What's up everyone? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com , where I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses. My goal, as always, is to get a sense of what's going on behind the scenes, how they got to where they are today, and the lessons we can learn from their experiences.
Today I'm talking to Amir Salihefendic, he's the founder of a company called Doist, which makes a popular task management app called Todoist. Thanks for joining me Amir!
Thanks, it's awesome to be here!
It's really great to have you here, we've got a lot that we could talk about. First of all, Todoist is massive, it's one of the most popular task management apps that exists, which is no easy feat to build, and the company that you built to build Todoist is itself pretty interesting, it's completely remote and you describe yourself as a remote first workplace, so I'd love to talk about that. You also grew up in Bosnia, which is pretty cool because it proves that anybody from anywhere has a shot at starting something successful online, but maybe the best place for us to start is on your origin story as a founder, and as an entrepreneur.
Generally people fall into one of two buckets, or somewhere in between, the first half is the people who know from a very young age that they want to be an entrepreneur, that they want to be a tech founder and they're super driven from the start. The other side of the spectrum is people who kind of fall into it, so I'd love to hear your story and how you decided to become a founder.
Well, my parents were entrepreneurs their whole lives and I hated the idea of having your own business. I always envied other kids who had normal parents, because they would get normal work days, they would get vacations. For me, I was working a lot of the time for my parents, so I really didn't imagine myself growing up and starting my own business. The same fate has happened to my brother, so I think it kind of runs in the family, but this said I never actually grew up imagining working for others either. From a very early age I had side projects, the first gig I had was when I was fifteen I sold a [unintelligible] to the local library and I earned enough to buy a MacBook back then, so I was already starting something there. Then in high school and university, I did a lot more projects and then I had some part time jobs working for others, but I didn't really imagine myself doing that.
When you were in high school, or college, what would you have said to me if I could go back in time and ask you what you thought your career would look like ten or fifteen years later? What did you imagine your life being?
I basically knew I would do some kind of development, I really love programming and creating stuff. I never actually imagined myself to be an owner of a business, a leader, and stuff like that. It didn't really appeal that much to me in the beginning, so that's basically the start of it all.
When was the first time it started to really appeal to you and you thought, "You know what? Maybe instead of doing these projects as a hobby, that maybe I'm cut out to actually be a tech founder or to be an entrepreneur."?
I don't know, it wasn't really a day where that happened. It kind of happened gradually, I kind of just got pulled into it. I'm unsure how much you know of my story, but I started Todoist as a side project. I was twenty-two or twenty-three when I started it inside my dorm, and I basically wanted a task management app for myself. So there wasn't a grand scheme of things, like "Oh I'm going to start a startup" and raise money or something like that, I just wanted to create something for myself.
Then once I did that and actually built the project, I launched and got a bunch of users using it, I got a very very good offer to co-found another startup which was Plurk. I'm not sure if you know Plurk but at the time we had competition with Twitter early on. Of course we got very beaten up in the European and American markets, but we grew a lot in the Asia-Pacific.
Honestly I think more people follow that type of path, where they don't have a super detailed plan or strategy in the beginning for exactly how they're going to start a business, and they just kind of fall into it because one thing leads to another. The other thing that you did that's super common is to build a product for yourself, then only months of years later realize that it has the potential to be a solid business, but it sounds like Todoist was doing very well in the beginning but that you stopped to work on Plurk, so is that correct and if so, why did you make that choice instead of continuing to work on your own thing?
The thing for me is, I never actually saw the huge potential in Todoist early on. For me it was just like a side project, early on I also created a business model for it, so people would pay $3/month to get reminders, I don't know, I got some people to pay for it, not a lot but there was kind of a business model and people were very passionate about it, but I could not really see huge potential in it so that's why when the this social network came along, and I was going to be a co-founder, like it was well funded, I could learn a ton doing this, so I was like let me just do this. I think I did it because I wanted to learn, become a better programmer, better product designer, and I think that actually helped me a ton. For Todoist itself, it was a side project for four years before I committed full time on it.
