Amir Salihefendic is the founder and CEO of Doist — the company behind popular productivity and work apps Todoist, one of the world’s most popular productivity tools used by millions of people, and Twist, an async work communication app that helps remote-friendly teams run an organized, transparent, and balanced workplace.
Amir was born in Bosnia where he spent the early few years of his childhood. His family fled war-torn Bosnia for Denmark. Amir grew up in rural Denmark and studied computer science at Aarhus Univeristet in Aarhus, Denmark. Prior to starting Doist, Amir was part of the founding team of Plurk, a social networking site before Twitter that continues to be one of the popular social networking sites in Asia. Before that, he created, built, and sold a successful spell-checking service, one of his many side projects. A passionate creator, Amir created Todoist in 2007 to manage his own tasks. At the time, he was still a university student juggling multiple programming jobs and side projects on the side. Todoist quickly gained popularity and the rest is history.
Over the years, Amir and his team have built a distinct company that is well-known for its remote-first operation, excellent culture, and great products.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with Amir about his journey, all things Doist, remote work, building products and organizations, personal productivity, company culture, and life. We talk about his early life and the impact of war, the influence of his parents on him, his parenting style as a father of three small children, how living in multiple countries has changed his view about the world and humanity, how technology has changed our world and why our struggle is sometimes useful to make us resilient, ambition as a hedge against complacency and despair, we delve into the origin story of Doist, the upsides of adopting a creation mindset, the secrets behind the growth of Todoist, his views about the changing world of work, the state of Doist today, and ambition going forward, we explore company culture, the idea of mastery and craftsmanship, finding the right people, and reflect on why life so special and much more.
I had an excellent time speaking with Amir. I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed doing it. Thanks to Ayrin Saleha Ria for reviewing a draft of this interview. Happy building!
Ruhul Kader: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I have been a fan of your work and writing and am a long-time Doist user. This is a huge thing for me.
Amir Salihefendic: I'm happy to be interviewed and also to hear a bit about Bangladesh's tech scene and stuff. It's exciting that the world is becoming much more connected.
Ruhul Kader: Have you been to Bangladesh?
Amir Salihefendic: I have not been. The closest to Bangladesh I've been to is maybe Hong Kong. Still probably very far away.
Ruhul Kader: Since you have now teammates in Bangladesh, come over sometime. You will enjoy the people and the country.
Amir Salihefendic: I would definitely love to do that at some point in the future when my kids become a bit older so that I can travel with them. Right now they're small and are not really fit for travel.
Ruhul Kader: Do you enjoy parenting? I was reading your interview with Jeremy Au and you shared some great points about parenting.
Amir Salihefendic: Yeah, Jeremy Au. He's a Singaporean and a friend of mine from a while back. He's also become a parent and I think we did chat a bit about parenting. I do like parenting. I have three small children. I think it's much tougher than my job. Being a good parent and a good dad is a tough job.
Ruhul Kader: In the past both in Bangladesh and in many other parts of the world, fathers used to be this strict figure. Kids had to be in a certain way with their fathers. There were family rules and those kinds of things. Things have changed over the years. There are now two groups of people. One camp is like okay, it has to be some sort of mixture of strictness and flexibility and the other camp is like children are much more empowered. What's your parenting style? How do you see it?
Amir Salihefendic: I grew up in Denmark, but my parents were Bosnian. I didn't grow up with flexible parenting. My dad was super strict. Growing up, I used to envy my Danish friends because they had a lot better relationships with their parents. More like friendship — you have a good friend than an authority figure who tells you what to do and not to do.
My parenting style is in between. Because I also think you need to set some strict rules for the kids. You need to set boundaries. Freedom and flexibility are great. But at some point, you need to set some boundaries, otherwise, you will have very bad kids. Honestly, it's super tough. A lot of the time, even if you want to be flexible, it can be hard to do so because maybe you're tired or they are making a huge scene. It's hard to be a great parent all the time. That's something I tried to do, but it's tough.
Ruhul Kader: What do you enjoy most about being a parent?
Amir Salihefendic: For me, being a parent is important. It gives meaning to life. Before becoming a parent, I would often wonder what is the meaning of life. Once you have kids, it kind of makes sense. You feel such a strong love and bond that everything kind of makes sense.
For me, it has been important. It gives meaning to my life and I enjoy it. Some people don't want to have kids. Honestly, I think that is a very hard decision. I would not be able to do that. I think societies are usually better if people have kids.
One of the problems with our modern societies, especially in the Western world, is that we have fewer kids. The focus is no longer on the family or kid, it's more on ‘me — how can I have a lot and so on’.
It can create a very selfish society that is perpetually unhappy because living for yourself alone can quickly spiral into meaninglessness.
Contrary to that, as a parent, you optimize a lot of times for the well-being of your children and maybe that helps create a better society.
