About NovaMind – company history and vision

By NovaMind founder, Gideon King.

This page contains a lot of personal information about me. This information is shared not so that I can get any sympathy for the challenges that NovaMind or I have gone through, but purely because I believe it is important for people to understand some things about me to understand the values on which this company is built, and my vision for the company.

NovaMind is my baby. I will do anything for my baby. I have nurtured it through some tough times, but have a clear vision for where it is going, and now that those major challenges are behind us, I want to share a little bit of the nature of the challenges we have gone through, and the triumphs we are now experiencing.

Often the companies and people who seem to be an “overnight success” have been building up to it for years.

In the case of NovaMind, it has been 11 years of hard work, but I get most of my reward and satisfaction from knowing that we have produced the best Mind Mapping application, and that every day it is helping many thousands of people worldwide to lead happier, more productive and successful lives. That is a massive reward for me, and when you have read this page, hopefully you will understand some of the reasons why this is the case.

How it all started

Petronas twin towers in Kuala Lumpur

It was a dark, cold and lonely night, when suddenly a flash of inspiration came to me…

Actually it was day time, and stinkin’ hot. I was living in Malaysia at the time, September 2001, and I was working as CTO (Chief Technical Officer) of an international software company. It was just after the so-called “9/11 bombing” where some ‘planes had been flown into some buildings in USA. I was living in Malaysia, a Muslim country. Amongst the expatriate population, there was a fair amount of speculation – would there be attacks against westerners in Malaysia? Was there a risk to our safety living there?

The company I was working for had close ties to the highest levels of US intelligence, and kept us appraised of developments, and we had plans to move quickly out of there should that be necessary – it kind of helps when your company owns a fleet of aeroplanes. Anyway, the tension was getting to my (now ex)wife, and she felt in danger there, and even though there had been no actual attacks, she wanted to move out for a few weeks with the children to let things settle down.

So we decided to take them all to Australia (her parents and my parents live there, even though I was born and raised in New Zealand) until she felt it safe to return. I had just signed up a fifteen month contract, and couldn’t easily get out of it. We went to Australia, but it soon became clear that the family would not be returning to Malaysia.

I therefore needed to move to Australia to be with my children as soon as my contract was over, and I would need to have some form of income.

The vision

Company Vision

So here I am, back in Malaysia for the first weekend without the family there. Work is hectic, and seems to be a constant battle of communication and performance issues, with little progress. We had dreams of staying a couple more years in Malaysia, then working in UK for 2-3 years (I’m three quarters English and one quarter French, so could work over there), and then a couple of years in USA before deciding where to settle down. All that was out the window, with my ex-wife saying that she would not live in either UK or USA now that the terrorist incidents had happened. It was also now very clear that she wasn’t going to return to Malaysia, so the only way I was going to be able to see my children was for me to move to Australia.

Things were pretty quiet in the apartment, and I didn’t really have any close friends over there, so it was time to sit down and plan out the next phase of my life. Up until then, life had just happened to me – opportunities would arise and I would take them, but I had no real plan as to what I was going to do in the short, medium, or long term, or any thoughts of what legacy I would leave for my family or the world.

I started jotting down ideas, and pretty soon I had a mess of notes that made little sense and had no real direction to them. It was at that point that I decided to try to organize them, and got out a big sheet of paper, and started drawing a Mind Map of where I was at that time, and where to go from there, particularly planning what I would do for income when my contract ran out, as I would not renew it and have to spend more time away from my children.

I had been a contractor for some time, and now felt that it was time to make the big move to being my own boss, so I brainstormed some ideas, and part way through the process, a blinding flash of vision came to me – why not create a Mind Mapping program, so that other people could easily solve their problems and come up with their own empowering plans?

NovaMind is formed

Mac OS X 10.0 box

At the time, MacOS X had just been released, and as I had done a lot of development work using NextStep, OpenStep and WebObjects, I was very familiar with the technology and absolutely loved it. It was so far ahead of the things I had to use at work it was ridiculous – there I was, having to use archaic tools every day at work to develop web applications when they could have been developed in 10% of the time using Apple’s tools. Anyway, I looked at the Mind Mapping market on Macs, and found that there were few offerings, and the quality and feature set of those offerings was pathetic, and most of all, the maps produced looked ugly!. People need powerful and beautiful Mind Maps, so that you can get the full benefit and impact of them, and I wanted to provide this for as many people as I could.

I started developing NovaMind in my weekends and evenings, and was able to release the first commercial version in August 2002. One of my biggest buzzes at the time was when a customer bought it when it was still in beta testing!