Can you give me a sense of who these early Todoist customers were, I mean who was paying you $3/month to use this app... were they just people that you met in your dorm at college, or people that you met online, and also, how long were you working on Todoist before you decided to switch and work on Plurk?
Initially I developed Todoist for six months and released it. I had a very popular development blog which a lot of people followed, so via that I got a lot of early users, maybe a few hundred or something like that, and they spread it around. It was featured on Lifehacker, which was a pretty big blog back then. It grew very fast but then I stopped six months in, then went full time on this social network called Plurk. I worked on Plurk for three or four years before I returned to Todoist to work on it full time. In most other settings, doing what I did would have been a death sentence, but it kind of worked out somehow.
So let's talk a little bit about Plurk, because Plurk sounds like a very traditional tech startup, one where you might not care that much about having a business model, but you've got investors and you're trying to grow as large as possible, and you've got co-founders and the whole nine yards. How did you come to get involved in Plurk in the first place?
Well I got a cold email from one of the other founders and he basically wanted me to go on board on this, it was via my blog that I got into contact with this. On this blog I wrote a lot of stuff and he kind of liked it, so he wanted to have me as a CTO of this startup.
That's cool that your blog seems to be the channel from which you did everything early on, because that's also how you got your first users for Todoist.
Exactly! I was a very active blogger, I blogged for many years and I kind of built my own little audience.
Maybe that's where the real story is because I think a lot of people listening in have tried to launch things in the past, and I've been in this situation where I've been trying to build and launch something and I haven't found any success at all, and it feels like how do people get this momentum where they launch something and people care, or where they get asked to become a co-founder of a promising company... it really helps to build an audience. Let's shift gears a little bit before we get into Plurk and talk about your blog, and how you started blogging, and how long it took you to get to the point where your blog was actually popular and could help you do all these other things?
I started on the internet very early to create websites, most of them were personal websites where you're drawing some gifs, and make some articles, and do some random stuff. Then as time went on, I built more and more of this. In the end I kind of had my own personal space where I would post stuff, a lot of it was also very embarrassing, haha, because it was like a personal blog and it had programming, if I had a hangover I would do some random post and post it. There's still an archive of it, but just random stuff. It had a lot of followers, I think in it's whole history it had like over a million uniques.
Wow, so why did anyone even care about it if it was just you posting your personal stuff about your hangovers and your interests?
Because some of the posts were very insightful, for instance I did an analysis of Reddit's algorithm, because Reddit was kind of open source so you could go in and analyze it. I did a post, and it was very insightful, it got shares, yeah, some of the posts were actually very good, and there was a lot of random shit in between.
When you were writing all this stuff were you thinking about it strategically, like "Hey, I'm writing this stuff and it's kind of fun but I'm going to collect people's email addresses, and make sure I can use this as a distribution channel later on." or were you just writing and hoping things took off, but not really having a future strategy or plan for your blog?
I didn't have a strategy at all, it was not very strategic planning, like, I didn't even have a newsletter I sent out, it was just an RSS feed.
Haha, so it's just Amir straight from the heart, no plan, just writing.
Exactly! I'm not sure why I did this in the first place, maybe because it was fun, I mean a lot of the posts I also did, I went into a technology and I learned a bunch of it, then wrote down what I learned, so it was also useful for myself.
And how long had you been running before you got to the point where you used it to help you with Todoist?
That's a good question, the thing is I'm actually not sure when my personal site turned into a blog, but I kind of like always had a personal site that I always did random stuff on, so it was many years, maybe at least three before I actually used it to promote Todoist.
I think it's funny, because one of the things about being an entrepreneur is that, as you well know by this point, it takes a long time to get something off the ground. Even a blog where you can start writing from day one takes a while to build up an audience, and it's kind of advantageous that you were just writing things without any particular strategy or goal in mind, you were just writing what you were interested in, because I don't know if you would have been able to keep it up for three years if you were trying to see results immediately, you know what I mean? If you were trying to do for some extra purpose besides just being interested in it, would you have kept writing regularly for years and years?