Ruhul Kader: I think your point makes perfect sense. Being a parent solves a lot of problems that modern people go through such as a lack of meaning in life, loneliness, selfishness, and so on. Questions like why am I here become less urgent when you have people you deeply care about. It also makes individuals responsible. Having kids is the ultimate altruistic venture. You are at your supreme level of sacrifice. You will die for your kids. When you sacrifice for one individual, you essentially build that habit and end up doing the same for other people. You no longer see other people as unreal. Other people become real for you. As a result, everybody has compassion and love for others, and it gets easier for everybody. You are spot on. Let's talk a bit about your background. You were born in Bosnia, you spent a couple of your early childhood years there, then the war happened and you had to move to Denmark. Can you tell us a bit about those years and how those days have shaped you as an individual?
Amir Salihefendic: I think some aspects of my early childhood are great. There was a lot of freedom. I grew up in a rural part of Bosnia. I had quite a bit of independence when I was like four or five.
Both of my parents worked. I used to be at home most of the time under the watch of my grandma but she wouldn't really watch me. She was more like okay, you may roam around. I have a lot of great childhood memories because I could mostly do whatever I wanted, and I had a lot of freedom.
The war part is extremely sad. There is a lot of trauma there. Losing everything and needing to flee, and facing so much uncertainty. Honestly, I don't remember much about this period of my life. I have a theory about it. I think I was very small to remember many of these events. And I also think this is probably partly trauma work where you kind of block out your difficult experiences to save yourself from the pain. I don't have an understanding of it. But this part of my memory is quite blurry.
When the war broke out, we came to Denmark, and that's where I grew up and had my childhood. I grew up in a rural area of Denmark. I was the only foreigner in the whole school. It was strange and it shaped me.
I think we can use our hardships in all different ways. We can either become stronger because of them or become weaker. I used mine to become positive and stronger as a person and grow. It could have gone in many different ways. You never know how your life will evolve.
Going back to your earlier question about kids, I don't know what will be best for my kids. I think the situation for most of the world has improved a lot. Some places are going through devastation. But overall, if you take a look at any kind of statistics, we live a much better life today than anytime before. And I think maybe we don't grow as much when it’s all good and have no struggles. Sometimes having struggles and challenges can be good for some people.
I'm kind of conflicted about my kids. They will grow up with a lot of advantages that were unimaginable to me when I was their age. Maybe that's a good idea. Life becomes much easier. You don't need to worry much about a lot of stuff. But we'll see. I don't hope we go back to the past or that kind of stuff again. But I also think the hardships can be good for you.
Ruhul Kader: You briefly mentioned your father being very strict. I was reading one of your interviews and came to learn that your parents were owners of a grocery store, and they were entrepreneurs themselves. What have you learned from your parents in terms of being an entrepreneur yourself, and about how you see the world and the work?
Amir Salihefendic: Growing up, I never wanted to have my own company, or start something. My dream for my parents was I wanted them to work in a factory. Because the parents of some of my friends had normal jobs and they didn’t need to work a lot. They would have vacations. On the other hand, my parents would just work all the time. They would get up at 5:00 am to start working and then would come back home at 8:00 pm every day. It was back-breaking physical hard work.
Growing up, I helped a lot in the grocery store as well and hated that job. I realized that if I wanted to change my destiny I would need to use my head. That was a powerful realization and changed a lot of things for me. It forced me to improve in school. Until that point, I was quite a bad student. I didn't have a lot of discipline. I didn't even have a huge urge to become good.
I remember one episode when I was picking strawberries and thinking I never want to do this. I'm not sure if you've ever picked strawberries in your life. If you do it commercially, you wake up at 4:00 am or something like that, you go to the cold field and pick strawberries so that you can put them in stores in the morning. That's the first round. You pick more throughout the day and it can be 12 hours in the field picking strawberries. I was just like, I'm not going to do this. This isn't what I want my life to be.
As you could see, I worked a lot as a child. I kind of understood that using your head was just much better. That's when I kind of started studying hard and trying to work more with my head than physically.
But I learned something very important from my parents — it is the work ethic. They had a very strong work ethic. They were probably some of the hardest-working people I have ever known.
Right now, especially in the tech sector, I don't think we know what hard work is. Our work is easy and simple compared to the struggles that people had in the past. So I'm very grateful. I didn't have a great relationship with my dad, but I'm grateful. He taught me to work hard.
Maybe some of the lessons that he taught me in physical work, if he didn't do that then I would probably not have taken school seriously. If I didn't do physical work and realized the struggle, then today probably I’d be working in a grocery store.
