Distributed Work Can Be a Competitive Advantage

06/08/2020
Amir Salihefendić
Amir Salihefendić CEO of Doist, a company he founded in 2007 when he created the task management app Todoist from his dorm room in college.
Distributed Work Can Be a Competitive Advantage

The best products are those built to address and solve a problem. Amir Salihefendić did just that in his college dorm 13 years ago. He built a simple task management app to help him stay organized. That app would eventually become Todoist, one of the world’s most popular to-do list apps with nearly 25 million users.

Amir, now the founder and CEO of Doist, leads a fully distributed team of more than 70 people located in 30 countries. Doist went on to address its own challenges with productivity and collaboration with the launch of Twist, an asynchronous communication platform that offers a calmer and more organized user experience.

Amir credits the “remote-first” movement and his ability to hire the most talented team members—no matter where they live—as the secret to success.

Connect with Amir:

Amir Salihefendić:

The world is moving toward full distribution, but if you still have these old ways of doing work, you will not be able to adapt. Implementing asynchronous-first as a default way of communicating will provide a base with better processes and a better structure.

Introduction:
There is a revolution taking place right now. Talent and intelligence are equally distributed throughout the world, but opportunity is not. The talent economy, the idea that at the center of work is the talent, is the individual.

Paul Estes:

Companies today face a global war for talent. And high-skilled talent is demanding flexibility around the way they work and the way they live. This podcast brings together thought leaders, staffing experts, and top freelancers to talk about the evolving nature of work and how companies can navigate these changes to remain competitive, drive innovation, and ensure success. Welcome to the Talent Economy podcast. I'm your host Paul Estes.

This week, I'm joined by Amir Salihefendić, founder and CEO of the productivity company Doist, a team responsible for the task management app Todoist and the communication platform Twist. Over the past decade, Todoist has grown completely organically to become one of the world's most popular to-do apps with nearly 25 million users and translated into more than 19 languages. Twist is an asynchronous communication platform trying to bring the best out of teams.

Amir Salihefendić:

I'm Amir Salihefendić. I'm the founder and CEO of Doist, a fully remote company spread around 30 different countries. We have about 75 people, and we do mainly productivity software. We're the creators of Todoist, one of the most popular to-do apps. We're also the creators of Twist, an asynchronous team convocation app. I was born in Bosnia and grew up in Denmark, and I have lived around the world since.

Paul Estes:

I'm really excited to talk to you for a lot of different reasons. One, because you run a very progressive, remote-first company that we'll talk about, and then both of the products, the productivity products. Talk to me a little bit about that moment when you were in college trying to figure out task management. What was that moment when you realized that there was a product there? There was a problem to solve?

Amir Salihefendić:

Honestly, Paul, our secret sauce is like we do stuff for ourselves. Even initially, I actually built this for myself. That was kind of like creating something that I want to use every day. Even with Twist, it was kind of like, the need wasn't done on market research and stuff like that. It was more like, "Okay, we have a fully distributed team, and Slack is just awful for this type of contexts and we need a new tool." Then, we look to actually find a tool because we don't want to develop it ourselves. But there's nothing on the market that actually addresses this problem. Then, after a little discussion, we start to tackle this very hard problem. I think I brought up these problems that are incredibly hard, and they are still not really sold.

Paul Estes:

What was the challenge when you started Todoist, the task management software? I think there are 25 million people that use that on a monthly basis or something. Some large number like that. What was the problem that you were looking to solve?

Amir Salihefendić:

The basic problem I was trying to solve was kind of like just planning the day and managing a lot of responsibilities and projects at once. I was kind of a student, but I also had some side projects, some side jobs, and also, I was a co-founder of another company. I had a lot of stuff that I needed to do and I just needed to juggle all of that. I couldn't really keep it in my head, or even a calendar does not really help once you have tens of projects.

Paul Estes:

If you look over the past say 13 years, just on that task management project, how has it changed over time? People, are they getting busier? What are the types of tasks and the way that your customers are interacting with the software? How has that changed over time?

Amir Salihefendić:

I mean, I think the biggest change we have seen and really also explored ... When I made this, I only made it for desktop in 2007. I mean, It was kind of a desktop-first experience. But right now, we have millions of users on Android and iOS that are using the app. Actually, all of the mobile apps are very powerful and maybe even easier to use than the desktop version. Building seamless mobile experience, it has been a very, very critical, I think, shift for to-do apps in general. Then, some other stuff like sharing as well and calibration. When I initially started, I started to build this something for myself. It didn't have sharing, but throughout the years, we have actually been sharing and collaborating, and this is also a really, really popular feature now.

