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Eleven Lessons from Doist Founder Amir Salihefendic On Risk, Culture Building, Craftsmanship, Productivity, and Personal Growth

Amir Salihefendic is the founder and CEO of Doist, the company behind popular productivity and work apps Todoist and Twist

Amir was born in Bosnia where he spent early years of his childhood before his family fled war-torn Bosnia for Denmark. Amir grew up in rural Denmark and studied computer science at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark. Prior to starting Doist, he was part of the founding team of Plurk, a social networking site before Twitter that continues to be one of the most 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 a university student juggling multiple programming jobs and side projects. Todoist quickly gained popularity and the rest is history. Today, Todoist is one of the most popular to-do list apps. Over the years, Amir and his team have built a distinct company that is renowned for remote-first operation, excellent culture, and great products. 

In this article, we share 11 fascinating lessons from Amir on venture building, craft, productivity, ambition, and more, gleaned from his 2023 interview with Future Startup. Enjoy. Happy Building! 

1. Have a creation mindset: There are two types of mindsets: creation and consumption mindset. We live in a world where it is all about consumption. We are constantly consuming information and rarely get time to create. Amir Suggests young people should focus on creating and building things instead of passively consuming them. He recommends constantly creating projects, building things, and launching them to become better at your craft. Before starting Todoist, Amir started a series of side projects and sold some of them. 

"I think you need to be a creator. In the early days, 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. "

2. Take calculated risks when young: When younger with fewer responsibilities, take risks that allow you to grow as a person, like moving to a new country, starting a new business or trying a new profession. Sometimes when you are young, you might think you have time and postpone doing more serious work for later. But as we grow older, our options to take risks gradually shrink. 

"If you're under 30 and not married, you can take huge risks. That's what I did….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 just moved there….Moving to Taiwan was a huge change for me. It was kind of growing up all over again. I didn’t know the language. I didn't know anybody. I had to struggle to create every day again.  I felt like I needed to grow up. 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.”

3. Challenge the status quo: Don't just follow the standard playbook. Doist became remote-first in 2010 before it was popular. "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.”

4. Focus on craftsmanship: Care deeply about doing high-quality work. Pay attention to the smallest details. Good work demands a craftsman mindset where you live your work. 

"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 to see that we care about our work and put in the effort. This is a critical aspect of our work.”

5. Ambition drives growth: Find an ambitious or higher mission or challenge that motivates you to work harder. 

"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."

6. Intensity with balance: Work intensely when working, but balance with proper recharging to avoid burnout. 

"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. 

The other aspect is 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."

7. Hire a strong cultural nucleus: Early hires shape the company's core values and culture greatly. Make sure you hire right in the early days. "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 ... .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."

8. Optimize everything for long-term sustainability: Optimize for being able to work at a high level for decades without burning out. "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….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."

9. Appreciate life's specialness: Life is a gift and we should be grateful for it. Sometimes life can be challenging and we come face to face with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But at the end of the day, our struggles become the stories we cherish the most. More importantly, even when we are in the midst of pain and challenges, life continuously offers beauty when we pay attention to it. 

 "I think we should be very grateful for having this moment and we should try to make the best out of it...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."

10. Seek Growth: Complacency is a real human challenge. We become lazy. We despair and seek escape. Always fight complacency and choose growth. 

“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….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 models, 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.”

11. Success takes training: Don’t underestimate the amount of work meaningful success requires. 

“A lot of people expect overnight success. They expect that they will 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.”  

You can read the full interview with Amir here. 

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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