Ruhul Kader: That's beautifully put. You make this interesting observation that people used to work hard before, and now we have become somewhat soft. A lot of people are calling it ‘the comfort crisis’. Today, if you need food, you just push a couple of buttons and you have your food right in front of your door. You mentioned, hardships are necessary. It makes us resilient and strong. Even if you have all the convenience, life will throw different challenges at you. You will have sickness, you will lose your loved ones around you, those kinds of things. But when you become too comfortable, it can be challenging to deal with the difficulties of life. Technological advancements have played a role in all these changes, which is good on the one hand, and on the other hand, it has fundamentally changed how society and we operate as individuals and see the world. How do you see all these cultural changes? How do we navigate this new world?
Amir Salihefendic: Something has worked for me. I think there's a way to resolve this. I don't think struggling is a good strategy. I don't hope we go back to struggling, because it's just an awful way to live, it's not a very pleasant way to live. If you're in constant struggle and don't know if you're going to be able to put bread on the table, that isn't good. Even if it makes you resilient then I don't think it's positive.
Something that can kind of replace this is having an ambition, having a bigger goal in life, which then kind of becomes your driver. The willingness to grow pushes you to work hard and focus and stuff like that. I think that could be a much better life motivator than struggle. For me, in my early childhood, the struggle was the driver and it was a powerful motivator. Over the years, I kind of chased that ambition. I also think that's also pretty good for people.
Ambition could be something that can drive us forward. For instance, if you're a tech worker, and you have a good salary, and a good job, you may try to find a bigger goal because I think it makes life much more interesting.
The critical point is not being complacent in anything. This goes for companies, teams, or societies as well. Once you become complacent, once you become satisfied with the status quo, you can count it as a signal for your downturn.
In tech, we have had a boom for many years now. Money was floating around, salaries getting higher and higher, and you could work less and less. I don't think this helped to create a good structure. Right now, we are probably going through a period of resetting to the baseline, where some of this free money will be removed and things will get to a baseline. You can see this going around in Silicon Valley where hundreds of thousands of layoffs are happening. A huge reset going on. The same thing with the VCs. VCs are investing a lot less. The stock markets are kind of crashing. The crypto markets are crashing. We’re going through a huge reset right now. I think this will force companies, people, etc to operate differently.
When I say work hard I don't mean that you need to work all the time and only work. Rather I think you should be focused and driven and be careful about complacency. I think we have a completely complacent environment that was created over the years that is now going through a correction.
Ruhul Kader: One interesting thing I found about you is that you lived in many different countries. You lived in Denmark, and then you moved to Taiwan. And you lived in Chile. Now you live in Spain, Barcelona. So a lot of different countries. When you decide to move to a different country, how do you make that decision? These are big changes. You go from one country to another, you need to sort of take everything. That's one aspect of it. I think one of the upsides of living in different countries is that you meet all these different people and different cultures, which means your world is much much bigger than, for instance, mine. For me, Bangladesh is the world. For you, it's like all different cultures and all different kinds of people. So the second aspect: how has living in many different countries changed your worldview?
Amir Salihefendic: If we start with the first question, some things depend on how old you are, and how free you are. I think that will always have an impact on your decision-making. Suppose, if you're under 30 and not married, you can take huge risks. That's what I did. When I decided to move to Taiwan, there was not a lot of calculation involved. It was just okay, I have this opportunity, let's go to Taiwan.
My recommendation for young people would be that you need to take some risks — of course, calculated risks. And your optimization strategies should be focused on how you can grow most as a person. I moved to Taiwan when I was 22/23. I had just broken up with my girlfriend, and my dad recently died from cancer at that time. I just moved there. I didn't know why. I knew the current co-founder of my company, who also was there.
Moving to Taiwan was a huge change for me. It was kind of growing up all over again. I felt like I need to grow up. I didn’t know the language. I didn't know anybody. I had to struggle to create every day again. I'm not sure if that’s a very good idea or not for everybody. But it was a huge growth curve for me. You kind of place yourself in an environment where you have to grow. And that's very critical when you're young and it is doable. It gets difficult to do these experiments when you get older.
When you have a family, you have a lot more responsibilities. For instance, Spain was a lot more calculated move based on what I and my wife want from a place, where there is access to good schools, etc. I would say that you need to calculate based on where you are in your life and how all of that influence you as a person.
On the second aspect of your question, I think a lot of human values are global and similar. Family is important for people in most of the world. Friendships, kindness, and having a community, these things are important for people everywhere in the world. Whenever you go, these values are more or less the same. I think we have a lot more in common than we have things that separate us.
Ruhul Kader: That's beautifully put. We see other people as different and as others. And then we come across them and realize that they are no different from us. They love. They suffer and so on. That's an important realization for us to live as a society and as humans. Going back to your journey, you studied computer science in college. What did you want to be in your 20s? You said you did not want to do menial labor but wanted to do brain work. Did you have a general direction about what you wanted to be?