That's a very good point, I think a lot of the stuff that you do, even the project that you pick should be something that you're deeply passionate about and that you'd actually do without any kind of external motive to do it. The same thing happened with Todoist, it was never really launched to be this major task management app that would take over the world, it was just me trying to do something for myself. I think if you look at other interesting stories, for instance Dropbox is a great example, it's basically the same story line, so I think there's something very powerful in doing stuff for yourself, and not being motivated by external factors.
Yeah, I completely agree, and it's funny because when you do things for yourself it's not always obvious how it's going to turn into some sort of successful business. Even though you were charging for Todoist pretty early, you didn't necessarily believe it was going to be successful, and even though your blog was getting traffic you didn't necessarily have a plan for building an audience, ect, but you still did it because you liked both of those things and they still ended up being super helpful for you from a professional standpoint, so I think people who discount doing the things they're interested in and say "Oh yeah, I like that thing but it can't turn into a real business." would often be surprised at how things work out down the road if you really put your focus into something that you like and do it at a high level for long enough.
Exactly, and I think also something that happens, if you look at stuff from a long term perspective, let's say writing. If you do writing for five years and you're very consistent, you will become very good at it after five years. If you do it for ten years you will become even better. The problem I see, looking at the stories I know is that people want to get amazing results putting in a few months in of work, or like doing something for a bit then expecting amazing results. At least for me, I always tried to look at stuff from a longer perspective and also do long term investments, both personal but also company buys.
I think that's a smart way to go about it, and even though that can be discouraging for a lot of people to hear, the way that I look at it is... that time is going to pass anyway. If you want to start a company that's successful and you want to have it successful now, today, here, well that's probably unrealistic but if you just work a job for the next three years that's still three years of working a job, three years you could have been putting into building an audience, or starting your blog, or building your company, so the time's going to pass anyway, you might as well have a long term outlook.
But anyway, this has been a huge digression from the story. I was just very curious about your blog and what that was like. Let's get back into talking about how you got started working on Plurk, it sounds like your goal and your motivation really was to learn and pick up new skills as a developer, and kind of have a real job, how did that work out exactly?
Yeah, I think we built one of the largest and fastest growing social networks in the world, and it's actually still ongoing, so it's very big especially in Taiwan and the Philippines, and [unintelligible]. I learned a ton about this because the problem with social networks is that the growth is usually exponential, so this means we need to scale very fast. It was actually my first real development job and I was the CTO of this thing that was adding tens of thousands of people per day, and just keeping up with that and handling all that pressure taught me a ton of stuff, but it also taught me what not to do, what path not to follow, so for me, not sleeping well and working eighty hour weeks, I was just very very miserable, I hated my life. On paper I was a multi-millionaire but inside I was shitty, because there was so much pressure and there was no room for relaxing or reflecting, it was just ongoing all the time.
Yeah, I've been in that position as well... without the traffic but with the eighty hour work weeks, and it's pretty depressing. I'm curious about the story of how you got Plurk to grow so humongous, because when you joined how many people were at the company? Was it just you and the founder?
We were three people in the beginning, so basically I was there from the start and I built it from the ground up.
How exactly do you create one of the fastest growing social networks from a small team of a few people?
The thing with all of these things is that there's so many variables and you can't really pinpoint it to a specific thing, but I think with social networks it's maybe timing, like being in the right place at the right time. We started out when Twitter started out, and we were also a micro blogging platform, so the timing was very good, also we had a very good collection of people and we complimented each other's skills very well. We had a very good designer, a very good business person, product person, and I had this technology skill set, then we combined it into something that was quite powerful. Another thing, Plurk was also a remote first company. One of the founders is a Canadian-Indian and he worked from Toronto, another one is a Chinese-Malaysian and initially he also worked from Toronto but he relocated to Taiwan, and I was in Denmark doing this stuff. We also had a very unique team, with very unique insights into the world.
Was it you goal from the beginning to start some kind of humongous social network when you guys first started working on Plurk?
