In this interview I speak with the founder of the successful startup Todoist about the idea, the development of the tool and the future.
And he gives plenty of useful tips for entrepreneurs.
(Zur deutschsprachigen Version des Interviews.)
Amir, please introduce yourself to my readers
I grew up in Bosnia and my family moved to Denmark when I was 6 years old. I created Todoist in 2007 while I was studying computer science in University.
I’m also one of the co-founders of Plurk, a Twitter precursor that’s still one of the most popular social networks in Asia. I’m from an entrepreneurial family — my parents owned their own business in Bosnia and later in Denmark — so I never really envisioned myself working for a big company. I always knew that some day I would start my own business.
How did you get into the online business?
When I was young I began programming little projects and later worked with my co-founders in Canada and Malaysia to start Plurk.
It was in my role as CTO at Plurk (when Todoist was still just a side project) that I learned how to build a massive system that could handle millions of users and billions of data items.
According to your experience, what are the main reasons for bad productivity?
People can increase their productivity when they have a system set in place to make sure they don’t lose focus. It’s when you system fails that you can easily fall off the productivity wagon.
Personally, I’ve been using the same productivity workflow since I started Todoist in 2007. I call it Systemist and it has 6 simple components: you can take it everywhere, it helps you capture everything, it focuses on breaking-up large tasks into smaller tasks, it helps you prioritize your most important tasks, it motivates you to acheive “to-do list zero” every day, and it thrives off constant feedback (Todoist Karma).
You can read more about Systemist here.
How did you come up with the idea for Todoist?
Todoist was actually a tool I made for myself. In 2007, when I started Todoist, I was still a student, studying computer science in Aarhus (Denmark) and I had two programming jobs on the side. I had a lot of projects going on and I needed to effectively manage my work and my productivity. I looked at the market and most of the solutions were bad, so I decided to create my own tool. So I started building what would become Todoist to keep track of everything. I didn’t see this as a startup and I didn’t have great ambitions.
For the first 4 years Todoist was really a side project for me. I only worked on it at nights and on weekends. Over the years, I began sharing it with friends and family who loved it. I started to see the value a really good task management system could have for people and teams looking to streamline their workflow and get more done.
It’s only in 2011 where I started to work on it full time and to hire other people. And I didn’t initially start Todoist with a big company or big service in mind. The step of creating a company just came naturally. That said, I do come from a family from entrepreneurs, so my background probably influenced me.
How did the implementation go and what challenges did you face?
I think the biggest challenge was seeing the true potential of Todoist. Only in 2011 could I truly see the potential, 4 years after I started the service.
Paul Graham (the founder of Y Combinator) famously writes that the best ideas look initially like bad ideas. And I think Todoist fits this description perfectly and probably the reason why it wasn’t done before.
I overcame this by not giving up. I just kept using Todoist and kept working on it. Eventually it grew as shown by this graph.
What are the advantages of Todoist in comparison to other tools and why should one use the app?
Todoist is known for being the most beautifully simple, yet technologically robust task manager on the market. While our design is characteristically minimalistic, what you’ll find “under the hood” of Todoist is anything but simple.
Todoist is available on 10+ different platforms, more than any other task manager on the market. This means that we can reach an extremely diverse group of users: those who use Chrome, iPhone, those who use a Samsung tablet, those who use a PC, etc. All of our platforms are synchronized in real-time, our apps are fully native, and we offer many key features that our competitors do not.
In addition, we’ve built our software and apps following simplistic, intuitive design principles, which provide a very sleek user experience. This is something that people really appreciate– when you want to be productive, you don’t want to deal with unnecessary bells and whistles that can, at the end of the day, decrease your productivity.
Where does Todoist stand today and what are the plans for the future?
Today, Todoist is one of the world’s most popular productivity tools, with more than 8M users around the world. While personal productivity has characteristically been our forte, we have been working hard for the last year to improve our collaborative offerings– mainly, Todoist Business.
During the coming year, we’ll launch a series of updates that will make Todoist Business much easier to use and will truly help teams improve their organization and communication.
In addition, we’re currently developing a new team communication software that we plan to launch in autumn, 2016. We’re very excited about the future of productivity and collaboration!
Did you finance everything yourself or did you receive external funding?
The only funding we have received is 40.000 USD from the Start-Up Chile accelerator, but this came 4 years after I started Todoist.
Like WhatsApp has shown, you don’t have to have lots of funding or a large team to build a huge company (WhatsApp only had 8 million USD in funding). We don’t currently have any plans to raise additional funding.
What’s your business model?
The biggest priority for Todoist is continuing to grow in an accelerated but sustainable way. We operate a Freemium SaaS business model– our Premium services costs 29€/year, and our enterprise software, Todoist Business, costs €3 per user, per month or €29 per year.
Since creating Todoist in 2007, we have never needed to raise venture capital funds and have stayed lean by working with a remote team and implementing truly outstanding features that serve to strengthen our products, like our Gmail integration and mobile apps.
The main focus for the next months will be to grow our new business segment, given the impact we know Todoist can have on business’ growth via increased productivity. By becoming more productive, companies can reach their most important goals, more quickly.
How many people were you at the beginning and how many are working on the app today?
For the first 4 years Todoist was really a side project for me. I only worked on it at nights and on weekends. It’s only in 2011 where I started to work on it full-time and to hire other people.
Today, our team (which is fully remote) is comprised of 43 people who work from 19 different countries across four different continents.
How do you organise your global team?
We have always prided ourselves on being a remote company because the truth is that a dream can be built anywhere in the world if you are smart and motivated. This also forces us to rely heavily on the tools we ourselves build, which means that we’re in a constant state of iteration to make things better.
Our team depends on Todoist every day to share projects and files, delegate tasks, discuss issues and ideas, and stay up-to-date and in sync on everything that’s going on. And the great thing is, we can do it on every device and platform we work from (we currently have native apps and extensions on over 10+ different platforms).
Not to mention, Todoist’s various email client extensions help us make sure that no correspondence falls through the cracks. A global team like ours couldn’t function without it. For team communication we are currently using a collaboration software that we are in the process of developing.
How did you get a wider reach for your tool? How did you grow?
Of course we’re always adapting Todoist to stay at the forefront technologies–native apps and extensions on the platforms our customers are using, new integrations with other popular apps like IFTTT and Sunrise Calendar, collaboration features that makes Todoist Business a powerful project management tool for teams of any size–but over the years we’ve always maintained our core focus on a beautifully simple user experience.
A lot of software companies try to do too much at once and end up with a bulky product that takes too much time to manage. At Todoist we make sure that every new update, feature, and design element trully makes it easier to get stuff done. That’s never going to change.
And last but not least: Would you mind sharing your most important tips for start-ups?
I know a lot of smart people and their biggest mistake is that they are only good at one thing. As a founder you should be good at a lot of things, including development, design, product, marketing, business, team building, leadership etc. Being good at multiple things makes you much more valuable and you can make much better choices (for example, when hiring other people).
I think one of the most important things in life and especially in business is evolving and learning. When you start a company you are just yourself or just a few people and you face the enormous challenge of building a minimal product that people want.
After you have some success, you add more people and things become more complex. After more success, you have teams, multiple products and maybe even entire departments you need to manage. Every step has new challenges and requires new skills.
You should network with other smart people (online or offline). I have learnt so much by being part of Hacker News and Start-Up Chile.
Don’t give up. Starting a business is really hard. It took me almost 5 years to turn Todoist into something of a greater value. I also think you should plan for the long haul, give yourself more time to start your company. In most cases, great success comes after years of hard work
Thank you for the interview.
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