Amir Salihefendic: My childhood dream was actually to become a developer. I fell in love with programming very early. I was probably 12 when I started to program seriously. Computer science, and programming, were like a beautiful world where everything was possible. There's like no restrictions. You could create stuff, and it's also very fun, and very rewarding like problem-solving, debugging, etc.
That's really what I fell in love with. That was something I wanted to do.
I never wanted to work for a big company. Early on, as I told you, I co-founded a pretty big social network. And later on, I found out that I didn't even want to do social networks. My goal was never to work for a big company. I wanted to program and probably create things.
Ruhul Kader: You started Todoist as a side project in 2007 when you were still at university. Can you tell us a little bit about that story? How did you get started and how it became this huge project eventually? And what were you exactly thinking in those days?
Amir Salihefendic: The thing that resonates with me is just creating stuff, creating indie projects. Todoist wasn't my first project. I had done multiple projects before and built and sold a popular spell-checking service very early on. I think at one point we had one billion spell checks done, which was a lot for the 2005/06 era.
There's now a community called indie hackers that resembles this philosophy of work — creating stuff for the sake of it. They also teach you a lot and inspire you on how to create small projects. Of course, sometimes you end up creating a project that people like, and that kind of hits a nerve with people. Todoist is like that. It was one of the first task management apps, which was dynamic and web-based. I made it for myself and a lot of people loved it as well.
We still have people who have been using it since 2007. All of these users are like daily users and they have been using this piece of software for 15 years straight. That's how Todoist started. It was a side project, but it turned into something bigger and eventually turned into a company. We now have a company around it.
Ruhul Kader: As you mentioned, you started multiple projects before Todoist and sold a project as well. Why did you decide to build a bootstrapped company that too in the work vertical, which is a competitive vertical with lots of big companies and well-funded companies?
Amir Salihefendic: Before I started Todoist I had a social network startup. It was VC funded. We had an investment. But I had a bad experience with that model of building companies.
I had a bad experience with one of the big Silicon Valley venture firms. I was about to raise a seed round for Todoist but one of the first things they wanted to do was to replace me as the CEO. Maybe it is different for other people but the experience I had with the venture community wasn't positive. So I just said I'm going to do this myself. That was part of the reason.
Ruhul Kader: Would you like to talk a bit about your first entrepreneurship projects, and then track that trajectory to Todoist? When did you start your first project?
Amir Salihefendic: When I was a student, I created a lot of side projects that I hacked around during the night. I would just create stuff and launch them. Some of these projects did well such as the spell-checking service that I already mentioned. I also created a CMS system for content management and various scripts and a ton of other projects. Some of these projects were not even commercial. It was just, okay, I'm hacking this, I'm going to share it with everyone.
While some of them worked such as the spell-checking service which was a commercial success, many of these projects were mostly passion projects. I would say my first real success came from the spell-checking service, creating it and scaling it, and then selling it.
If there's something that people can take from this, especially young people who are reading this, I think you need to be a creator. In the early days, what you need to do is just experiment, create and become better at your craft.
If you want to build a business, you need to have some kind of skill. Or, at least, find a co-founder who has some tech skills and can build things. That is the leverage that you can use — building things, launching them, and iterating. That has at least been my experience and what I would recommend doing. If you don’t do that, it's hard to become better at this. You need to start at some point, then you need to iterate towards something better and better. That's one aspect of this.
The other aspect is that you need to grow constantly. To this day, I spend a lot of time just learning and growing as a person. You need to have a learning mindset. The stuff that I learn, I’m not always looking for utility. Some of it can be useful in the future and some of it may never be useful. Just having curiosity and a learning mindset can take you a long way.
For instance, I'm now trying to become better at financial aspects. I'm listening to podcasts such as The invest like the best. I didn’t have this hobby a few years back. But right now, they're interesting, and maybe in a few years, some of the knowledge that I'd build will become super useful for me.
A lot of times the purpose isn't to create something super successful or learn something useful. In the beginning, when I started, the stuff that I learned was mostly related to new products, engineering, and business model, but whatever it is you just need to have the spark and absorb the knowledge. That's the most important tip I have for someone who is just starting.
The other aspect is that a lot of people expect overnight success. They expect that they would learn something and then take over the world. But the truth is that you have to be good to compete globally. If you want to become a top athlete you need to train hard. Things won't be based on luck. The same thing applies to achieving success on your project. Of course, you may win a lottery ticket, but I would not put my bet on that.
Ruhul Kader: These are some interesting and useful points. I think that also sort of gives us a window into how you think about building things and building companies. How has your thinking about building companies evolved over the years?
Amir Salihefendic: A lot of the time you start without really understanding the trajectory of something. Todoist was never meant to be a company. It was never meant to be a million-dollar business, or have a team of hundreds of people, that was not a goal. There was no big ambition when I started working on it. But that's how things happen. You start working on something, you talk about it, and then you suddenly see a bigger path, you see a vision and you pick that up.