In December 2002, I finished up my full time contract in Malaysia, and moved to Australia to be with my family, but kept a part time contract with the company in Malaysia, to guarantee some sort of income while NovaMind was developed to the stage where it could provide an income, and to provide seed money to build a company around it.

It started taking off in 2003, with the new features and translations into Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish.

In spite of the success of NovaMind, I was still limiting the growth of the company due to my own insecurities around the product and building the team that I would need to make it big.

I decided that the key thing that needed to change was me. So I went on a personal journey, reading over 600 books on personal development and understanding the things that were holding me back. In the process, I learned a lot about a very wide range of things, and attended many seminars and courses. These things included studying the power of the unconscious mind, neuro-linguistics, goal setting and achievement, investing, money and finances, inter-personal relationships, public speaking, hypnosis, and many more areas.

This took several years, with the results improving over time, as I tested and refined different ideas to find the things that would work best for me.

Then it all started exploding into a wild ride of new opportunities, company growth, inner confidence, travel, meeting many world leaders in a wide range of fields, and many adventures.

As far as NovaMind was concerned, this meant the doubling of the company size in 2006, double again in 2007, and significant growth in 2008. We brought the program to Windows, and kept updating the program with progressively more and more powerful features…

BUT

In many ways we were building on an old foundation, which was limiting what we could do, and I didn’t want to just create another Mind Mapping application that was only incrementally better than the rest – I wanted to get to the core of what Mind Mapping users need, and create a brand new foundation using the latest tools and techniques so that we could deliver the absolute best Mind Mapping application.

We had many meetings to discuss what it was that we should create, based on all the feedback we had received over the years, and the ideas that we had, but hadn’t been able to implement yet. We looked at everything that was available both in Mind Mapping and other graphical organization and productivity tools. We surveyed our customers. We collected everything together and created the vision of the perfect Mind Mapping application.

Of course there were many ideas that were conflicting, where some users wanted one thing and others wanted the opposite, so there was a lot of work to do to refine the ideas to be able to provide the right tool and feature set to meet people’s real needs. But we didn’t stop there either – in many cases, people do not ask for things beyond what they have actually seen elsewhere, but our vision for where we needed to go went way beyond that. And of course, as Apple has demonstrated over and over again, it is very often what you decide to leave out that makes the product great – we didn’t want to end up with “feature-itis”. And so the vision was developed…

To build this vision, we would need to recreate everything from the ground up.

The Reinvention of Mind Mapping: NovaMind 5

NovaMind 5 logo

So work began on NovaMind 5 in October 2006, starting from high level goals and planning, and designing the foundation that we needed to be able to build the best possible Mind Mapping application.

The Layout System

One of the big things we wanted to achieve was the ability for the software to lay out the topics, no matter what shape, in the most compact way, automatically, but for the user to have the flexibility to move topics wherever they wanted, while making sure that the topics didn’t overlap, and we wanted to be able to have any subtopic layout algorithm able to be applied from any topic to lay out its subtopics independently of what may be happening anywhere else on the Mind Map.

These requirements proved to be so complex that we had to break it down into all the component parts and do a lot of research and development into various algorithms and graphical layout theory. We found some interesting ideas and research papers, but nothing that fully satisfied the requirements of a Mind Mapping application. There are algorithms which lay out arbitrary shapes in a compact way, but they do not honor the hierarchy and subtopic ordering of a Mind Map, and there are algorithms that lay out hierarchical data, but they do not do it in a compact way, and none of them would handle any prioritized positioning or manual layout offsets etc.

And of course we could not look to any other Mind Mapping application for inspiration, because nobody else does this – all the other Mind Mapping programs have very significant flaws in their layout systems. Most leave huge unnecessary blank spaces when laying out topics. Most fix the topics at a calculated position and don’t let you move them. Some let topics overlap, either when laid out automatically, or if they do provide the ability for you to move topics yourself. All have massive drawbacks when it comes to providing the flexibility required.

We went through 15 major versions of the layout system over the space of about 3 years in order to find and refine a layout system that would fit our stringent requirements. All this was completely new research and development work, and to date NovaMind is totally unique in its ability to lay out the topics in this way. Now, people who have used other Mind Mapping applications extensively very quickly appreciate the advantages of NovaMind. People who use NovaMind and try other applications are frustrated by their limitations.

