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Uncovering the Need for Real-Time Knowledge Sharing

“Make it work. Make it right. Make it better”: Harkster founder and CEO/CTO Matt Canning shares the platform’s origin story – in conversation with COO Charlie Medwin.

Charlie Medwin
Charlie Medwin

Harkster is on a mission to help teams seamlessly share knowledge via micro-reports. These bite-sized documents are easily digestible and contain only the essential information your team needs to communicate.

  • Instead of spending hours piecing together the big picture, users can spend minutes sharing the most relevant info.
  • Instead of sifting through emails, or chasing updates, users are notified the moment something new is posted.
  • Instead of stockpiling knowledge each week, users can learn key insights in real time.

Harkster’s use cases are expansive – but how did the knowledge-sharing solution come to be? This piece offers deep insights into the origins of the productivity app, complete with a Q&A featuring Harkster founder Matt Canning and Chief Operating Officer Charlie Medwin. Their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Charlie Medwin: How did the idea for Harkster come to be? You've worked at software companies, top hedge funds, a bank and a commodity house. Where do those experiences come in?

Matt Canning: I think the final concept came together in 2019. However, all the way back to the early 2000s, I’ve been asked to source and distribute small pieces of key information to teams and managers – whatever that might look like.

So back in the early 2000s, at a software company, I had to distribute status reports for back-end systems to act as alerts. Then, in the mid-2000s at a hedge fund, I distributed notifications based on rules run against live financial datasets. Finally, at a bank in the early to mid-2010s I built and acted on trading signal notifications from a systematic trading platform.

Usually, all these reports would be distributed over email, but then you’d find out you don’t know who’s receiving the reports, or whether the reports were even useful. Or, sometimes the recipient would like to re-run a report on-demand, without having to wait for it to come out at a specific time.

My vision has always been that you can go to the App Store and buy apps – so why can’t you do the same thing with information?

CM: People want to subscribe to data. They want to receive data. But the actual subscription part, and the distribution part – that isn’t always readily available.

MC: Yes, and that’s where Harkster was born. My vision has always been that you can go to the App Store and buy apps – so why can’t you do the same thing with information? Why can’t subscribers choose what they deem important? And if they do consider something important – why can’t they subscribe to it?

Data doesn’t have to be systematically generated, a lot of human generated data still carries significant value. If you have a platform that allows people to distribute relevant information to a subscriber base, then everyone can send and receive information without all the noise and hassle that comes with leaning on email and internal IT teams.

We know email is an easy medium for people to distribute data on. With email, however, you tend to lose control of the dataset. You don’t know where the data is going to end up. You don’t know whether it’s still being used, or if it carries any importance anymore.

So the best thing about a platform like Harkster is that all the subscribers are people who have chosen to receive the information. And your subscribers get to choose whether they still want to receive the data.

We believe that frequently sharing small pieces of critical information helps people accomplish their goals more quickly.
At Harkster, we believe that frequently sharing small pieces of critical information helps people accomplish their goals more quickly.

CM: Do you think modern technology allows this solution to cater to a much wider audience than 10 or 15 years ago?

MC: Absolutely. The problems were there, but the ability to create an application with a global reach is a lot easier. Definitely, infrastructure has moved to where you can, as a developer, just spin something up in the cloud, try something out and if it works, great. If it doesn’t, you haven’t lost much time or cost.

CM: From a data perspective, we’ve sort of gone full circle. A decade or so in the past, people wanted to keep everything in-house – to protect their data. Then they got more comfortable with the cloud, and now everyone is concerned about data privacy again.

MC: I've completely embraced the cloud from a development and IT perspective. It's a game-changer in terms of what's now possible to be built from your bedroom. As a company owner, I trust using the cloud provider(s) we've chosen as they've allowed us to build Harkster and operate in a way that wouldn't be possible without them. As time moves forward and more companies use the cloud it's only natural that 'trust' in the cloud will become de-facto.