Right now, with Doist, I see a bigger vision of what I want to do, and what the company wants to do, which is great. But, the thing is that it took us over a decade to get here and it's not an overnight success. Initially, you can't see this. I think you grow vision and conviction as you go.
Ruhul Kader: Todoist is a superb product. As a company, you operate differently and have a unique way of thinking about work. I think it's a reflection of you as an individual as well. My question is, you have bootstrapped a category-dominant company in a super competitive vertical. There are bigger companies that raised millions of dollars of investment in that same vertical. What are some of the things that worked for Doist as a company over the years?
Amir Salihefendic: Something that's worked is the thinking from the first principle, challenging the status quo, and doing things differently instead of doing the playbook that everybody else is doing. That has allowed us to build a competitive advantage over the years.
To give you an example, we started working remotely over a decade ago in 2010. When we started doing it, nobody was even talking about it. It was a super niche phenomenon. You probably had a few companies all over the world that were remote-first at that time. That move gave us a huge advantage. Suddenly we could hire smart people from all around the world. We didn't need to pay Silicon Valley salaries to do that.
We have done that multiple times in our history where a first principle approach led to an excellent outcome. I think that's something that people can learn from.
Sometimes not doing the playbook that everybody else is doing can be enormously rewarding. Find and define your playbook. Of course, it's also risky but if there's no risk, there's usually no reward.
Sometimes it's maybe by doing the playbook as everyone else is doing you are risking everything. If you're starting your own company, it can be fruitful to think about the risk and reward scenarios, and think whether you need to do things as everybody else is doing, or can you do stuff differently.
Ruhul Kader: I think that's very telling. Doist approaches things in a first-principle way. You’ve mentioned remote operation. That's one way of looking at it. Then you say ambition and balance. This was not on my list of questions but this is an interesting question that I wanted to ask. There are two camps of people, one camp says it is about growth, which is kind of synonymous with ambition. You have to think about growth and find ways to grow faster and so on. There is a second camp of people who like to argue that growth is not that useful. Because it doesn't matter how much growth you achieve from an economic perspective, you are never going to be happy. You should think about the sustainable way of living and those kinds of things. Doist talks about it differently. It sort of says you can be ambitious, and you can have a balance. What is that? What are your thoughts on this ambition and balance thing?
Amir Salihefendic: We've recently changed that because a lot of people misunderstand it. I think the right way to understand this is kind of like a pro athlete. Pro athletes don’t train or play all the time but when they do, they give it their 100 percent. Once done, you relax and recharge.
That's the same way we think about our work. When we think about work, we bring in that intensity. We believe that should be our default way. You're not there to play, so you have to be intense, intentional, and focused.
Afterward, you also need to recharge, because if you don't do that you burn out. That's one aspect, the personal aspect of this ambition and balance, is about balance. I think James Clear said well that balance is not working at 80% and doing that sustainably. Rather it's giving it 100%, and then in one split second, you stop and you try to recharge, just like athletes who do that. That's how we work.
In terms of ambition, if you don't have ambition, if there's not a higher mission, it becomes boring. At least for me, I feel like I need to have a challenge, and this challenge needs to be hard. This is why our ambition is to change the way that people work and do it in a globally impactful way. That's a much much harder thing than let's say building a profitable business or making X amount of money, or growing X amount.
I don't think much about monetary goals. The problem with number is that after a certain while, it loses the power to motivate. For most people, it works as a shallow part of the motivation. For me, it makes me happy that I wake up in the morning, and know that I have an objective. I'm on a higher mission. My mission isn't, let's make X millions more this year or whatever it is. There's a higher goal attached to that.
Ruhul Kader: I want to talk about the journey and trajectory of Doist. You started in 2007, you hired your first remote guy in 2011, and then the company has grown over the years. Can you talk about the early days of Doist and then connect that with what the company is today? Sort of a short version of the history of the company, and touch a little bit about what are some of the lessons you took from the early days, say first two, three, four years of the company?
Amir Salihefendic: Initially, there was no work and life balance. That is also something that we need to understand. It's easy to talk about work-life balance once you have millions in revenues. But early on, it's all about survival, finding the product market fit and building initial revenue streams, and so on. The good part is, we didn't have a toxic environment. The drive was always about let's create the best product. It was never about working a lot.
Motivation is about knowing why you are pushing hard. You shouldn't just be like, okay, let's work harder. For instance, Elon Musk, I think, is a very bad influence, where he says let's just overwork ourselves to death. But in the early days, you push hard to survive. That’s part one.
Secondly, early people are super important for your culture. They form the nucleus of your culture. A lot of the early people that we hired were focused on the craft and becoming better. They wanted to build something they could be proud of. That has kind of sustained over the years. All the people that we have hired are people who care about the mastery of their craft, who want to build something great, and who want to make products that people want to use. I would say that's the short story. We started with this small nucleus, and it has kind of grown.