Internal Topic Layout

Even at the level of topics themselves, we found that there were significant limitations in how both earlier versions of NovaMind and also all other Mind Mapping applications operated, so we set out with the goal to develop a system for layout of a topic on a mind map that allows for the following capabilities:

  • handling of rich text with full editing, hard and soft wrapping and font handling capabilities.
  • handling font matching for both Windows and Mac computers so that the most appropriate font is chosen
  • automatic and manual sizing of topics
  • placement and sizing of images to the left, right, top and bottom of the topic, as well as a background image
  • automatic resizing to show data supplied by plugins
  • automatic placement of icons and attached text indicators and attached data so as to not overlap other portions of the topic or other topics, while maintaining the size and relative position of the images
  • full editability of the topic visual properties and shape, with automatic placement changes for topic shapes that don’t support some components
  • developing systems of using themed colors, fonts and styles to control the look and feel of the different elements on the topics, while allowing for manual override of these properties, and resetting to the theme properties for each group of settings.

There are numerous aspects of this development work that are completely new technologies that have never been developed before, and which required a large research, prototyping and testing/refinement process. These aspects of the system are again a unique distinguishing part of the program and puts this product at the forefront of international innovation.

Plugins

In addition to providing the best Mind Mapping application, we also realized that there was a significant need for some companies to be able to closely integrate NovaMind into their workflows, and extend the capabilities of the program to fit their own specific needs.

So we developed a plugin architecture to allow for both those needs of those companies, but also so that other developers could produce their own extensions to NovaMind. We would love to see a marketplace of third party extensions for NovaMind growing – we have made it very easy for developers, and are prepared to help out along the way.

Our goals with the system were to make it very easy for developers to create plugins, and give them the capability to add their own data to the documents, Mind Maps and topics, and be able to create their own user interface elements and be able to draw their own information on the topics. So far, the plugin system has been developed for the Windows version of NovaMind, and allows people to develop plugins that can have any user interface desired by the developers on any topic, can draw their own information, can add their own panels above and below the topics, can add their own icons, can add ribbon bar tabs and items, can add side panels etc etc.

We even use the plugin system as part of the shipping application – the task information, attachments, hyperlinks, topic notes, and media library are all actually plugins that we just happen to ship as standard with the application.

The NovaMind Presenter

Another thing we wanted to do was to produce the best presentation system – after all, Mind Maps are excellent for representing information in a clear and concise manner, but we wanted to go beyond just a static Mind Map and extend through to animated panning, zooming, collapsing and expanding of topics so that the focus of the audience can be directed to the appropriate part of the Mind Map without them losing context of how that information relates to the overall Mind Map.

Again, we looked at all the other presentation and Mind Mapping software out there, and found that it fell well short of what was required by our users. There are some other Mind Mapping applications that have presentation systems built in, but they are limited in the way that the Mind Maps are displayed, the animations that they use are often nauseating, they don’t have the ability to show the appropriate amount of context etc. All of them had significant flaws.

Of course the Mac version of NovaMind 4 had a presentation system which was streets ahead of anything else available, but even it had its limitations, so as with everything for NovaMind 5, we went back to the drawing board and looked at what is really required in the context of different types of presentations – whether they are ad-hoc showing people something you are working on, dynamic, where you are editing the Mind Map as you go, or formal, where you want to define everything including the collapsed/expanded states of subtopics, the amount of zoom etc beforehand for a presentation, or combinations of scenarios like where you want to give a formal presentation but then navigate the Mind Map in an ad-hoc way during question time etc. And also these days, there is the need to give webinars, so we wanted to cater for those scenarios too.

Again, the different needs of different groups dictated a wide range of diverse requirements that we needed to draw together into a coherent function within the application. Some of our core goals were to have the following features:

  • ability to start a presentation immediately while editing a Mind Map, with at most one simple setup screen.
  • ability to edit the Mind Map during the presentation
  • automatic route selection through the Mind Map with built in zooming and panning to appropriate levels to show neither too much or too little of the Mind Map
  • ability to create a custom path through the presentation, focusing on the topics you choose, and having the expansion state of topics honored during the presentation
  • nicely animated zoom and pan and collapsing and expansion of topics during the presentation
  • ability to access linked and embedded information (topic notes, documents, web pages etc) from within the presentation
  • ability to switch to other applications and resume the presentation where you left off
  • navigation by mouse, keyboard or remote
  • ability to run the presentation in windowed or full screen mode

Of course we delivered on all those goals and more, and now NovaMind is getting rave responses from both our customers and the people who see presentations delivered using NovaMind.