From a data privacy point of view you have to be concerned now more so than ever. Designing software that deals with data privacy should be at the forefront of application design - people have the right to be forgotten and this is something I subscribe to as an individual. This is something we've spent time building into Harkster.

Given the flexibility of what people can report, users are finding use cases we didn’t even think about, which is exciting.

CM: After you left the bank, you started your own business. Hedgd built an order management system (OMS) for small- and medium-sized investment management firms.

How did everything come together? Did you want to start your own thing and then came up with the concept, or was it the idea that led you to start the business?

MC: One of the things my co-founder and I wanted to do was get back to building modern software on modern architectures. A lot of the software I’d previously built was in-house, using proprietary libraries and internal infrastructure – but what I wanted to do was build a CQRS and Event Sourced application in the cloud. That’s what piqued my interest.

So we proved the concept and built an OMS, and the people who used it liked it. What we really wanted to find, though, were individuals who previously couldn’t use an OMS because of the costs involved. And finding those small teams proved pretty challenging.

With the companies that did use Hedgd, however – the feedback we got when we told them we were going to walk away was on the mobile aspect. The mobile aspect of Hedgd was one of the things that made it attractive to smaller hedge funds - especially Portfolio Managers.

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This actually led us to revisit the Harkster idea, which involved the notification of data. Again and again, I heard people ask if they could get their data sent right from the system – yet there was no easy tool where people could quickly create and distribute status reports.

You know, the first thing we wanted to focus on was sending out end-of-day profit-and-loss (PnL) reports – or sales reports outside of the finance industry. That’s what we set out to do. And as you know, Harkster provides a new platform for distribution instead of email.

So having a tool that allows you to distribute micro-reports onto a mobile device is something people like and want – but I think it was through years of experience that we were able to understand what Harkster could be, and this process continues even now through how people in beta are using the platform.

What we’ve been pleased with is that everybody seems to find their own use cases. Given the flexibility of what people can report, users are finding use cases we didn’t even think about, which is exciting.

CM: It's definitely an exciting moment for the app.  Ongun Hassan, Chief Product Officer, initially joined you at Hedgd. Now, of course, he’s at Harkster. Can you elaborate on his role and contributions?

MC: We brought Ongun in primarily to focus on user experience. He has a great eye for detail and a wonderful understanding of how software should work – which is something that shouldn’t be underestimated. Well-crafted software, from the user’s perspective, can make or break the whole application experience.

Years ago, when we built data applications, you’d expect users to basically fill in the columns and rows of a back-end table. But now we’re in an era where user experience is at the forefront of application design. It requires as much thought as the back-end architecture and Ongun rocks at this.

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CM: You’ve got some experience working with mobile from Hedgd. On a wider scale of technology, how are you finding the process of building new or different technology?

MC: We started the design work of Harkster in October 2019 –  Ongun and I essentially sat down and decided how Harkster should work.

That took quite a few iterations, primarily because we had to think about accounts, users and how the concept of workspaces (a collection of channels which enable organisational grouping and permission rights) could help people partition their reports. This helps to ensure easy use within teams.

From a commercial and infrastructure perspective, there were numerous aspects to consider regarding Harkster over the OMS. The platform’s potential user base, we found, could be much greater than the reach of the OMS alone. The audience for the OMS is in the 100s, or maybe the 1,000s; Harkster’s, meanwhile, could be in the 10,000s – possibly even higher.

So we started coding in December, and we had our first version of Harkster as a prototype by March 2020. The feedback we received was often the much desired 'A-ha' moment, broadly along the lines of “We can really see where you going with it!” – and that was when the idea started to flow.

We went through the second round of improvements, which lasted until June. That was also when you came in and helped us shape what we had, making it better in the way we presented the idea.

