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Amir Salihefendic, CEO of Todoist, on Powering 1.5 Billion Tasks, Remote-First & Leading as a Parent-Founder

· Podcast Transcripts

"People, especially for a knowledge company are the most critical aspect. You need to find the right people that believe in the same things you believe in, care deeply about the mission, want to work on the things that you work on and really want to be part of what you're building." - Amir Salihefendic

Jeremy Au: Welcome to Brave Dynamics. This is your host, Jeremy Au. Leadership is harder than it looks. As a proven founder and Harvard MBA, I interview courageous entrepreneurs, executives and investors every week. I also share my frontline experiences, coaching insights and own professional development journey. If you're stepping up as a new leader, founding a startup, or venturing into the great unknown, this is the podcast for you.

[00:00:30] Amir Salihefendić is the founder and CEO of Doist, the remote-first company behind the productivity app Todoist and Twist, a team communication app. Todoist keeps track of all your tasks, projects, and goals in one beautifully simple place. It syncs across all your devices and integrates with all your favorite apps. This app is for people who need less chaos and more peace-of-mind. Todoist has helped millions of people complete over 1.5 billion tasks in 150+ million projects.

[00:01:07] Todoist is the top-ranked productivity app. It is Google Play’s “Editor’s Choice” with 4.7 stars across 187K+ reviews. It is on the Apple store as a featured app with 4.8 stars across 30K+ reviews. The Verge reviewed Todoist as 9/10 and “The best to-do list app right now”.

[00:01:33] Doist is a remote first team with 75 employees, collaborating across 18 time zones and over 20 different countries. Doist has published the leading guides and best practices for starting, managing and scaling a remote team from the worlds' most successful distributed companies.

[00:01:56] He graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Computer Science at Aarhus University. He was born in Bosnia, grew up in Denmark and is currently splitting his time across Barcelona, Spain and Santiago, Chile. He is a dad of two and enjoys football and surfing. He speaks Bosnian, Danish, English and Spanish.

[00:02:17] You can find him on Twitter at @amix3k

[00:02:25] Hi Amir, it's so good to see you.

[00:02:28] Amir: As well, Jeremy, it's a pleasure to be here.

[00:02:31] Jeremy Au: We've just talked about how awesome Todoist is and if people don't believe how great it is, I'm a personal fan and user of Todoist. Thanks for helping me keep my life organized.

[00:02:43] Amir: It's a real pleasure. I'm also a very, very long-time user of Todoist. I basically built it for myself. So, I can definitely relate to that.

[00:02:53] Jeremy Au: So, I'm curious. How many tasks do you have in your Todoist, if you were to ballpark a number?

[00:02:59] Amir: I know that I have completed almost 60,000 tasks. It should tell something about how much I use the system.

[00:03:07] Jeremy Au: That's really funny. Unfortunately, I've had to use a series of different tasks apps that got deprecated over the years. So unfortunately, I didn't complete 60,000 on Todoist. But hopefully in time to come.

[00:03:20] Amir: We are in it for the long haul. So, you will have plenty of years to reach that.

[00:03:25] Jeremy Au: We've been friends for quite a while, and so many people have really admired the way you've built out Todoist, and your leadership journey. Could you tell us more about it?

[00:03:37] Amir: Sure. I actually never really set out to be a leader. I don't think I'm a natural leader. It's not something I aspire to be. You can see it in some people. They really want to be the leader type, and they may be born to do it. So, for me, I have always tried to escape that, and I got thrown into this because, the only way to succeed in the modern world is via team, via company. that forced me to become good at it, or at least try to become good at it. And really see that the only way you can succeed is via teamwork. there, leadership is really critical.

[00:04:14] As you build a company, people really expect you to be the leader they need. So, I think also you'll get pressured into that role. that also something I felt from the people. They really required that from me.

[00:04:28] So my journey to leadership is, not really something that I feel super comfortable in. And I think maybe a lot of technical people have the same thing, and also if you're introverted.

[00:04:38] Jeremy Au: Why do you find leadership so important?