Paul Estes:

Let's shift gears a little bit to the current events and what's going on. What are you hearing from users and what their needs are that may have been different than say, two months ago?

Amir Salihefendić:

Honestly, I think the current biggest issue that I can see is the practice that people are doing remote work is kind of very broken. It's kind of like the thing that we did initially, which is basically adopting a real-time tool and then also doing a lot of meetings. I think this is kind of like an anti-pattern to actually make fully distributed work, or even work from home, work. I don't really see the shift in the market. People are not really aware that they actually need to change how they work and they need to adapt it to the remote environment. Basically, [inaudible 00:05:48] what I see and hear is that most people are just stuck in these Zoom calls all day long. Then, on top of that, they are also far away from real-time chat such as Microsoft Teams or Slack.

These are kind of like empty parents for me, because what you actually want to do is kind of reduce the amount of meetings you need to do. Move more over to text and asynchronous communication. Also, eliminate real-time chat, and especially right now, if you have kids and you need to do homeschooling or have a baby, you can't really be stuck in three-hour-long Zoom calls. For me, looking at it from the sidelines and seeing that most people or teams are doing something that's completely broken, then I think they would have a very bad experience with remote work.

Paul Estes:

Yeah. I've noticed a lot of my friends that came from location, big technology companies here in Seattle have had a really hard time the first three or four weeks because they didn't change the way they work. They sat in meetings from 7:30 all the way to 5:00 and didn't get up. Every meeting lasted an hour because that was the default on Outlook, the mail client that they use. I do think it's really important for people to take time to rethink that this is a different way of working.

That's why I get excited to talk to people who have fully distributed teams because it is the remote-first type of example, not just remote work. When you were starting Doist, what inspired you to go fully distributed? Hiring people from all over the globe versus the traditional startup of, "Hey, I'm going to grab myself a nice office, maybe somewhere in a tech hub, and bring everybody in"?

Amir Salihefendić:

Yeah, I mean I didn't like something, and I think regardless of your size, of your company size, there's a huge battle on talent and people. At that time, when I actually founded Doist, I was living in Santiago, Chile, I couldn't really find the people that I needed. But even if you now live in the most connected hubs like Silicon Valley or London or whatever, finding it and hiring really great people is really, really challenging, especially if you are just starting out. But even as a big company - because there's so much competition.

The ability to actually hire globally and finding people around the world that are really talented, that really want to do the stuff that is your company's mission, that really connects with that maybe a lot of times you can't really find that in your city. You need to actually go global to do that. I think that was kind of the main driver for me. It was basically finding the right people and hiring them.

Paul Estes:

Did you find that there was more talent that wanted to work in that way? Or were there people saying, "Hey, if you don't have an office, then I'm really looking for an office environment"?

Amir Salihefendić:

Yeah. I mean, something to note about this and other remote-first companies is there are a lot of people that actually want to work in these types of environments. Some of our job posts have thousands of applications, and not a lot of them are really good, and they are basically around the world. Because the market of talented people is basically global. You have just a much bigger pool to hire from and you can see this in the numbers. Actually, getting introduced for any other remote-first company is actually really, really difficult. It's kind of like we hire 0.1% of the applicants. Yeah, it's harder [than] getting into Harvard or whatever.

Then, it kind of tells you that there's a lot more demand than supply. There are not enough remote-first companies that actually offer this. This said, some really big companies like Stripe, they are kind of moving into this space as well and creating a fully distributed division of 150 engineers. Then it will be fully distributed. I think maybe in the US only, at first, or maybe US and Europe. But still, I think also bigger companies will actually begin to adopt this because maybe you can't really find like 150 AI engineers in a city and you need to go global and spread globally. Yeah.

Paul Estes:

I can't imagine even if you did find the engineers, by the time you moved them to your city and they unpack their boxes and everything else, and it's months, not days to get up and running for a team. You've used the term a couple of times that I want to dig into because I know it's important to you: remote-first vs. maybe a remote company or remote work. What does a remote-first mean?