I mean it was, one of the founders had already done something very successful and he was already a very wealthy guy, it was basically his money we burned in the beginning. The plan was to build something huge.
What kind of evolution did you go through as both a developer and a co-founder of this company? Because I imagine that by the end when you have this massive social network, and you have this complex app you've worked for years to build that you're probably a completely different person then you were at the beginning before you knew any of this stuff, so what are some of the steps that you went through and how did you grow?
I'm unsure how many of your listeners are very technical so I'm not going to go very on tech, but I think something that's very important, like if you know you're actually going to build something that's significant it's very hard to know this, but I kind of repeated this both with Todoist and Plurk is that we didn't think things through properly, so I think you need to think far into the future and see how things will evolve because in Plurk we made a lot of decisions that final, bad. For instance, the database in the beginning wasn't sharded, so the problem is, I'm not sure if you know what sharding is, but basically it's like splitting data up into multiple databases. So in the beginning we just had this one database, and it was a huge database, and at some point it couldn't grow any more, like we couldn't buy bigger hardware for it, so we had to split data up. If you have a fast moving social network that adds tens of thousands of people per day, and you need to do a sharding strategy, and you're very tired, and you work a lot, it's a very very non-trivial thing to do, so I think a better thing is from the initial design is to kind of imagine we are going to grow a lot, and then building a sharding strategy from the get-go, that's one example. With Todoist, I can give you another example. The whole first app was just built for the web, there was no API, and I didn't even imagine, I thought a bit about it but then was like, this is just a personal project. Later on, building an API for Todoist was a huge challenge because everything was built for the web, and built for page views, not really a restful API. You can move fast in the beginning, but then later on you pay a huge price for taking these shortcuts. Premature optimization is a huge issue, so you should be very careful about not doing this but for some things you should really think things through before you commit to them.
Yeah, it's such a hard tightrope to walk because I remember starting startups back in 2008 and 2009, and just trying to find wherever I could online, guides and documentation to how to shard a database, and how to deal with runaway growth because back then everybody wanted to build a massive social app. It's funny looking back on it and how much time I spent thinking about how to scale up to a company size that would be that big, and I yet never built anything that ever got that many users so I was basically wasting my time.
Yeah, that's basically the worst thing about premature optimization but I think for some things it's very important, and I think what's more important is product decisions, especially on the model level or just the core product level, because once you get a critical mass of users it's incredible hard to change stuff, and it's very very costly both in terms of alienating your users, but also in terms of changing stuff, like changing models, changing the API, changing the design. If I could go back in time, I would actually have done something differently in Todoist, it would have made stuff much easier later on, but of course when you do this and especially for me, it was a side project, I didn't really think much about stuff and maybe that's why it moved so fast, maybe it's like a balancing act.
Yeah it's a trade off for sure, like you said maybe if you'd spend all your time in the beginning worrying about how to scale and grow, you would never have built such a successful product to begin with, you just wouldn't have had the bandwidth, but I'm really interested in hearing about why you went from having this gigantic social network that's doing well, how you decided to quit that and go back to working on Todoist, which is just this tiny to-do list app that you had built as a college student in your dorm room, how did you make that decision and why?
The thing is after doing Plurk for like three years I was very burned out. We both had offers of selling the company, we were closing VC deals and stuff like that, but I just got very burned out by the whole social networking market. I'm not a very social person, it's not something I wake up in the morning and say "Oh my God, I want to make the world a bit more social." I want to make the world a bit more productive, and I want to find ways to empower people, instead of finding ways of how to optimize to waste their time because if you look at all of these social networks, even right now with Facebook and others, their optimization strategy is basically wasting as much time as possible because that's the business model, it's ad space, and getting your attention, that's basically the reason is that I really didn't want to be part this market anymore.