Since then, we’ve continued fine-tuning the user experience. What we hope to do by the end of 2020 is finish the mobile application, because we think being able to receive micro-reports on the road – being able to interact with them, and subscribe to them remotely – is an important part of the user experience. We need that in place before we officially open our doors to the world.

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CM: That makes sense. And so moving forward, either from technology or business or both, what have you learnt over the years that has been particularly valuable? What best practices have you put in place?

MC: I think we’re always learning. The beauty of software development is that people are always innovating – and by the time you master one thing, it’s already changed, or it’s through to the next version.

It’s a constant learning curve, but the real learning tends to be fueled by the user experience. So people who use your software, discover new ideas or problems and you then have valuable feedback that challenges you to become a better developer.

The trick is to avoid assuming what the world needs. Instead you need to let the world tell you what it needs. You’ve just got to get your product out there, and people will tell you what’s wrong with it. Software is a living, breathing thing, in my opinion. Once it’s born, it very rarely just sits there in its infant state. It has to be nurtured. It has to evolve and mature. And so I think the hard lessons we’ve learnt are not to get too hung up on the whether your using the latest libraries or the best architecture.

Simply make it work. Make it right. Make it better - a term Ongun coined I think. That is the kind of philosophy we subscribe to.

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CM: That’s a great philosophy – one that will continue to resonate with Harkster’s audience. Speaking of, how would you define Harkster’s core audience?

MC: I’d like to say most people could find a use for Harkster, but I think the core audience is going to be small teams who have structured knowledge they want to share with one another manually or through an API.

When I was heading up an global IT department, there were a lot of status reports flying around, and I spent a lot of time producing presentations with data that could have been condensed to just one or two quick snapshots for stakeholders. Harkster could have totally worked for me and my team in that role and we would have embraced it.

Harkster allows people to quickly distribute well-presented status reports without having to get IT involved – so it’s a self starting proposition for employees to send key information to their team members. And I wholeheartedly believe these are the people who will find value in the app.

CM: Before we end our conversation, I have to ask: Who came up with the name Harkster? Did you read the dictionary, like what happened with Twitter?

MC [laughing]: No. Ongun and I were sitting in our office in Waterloo, and we did a bit of brainstorming. To be honest, the name we really wanted to use was Pulse – but quite a few people were already using it. We didn’t know if we would be able to get it.

So we landed on Hark, which would have cost $750,000. And we thought, Let’s add “ster” to it, and we asked a few people, and actually, now I think it flows easier than Hark. It’s more memorable. I think Harkster does work, and there’s an element of Napster in mind – so a bit of a throwback for my generation of hackers.

We deal with challenges in our own unique way, but nearly everyone requires information to do their job – or to complete a task.

CM: Absolutely. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MC: Yes. In some ways, I’ve always had a fascination with how information is consumed and valued by people and then acted upon. When I contributed to a systematic trading book, I was constantly trying to find information edges in the data I based my research on and when found, I asked the question - how much should I value this information edge if repeated? Trying to answer this question led me on long but rewarding intellectual and practical journey where I came across fascinating people like Claude Shannon, John Kelly and Edward O. Thorp who helped answer the questions I personally had around money management at the time. It was this learning that has underpinned my reasons for wanting to have an app like Harkster in my life, as I felt the knowledge I was acquiring in my research could have been shared and valued by others.

From my perspective, Harkster is a platform where people can pull together and present information they want to collect and be heard in a way that’s easy for subscribers to understand. It’s a place where users who produce valuable information for consumption can get their data in front of subscribers without having to worry about the infrastructure to do so.

We all deal with challenges in our own unique way, but nearly everyone requires information to do their job – or to complete a task. And the hope is that Harkster can relieve pain-points when it comes to distributing this information.

The platform allows anyone to create an efficient process for sharing and receiving information – a process that doesn’t require an IT team, or the IT skills of larger companies. This is where businesses can truly benefit.

Interested in learning more about Harkster? Join our beta program for exclusive early-access.

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