, Chicago-based serial entrepreneur Marvin Russell nonetheless has found checklists indispensable in his work. After founding the digital marketing agency The Ocean Agency back in 2003, he found that staying on top of all the things he needed to do consumed most of his time and energy. And no matter how hard he worked at it, he never managed to get his workflow under control.

“Things were slipping through the cracks left and right,” said Russell.

After discovering a book called The Checklist Manifesto — which argues that checklists are the most important part of every successful organization — Russell started implementing checklists for every aspect of running his business. Soon, he saw his own productivity, and that of his company, shoot through the roof. The company brought on a number of new clients, and ended up being acquired in 2014.

Russell attributes much of that success to these checklists.

Seeing how much checklists had helped him, Russell put up a simple web-based tool on Checkli.com that let users create, use and share checklists with each other. After getting a number of emails from users who found the tool useful — including an individual with severe ADHD who used Checkli to manage their everyday life — he started wondering if there might be an opportunity to build a business around the product.

Russell decided to take a gamble on the idea, improving the web app and starting on an iOS version.

Launched in the App Store last month, Checkli remains free to use for now. But Russell sees great potential for the app as a delivery mechanism for content marketing. A gym, for instance, could create a branded checklist of suggested exercises and tips on how to do them right. Likewise, a food brand could create checklist recipes with shopping lists and instructions that users could share with their friends.

A Chicago native, Russell does the majority of his work out of Lakeview coffee shops. After selling his last business, he and his wife were deciding between buying a house in Chicago or moving to San Diego or Florida. They decided to stay in the city because Russell draws inspiration from the Chicago’s entrepreneurial spirit — and its coffee scene.

“My main incubator — and my main office — is at different coffee shops,” he said. “You can work hard, then relax for a while. Work hard, walk around and have other people around you and interact with them.”

Moreover, Russell finds that the opportunity to change his scenery — rather than return to the same office day after day — is hugely beneficial to his productivity and his creativity.

Like with his first two startups, Russell and an undisclosed partner plan to build Checkli without outside funding.

“Everyone makes the mistake of thinking you need capital to build a startup, and it’s so not true,” said Russell. “You can bootstrap your way to a million-dollar business.”

Images via Checkli.

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