Amir Salihefendić:

Yeah. I mean, honestly, I think remote working is kind of like a spectrum. On the light end, you maybe have some people working from home a few days that week. Then on the extreme end, you kind of have no headquarters, no offices. You just work in a global, like a cloud. We are kind of on the extreme end where we don't really have a headquarters. We do have a small office, but it's almost not used by anybody, total - I think maybe like five people are in that office. Even then, most of the days they actually work from home. I think that's [inaudible 00:11:13]. Then, you also need to optimize all of your processes toward remote work. That's why it's remote first. It's kind of like, you're not optimizing toward the office environment, you're optimizing toward the remote, fully distributed environment.

Paul Estes:

Yeah. I've spent most of my career in 20+ years now in big tech, the remote person was always the person that was outside looking in, right? They were a voice before we all went to video. They were a voice on the other end of a conference call and there were people in the room. At the end of my time in big tech and started to notice where cameras were always on, where people were trying to adapt and blend. But in that blended environment, it is really challenging.

One of the things that I hear a lot from people who are trying to understand remote work, let's say they're curious and they're going to start engaging talent remotely, or they're going to move their team remotely is, how do we keep everyone aligned to the vision and how do we create a culture? Because some people would say, "Look, I do happy hours. I do standups. I do all of these things that are location-based. I bring my team together. That is at the core of our secret sauce. That is at the core of our culture."

Now, you have a team that is fully distributed and you don't have the luxury of having everybody come to a happy hour or all-hands event. How do you as a CEO of a fully distributed team keep that energy and keep that culture intact?

Amir Salihefendić:

I think one of the biggest issues here is that remote has a very bad reputation regarding culture, that you can't really build a strong culture in a remote team. This isn't really true. If you see some of the companies that are operating space, that actually… some of them have thousands of employees, automatic that create both WordPress. Another company that's, I think [inaudible 00:13:00] which is a hub-like service. I know companies like ours or buffers, which are small in scale. Our cultures are actually very, very strong. Also, most people that actually come and join us, they don't really leave. The employee retention for our company and some of the other remote, fully distributed companies is over 90% in the last five years or something like that. I mean just insane numbers.

This tells you a bit about the people that actually are a part of this, really feel very connected to this type of work, and also to these companies and the products they do. And how do you actually foster this and do this? I think it really starts when you hire people. So for us, we really want to hire people that really care deeply about the stuff that we work on, which is task management and team communication. If people don't really feel motivated to do on that, then we don't hire them. While, if you are maybe not restricted or you are restricted to a certain city, then you maybe can find engineers that only care about task management. But for us, that we have a global pool, we can just find those that are really great engineers and also to work on task management problems.

That's all about it. Then, I think also it's really you need to define the core values and stuff like that. Also, these core values need to be communicated out. For us, we have a handbook. Some of the other companies do as well, where you have all the processes, the core values. Everything goes into the handbook, and it's kind of transparent and can be read by anybody, also new people that come and join the company. Another thing, I still think actually you need to meet people. For a lot of these remote-first companies, we do retreats.

For us, we do company retreats, where we just go to exotic places we have been, for instance, to Iceland. Then, we also do team retreats. To have strong teams, you actually need to meet sometimes, like maybe once or twice a year, where you basically get together. You go to lunch, you get some beers, and you can really connect with people on a more personal level. I think those are the elements of this. Yeah. But honestly, it's a really, really hot topic. Yeah.

Paul Estes:

Well, it's interesting that you said if you live in a location. Let's just say, I live here in Seattle. You may be looking for a job and you may be an engineer. And there might be anywhere from a retail organization or a major software supplier or an aeronautics company that needs an engineer, and you would go and work at one of those places. I think one of the things that stuck out to me, with what you said is, you get to choose people that are passionate about the work that you're doing, right?

Not only do you get some of the best talents but you get to select people that are passionate and really interested and curious about the work you're doing. Not necessarily just looking for a job. I think that's one of the big differences I've seen when I look at fully distributed companies versus maybe some other companies. Tell me a little bit about when you realized that Slack wasn't being helpful to your team. Tell me a little bit about the product you created, Twist.

Amir Salihefendić:

For me, as a leader inside a bigger, a growing company, a problem with Slack and most Microsoft Teams or any other real-time chat tool is you need to be connected a lot of the time, and people expect answers fast. For me, given that we have a lot of time zones, I could basically work all the time and I always have a fear of missing something critical like having somebody being blocked without helping them, or feeling that I'm setting a bad example for others by not responding.