One day I saw on Hacker News a post about Start-Up Chile and I applied there, and I actually forgot everything about applying, so like a month or two after, I got accepted, and I was like holy crap, I'm going to Chile, and I didn't know anything about Chile. So I got into this program and went to Chile and then I kind of applied with another project called Redoist, which was basically a project management tool [unintelligible] for Basecamp, so I didn't even apply with Todoist, but after doing this new tool for like six months, I was kind of like why not just go back and work on Todoist because it already has a bunch of users, it already has a business model that kind of works, and that's when I decided to actually go back and work on it full time.
So back in those days there weren't very many companies, especially tech companies that were putting products online and just charging money for them. That wasn't a very fashionable thing to do, to build a project management tool. Who was inspiring you, and besides not wanting to be another Silicon Valley company that's soaking up everybody's attention, why did you think this was a path that was worth following?
I didn't really think much about it, I didn't want to pay for the server costs so the business model was basically "I don't want to pay for the server cost, so let me build something I can charge for." I did zero analysis of pricing or testing pricing, I just said okay, what is fair to do and that's basically what I charged. The funny thing is Todoist was one of the first in it's market, so a lot of others have followed our pricing strategy, which is nuts because it's kind of based on nothing.
Haha, that's the funny thing about copying competitors, you know, "It seems to be working for them..." but when you look at how the sausage is made, they have no idea what they're doing either.
Haha, exactly! I was very ignorant about this so I could probably have made a bigger business if I actually had done some pricing analysis in the beginning.
Well let me ask, what do you think was more valuable, if you could only have one would you pick the development and programming knowledge and skills you gained while working on Plurk, or would you pick the softer skills you may have learned about marketing, and fundraising, and product design while working on Plurk... which one helped you more with Todoist?
I would definitely say the latter, getting a sense of design and I mean Plurk didn't have a very pretty design, but for a product it's not really about how it looks but how it works, and how to create an engaging experience, how to track stuff, analytics. I was a very good programmer before I joined Plurk, I got a lot better but it wasn't really the core advantage I learned, it was basically the other stuff that is part of building great products.
And it makes a lot of sense too, to be a founder after that because I think when you're an early employee at a company, or a founder, you really do need a super well balanced skill set, because you're going to be doing everything. Your job is really ten jobs, so if you're super good at programming but you don't know anything about marketing, or you don't know anything about how to build a product, then your company's probably going to fail unless you learn that stuff super quick, so it makes a lot of sense that you would choose the skill set that made you more well rounded as a founder.
I fully agree with that Courtland, and I think something that a lot of people, especially developers, do is kind of focus on one thing, like becoming a good developer, and then they forget about everything else. Building a successful product or business requires a lot of knowledge about a lot of stuff: marketing, sales, design, even customer support, leadership. There's a shit ton of stuff you need to be good at if you want to be a founder. Even right now, I spend a ton of my time just learning stuff, and it never stops it just keeps going on.
I think one big thing that holds a lot of people back is that they're afraid of learning something new, or they're afraid they won't be able to learn it. Has there ever been a time where you've been in this situation and you were afraid of learning something, or afraid of taking an approach because you don't know very much about it?
I wouldn't say so, but I think something that was unnatural for me was becoming a leader and leadership. We are right now like fifty-three people, it's kind of like I need to brush up on these skills and it's not something that has really interested me much in the past, so I wouldn't say I was afraid, it was just not something I was very passionate about or something I really wanted to do, but the thing is you kind of find out that in order to build something greater, you need to work with people and get a bunch of people together, and work towards a goal because at some point being just one person, or few people, isn't enough, so I was kind of forced into this other role.
Yeah I think it's interesting to hear about how people approach these situations where there's something that you're not good at, or something that you're not interested in, and yet it's kind of the biggest obstacle in your way, so you don't have a choice but to face it or to quit. What has your management style been, and how has it evolved as you've grown into this company that has dozens and dozens of employees?
It's very hard for me to say what my leadership style is, but generally I have huge trust in people. For instance, we don't really track people inside of the company, we don't have work hours, the stuff we do is basically people doing an amazing job delivering stuff, but how you do it and when you do it, we don't really care much about that, but also a lot of other stuff, maybe trusting the goodness in people. I think trust is a huge issue across the world, I grew up in Denmark so I think I brought a lot of Scandinavian values in Todoist that has shaped the company.