Over the years, you can afford to become less intense, because you don't need to think about, okay, are we going to be able to pay people next month or not, because you have a bit more freedom. That's also great.
The side effect of that is that it can cause complacency, which is bad for a company. Once you become complacent about a situation, it is probably the death of the company, because the competition is so high. And you have some people who are just much more hungry than you are and after some years you can simply lose everything. That's something that I'm careful about. I don’t want to become complacent.
Ruhul Kader: Can you briefly talk about Doist today? You have two products, and millions of users from all over the world and you are a 100% distributed company. Can you please give us an overview of the company? How big is the company — users and product-wise? Can you also tell us a bit about the ambition of the company going forward, where do you want to go from here? Work is a fast-evolving vertical. Everybody's still trying to figure out in terms of how to operate more efficiently digitally/on the internet, and how to operate remotely because remote work has been growing consistently. COVID has made it a part of our cultural understanding of how we work. For example, in Bangladesh, almost every company understands working remotely which was not the case just a year ago. Some sort of adaptation and cultural understanding of working from anywhere has gotten into people and companies. In that context, what's the ambition of Doist going forward?
Amir Salihefendic: The context of the company today is we are about 100 people spread around the world. Modasser from Bangladesh is one of our members. We have people all around the world, literally, which is very exciting.
Our team is super diverse, which brings a lot of different points of view and cultures together. For me, it's an extremely rewarding environment.
If you want to make products that operate in the modern world, having people in Silicon Valley or Europe alone doesn’t work anymore. Because they don't understand the whole context of how other cultures live. For us, I think it's a huge competitive advantage that we're culturally diverse and different. Especially if you look at just Asia Pacific, there are so many people. I think it's a smart move for the future.
In terms of ambition, our mission is building the future of work. We think, which is kind of our core hypothesis, the current ways of working are broken. We want to tackle three different elements here.
One is planning and organization. That's kind of the Todoist side. There's communication, which is Twist, like asynchronous communication. Third is knowledge management. How we manage knowledge today is outdated. We have not tackled this yet and I think it's still kind of up for grab.
These three things are holding us back as a species because it's so inefficient. If you look at stats like the amount of time people spend in meetings, it's mind-boggling. If you are doing meetings all the time, you can't have enough time to do the work for which you are paid. The whole thing is inefficient. This is the case across all sectors. It's not only engineering or tech alone, lawyers do the same. This is a big problem for humanity — the inefficiency of how we work. We want to build a better way to work.
If we can solve this aspect well, it would also solve another aspect, which is a better way to live. If you are more efficient at work and better at communication, you are likely to have more time. If you mix remote and asynchronous into this, it means you can live wherever you want to and do well. You can get a great salary, you can be super productive, and contribute positively to the world. I think we can build much better societies globally if we can do this. That's a bigger mission.
The problem with the world today is that you have these super-rich sectors and if you want to have a great job, you have to move to Silicon Valley or London or wherever the place. It is now changing. Today, you can be in some remote village in Bangladesh and can work, contribute, and get a great salary if you have good internet, and a computer and you know your craft. That changes the game.
Remote work is one important aspect of this. Asynchronous is also important because you don't want to be connected all the time, or be in meetings all the time. I think those are just super inefficient ways of communicating.
Planning and execution face some challenges when you are remote and async. Even at Doist, we are not very good at this and we want to become better. I think we need better tools, better processes, and optimizing everything around that.
In the end, I think this will unlock trillions of dollars for the world. Because we're just wasting so much time and energy right now.
Ruhul Kader: That's true. I think people are trying to figure out how to work efficiently, and effectively and how to waste less time and energy. It shows that venture capitalists across markets have been putting millions of dollars into companies in this space. You have Slack, Microsoft has also been putting investment into it and Google has been trying to do its own thing with work. There are a lot of other companies as well. How do you see this space? Being a bootstrapped company yourself, how do you see Doist with respect to competition?
Amir Salihefendic: This isn't a zero-sum game. The markets are huge. You could never have such huge markets in human history.
This idea of competition I think is kind of flawed. I don't think much about competition. I'm just focused on our execution, creating something that people love, and also being passionate about what we do. Because I think that's what matters at the end of the day.
The other aspect like craftsmanship and mastery are super critical as well. In technology and many other fields, it's not about capital or how many people you have or resources you have. If it was, you would not be able to compete with super-rich companies, or with companies that have a lot of people. I think you can be a smaller company and still compete because being small has a lot of leverage. A lot of the time, you can be more efficient being a smaller, nimbler company.