The rocky road to NovaMind 5

If anyone had told me that it would take over 5 years to develop NovaMind 5, I would not have believed them. Not even close.

If I knew all of the disasters that were ahead of us on the route to developing NovaMind 5, I probably would have just given up and done something else. There have been many times when I would have gladly walked away. There were many times where I despaired of ever being able to complete it.

Now I know it’s not considered “cool” by particularly our friends in USA to mention that we had personnel problems (seems to be a taboo topic over there), so if you’re offended by such things, you might like to skip this next bit. Of course I won’t mention names or specifics, and I will only mention a small subset of the problems, but I do think it’s important to say what I have to say so that you can understand the issues to some extent and understand the determination that it took to keep going and produce NovaMind 5, and the vision that will take us beyond NovaMind 5 now that we are past that rocky patch.

Shortly after we had begun development on NovaMind 5, I had a major “lesson” in trust. I had entrusted virtually all my assets to a guy who I thought was acting on my behalf. It turns out I was wrong, and he disappeared, taking everything with him. This meant that I didn’t have the capital that I had set aside for the development of NovaMind 5. Luckily, NovaMind 4 was selling quite well and was able to provide the cashflow to keep things moving, though it would mean doing it with fewer people than I had anticipated, which has the downside of more stress for the developers, and more information locked up inside the heads of fewer people, so every person becomes critical.

Then we had a bunch of personnel issues with production of poor code, people leaving because of personal issues, people having health issues due to the stress etc. This had a massive impact on the development, but I was determined that we would complete the development work, so we reshaped the team as each challenge came along.

Then we got to the stage where it looked as if we had a good team in place, the majority of the development work was complete, and we could see the end in sight for the development. So in May 2009, we announced that we would deliver NovaMind 5 before the end of that year. Of course when you make an announcement, all license key sales from that point on need to be NovaMind 5 licenses, so there would be no additional upgrade revenue coming in. Therefore we needed to complete the task as quickly as possible.

However, the worst happened, and virtually as soon as I had made the announcement, we had personnel issues again. The worst of these was when we wanted to see actual demonstrations of the things that the head Mac developer said were complete, or almost ready for deployment. Over and over again, there were delays and “just a few more bugs to fix” type scenarios…and then he was gone – got a job doing some iPhone development. And then we had to dig deep into the code, and found massive issues with it.

For over 6 months, we tried to patch up the code so that we could get something out the door before the end of the year as we had promised, but we were low on staff because iPhone development was all the rage, swallowing all the developers and we just couldn’t find anyone who was good enough and who would fit with the team, to bring on board.

At that stage, I looked at the position, and was just thinking that even if we did manage to get something patched up well enough to get it out the door, we would still not have the solid foundation that we needed, and that we would spend a huge amount of time debugging issues that were inherent in some of the very bad design decisions that had been made.

This was not the way to achieve my vision!

I therefore decided to start the whole thing from scratch, throwing away virtually all the code that had been written and going back to the original design concepts and starting again. So, years late, and millions of dollars over budget, and severely short of personnel, we started the Mac development again.

The Windows development team hadn’t fared quite so badly (although they had lost one key developer due to health issues) and we were able to release version 5.0 for Windows in April 2010. 6 months later than when we had anticipated it being released, but a great effort considering the issues on the project and the departure of a key developer.

The first 6 months of 2010 were pure hell as far as the Mac development was concerned. We were thoroughly demoralized by the situation – having virtually nothing concrete to show for years of work, and having failed to keep our promise of releasing NovaMind 5 for Mac by the end of 2009, or even having any idea when we would be able to release it. We were down to a skeleton crew on the Mac, and still the iPhone and then iPad development craze was in full force, so we couldn’t get anyone else to bring in to the team.

I had to leave all the business development, marketing, training and support work that I was doing (and basically put my whole life on hold) and go back into the programming side of things full time to get things back on track.

We were under a massive amount of pressure to deliver as soon as possible. We were getting emails from angry customers on a daily basis saying that we had misled them (not necessarily in such polite language), and some of them demanding refunds – something very difficult to deal with when you’re working up to 18 hour days 7 days a week trying your absolute best to fix the problem!

I decided that although it was not a complete and ready application, we should put out a technical preview so that people could see that we were actually working on it and to get a feel for what the application would be like. It turns out that this was a huge mistake. People don’t understand the concept of a preview, and expect everything to be working pretty much flawlessly. So this just made the situation worse, and the development team were under even more pressure to fix the issues. And although there were great things being accomplished by the Windows development team, we couldn’t send out emails to our newsletter list because every time we did we would get such a massive backlash of angry emails from people saying “where’s the Mac version?”. We would not be able to email our customers again until we had delivered an excellent product on the Mac, unless we specifically knew they were a Windows user.

