Keep it simple: There are a million different to-do apps, what makes one stand out? This week on Track Changes Paul and Rich chat with Doist founder Amir Salihefendic. He tells us about how he grew Todoist from a side project he would work on in his dorm room to an app that now reaches 20 million people. He also tells us about his struggle with venture capitalists and about the importance of persistence and simplicity.
Rich Ziade I mean eventually a jaguar or a tiger will hunt you down and eat your flesh.
Paul Ford That’s called acqui-hiring [Rich laughs then music plays for 16 seconds, ramps down]. Rich?
RZ Yes, Paul?
PF You’re excited about this guest.
RZ I am! I actually used the tool to remind me that we’re gonna be talking to the guy behind the tool . . . with the tool.
PF As nerds we talk a lot about productivity management.
RZ We do.
PF Running the company, what we use [music fades out]. What’s the tool that you use?
RZ Well there’s manipulation and intimidation . . . is my productivity tool for interacting with others but for myself [laughs].
PF Not at all close to the truth. Don’t worry, come work at Postlight [Rich laughing], we need all sorts of people to report directly to Rich [Rich continues laughing] Ok, so but no, no, no. Enough, enough.
RZ No, I’m being silly.
PF What do you use?
RZ The tool I use is called Todoist.
PF Oh that’s a nice name. I see you use this.
RZ I use it pretty religiously—
PF For many years, right?
RZ For years. And it has seeped into my patterns in working and we’ve got the founder of Todoist today.
PF Amir Salihefendic, welcome to Track Changes.
Amir Salihefendic Well, thank you guys. I’m really happy to be here and chat about the stuff that I really am passionate about.
RZ Amir, I want you to tell us the story behind it because I did the thing that everybody does. I said to myself, “I need a better way to manage my tasks,” and then I tried all of them [laughs]. I just went down the list.
PF Was it like Remember the Milk, like what did you—
RZ Yeah, Remember the Milk and Wunderlist—I’m going back a bit and Any.do and the pool is deep, man. It just goes on and on. The thing is you didn’t have a revelation about a brand new way because there are a lot of tools like this. Eventually I want us to talk about what’s distinguishable about Todoist and I have my own views there but tell us the story behind it. When did you get started; what sort of sparked the idea.
AS Yeah so I was kind of in a similar boat as you. I checked everything out on the market and I didn’t really like many of the solutions. And I did this in like 2007. So I think actually only like Remember the Milk was on the market back then. And one of the things I did was I thought I could probably do something better myself. So, that’s kind of the mindset I went into it. And I basically built this simple to-do list for myself, to manage my projects and I was actually studying computer science back then. So I had a bunch of university projects and I also had some personal projects. I also had some like part-time jobs and stuff. So my life was quite busy, so I really needed a tool like that. So that’s basically how Todoist was born, like it was basically a tool for myself.
RZ Got it. So you just started coding? I mean did you sketch out what you thought you wanted and did you make it just for yourself? Were you thinking, “I just need this for myself. I’m not looking to conquer the world here. I just need a thing.”
AS Exactly, so like I basically made it for myself and the truth is I actually worked on this like as a side project for almost four years before I actually could see that this could actually have some potential. I basically did like some other things like a social network [wow] as my full-time job and then like in the nights I would just hack on this to-do app [something clatters in background]. That’s the storyline of this.
RZ And over those four years was it just for yourself? Were you sharing it with anyone?
AS So I actually had a pretty popular blog and I had like some, you know, readers on there. And at some point I basically shared this and I got like a lot of signups and then also at some other point Lifehacker covered it. It was covered by Digg, if somebody remembers Digg. So basically, actually when I went full-time on it, it had like 300,000 users. So it had like a lot of traction but the thing is I was just ignoring it because I had a social network to run.
RZ So what was the social network?
AS It’s basically like a Twitter kind of service. It’s actually still running today, it’s like pretty big in Taiwan. It’s called Plurk, so if you go on plurk.com you will probably be shocked. I mean it’s kind of like a really, really weird place on the internet. And I kinda like helped build that. The thing is like social network wasn’t really a field I was like super passionate about.