[00:04:41] Amir: Basically, my ambition and goal is to build something impactful. The only way you can achieve that is via teamwork, via company and via great leadership. My ambition isn't really to have a lifestyle business or whatever. It's really to build something big. In that context, I think leadership becomes critical and the only way you can actually scale yourself, your work, and your impact.

[00:05:08] Jeremy Au: How did you personally get started in your leadership journey?

[00:05:13] Amir: Initially, and especially coming from my background -- it's computer science. I never read a single leadership book. I didn't know what I was doing at all. Then, I started to hire people and managing people.

[00:05:25] The first thing I actually did, some hired some family members, because it was easy to do. I quickly found out that isn't really a good criteria. Also, working with your family, you love them. It becomes really, really challenging to provide feedback and everyday work. So, I quickly stopped doing that and we've parted ways. I also tried to hire the outsourcing company to do the work that I needed to do on the mobile apps. That also really didn't work out, because they produce really, really crappy work.

[00:05:58] That's when I found out that you need to find the right people that believe in the same stuff that you believe in, that care deeply about the mission, that want to work on the stuff that you work on. That really want to be part of what you're building. So, I think that's where I found out that this is really, really critical. People, especially for a knowledge company are the most critical aspect. Maybe for any company, but especially for us. Creativity, communication and people. That's basically 80% of the stuff that we do.

[00:06:30] Jeremy Au: So, what hurdles did you personally face and how did you overcome them?

[00:06:35] Amir: I think one of the biggest issues with being a founder is that you have all these hurdles, and they never stop. They become harder. So, the style I like to look at is climbing Everest, Everest never ends. And then, it becomes harder and harder. As you go along, you need to transform yourself, and your skills. You need to be good at many different things. So, this constant growth, this constant change, I think is a huge hurdle to pass.

[00:07:04] For instance, giving up programming. That was really, really difficult because I love to program, I love to create stuff and suddenly stopping to do that. Even right now, have not fully really given up on that. Because my zen zone is with an editor, with a cup of coffee and doing that. For me, those are big hurdles. I think that's a good thing, when you grow, that you actually need to grow with it.

[00:07:29] A problem is also if the growth stops, or you have an issue, and you will always have many different issues, many different fires to fight. That's also another type of hurdle that you need to tackle. I hope I answered a bit of that. it's a pretty tough job. But also, if you want to grow as a person, I think it's the best ticket for personal growth, is this type of journey.

[00:07:49] Jeremy Au: What are the common myths that you've encountered in leadership?

[00:07:53] Amir: I see a lot of a broken mental models or people trying to pattern match. Not only in terms of what leadership, but also company building. You need to do what Google does, or you need to be an asshole like Steve Jobs to be successful. Michael Jordan is very popular for his leadership style.

[00:08:10] Honestly, I think what's really critical is finding your own authentic leadership style that reflects your personality, your context. If you look at the spectrum of leadership in companies, people are very, very different. So, the way that Ed Catmull from Pixar managed Pixar, is very different from the Steve Jobs that managed Apple. The same thing maybe goes for Bill Gates or Sergey in Google. It's very, very different type of leaders, very different type of leadership. And they have all been very, very successful. So, I think finding this common pattern is probably the wrong way to go. I think you need to find your authentic pattern.

[00:08:51] That’s what I tried to do. That's why we do most of our communication in a written form. A lot of it asynchronous. Our company's fully distributed, spread around the world. And that's a leadership style that fits me really well. Trying to be this energetic, extrovert person that is likeable... That isn't really my style and I would never be successful in it. So that would be my take on that.

[00:09:14] Jeremy Au: You have always advocated for remote as a way to balance life and work. And now you're a parent. How do you find that remote-first interact with your identity as a parent, as well as a startup founder and CEO?

[00:09:30] Amir: I mean, the way that we work, remote-first, asynchronous first, I think it's a superpower for the parent. Because we don't do many meetings. That helps a lot. And also, you can plan your day as you see fit. Sometimes I work during the night and that's because the kids are in bed and I can just focus. That would be very hard to do in a synchronized environment.