Yeah, it almost sounds like you guys have it all figured out at this point. Was there a time where you felt like your management style was just off, and that you guys were running things a little bit wrong or maybe that the company suffered because of your inexperience with management?
The thing is, we have not figured stuff out. The problem with starting a company and growing it, is that you kind of need to change everything once you hit certain milestones. In the beginning, you're a few people or maybe yourself, doing something that kind of works, then you bring some other people, you probably need to change some stuff when you do that. Then you hit ten people, twenty people, thirty, fifty, and on each of these things you need to re-imagine everything, and re-structure everything, basically taking stuff apart and even yourself. My role has changed significantly since the beginning.
Give me an example of some of these things that you've changed, or maybe a point at which things were too painful to keep doing it the same way you were doing it before?
I mean right now, we are trying to synchronize the work of fifty people and we have tried many different systems, so that's a huge challenge right now at least. The problem with these things is there's no handbooks, like you can read how others are doing it, so for instance, we try to follow Google's [unintelligible] but it didn't work for us at all. Then we tried another system and stuff like that, so that's like on a company level. On a personal level, I think one-on-one, providing people critical feedback, that's something that I had to improve and we had to improve collectively, because in the beginning we knew each other very well so you didn't have to think very much about being candid, and providing this critical feedback and advancing people forward. Right now it's a huge part of my job.
Yeah and it's challenging because you have to do all of this stuff to run your company, and make sure everybody's effective and communicating well and successful, but at the same time you actually want your product to be good. You want your marketing to go well and you actually have this challenge of building this product in this competitive marketplace, because let's face it, there's a lot of to-do list apps out there. I mean, you guys have a ridiculous amount of competition, so I'm really curious about how the early days went too. How did you get to the point where this to-do list app, that no one had really ever heard of, became such a massive company and such a popular application today?
A lot of the stuff is maybe ignorance. For me, I was very ignorant about the competition because they made fun of the side project so I didn't really care about the others. Also, just being a beginner and not really caring that much is helpful because if I did some market research I probably would never have started Todoist.
Haha, was Todoist growing while you were working at Plurk or was it kind of just steady and stable?
The thing is I didn't even have proper analytics, a few months would pass and I would do a query on my [unintelligible] to see how many signups there were, but I didn't have any idea of how many users were actively using the product.
That's hilarious! When did you start getting serious, and how did you pivot from this product management tool that you started to going back to Todoist?
Once I returned back to Todoist, I learned a ton of stuff. For instance analytics, analytics are very useful and can guide you, and show you how healthy stuff is. I added that, and that gave me insights, then also optimizing landing pages, optimizing SEO, optimizing flows, so like the funnel and the whole thing. Those were very very useful, before that I didn't really know anything about it so I didn't really do those things. I think one of the major things was the SEO element because that brought in customers everyday that just searched via Google to find our task management app.
That's one thing, the second question is how did I figure out that I wanted to kill this project management app and go back to Todoist is that, I did this project management app in 2010 or 2011 and we built it for desktop first, and I could feel that mobile was very very very important, and there was no way in hell we could take this task management application and turn it into a good mobile app. So I was like, what am I going to do? Should I start from scratch or not? With Todoist, I could see a very easy way of turning Todoist into a mobile app, so that's basically some of the motivation behind doing this.
That's such a funny reason to switch and get back into Todoist and is actually a great reason, because it means you were paying attention to the market forces and you wanted to be riding a wave that was going up instead of down, which is a surprisingly simple thing to get wrong, and it really worked out for you. I've been following Todoist for years now, I've started my own fair share of to-do list apps just like every other developer, and I looked at what you guys have been doing. One of your big strategies seems to have been being available on every single platform, so you guys are like: Todoist for iPhones, Todoist for iPads, Todoist for Safari, Todoist for Chrome, Todoist for the web, Todoist for whatever. You guys have a million different versions of Todoist. How early on was that part of your strategy and how did that factor into you guys achieving such massive growth?