RZ Uh huh.
AS And I really wanted to go back and do something that I did during the nights and do it just like full-time and at a much deeper level.
RZ So you got to 300,000 users, you didn’t bring anybody to come on to help you with it, designers, engineers, or anything, you just kept going on your own.
AS Exactly, exactly.
AS And even like the business model which is basically I introduced a premium package just so I could pay the server costs. There was no price research and stuff like that. And I set a price point. And actually all the other to-do apps that came after us, they set a very similar price point. We basically had like a very, I think, random price point for task managers currently in the market.
PF Where were you in the world when this was happening?
AS In Denmark. So I was born in Bosnia but I grew up in Denmark.
PF Gotcha and then so did you have anything like a personal life during this time? [Rich laughs boisterously]
AS Ah, that’s a good question. I actually did. I mean I lived in a dorm room with other students. So actually it was a really fun time. But, the thing is, there was no work-life balance. I mean, you know, I didn’t have kids and at some point I got a girlfriend but a lot of times I was just alone.
PF I mean you put that on the to-do list.
RZ Yeah. Check off ‘get girlfriend’.
PF So wait, what is it—Like you’re in this dorm like environment; you’re creating tools that hundreds of thousands of people are using; I’m assuming the next—
RZ Mind you he’s 35 at that point. He’s still at the dorm but he’s—
PF The next guy down the hall is like setting up his website, what was that like? You had the biggest impact.
AS I actually honestly didn’t really think about it that much. I mean it was just like some fun stuff I did on the side. So I didn’t reflect much about what I actually did.
PF Do you remember your first customer?
AS Not really. I remember my first review which was actually like by Khoi Vinh—I’m actually still friends with today. He still actually has a blog called Subtraction. I’m not sure if you know it but—
PF No, we’ve had him as a guest on the podcast.
RZ Yeah, he’s great.
PF We’re actually like two blocks away from him. He works at Adobe very near us.
AS He made like a very good review of Todoist and I was just like shocked that he could actually—like he really liked it and stuff. So, I remember that. I don’t remember the first person because, honestly, you know, I wasn’t really optimizing for business success or revenues. I was just doing it on the side.
RZ You know, Paul, as we’re talking I realized in our enthusiasm we sort of skipped over what Todoist is.
PF Yes, we should [Rich laughs]—we should—
RZ What is Todoist, Amir?
AS I mean like it is what you make it. So for some people they basically manage like their whole life from it. So it’s basically like a task management but it’s more like a system for your life and your work. So for me at least that’s what it is. It’s kind of like including personal stuff, like I have shared lists with my wife and stuff. So I think you could either keep it very simple or keep it like very complex. It’s really, you know, up to people how they actually use it.
RZ So, it’s a productivity tool and it allows you to sort of manage your tasks; manage your to-dos; put time requirements around them, if you want.
PF And collaborate.
RZ And it has collaboration as well. So I wanna get back to when you obviously are hitting now—you’re hitting real numbers, right? You’re getting the 300,000 users. What are you thinking at that point? Are you thinking, “I need to go raise money,” or are you thinking, “I have some savings maybe let me hire someone”? Like what’s your thought process at that point in time?
AS I actually very early on I got contacted by like some very famous VCs and they basically wanted to do a seed investment. I think it was like $500,000 or something—you know, for me that makes a few thousand dollars per month on this. Like, that’s a lot of money. And like one of the first suggestions he wanted to do is basically replace me as the CEO [laughs]. So that basically fell apart and then also like on the social network I had like some really bad experience with building these businesses that didn’t really make any money. So, for me, I didn’t really want to go the VC route.
RZ So you were very hesitant. You were very hesitant because you knew that this thing that you’ve cultivated and you hold dear was going to get compromised. You were starting to sense that. So what’d you do?