[00:09:51] We also have a really great feedback from the women inside Doist that also have maternity leave. You have so much flexibility. Especially with a baby, you need to feed the baby. You can't be connected real time and then feeding the baby. Maybe some can, but most preferred to actually just take care of the baby, then do some work. So honestly, I think it's the ultimate freedom. That's why I love it and why I promote it and why I think it's actually the future of work. this freedom is very, very addictive as well for people. If you do some surveys of remote first workers, most of them never want to go back to office job again.

[00:10:31] Jeremy Au: What tips do you have for people who are founders, who are thinking about becoming parents, or parents who are becoming founders, what advice would you have for them?

[00:10:42] Amir: I love being a parent. I love my kids. Before, I would think about what is actually the meaning of life. Once you get kids, you don't think about those kinds of things anymore, because you find the meaning. It's basically reproduction. Because you build a very special bond. You have a very special feeling towards your kids and your family. But it's also super hard work. my parent job is probably as hard as my founder job. So, if you think your founder job is hard, double that, and then you kind of have the parent founder job.

[00:11:16] It gets better as the kids grow and it's kind of like compounding effect as I see it. Initially you don't really get much out of the baby, because the baby doesn't even communicate with you. But as you go along, interactions happen, you build a much stronger bond and it begins to give. It's also one of the most beautiful things you can do as a human. So, it's worth the sacrifice that you and your wife, or partner, will do.

[00:11:46] This last two months with the coronavirus and the lockdown has probably been one of the most challenging parts of the journey so far. Especially being in lockdown, I have a small daughter and toddler. That's pretty extreme. If we've don't die by the coronavirus, mental health would probably kill you at some point. I really have a huge respect for all the parents out there. if you're not a parent, you don't really know what we're struggling with.

[00:12:15] Jeremy Au: One fear that people have is teammates aren't as productive or they're going to freeload, because they're remote. What do you say about that fear?

[00:12:23] Amir: if you hired the right people, it's really not relevant. The problem when you hire the wrong people is them not overworking and not burning out. Overworking is a much bigger problem than people slacking off in a remote setting. Honestly, I think the way that we do knowledge work right now is completely broken. Because you need to actually deep work to solve a lot of issues. You can't do that in a real time chat, ping-ponging and taking your attention. Then you also have maybe Twitter and a lot of meetings. That's kind of the reality of most people. I'm not sure if you can hear it, but my daughter is still crying

[00:12:59] Jeremy Au: Who are your role models in real life? 

[00:13:03] Amir: I think real role models are dangerous, because you can only just see certain aspect of a person and then you copy the wrong thing. So, for instance, if you see Steve Jobs. I'm a big fan of Steve Jobs, but I'm not really a fan of the person. I'm more a fan of the work that has been produced, his product leadership product insight. I would love to copy that. But I would not like to copy the asshole aspects or the secrecy stuff that Apple is known for. And honestly, I think most people are very complex. We have many aspects of ourselves. For me, what I'm more interested in is more ideas, copying ideas and being inspired by ideas than being inspired by a person.

[00:13:45] So for instance, Patagonia’s founder he's super inspiring. I think what Patagonia has done is very inspiring and I would love to be inspired by that. But I'm actually unsure if he's a role model for me, because I don't know him. And maybe that's also a problem right now in our society is that we have too much focus on role models. I don't think it brings us forward as a species in our society.

[00:14:09] Jeremy Au: So, what support or resources are available for others considering a journey similar to yours?

[00:14:16] Amir: Honestly, I'm super excited by the society that we live in, where you basically have access to all of human knowledge at your fingertips. a lot of the world has access to this. You can also build stuff, just using your mind and a computer and you can build amazing value. Bitcoin is a great example where it's basically one paper and an implementation that has created over a hundred billion dollars in value. Of course, Bitcoin is a very hard target to go, but you could build something smaller. But still, I think the idea holds, it has never been easier in human's history to have so much opportunity as we have now.

[00:14:54] That’s why I'm actually also positive of the future and our potential because if you think about it, we basically have billions of people that have access to all of human knowledge. Also, I think intelligence is evenly distributed around the world. So, we have geniuses that would just come up and build amazing stuff as we go forward.

