“What are the Personal CRM setups that different people use to make sense of their contacts?” That was the question that kicked off my Personal CRM meetup last Tuesday. After posting a little write-up about my experience hosting the event, I want to follow up with a written summary of the discussion.
To that initial question, there were around three groups. One group uses specialized tools like I’m using Monica (and someone in the chat mentioned clay.earth as an alternative), and a second group employs more general tools like Roam, Notion or Airtable. There was also a third group that doesn’t use any software and tries to keep it all in their head. Members of the second group heavily rely on Roam’s templates, bidirectional linking to connect people with concepts like places and topics, and daily notes to have a journal of conversations. On the other hand, the third group is either worried about the friction of introducing additional digital tools into their workflow or hasn’t found the right one yet.
After collecting these additional thoughts from the audience, I gave a demo of Monica, covering the following: dashboard, tagging contacts, profile view, the stay-in-touch feature (which I don’t use yet, but that allows you to get periodic reminders to check in with a person), activities including tagging multiple people (which is the feature I use most) and activity reports, the journal view, and, finally, all how you can customize the CRM and that you can access your data through an API and WebDAV. I skipped over the gifts section, but a curious participant had noticed it in the screencast, so I explained later that it allows you to keep track of gifts given and received, which kind of sold the system to her immediately!
A discussion followed the presentation, where different participants of the session asked questions. The first and very valid question was about the specific value that I’m getting out of using the system. I’ve had a few situations in my personal and professional life where it was beneficial to access a record of a previous conversation or activity to make it easier to follow up where we left off. However, as I had to admit, I’m still trying to figure out the value, and I’m collecting some data on the hunch that it may be useful in the future without clearly knowing why. Related to that question is how much time one should spend maintaining the CRM relative to its utility. I usually take a few minutes to note down conversations, so it’s not a huge burden. Still, adding new contacts sometimes takes a while, not just because of the CRM but also because of researching a person you met, looking at their website or social media profiles, and following up. If that’s too much effort, the solution is to filter who you want to add. It all boils down to your networking philosophy and your intentions. Do you wish to be a well-networked person that can eventually facilitate connections between other people, or are you just focusing on your most important contacts? It’s tough to assess your network’s value, though, because nothing comes out of most ties, whereas others might lead you to a perfect job/investment/dating opportunity. That was the unsatisfactory answer that I had to give to a follow-up question on the ROI (return-on-investment) of a Personal CRM. I also find it hard to pin-point a single use case or a personal success story for networking as a high-value activity.
Another question, which begs much more broadly than just for Personal CRM but for all software and services, is whether to use specialized or generalized tools. I like having structured data and technical features, like using WebDAV to sync contacts with my phone, but I’m very sympathetic to using things like Roam as a low-barrier way to get started. For those who use Notion, someone shared a great template in the chat. Monica’s downside compared to note-taking tools is that there’s no full-text search for notes, so finding people based on attributes that you haven’t explicitly set up as tags is hard. Roam or Notion win here.
Another participant asked about merging contacts and duplicates, which I consider one of Monica’s missing features. Nevertheless, if you add contacts manually instead of importing from multiple sources, you don’t get as many duplicates. Talking about import and export, yes, Monica allows that, but moving data between systems always involves some friction.
One crucial question was related to maintenance and purging old contacts from the system. My take on this is that the whole idea of a CRM is that you maintain everyone you met because that person may appear in your life again or prove valuable as a “weak tie”, and that’s where it’s worthwhile to have the record. The only reason to purge a contact is if it’s a business relationship covered under privacy regulation that gives the other person a right to be forgotten (do not take this paragraph as legal advice, though). Talking about privacy, I generally trust Monica’s developers to be protective of my data, as they don’t engage in any data-based or advertising-based business model. Still, there might be a security hole, so if you trust yourselves more to operate a secure server, you can always get their open-source edition and host yourself.
The final question was about managing and keeping track of conversations in different channels, especially fast-faced communications that don’t allow you to mark them unread again. There are multi-messenger browsers like Franz and open communication protocols with bridges like Matrix, or you could rely on old-fashioned email notifications. We agreed that this is an unsolved problem and that there might be some approaches that use APIs to integrate multiple channels with a Personal CRM, but there’s not a perfect solution for it yet.
Reaching the end of the second write-up, I want to thank again everybody who attended the session. To repeat the ending of the previous post, I have a few ideas for follow-up events. I may do a follow-up session that will not have a presentation to become a free-flow discussion. I could also imagine teaming up with someone as a co-host who uses a different tool and wants to present their setup. Also, I believe Personal CRM and networking involve many general, strategic, or philosophical questions besides tools. For that purpose, I may host an Interintellect salon to give the topic the mental space it deserves. Stay tuned to my blog and/or Twitter for specific announcements.