It was actually a very early part of the strategy because I wanted to have a tool that was with me everywhere. Again, my own use case, having Todoist everywhere wasn't some kind of insight, I just wanted to have this because if you don't have your tasks anywhere you go then it's not super useful.
Yeah that makes a lot of sense. So we've talked about the challenge of learning of how to be a manager and how to grow a team, and grow with your team. We talked about some of the more technical challenges of putting together a high growth startup, where the decisions you make early on don't really stand the tests of time, you end up having to rewrite a lot of code. Are there any other challenges you can think of that were really tough to overcome with Todoist?
Something that really opened my eyes, I mean I've always been a lone wolf developer but I figured out in order to actually achieve amazing things, you need a very strong team that compliments each other. I would definitely say it took me some time to figure this out because I thought I could do stuff on my own, and this worked at some point but if you really want to push the envelope forward and do amazing stuff, it's basically teamwork. There's few little one person or few person shows around.
Is this a realization that you had when you were working by yourself or was it something that occurred to you after you made your first few hires?
I'm unsure, it came very late into this. My whole plan was to create a product that generated about $30k/month, then I'd be set for life if I could do that. That was my initial vision but the problem is, once I started to do this the money element wasn't a huge motivator, it was basically to do better stuff. For instance, I know a bit about design but I'm not a designer, so hiring a great designer was a huge priority, finding somebody who could make this look and feel amazing was very important.
I like what you said about your plan to make $30k/month so you will be set for life, which, honestly I don't think people talk enough about their monetary goals becuase it really plays into why a lot of people start businesses. It's an extremely difficult thing to do, it's very risky, it's much easier to get a normal job. There's a lot of feel good stuff about starting a business and making your own projects, but it's usually not worth it in the end if you don't have some sort of financial security built into it. Could you elaborate a little bit more on what your goals were financially and how long it took you to get to the point where Todoist was paying for your rent, and paying for your lifestyle?
I don't think it really took a long time for it to pay my salary, I think maybe five months or something like that. Then I could live very comfortably with the money I was making, but the problem is I took another path and started to hire people, so I never really had a huge cushion. The thing about this is I kind of wanted to create something that could generate some passive income so I could do my own stuff, do side projects, write on my blog, or whatever else I wanted to do, but as I began to delve into this I figured out it was much more fun to just build products, build a company, and build something you are proud of and not really focus that much on the money aspect.
Yeah, once you dive in and there are actually people using and depending on you've made, it's difficult to just walk away from that. You've got people saying "Hey, can you add this feature? Can you improve this design?" and you were using it yourself too, and you're thinking the same things that your customers are thinking. I think that's why it's so rare for people to say "Welp, I'm done with this!" and to just throw their hands up and walk away, you know. As alluring as passive income is, it's just not something that happens very often.
Amir Salihefendic [00:43:13 I think it can work for some people but I would personally get very, very bored because it's fun to have something that's growing, that's changing, that kind of changes you, that you can learn stuff with, rather than having something that just creates passive income.
So now-a-days you guys have fifty something employees, I'm sure you have millions of users and your revenue is probably looking great to be able to afford all those employees. How have your goals changed and how do you look at the future in terms of what you want to accomplish personally?
Initially when you start something... my story is basically I started something to create something for myself, and then you want to create this better but at some point your ambition level kind of rises. Right now, my motivation is that we are going to create something that is going to have a global impact. So we really want to build something that can help the world.
We have three different things that we are working on, one is Todoist itself, the other is the whole remote first philosophy and building a strong remote first company, showing you can build something that spreads around the world that has all kinds of cultures and people in it, and you can still out-compete with Silicon Valley companies or whoever else you're competing with, and the third thing is team communication. Right now there's a huge attack on our attention, and we want to make more mindful products, and especially like team base stuff. We are huge enemies of Slack and real time aspects and products that just waste your time.
It's got to be hard as a remote first company to be anti-Slack, because it's one of the tools I think that helps people who have distributed teams to be able to stay in touch. What's your alternative?