[00:15:15] If you look at the past, some of the biggest problems that we had was solved in very human ways. We have creativity. Right now, I think we have so much of it and it's actually amazing. The world that we live in, we can actually have a meeting now. You are in Singapore, I'm in Santiago, Chile. Just mind blowing. But we take that for granted, and of course there's also many issues that we need to solve. As a founder, you have all the resources that you need. It's your head, it's internet, and it's a computer and you're set to go.

[00:15:48] Jeremy Au: What is a great book that you've read?

[00:15:51] Amir: A great book I would recommend is a book called The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh. Bill Walsh is a NFL coach who took one of the worst teams and made them champions multiple times, which is really hard to do. this book isn't really about NFL, it's his leadership style and his leadership tips. Some of the insights are really, really great. For instance, that even the small details matter. To get great performance out of the team, you need to have the baseline and it needs to be professional. For him, it will be showing up on time, that's really, really critical. It shows that you respect other people that you're with or that the secretary would pick up the phone properly and answer professionally. Everything about the organization he wanted to build should be professional.

[00:16:39] For me, this really resonated because a lot of times, you just focus on one thing, being good at one thing. But I think you need to be good at almost everything, or at least the baseline needs to be good on almost everything, to actually have a great company and have a great team. That would be probably the book I’d highly recommend to people.

[00:16:58] Jeremy Au: One of the things I've really gotten to know about you is your focus on hiring mission-driven people. How do you evaluate "mission-driven" in your candidates?

[00:17:10] Amir: I'm going to spoil a hiring tip that we have: If people don't use our products, they are most likely not going to be hired. So, you need to use our products, and be passionate about it. Of course, this has not really been true for all the people that we hired. It's, very hard to do when you start out. But at least you should have people that are very interested in task management or team communication, markets that we are in. They should have done something in those markets. But honestly, it's very hard.

[00:17:41] Some other indicators are a personal project that people have. That's also a very important indicator for us, because that shows that you're actually not really doing the work only for the money. You really like the work and you get some pleasure from actually doing the work itself, even if it's not compensated. And I think, this is especially critical for developers. Also, if people jump a lot around, that's also a bad indicator us. So, we don't really to hire people that have 20 different jobs in the last five years.

[00:18:10] Jeremy Au: you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself back then?

[00:18:16] Amir: I would probably go back maybe 13 years and I should probably have gone full time much earlier than I did. Todoist for me was a side project for four years before I started working on it full time. I didn’t really see the potential, and I think, compounding, so the stage that we will be at right now would be very different if I had done that.

[00:18:38] Jeremy Au: What's the best place you've surfed?

[00:18:43] Amir: The best surfing I have done is Costa Rica. I actually did that with Joel from Buffer, who also has a remote first company, another friend from England called Andy. It was really, really beautiful and just being with them almost all the time was also really special, because we would just surf, drink, barbecue, eat well. And then it would just repeat. We would talk a lot as well. It was also super, super intense. We would get up at five or six in the morning to catch the waves. And we also lived in a very remote part of Costa Rica. It was just a very special experience being with friends, that helps a lot.

[00:19:26] Jeremy Au: You've built out a community of peers in the remote first company space, with your friends at Buffer and other places. What's it like to build out that tribe?

[00:19:39] Amir: I think this is also really important for other founders as well. It's finding your tribe, finding the people that are your friends, that have similar issues as you do. similar leadership styles and personality styles. Because that can really help you out a lot. Personally, that helps a lot. That I can just ask them a really tough question that maybe not many other companies have, or leaders have, and they can actually answer back and say, "yeah, we had the same issue and here's how we looked at solving that."

[00:20:11] I was very bad at this in the beginning, but I'm getting much better at it. And I see huge value in doing this. What I do is, I schedule a monthly call with people that I want to be connected with. We can just jam and it's basically free for all session. Usually, the issues that you have in companies, even in very different industries, it's very similar. So, then that would be a huge, huge recommendation I would make. Try to make your tribe and collect the people that you really want to collaborate with and connect with.

[00:20:46] Jeremy Au: Awesome. It's been such a pleasure having you, and just chatting with you again.

[00:20:52] Amir: Jeremy, my pleasure. We have known each other for some years now. It is amazing. And I'm also looking forward to see what your new journey will be.

[00:21:02] Jeremy Au: Awesome. Good to see you. Thank you.

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