AS Well, I—the thing I did was I actually cofounded another product because I still didn’t believe in Todoist as like a business. So I actually went to Chile and I started Redoist which is basically a project management tool and that field at least didn’t gain the traction I expected. And that’s where I actually went and worked full-time on Todoist. And that’s where things really began to grow because I could use all of the knowledge I have spent, you know, working on the social network and other like random stuff I worked in and I just poured that back into Todoist. So I created a lot of results early on, so I could actually go in and hire people and scale.
RZ Alright so how many people is Todoist today?
AS So basically we’re called Doist now. So we basically removed the ‘To’ and called the company Doist. And we are about like 73 people. We are a remote-first company spread over 25 countries.
RZ 25 countries?!?
AS Yeah, yeah.
RZ Oh wow.
AS Yeah we have people from all the continents, including Africa now. So.
RZ That’s very cool.
PF What does Doist do? Like what are the products?
AS So we basically have like Todoist and then we have Twist which is kind of an asynchronous team communication app that we are doing. So those are our two main products right now. We might add some more in the future but at least for now we are quite occupied with those two.
PF What is your day-to-day job? What do you do all day?
AS Well, until maybe like six months ago I was actually still coding most of the time. So, you know, it’s like not really that recommended but my passion’s kind of like creating and coding. Like, if I want to destress I basically open up the code editor [chuckles]. But right now I’m kind of like transitioning myself into kind of like the CEO the company needs. So I spend a lot of my time actually right now like writing and in meetings and I still find a bit of time to do some coding but not much.
RZ Obviously your path is unique and admirable in that you didn’t fall into the typical VC path which obviously would’ve put undue pressure. So you sniffed that out early. You were like, “Ahhh, I don’t want this to happen . . . because they’re gonna put enormous pressure on growth and the like.” What’s the—I mean there are a lot of people out there who build that tool. They’ve built the tool for themselves—
PF Well, I mean the actual demo of a new web framework is the to-do app.
PF It’s seen as the baseline—It’s like “Hello, World” for interactive apps.
RZ And so what kind of advice would you give someone that has aspirations and doesn’t wanna go down that path because for a lot of people they’re like, “I got the seed round.” And they actually view that as success and then it’s just a quick tornado right into the barn. It’s just not good 99% of the time by design, in fact. So, you could say—and then fast forward, “We’re 73 people today across all the continents.” That’s amazing to get there. I guess how do you scale that? And, sort of related, I mean this is a hyper remote setup? Right? How do you stay productive in a setup like that? In a structure like that?
AS Yeah, I mean those are two very good questions. And honestly I think something that’s like undervalued right now, it’s kind of persistence and really believing in something. So even like, for instance right now we are working on Twist and, you know, it has not really like a super strong product market fit but we have been at this for like five years and we can easily invest five more years because we just believe asynchronous communication will become the default at some point. And, you know, like most people like will not really spend five years on creating a tool. So of course like maybe this is all too extreme and like maybe you can actually spend five years doing something that’s like [chuckles] not a good idea. But I think like persistence and really believing in something—that has probably separated Todoist from other to-do apps where someone will code something for like a month, or even like a few weeks, and then they stop doing that while like my persistence was at least five years. Like four years alone hacking on this, almost maybe every day or at least a few times per week. So I think that that’s something that I really recommend is like persistence. Like really believing in something and maybe also setting up a structure where, you know, you don’t need to hit a home run like on month three but you can kinda have like a two year long runaway where you maybe do this on the side. But of course there’s a lot like survivorship bias included in this [Rich chuckling]. So maybe like what has worked for Todoist will not really work for others. Yeah, so I think it’s kind of very hard to actually recommend anything.
RZ Mm hmm.
AS And the other question is like remote first. I mean for us it was kind of just like a given like I was doing this from Chile and I couldn’t really hire anybody. And like ten years ago there was not many engineers or designers in Chile that could fit the build that I needed. So you know I was kind of just like forced into the remote first thing. It wasn’t like grand design, it was just like, “Ok, I need to hire some people and you know let’s do it remotely.” [Chuckles] Yeah.
