My conquest for the ideal personal knowledge management tool

I always loved technology and seemed to be on the edge when it comes to the latest hot shit, but on the other hand also always hold a strong opinion on how that technology has to serve a deeper purpose and added value. Aside of my interest in technologies I was always keen on knowing deep insightfull things about our world works and how I could absorbe this knowledge and evolve as a person from it. Reading books and writing down notes either on a piece of paper or later in digital notebooks, cannot be the best take on this topic where people also were able to built big rockets and fly to space. I also always added more to the topic of personal knowledge management and was trying out almost every single tool that popped up in this area of the past years. But non could me really satisfy at all – I made intensive self trials during my academic Periode but the best thing I could get to was combining various of apps together, yet resulting in a no homogenous experience and interconnections problems. I also got active in this field and tried to create platforms and concepts around the topic. Both times with no remarkable success but I learned a lot and got closer to my ultimate goal.

My 2 historic failures

Try 1: openke

After finishing my first study in 2006 I was struggling to find a decent job, so I decided to bridge the half year time and create something on my own – equipped with moderate programming skills this should be doable. In my study I focused in the area of information and knowledge management and with the start of the rise of the first so called “web2.0” platform, I also wanted to create one around the topic of personal knowledge management. I coined the name “open knowledge exchange” = “openke” and started to build the software around it. Looking back now I would describe the concept as a combination of a social network, social bookmarking and bulletin board. Everything was under the idiom of free access and free sharing of information. Some images of the interface and functions:

Although the project was nominated in 2007 for a local Web2.0 prize it never really built up traction.

Looking back, the reason why the project never grew really big, was that is was too quirky – even at that time back when web application weren’t that supersophisticated as nowadays. Also the ideal to collect free available information and knowledge was one that was not commonly shared. Nevertheless it was a big learning for me and I am proud to look back at it, cause it was a one-man-show effort and many concepts or little features I used to implement there I found later in linkedin features. So my ideas weren’t that wrong after all…

Try 2: taskblitz

After working a couple of years in the creative industry and have worked with new web based project management tools (back then, the thing was basecamp) I saw the window of opportunity for a new project management solution targeted especially to the creative industry. Work started in 2013 when I was also finishing my 2nd master degree. The basic idea of the application was to enhance well know task and project management features to the full value chain needs of a typical team or company in the creative industry. This means adding time tracking, reporting, accounting and collaboration features to the table and build a well integrated platform around it. Usually those feature set where at that time separated in different web apps that were hard to connect. The full value chain feature set for the distinctive target groups always was also the USP of the platform.

First traction was there and a few hundred people were using the platform in 2014. But the big boost in user growth never happened and resulting then in 2015 in the decision to stop full-time and active development on the project. The UI of the app looks still today very clean and decent which makes me as the creator of it very proud.

When a project fails or isn’t taking off as you hoped for it is key to take a good learning from it. Back at the time I didn’t have a lot of experience with software as a service (SaaS) business Modell and basically was learning on the go. Tools and resources to help building up this knowledge were widely free available in the net and there is also a very active community which supports each other. But it was no enough and the traction didn’t happen as we wished for. Why? Distribution and partner management were to Ressource intense to really afford the investment that it would have taken to reach a critical number of users. Looking back, the answer now seems obviously and just put more money into the project but at the time I took the decision in not doing so and back up from it. It was a hard decision, but I can tell now it was the right one because just around the timeframe of 2015+ so man of those project management tools popped out so that competition got from 10 to 1000 in a few month. Also the resources that were put into those project where incomparable with ours. For example asana was founded by facebook ex-engineers and backed with loads of VC money. Also being situated in Europe was not the best pre-condition.

During the 2 years of working intense on the project I learned a hell a lot about startup founding, SaaS business models, economic number games, building great products and tech marketing. It was a financial loss for me but I won’t want to miss the experience I gained through it at the end.

My current toolbox setup and it’s flaws

Starting Mid 2022 I took a 1 year break form my day-to-day job in the marketing industry, following the example of Austrians famously creative Stefan Sagmeister who has anyways worked 6 years and after took 1 year break to regain creative energy. My plan was to travel the world but also to work again on a concept of the ultimate personal knowledge management tool. In the meantime I found myself a setup of tools I use to do this job more or less OK.

  • Wiki – I started hosting my own dokuwiki instance over 10 ears ago and basically uses it to document long form text or link collections to specific topics. The topics are interlinked with each other and form a knowledge graph. Basically this is how the inventors intended to use the tool. But despite wiki software are wound for 10 years, they are still a usability nightmare. I was always in search for alternative to replace the wiki. Used Evernote’s for some trim but there the interlinking is not so well implemented.
  • Google Notes – I use the tool now for quite some years coming from social bookmarking tool delicious. So my use case is quite similar as a link saving farm. Apart from just saving links I also save long form texts and task lists as the tool became my preferred day-to-day organizer tool. As we know it from Google the UI is easy and has great features like the search but also misses functions to structure your content and also an API interface. Having so much stuff in the tool without API access makes me sometime really worried.
  • File directory – I also use a simple file directory on my computer to store documents like reports, presentations or other inspiring things. Here is the problem the rediscovery of older things. I lacked to create a directory structure following month or whatever to do that. On the other hand windows has also not the right features to add value information to a file like a summary, tagging etc.
  • Obsidian – I quite newly stumbled upon markdown editor Obsidian and gave it a try to replace my wiki. The functions and use cases are comparable and I was also able to import m old wiki pages. Anyhow I am not totally happy with the tool as it another one tailored to developers. Working with media and also editing i s not as smooth as you would know it from any word processor app.

As you can see I have a set of typical use cases and how I deal with information and knowledge resulting in use also a set of tools that are not interlinked. In the practical use this resulted in me building up a preference for Google Notes as the most easy tool and to neglect others, especially the wiki.

Key issues I observe in my own personal use:

  • No single tool available that can deliver easy information adding and long form knowledge building
  • Knowledge linking, organizing and graphing are manuell tasks which in the age of AI could be imho done more automatically
  • Retrieving information is a key function but always underrepresented
  • Editing functions are not using latest tech and can be much more user friendly
  • Dealing with files and media always quirky
  • Tech savvy tools have high learning curve

A new or future try…

Why I think the issues I face are also relevant for others and as well as companies: Information and content comes in so many different formats and in an extensive growing volume which on the one hands demands for a systematic way to process relevant ones and also to organize knowledge development. Otherwise the valuable content or knowledge advance you possible be exposed every day, will fade out super fast and you suffer of a form of information overload. Speaking of knowledge intensive industries that depend on well skilled employees this can be a competitive disadvantage. Common solution like creating a SharePoint storage or a Teams groups seam to me just to provide the technological backbone – and not even a good one.

The journey ahead is an open one and currently I am at an idea stage very early. I don’t know if the solution is to build an new dedicated app or base on an existing approach. I have some hope to see how Obsidian evolves and through the growing community maybe gets also a more mainstream twist. Let’s find out together…