We have had some collaborations with large tech companies. Many of these are some of the most disorganized people that I've met in my life. I don't think our competition is large tech companies. Rather our biggest fear should be another smaller company, a nimbler company, a hungry company that's executing well and is also vision driven. Our competition isn't Microsoft or Google, it's maybe another company that's similar to Doist.
Ruhul Kader: That's an interesting take. I think independent companies, smaller companies, and upstarts usually come in and disrupt big players. That has been the case historically. I was reading your interview with Jerry Colonna of the Reboot, and you talked about this dichotomy of whether to grow big, or to remain small because small is beautiful and there are lots of advantages to remaining small and nimble, and then also becoming big has its advantages. What do you think about it now?
Amir Salihefendic: I think more about it in light of building world-class teams, like a sports team, than building like this big factory. For me, it's more about finding the best players, helping them grow, and creating the context where they can perform the best. That is kind of the secret formula. There are companies with thousands of people where the majority is mediocre.
My way of looking at this is that I think there's a sweet spot where you find some great people, and provide them the context of performing well as a team. Given that there's so much leverage in technology, and especially, right now with the tools that we have, a lot of times it can be inefficient to have a lot of people. A few smart people who are motivated can beat a lot of people that are not motivated or like are mediocre at their craft. That's how I see it.
For Doist, we’re not aiming to be a huge company. I'd rather actually have a smaller company with great people that are executing well.
Ruhul Kader: You briefly talked about culture and how you prioritize values like craftsmanship. I find Doist values such as mastery fascinating. Can you talk about Doist culture, and your thoughts on how to create a great culture? Can you talk a bit about the culture at Doist and how you put it together over the years? Everybody talks about culture. But it's really hard to figure out how to approach the problem of culture. As you mentioned, you have people from all over the world, and it offers an advantage of perspective and insights — you have all these different insights from different markets, people, and cultures. At the same time, it also makes it difficult to bring everybody together and other similar challenges. I think there are silver lining there as well.
Amir Salihefendic: That's definitely a challenging thing for companies — building culture, growing the culture, and evolving the culture. Culture isn't static. It changes over time. It changes when a company grows. And sometimes it changes for the worst. As a founder, you need to always be thinking about that. Like I said before, the initial hires are critical because that's your nucleus. You need to be careful about who you hire because then we can define the culture going forward.
As you evolve, you need to document the culture. It becomes much more critical. For instance, we have a core values document, which is ingrained in lots of what we do. That's one aspect.
Another aspect connected to the culture and the core values is the mission — the higher purpose of the company. If you can't define that, it will be hard to define the other parts or find silver linings for all parts. Some companies just have stupid mission statements. They're not motivating, or it's not something that you can aspire to do.
You mentioned this culture and globalization and related challenges. The thing about hiring around the world is that it doesn't matter if you hire a Polish person or an Indian person, because it's kind of a distribution. You may have amazing Polish people who are a cultural fit for your company and Polish people that are not. The same thing with Indians. As a company, you need to find the distribution that matches the profile and the people that you want in your company. These things take a lot of time. But we’re not focused on how you look like. It's more about whether you care about your craft or not. Do you want to become better? Do you have a growth mindset? Do you communicate well? So a lot of times if you define your culture and it is close to these general human values, then it's not going to diverge a lot, because a great craft person from Poland will look very similar to a great craft person from Russia or any other part of the world. Maybe Russian and Polish people are similar. But you get the point.
Ruhul Kader: I think that makes perfect sense. Ambitious people are ambitious, whether they are Bangladeshi, Indian, or Spaniards. That's an interesting observation. You mentioned the word craftsmanship. Can you unpack it? How do you approach your craft, which I assume is building a company? How do you see it and as a company, one of your values is mastery, how do you approach it at the company level? How do you ensure everybody internalizes that value?
Amir Salihefendic: Well, my craft isn't building companies. It's building products. We are a product-driven company. That's where our craft shines. It's always about whether we can build stuff that people like to use and that powers them and then my job is how can I build an organization that can create that.
Of course, initially, that isn't your job. Initially, your job is just to survive to build a product. After a while, you kind of become focused on building the machine that builds the machine. That's kind of the stage I'm in right now.
This craft aspect is about caring about every little detail. When you see a master craft something, you see the quality, you see the precision, and you see that it's not sloppy work. That’s what we hope to achieve with our work. We want people can see that we care about our work and put in the effort. This is a critical aspect of our work.
There're few companies in the world that do this very well. One of the best examples is if you go to a great restaurant. You will usually have great food, great service, and great context. Everything is kind of taken care of. The same thing with a company in the craft aspect. It's not about engineering or design, it's the whole context, everything needs to be very good, and high quality.
There are several companies that I admire and have these aspects. Stripe, the payment service company, is one of them. I think they pay a lot of attention to this. Some German companies such as BMW come to mind. They have a lot of stuff figured out and you feel that a lot of care has gone into creating, designing, and building this.