PF Amir, you know, looking at your products, it’s a very deliberative process; they’re simple; there aren’t a million features. What is the process for getting a new feature landed in Todoist?
RZ I wanna tack on a compliment to Paul’s question which is the reason I latched onto Todoist is cuz its best feature was it had less features. No joke. It was [right]—they all get into a feature war and there was simplicity around it. So—
PF How do you avoid complexity?
AS Like we are very careful about like the stuff that we actually add. And even right now, like we might be adding too much. So I think actually the best products that are really simple and that do one thing or a few things really, really well, maybe like Instagram is a great example of this. That’s kind of like our inspiration—it’s kind of like doing a very simple product that can do some simple things but also another aspect—and that comes from the development area, like I love the Vim editor—I’m not sure if you guys know it. And actually I have done like one of the most popular Vim RCs. So if you basically search for like Vim congregation [?] in Google, like I think mine will be probably at the top.
PF Half of Postlight is probably using that. [Rich laughs] Our company is big on Vim.
AS That’s amazing and I think also there’s like some really beauty in like creating a product. I mean Vim is kind of just like one canvas and then you can do almost anything inside this canvas. And for Todoist as well it’s kind of very simple but there’s so much complexity also and you can do some really, really insane things. And people do this. Like, for instance, like our filtering system supports boolean logic. So you can do all kind of crazy queries on your tasks—that other products don’t really offer. I mean for me it’s kind of like on the surface make something simple but like once you begin to dig deep into it, you can actually make it really, really complex and like get some, you know, crazy stuff done.
PF Well, I mean, that’s good to hear, right? The complexity is there, it’s just you have to want it.
AS Exactly. That’s a great way to put it, Paul. Yeah.
RZ And I’ve seen that cuz every so often I get a little frustrated because I have a particular case that I want Todoist to do. For example, the task could be, “Make eye contact with my wife.” And I’ll put that in [Amir laughs]. And I’ll want a very weird way—sort of an esoteric way of like doing it recurring and things like that. And you have to dig a little. And I think what that is it’s—
PF Oh, but it’s there.
RZ It’s there. Not only is it there, it isn’t presumptuous. There is so much design today that’s like, “Look at me! Check out all these bars and buttons and—”
PF Also, they love to reinvent the date picker, right? Like that’s a—
RZ And it’s just, “Calm down, man. I’m trying to process what this even is.” You know, being discreet, being unassuming in your interface. The people—I mean speaking as if I’m talking about a person—
PF No, it’s confidence.
RZ If you go to a cocktail party and the person walks up to you and just tells you their whole life story in five minutes and you haven’t met them yet.
PF No, no, that’s most apps.
RZ That’s most—
PF If you want the pro plan, they’ll tell you five more minutes of—
RZ Exactly. Exactly. And I think understanding that people have only so much cognitive bandwidth to process a thing is key. I think that’s really, really important.
PF You know—This, as an example, you and I now have a really smart lawyer who works in kind of global trade. And if you talk to this guy, he doesn’t talk about the law very much. He mostly talks about his interests. But if you need him to talk about the law—
RZ You’re gonna fall in. Yeah.
PF It’s like he knows everything top to bottom. And that to me is the profile of the expert. Like they know so much and they’re very confident and they just kinda come in the room and they’re like, “Oh! Ok. Here, let me do it for you.” And so that’s the vibe we’ve got here. It’s like, “I’m absolutely gonna manage your tasks.” And you go, “Well I need a recurring event.”
PF And it goes, “Sure, I’ve got those.”
RZ It’s gonna take a little bit of probing. You know another app that reminds me of this, and it tries to hide away a lot is Bear. I’m sure you’re familiar with Bear, Amir—
AS Oh that’s a beautiful product.
RZ Beautiful product and again, they didn’t wanna do the toolbar up on the top and across the side and all that. It’s like in fact a lot of its features are how you can hide away things.
RZ It actually wants to put things away.