This creates a lot of stress and anxiety, the fear of missing out was really real, and it was a huge problem. I would basically wake up at 4:00 AM and check my phone to see if there are any messages that are critical.  If you're not online and a discussion happens, once you get online again, maybe there are two other discussions that have been done in the meantime and you have basically missed out on contributing to that. All of these things were very, very bad. You just kind of played in a very stressful environment. We're told there's a better way to do this. We only kind of knew this way. It's how most of the world currently mostly communicates.

It's like email, but email also had huge amounts of problems. Anybody that has used emails for team collaboration knows that everybody kind of has their own inbox. There’s no thread, you can't really link to anything. You can't react, or use GIPHYs, or whatever else you want in a modern communication tool. Email wasn't really a solution, that's why we built Twist, which is basically taking the best from Slack and mixing in the best from email. It's basically a trend-based asynchronous tool. Asynchronous means that the whole design that as we have used is, you don't need to be online all the time and you don't need to respond right away.

In Twist, it's kind of natural to just like, you can go off for two hours, come back, and then respond and handle the messages. Also, some of the messages, especially threads, are a lot more like emails. They are not one-liners, they can be a bigger text. You can also include images and documents, and stuff like that. They can be very rich. This is also very critical in remote-first environments as you actually want to provide a little context for people. When they actually come online and need to consume that, they can kind of just tackle that. For instance, for an engineer and designer, like a designer would actually do a lot of the work, deliver that so the engineer can actually start working on that without any blocks. Then, they may be in wholly different parts of the world and they can still make this work.

Paul Estes:

How was it with your team when you had this realization that, "Hey, Slack is in many ways distracting in real time and creates a lot of anxiety, I guess, in an organization”? You started building Twist. Did your team lean into it and everybody was on board with this new way of working? Or did it take time to get people to change how they worked to being more asynchronous? Because I think the thing that you said that struck me was, you're waking up at ... And I think everybody could relate to waking up early in the morning or late at night and getting some sort of email or some sort of communication. It sounds like you've changed the way you work and live with this new tool.

Amir Salihefendić:

Exactly. Honestly, the big issue with Slack (and also others) is kind of like they're very, very addictive. Actually, our team hated the transition at first. I was like, Twist was kind of like the after-product that we built in-house. It wasn't very polished as Slack is, but still, I love the patterns that are used. Here, [they] are kind of very addictive, it's kind of like small drops of dopamine. Switching over to a form of communication that isn't so addictive is really, really hard for people because you don't really get the same gratification. Then, you also mix all the fun aspects of GIFs and funny reactions, and stuff like that. Then, suddenly, you have a very fierce competitor, but the issue here is basically, what are you optimizing toward?

It's kind of like, are you optimizing for having people that actually get work done? They're actually like saying that they can actually have a life outside of work, or you're just optimizing for having these addictive people that can't really disconnect. That maybe can't really do their normal lives because we have built this technology that is basically all-consuming. That's kind of our struggle. I didn't like the way too few leaders and companies actually focused too much on this. In other types of work, you would actually maybe go in and look at what is actually the impact of adopting this. Do we actually get productivity gains out of that? Because I don't actually think so if we're honest about this.

Paul Estes:

Some of the ideas that you've been talking about that inspired Twist seem to be very applicable to the stress that people are feeling of being always on with technology.

Amir Salihefendić:

Yeah. Honestly, I think we have this attack coming in from the work sector. Then, we also have it in our social media consumption. I don't think actually this is making our lives much better. I think actually it's maybe making our lives worse. We need to find a balance here and find a way where we can actually take advantage of this technology to actually improve our lives instead of having technology take over our lives and maybe also making them worse. Just a short note about the deep work aspects of this. It's kind of like one of the core arguments in Cal Newport's book, is that the modern organizations will be those. Also, those that survive the long term, it's kind of those that can solve really hard problems. I don't think you can do this if you're just one line talking all the time and you're in meetings all day long. I don't really think you can really focus and really solve some really hard issues that most of us are presented with.