I was still determined and committed to complete the development, and deliver a high quality product as quickly as possible, so we basically went into our cave and just shut out the world and developed the Mac version. I took over the Mac support work, and put in place a strategy where I would only look at the support emails at the end of the day, because it was such a depressing task with all the complaints, and in that way, I would be able to develop during the day with a clear head, and then about 2am an hour before bed time, I would go in and answer the emails, and then sleep it off before getting back into the development at 7am.

I am writing this at the start of June 2011, and yet again, our Windows development team have just completed a significant update to the application, this web site is just about to go live with lots of information about Mind Mapping and lots of resources for our users, and the Mac version is just about to enter its final stage of development where all the fixes for the issues in the beta release are brought together.

Now that we have these things in place, the dark days are behind us, and we are getting lots of great feedback on both the Windows and Mac products. It’s just such a huge relief to have all that behind us.

Throughout the whole development process with its many challenges, my determination has always been to produce the absolute best Mind Mapping application. The vision of what constitutes the best Mind Mapping application, and the failure by any other company to deliver anything that fills those needs has driven me and the entire team to make the dream come true. As I write this, I have not had a full day away from NovaMind development for 18 months, and at times that has been massively hard, but I get my greatest reward when I get feedback emails from customers who tell me how much more productive they are, or how they landed a contract because of NovaMind, or how they have overcome issues with ADHD because of NovaMind, or how their staff now understand the company vision and buy into it and contribute to it because of NovaMind, or that they gave a presentation using the NovaMind Presenter, and had people gathering around them telling them what a great presentation it was and asking them what software they were using, and so on. It makes it all worthwhile.

But more than that, it gives the whole team the enthusiasm to continue innovating and producing the next enhancement, the next refinement, the next performance improvement, and so on. We have a massive list of things that we are planning for the future of NovaMind, and I hope you’ll benefit from our vision of the future of Mind Mapping.

We wouldn’t be where we are without the team!

I would like to extend my thanks to the many people who have helped NovaMind either as full time staff, contractors, or in various other capacities: (in no particular order) David, Matt, Florian, Lloyd, Patrick, Alex, Clinton, Lam, Karen, Ben, Ernesto, Katherine, Olivia, Rebecca, Damian, Jay, Chantelle, Anthony, Mark, Trevor, Michele, Ralph, Margaret and Tony. Many of these people have contributed a lot to the product, and others have contributed to my “education”. I value both types of contribution as I continue to learn and grow, and as we move NovaMind forward.

And I would like to thank our customers, beta testers, translators, and for the many people who have taken the time and made the effort to give us feedback to enable us to continue to grow and improve NovaMind.

My personal journey

I have just told you a massive amount about me – much more than I have ever shared before, but as I mentioned, I did that for a reason. Hopefully you can understand both my vision and determination, but I also want to share with you how I managed to pull myself out of the depths of despair over all the issues, and to maintain and build my focus. I share this because I believe it is a massively powerful technique so that you can achieve the things you want in life, no matter what challenges you face. Without this, NovaMind would not exist today.

I used the techniques outlined on the Life Planning page to identify, define, and refine my goals in life, and from that came the question that I ask myself every day, which is: "How can I continue to develop, share and teach my success tools and methods to even more people in a fun and loving way?". The answers to this question have led me on a voyage of self discovery, and to connect with others who also want to make the most out of their lives, and build success in every part of their lives. It has enabled me to overcome the obstacles in my life, and design a great life for myself. The outworking of these philosophies are reflected in the continued development of NovaMind, my involvement with various communities online and offline, the Mind Mapping books I have written, as well as through my artwork and dancing. To give you a visual insight into how it all fits together, and what I have introduced to my life on a daily basis, you can check out one aspect of my direction in life in this Mind Map (for a full explanation of it, see the bottom of this page):

I wish you great success with NovaMind, whether you use it for designing your ideal life, solving problems, coming up with creative ideas, planning a project, preparing a presentation, or any other use. You can also be part of the NovaMind success story by becoming a NovaMind affiliate. It’s very quick and easy to get set up, and profit from the success of NovaMind.

…and if you don’t already have NovaMind, it would really help me fulfill my mission in life, and hopefully help you to do the same, when you download and purchase NovaMind!