PF There’s a thing I keep thinking which is that software is a story that people are telling about other people, about users, right? Like this is who I think you are. You know, engineers are telling you that story. Product managers are telling you that story. And so like you’re warming up, you love this because I think it really reflects your self image and it reflects like, sort of how you see the world which is like, “Just give me the thing so I can get my basics done and I’m gonna need the power. So I need to know it’s there but don’t come running to me.”
RZ Yeah. Don’t put it in my face. Exactly. And I think that was an angle. I mean, that was the reason I settled on it and once I settled, you hook in and then you invest in the product and you become a pro.
PF [Crosstalking] Well, that’s Bear too.
RZ And it’s Bear as well, yeah.
PF Bear is like, “You’re gonna prefer to just hit a pound sign and you’re gonna learn three of four simple things. After that, we can build the relationship.”
RZ Exactly. And I think it’s worth noting, I mean this is a productivity tool and a very powerful one. You know Apple spearheaded the way towards simplicity on the consumer side [mm hmm] but we see it and we spent time yesterday looking at a lot of enterprise products.
PF Ah brutal.
RZ It is an unbelievable hellscape. And it’s fascinating because I think there is a strain of thinking in that world where, “Hey, I am a professional. I am an expert in a very particular thing and I need the full 747 dashboard.” I think there’s a little bit of that—
PF They want the cockpit.
RZ They want the cockpit and I think that’s real but, man, that’s a very vulnerable market cuz I think when people get it right from a design perspective then you—
PF Well, I mean, you know, we see it with things like Slack and other product-led growth companies where people just start using them because—
RZ They wanna engage—
PF They wanna get their work done.
RZ Sure. Amir, one of the things that I’m absolutely obsessed with is how a company can show up and really not revolutionize anything but do things just a little bit better and absolutely torpedo the competition. And, they’re a late comer. I’ll give you an example. Slack showed up and prior to Slack there were numerous group chat tools. Dropbox showed up and Dropbox wasn’t the first to have folders and syncing and such. Zoom showed up and obviously there were a host of video conferencing platforms. What do you think those players that seem to somehow show up and then sprint ahead of the field—what do you think they’re doing that is allowing them to do that? To achieve that kind of success even though they are coming in late to the game.
AS Yeah, I mean, that is something that we think a lot about and something I think that’s very critical is basically like the acceleration of this. You know most people think actually that most of great ideas they are already implemented but I think like we are just starting out, especially like in the work environment. So, for instance, like if you think about it on the consumer side. I mean let’s take email as an example. On the consumer side, if you actually use Instagram, they have like filtering system so you can actually see the most interesting stuff for you. Their search is amazing. And then you have like email and most email clients, you have to do like a ton of grunt work yourself to actually process your inbox. And I think like email’s probably a great example of where we are at regarding like work tools. So I’m pretty sure very soon we will see, like, email apps and I think Superhuman is a great example that will just like dominate this and we’ll have like another Zoom. And how do they do it? I think it’s basically like maybe that we become as like a community much better at creating products. And when you actually like solve something again that you can maybe like use new knowledge and like redesign stuff. Yeah, I’m actually—Zoom or Slack fits into this but the thing is, is like a lot of the stuff they did, like especially the small details they got really right and maybe those previous companies, they didn’t. I mean it’s hard to know but I think we just care a lot more about the quality and the user interaction design, user experience, and also engineering as well. Like, you know, some of these—like Zoom, like, is really well engineered. So that would be at least my answer but it is interesting and I hope we will see a lot more of this.
RZ You know, I think it’s an inspiring story. I mean he hasn’t talked about it but clearly Amir is a fugitive on the run.
PF That’s right.
RZ He’s hopped across I dunno how many countries while he built this amazing startup that has people all over the world contributing to it. I think it’s a great—joking aside—counter sort of classic VC tech crunch story, that speaks to a team that’s committed to quality. I think design and empathy is a big part of this. So congratulations on your success here and thank you for coming on Track Changes.
