Amir Salihefendić, CEO and founder of productivity app and tech solution developer Doist, fled the war in Bosnia with his family in the 1990s, spent his adolescence in Denmark, and built his company’s signature app solution Todoist while studying computer science and simultaneously working two jobs.
Doist’s 60-plus employees hail from 28 different countries, including Jamaica, Poland, Taiwan to Australia, and they all work remotely. Salihefendić says this remote mindset allows the organization to be borderless in every way, and believes that this way of working is the future.
Chief Executive spoke with Salihefendić about how he got the company off the ground, the challenges and opportunities of maintaining an all-remote workforce, managing growth, and why company culture is so important. Below are excerpts from the conversation:
What were some of the things that inspired you to launch Doist? What was your biggest challenge in getting the company off the ground?
In 2007 I started Todoist. I was still a student and I had two programming jobs on the side. I had a lot of projects and I needed to manage my work and my productivity. I looked at the market and most of the solutions were crappy, so I decided to create my own tool. I didn’t see this as a startup and I didn’t have great ambitions.
Over three years, Todoist was my side project while I was working in Taiwan building another social media app, Plurk. Then I decided to quit Plurk, I didn’t really have a plan B, and one day I submitted an application for [Chilean public start-up accelerator program] Start-Up Chile. Suddenly one day I got a e-mail saying that I got accepted. Actually I applied with another idea called Wedoist—not operating today—which was basically project management software. So I went to Chile, Wedoist didn’t go anywhere, so I focused on Todoist, which had at that time nearly 300,000 users, and I didn’t work at all on the app during four years! So I focused on Todoist, building the mobile apps, creating a business model, etc. Thanks to the Premium subscriptions, I scaled the revenues from maybe a few thousand to over 10,000, and that allowed me to hire some amazing guys in Portugal. And also the first support guy in Poland.
I think that’s when I started Doist as a company based in the remote-work concept. I stumbled onto the remote work idea. It’s true Plurk was also a remote-first company, but I couldn’t find any local talent in Chile. I had either to relocate to San Francisco or New York or something like that, or I had to actually find people around the world, and I chose the last part.
How have you managed growth at your company and what’s your advice for CEOs who are struggling with growth?
Growth was very good until we started to grow as a team into a big, remote work team. We started to feel the need for a system to keep everybody on the same page to maintain a high level of productivity. We had to ask ourselves how we could stay productive and grow the team at the same time. Initially we tried to implement an Objectives and Key Results (OKR) system similar to what Intel and Google use, and it didn’t go well. We also attempted to adopt Spotify’s engineering culture system which uses the concept of having squads that consist of small, autonomous, cross-functional teams; that didn’t work either, because it’s only good for teams located in the same office.
Ultimately, we created our own hybrid of the two systems (goals and squads) in what we call the DO (Doist Objective) System. The system is output-focused rather than outcome-focused. A short-term, cross-functional squad is created for each DO, and a squad leader is tasked with setting timelines and coordinating the project from start to finish. We’re still learning, but we hope to evolve the DO System into a tested methodology that other remote teams can adopt and improve upon.
What are some of the big opportunities (and challenges) that come along with managing an entirely remote team?
I think the big opportunity is the access to talent and the flexible schedule to enhance the work-life balance lifestyle. People can access career opportunities and high-paying jobs regardless of where they live, even in rural areas. Also, companies can source talent from anywhere in the world, which offers the potential for true diversity and not just the diversity within the 30-mile radius of a company’s office. And it is important, too, for gender barriers because it breaks them down, since remote work allows mothers (like Doist’s head of marketing) to control their own schedules.
Regarding the challenges, I think that the key to adapting to remote work is knowing where to draw the line between work and life. When you’re in complete control of how you spend your time, it’s hard to ever feel like you’ve done enough. However, we believe strongly that to be a sustainable business, employees need to be able to have rich lives outside of work, too. We set the expectation that no one should be working long hours or during the weekends; eight hours of effective work five days a week is more than enough to get everything done. We enforce this rule strictly.
How would you describe company culture at Doist? How do you keep everyone on your team on the same page from a culture standpoint?
When we hire, we look specifically for people who share the same fundamental values as us. That’s not to say we hire replicas of ourselves, because our diverse perspectives 100% lead to better decisions, a better product, and a better team culture. But everyone needs to be on the same page in terms of how we communicate and work. Also, we think micromanaging is inefficient at any company, but at a remote company it’s simply not an option. We hire people we can trust from day one.
We also have a commitment to work-life balance. First in our employee perks, some of them like paid vacation, parent leave, reimbursement of learning activities, support that philosophy.
Perks are great, but they only go so far in building a unified, productive remote team. The true cornerstone of our company and culture is the way we communicate. For example, meetings are a rarity at Doist. We have very few regular meetings and generally only schedule ad hoc ones when we feel that “face-to-face” communication is necessary to move a project forward.
The only time we use internal email is when a new team member is onboarded, and 95% of our team communication is asynchronous, as opposed to real-time group chat, as well as transparent and searchable, unlike email. Keeping communication fully accessible to the whole team supports one of Doist’s core beliefs: the best argument always wins, regardless of who you are, your title, or your seniority.
How would you describe your personal leadership style and how has it evolved over the years?
Building a company with a long-term mission that your team truly cares about, focusing on building a company that can outlast you and creating something of true value. I believe this kind of thinking should be the guideline for every company. My mission is to lead a team to build tools for a more fulfilling way to work and live. It’s building tools that help people do more and stress less. I think this message resonates well inside the company, and it hasn’t much evolved since Doist started seven years ago.
What’s next for Doist? What are you most excited about as CEO moving forward?
We launched one year ago a new product, Twist. We used Slack for maybe two years and we didn’t really see how it could solve the issues that we faced as a remote-first team. So basically, it’s a asynchronous communication tool. We actually started Twist before anybody actually cared about mindful communication or addictive apps or something like that.
For Todoist, we are doing something called Todoist Foundations, which is basically rethinking some of the core stuff inside Todoist. The thing is, Todoist is a 11 year old product, so it has a lot of garbage that we want to remove and replace. And then we also have Todoist Business, which is basically task management for teams, and we want to improve that. You have to think that Todoist has been around for more than a decade, that’s pretty rare for a company or product. And we did it by ourselves, bootstrapped. Founders usually, either they get burned out so they decide to sell their company, or they get some big offer and decide, “Hey, I’ll go try something else with all this money.”
Our ultimate goal with both Todoist and Twist is solve the problem of organization, both personal and team, and communication, particularly in remote work environments.
For Doist itself, we want to promote the remote-fist thinking and spread it around the world, and we hope to see more companies join us.