Similarly, when you come across some crappy brand, you immediately feel that they don't care about anything. You just see sloppiness. That’s the feeling you get. But a feeling isn't only about the quality of the work, it's kind of everything that surrounds it. It's also very hard to define, and very hard to measure because it’s quite a subjective matter. But honestly, I think it's still objective, because, a lot of times you look at something, an object, or even an app or an API, and feel that these people have figured it out. They care about this.
Ruhul Kader: In your conversation with Jeremy you talked about the challenges of remote work. Many people are trying to solve these challenges with tools like time-tracking software, monitoring employees more intensely, and those kinds of things. I think it's dumb to do this kind of thing for various reasons. First, you are telling your people that ‘I don't trust you’ from day one, which means you're not going to build a good relationship with these people. You want people to have ownership, build trust and bonding, those kinds of things. Intrusive monitoring can make it difficult to have a good relationship. Then and again, companies do suffer from challenges where people are not delivering on time, performing, and so on. Your answer to these challenges was that you have to hire the right people. You mentioned today as well that you have to find the right people, but how do you do that? How do you find and retain the right people?
Amir Salihefendic: That's the challenge of building a company. I told you before that the nucleus is important. Initially, you hire the right initial people that allow you to build the right initial culture. When you hire the right people in the early days and then hire the wrong people later in your journey, it sends a signal. You part ways with people that don't fit into the culture.
The problem is if you have hired the wrong people in the early days, then you have the wrong culture, which can be hard to fix. The only way you can actually fix it is you'd probably need to do massive layoffs to reset the culture.
You see Elon Musk doing something like this at Twitter. Of course, what happened at Twitter is completely insane, but that's probably the only way he could reverse Twitter. He needed to lay off the majority of people to reset the culture. That's something you have to do where you don't trust the people and have this tracking software, where people are not delivering, you already have a huge problem and you're not going to fix it by hiring better, you need to do a huge reset, and hire the right people.
Ruhul Kader: You have a distinct philosophy about work, which is well documented on the internet. How have your thoughts and philosophy about work changed over these years? As you mentioned, you used to work super hard in the early days of Doist. There was little balance. You had to survive and you probably had a certain view about work. For example, your approach to meetings is as less number of meetings the best. That's one way of looking at it. Then and again, some people propose that you have to work 100 hours a week. That's a different extreme of things. Over the years, how have your thoughts about work and founding companies evolved and changed? Since Doist as a company is about work, you see a lot of different kinds of people use your product to manage their work life. What are your thoughts on seeing all these different things and how do you see work today?
Amir Salihefendic: I would like to note that I'm still very hard-working. Whenever I’m working, I focus hard. I don't work a lot. I'm not 100 hours per week type. Because if I actually thought it was the most efficient way to work, I would probably do that. I just don't think it's the most efficient way.
My philosophy of work is more like a top athlete than a factory worker. With a lot of our work, what really matters is creativity. It's about being inspired and having a fresh mind. Your ability to think clearly is much more critical than the amount of time you're going to spend on something. For me, that's one aspect.
The other aspect is kind of the intensity aspect and aspects like stamina, and being able to do this for a long time. On Todoist, I've been working for 15 years now. In the tech sector, most founders have never worked on something for so long. I'm willing to spend the rest of my life on this. That is an aspect for which I try to optimize. I try to optimize for the long term — how can I sustain this for the next 30 years? These are the two aspects of that.
The other aspects are thinking from first principles and trying to challenge the status quo. For instance, moving more into asynchronous work, more writing than talking in meetings, etc. These are also tools you can use to become more productive.
For me, intensity is important. I need to work with intensity. But I also think about sustainability — being able to do something at a certain level for a long time without burning out. Those are the elements I optimize towards.
Ruhul Kader: One final question. What do you think about life and death, given that our life is short and transient?
Amir Salihefendic: I think we should be very grateful for having this moment and we should try to make the best out of it. I'm also very unsure. My mindset is scientific, but everything is very special. For instance, Fermi Paradox, when we look at the sky we don't actually see anything else that's alive, and there are billions of galaxies, and billions of other suns. So, I think what we have on Earth is very special, and we need to cherish it. Our moments of having a conscious mind, and being aware, I'm very grateful for that and I try to make the most out of it. I think there's something special about our time. Consciousness itself it's so special.
Ruhul Kader: That's beautifully put. I think this is a good place to end this conversation. Thank you so very much Amir for taking the time. This is a privilege. I appreciate.
Amir Salihefendic: Ruhul, it was a pleasure to be here. And you had some good questions. I enjoyed that. And I hope the Bangladesh community will join that as well. Honestly, I'm super excited about this multicultural aspect where we all come together regardless of nation and culture, and religion. I'm excited about us because I think that's the way to move us forward as a species.