AS Well, thank you guys for having me and honestly I think like this kind of storyline is probably something that will be replicated a lot more. You know, if you think about like there’s billions of people and like billions of people have actually access to like all of human knowledge. So I’m pretty sure like we will actually see a lot more crazy stories popping up and like some of these will be outside of these hubs that we currently have. So I’m actually quite excited about the future even though we have a lot of bad stuff happening as well.
PF That’s a great place to leave it.
RZ [Laughs] Some good news for once.
PF We’ll end on a bright note for once. That’s great. Amir, thank you so much for coming on.
RZ Thank you, Amir.
AS Thank you guys for having me and have a great day.
PF Alright, you know what? Now that we’ve done that and you’ve heard him talk about his product strategy. I’m terrified about how much I’m gonna have to hear about Todoist and how certain products are just so simple and wonderful and magical. I hear about it a lot already.
RZ Yeah it’s just—
PF That only just confirmed everything.
RZ Yeah, it’s just, you know, it’s a cool story too. The VCs and obviously the VCs are a particular business model and they’re driven by particular things but there are a lot of successful companies out there that don’t become billion dollar companies that deliver really great product and—
PF You know it’s just how often you hear that story. It’s like, “Well, and then venture capital but nah.” Mostly with VC stuff you hear like, “And then it didn’t go so good.”
RZ Yeah but the thing is unicorns are weird. They’re not even real. I’d rather just be like an antelope.
PF That’s a wonderful thing to be.
RZ Or a zebra.
PF Yeah. You know an interesting observation here that I’m gonna make. It’s interesting cuz I’m making it. You know we asked him to explain how do you kinda keep it simple. There’s no real answer.
PF The answer is, “I keep it simple.”
RZ Yeah, it’s hard.
PF There’s no magical keep it simple process. It’s like, “No, no, I don’t allow things to happen that would lead to difficult complexity.”
RZ I’ve worked with those designers who have almost a reflex reaction to the wrong thing [mm hmm] because they see the right thing in their head and it’s a pretty intense sentiment that arises.
PF Oh boy.
RZ And that—
PF It’s very strong in the room.
RZ There’s been a lot of design books written, man, but this is about design.
PF Of course.
RZ Todoist is about design. It’s about simplicity, and about empathy, and understanding what users want.
PF But this is—I mean, to me, you’re told like, “Keep it simple! And look at Apple!”
RZ That’s hard.
PF That’s an instinct that you cultivate, not a process that you follow. It’s not supposed to be, everything’s supposed to be reduced to a process—that’s better for everybody but the reality is it’s people who just are obsessed with it and won’t leave it alone, who get it done.
RZ Yeah. I have a move . . . I make—as a product manager, when I get to be product manager sometimes—
RZ Cuz people are pushing for a particular feature. I say, “Let ‘em ask for it.”
RZ What I mean is [music fades in], “Go out, let’s see how many people actually want this. And let ‘em ask for it.” I’m always trying to take things out. That is an instinct of mine which is to take things out. There is a debate right now that’s ongoing about a particular feature in Dash, our Slack tool, uh that is—[Paul exhales sharply] has ruined relationships—
PF It really has. [Rich laughs] What’s amazing is when you have Slack tool, there’s a lot of back channel about [Rich laughs boisterously, Paul chuckles], “You know what? I kind of agree with it. No, it’s just I’m really tired of this argument.” Anyway, one day—
PF Keep it simple. And if you like building products that are simple and having product managers and leadership advocate for that, not just internally but with the client, and you wanna work at an agency.
RZ Top notch engineering! Great design.
PF Yeah especially if you’re a director of design, you have an opportunity to come here and make a big global impact.
RZ A big splash.
PF The way to do it is to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our website and check out our careers page, [sing songy on ‘and’, ascending tone] and someone will get back to right away!
RZ Have a lovely week.
PF Everybody, do good. Keep your notes. Check off your to-do items . . . that’s it.
RZ Have a good week.
PF email@example.com—that’s our name. Bye!
RZ Bye [music ramps up, plays alone for four seconds, fades out to end].