Paul Estes:

No, I agree. One of the things that was very different for me when I left big tech was the lack of meetings. The time that I was able to reclaim. In many ways, I work probably as much, if not more, but the change in how I work, I feel much more productive and more thoughtful in the work that I do. When you made the switch from Slack to Twist, what was one thing personally that you noticed in how you changed the way you were working? Or maybe the way you were engaging with your family?

Amir Salihefendić:

Two of the biggest advantages of asynchronous-first culture are between structuring your days as you see fit. You're not really dictated by being online all the time so you can count like ... For instance, all of the time, I spent one or two hours with my kids in the morning, when we just had kind of our routine, family routine. This is so great. I don't really feel I need to go in and log in and start working. Another thing is, our CTO, Gonçalo Silva, has a very special schedule because he's kind of like a night person. What he does is, he doesn't usually work in the mornings. He works a bit after lunch and then he works at night.

In a normal company, this will be completely insane, but if you actually read the science, a lot of people are actually night owls. It's where they kind of get re-energized. This is just like biology. In a remote-first environment, you can kind of just create any kind of day that fits your needs. When they have a lot of stories like this, where somebody is a surfer and they can spend two hours surfing, when the waves are best, they don't really have this need to be connected.

Paul Estes:

It's one of the things, I'm an early morning person. My wife is a night person. The idea—and I think you said something that resonated—was, in a normal work environment you work from eight to five, or eight to six, or whatever those hours are. If you're working outside of those, you're somehow working outside of hours and it feels off-putting to the rest of the team. In designing the work to get done when your brain is most creative or where you have the most energy seems like it makes complete sense.

That's one of the exciting things when you work for distributed teams, because they're global and because you're using different ways to communicate, it's sort of baked into that way of working. If we look to 2021, things are rapidly changing in the way we work and the way companies try to figure out how to be resilient. What do you think are one or two of the major things that have shifted in the way that we work and in the way we live?

Amir Salihefendić:

On the work front, I really hope that more people actually start to question being online all the time, in meetings all the time, if this is actually the most productive way to get the work done. I mean, something we have really seen ... I mean, right now, we actually see a big growth in Twist, but before this crisis started, there were not many actual people looking for asynchronous ways of working. Adding like, once more people experience the stress and anxiety and fear of missing out using these real-time tools, then we kind of begin to question and search for better ways of actually doing this.

Maybe these extreme companies such as ours, the council leadership around the world could actually be an inspiration. Because even in a normally big company, you usually are spread in different offices. Right now, it's also very common to be spread in different states or different countries. The world is actually moving toward full distribution, but a problem is if you still have these old ways of doing work, you will not be able to adapt, and maybe a competitor that actually implements asynchronous-first as the default way of communicating will outcompete you because they basically have better processes and a better structure to work.

Then, on top of this, we have the talent war that's going on as well. Finding people, the right people that fit your mission, and stuff like that. Honestly, I'm pretty sure right now, there's a handful of big companies that are fully distributed. But I think this will become much more common. I'm also sure you will see big companies, such as Google or Microsoft, kind of creating divisions where they will basically be fully distributed and try to sell it. Maybe at some point, they will also switch over and become fully distributed organizations.

Paul Estes:

Although those companies are now having and being forced to take the first steps of understanding what it means to run a fully remote organization due to the current environment. Amir, thank you so much for taking the time. If somebody wants to get in touch with you and learn more about your product or just the thought leadership that you're putting forth as it relates to remote-first, running a remote-first company, what's the best way to get in touch?

Amir Salihefendić:

Honestly, I think it's Twitter.  I tweet quite often. It's mostly related to technology and remote-first and also our products. Yeah.

Paul Estes:

Well, it sounds great. We'll put all of that information in the show notes. Again, thank you so much and stay safe.

Amir Salihefendić:

Thank you, Paul, for having me, it was a great conversation.

Paul Estes:

I'm your host, Paul Estes. Thank you for listening to the Talent Economy podcast. Learn more about the future of work and the transformation of the staffing industry from those leading the conversation at Staffing.com, where you can hear from experts. Sign up for our weekly newsletter and get access to the best industry research on the future of staffing. If you've enjoyed the conversation, we'd appreciate you rating us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Or just tell a friend about the show. Be sure to tune in next week for another episode of the Talent Economy.

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Amir Salihefendić
Amir Salihefendić CEO of Doist, a company he founded in 2007 when he created the task management app Todoist from his dorm room in college.