Michael Bailey Deputy editor

Michael has been a business journalist for 12 years. He has extensive experience editing magazines covering funds management, commercial property and the travel industry. In 2011 he won a Citi Excellence in Financial Journalism award for a BRW cover story on economic indicators.

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Dilbert bootstraps Down Under: creator of iconic cartoon partners BlueChilli on start-up

Published 28 March 2014 17:48, Updated 31 March 2014 10:09

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Dilbert bootstraps Down Under: creator of iconic cartoon partners BlueChilli on start-up

A Scott Adams cartoon explaining how CalendarTree works.

A blog by Dilbert creator Scott Adams about his inability to sync email calendars and his wish to solve the problem got a response from a founder of Sydney digital agency BlueChilli, and has turned into a start-up that’s about to seek seed funding.

The idea for CalendarTree came when California-based Adams and his friend, Quin Harker, saw their wives manually entering their children’s volleyball game schedules into their email calendars.

“We just thought it could be made easier, so we decided to solve this little problem that at some point could bug a billion people,” Adams told BRW.

“There’s no evidence that the makers of the three main email calendars [Google, Microsoft Outlook or Apple’s iCal] are about to play nicely with each other. Until they do – yes, you can manually sync the calendars but do you really want to play tech support for all the people who don’t know how?”

Harker and Adams sought a developer to help solve their problem via a 2011 blog post on Adams’s Dilbert homepage, and quickly received an emailed response from Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin, the founder of BlueChilli.

“We soon got to skyping and I realised these guys could help us with the interface, the design [and] the marketing. I don’t know how many other places can do that and it’s exactly what we needed,” says Adams.

Adams describes CalendarTree as a website that allows a schedule creator to enter a list of coming events – such as a team schedule for the coming year – and share it via email, Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. The recipient gets a clickable link that loads the schedule to their personal calendar of choice, which could be Google, Outlook or iCal (Apple).

Whenever the schedule owner makes a change, Adams says it flows automatically to your calendar and sends an email describing the change.

Intuitive interface leads to novel uses

The cartoonist and Harker have bankrolled the development of CalendarTree, while BlueChilli has earned an undisclosed level of “sweat equity” for building the product, now on to its second iteration and about to start seeking paid subscribers (although the product remains free with up to 50 connected calendars).

“In this second pass we’ve got an interface people can use intuitively. We haven’t had anyone ask ‘how do you do this?’,” Adams says.

The beta users of CalendarTree have come up with some surprising applications, Adams reports, including a local councillor in Denmark using it to schedule special bin pick-ups.

The founders are finalising pitch documents – Adams admits he “hadn’t thought” of how many Dilbert cartoons he might include – to seek seed funding for ongoing development and marketing.

If they are successful, the funding will be matched up to $500,000 by BlueChilli’s early-stage venture capital limited partnership, which BlueChilli “chief growth hacker” Alan Jones reveals is about to close, having raised $10 million from investors.

Jones says the fact that 30 BlueChilli associates in Sydney have equity in a California-based technology start-up is an “antidote to the brain drain that a lot of people in the tech community here worry about.”

For Adams’s part, he wants to keep CalendarTree as Dilbert would no doubt prefer it: simple.

“Its like Instagram just picked off one thing that Facebook wasn’t doing well – displaying pictures – and focused on that. These three calendars will always be better funded than us, but they’ll also be weighed down with features,” he says.

“There will be plenty of meeting organisers out there who don’t want to be tech support for all the people who don’t want to negotiate those, and we solve that problem, which is deeply satisfying to me. Drawing cartoons – sure, you give people a laugh but maybe they would’ve laughed anyway. This feels a little more meaningful.”

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