We have our own tool, it's called Twist and it's basically asynchronous communication. We used Slack for two years but it does not work very well for remote companies, the problem is the real time aspect of it and the one line aspect of it, so if you have very different time zones you need to have asynchronous communication where people can leave comments and go do something, or go sleep, and then come back and respond again. I think a lot of remote companies are using Slack right now, but it's just a horrible tool for remote companies. I don't really understand how people are still using it. [unintelligible]
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense that's a really great point, that if people are in different time zones it's kind of crappy to have these chat based communications where the second someone talks about something it scrolls up, and by the time you wake up on the other side of the world, that conversation is already gone, and you've missed it, and you're not going to reread the entire log to catch up.
Exactly, and worse you can't even reset back the conversation, because that would be rude or whatever. Very important decisions can be made, and this creates this funnel where you basically need to be connected all the time. We are very happy that we created our thing and we're working on it right now, so we will see.
I think what you guys are doing is the future and it's pretty cool to see how early you got into building a remote first company because you were saying that Plurk was also remote first, and that was back in like 2008, 2009 when it wasn't very common to start a company that way and there weren't very many tools to supplement that lifestyle but it's certainly the future. I'm looking forward to seeing more companies start the way that you guys have, and continue to build these businesses and products without anyone having to be located in one specific spot, because it's just so limiting and it's just not as fun, to be honest, as being able to be remote.
I fully agree with this Courtland and something that I can recommend for people that are starting is relocating to somewhere cheap, because there's a huge amount of difference in prices you pay. For instance, when Todoist wasn't really big I lived in Porto, Portugal for a few years and we saved a ton of money doing that. If you compare the rent in Porto to big cities in Europe, it's probably like four times less. You can save huge amounts of money, so why would you be in New York or San Francisco, when you could be somewhere else and save a lot of money, and do your own thing. I understand all these network effects and being part of a community, but I think on the internet you can learn stuff and you don't have to be part of a hub to actually do stuff.
Yeah, or you can be part of an online community, but I really feel you about the pricing because I started Indie Hackers in San Francisco and it's like paying thousands of dollars a month, just for rent, compared to someone living in Bali which is the other extreme, where it's $500/month for groceries, rent, internet, your cell phone, transportation, all put together... you're just more likely to build a successful company.
Anyway, we're running toward the end of our hour so to finish things off, a lot of people listening in are people who haven't started a company yet, or people who are at the very early stages and are maybe blocked by some difficult challenge. What's your one tip that you would give to somebody listening in who's very early on for how they can succeed, and keep going?
What I would recommend is think long term and optimize for the long term. I really hate these tips that tell you, "Quit your job and work on this three months, and see how it goes" because I don't really think you can build anything, especially in the current climate, in three months. You must be able to think much longer, and invest for much longer that that. If you see my story, it's basically how we succeeded in ten years. It's not like how we succeeded in a night or whatever, it's basically ten years of hard work. Of course it maybe sounds a bit depressing or like a lot of work, but I also don't really think there's any shortcuts you can really take.
One of the articles that I can really recommend is, Peter Norwick, the head of Google research, he has an article called "Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years" and it's not really about programming, it's like learning anything. You can't really just pick up a book and learn something in a few hours or a few days, you must be willing to invest ten years or something, so that would be my tip.
That's great advice and I wish people said that more often because it's so easy to only focus on the articles, and the interviews, and the stories you hear about somebody succeeding after a month, but the vast majority of the time... that's not the case, and even people who do succeed after like a month or two, that's because of the work they put in for years and years before that. I think that's a great note to end the episode on. Can you tell listeners where they can go to find out more about you, Amir, and about the things that you are doing at Todoist?
Sure! I have a very active Twitter account, it's @amix3k . We also have a blog where we share our philosophy and stuff, it's very radical so I would recommend checking that out. It's at firstname.lastname@example.org and that's about it.
Alright, thanks a ton for coming on Amir! It was a pleasure to have you!
Thank you Courtland, it was amazing to be on the show and good luck with everything!
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