Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com.
I’ve always said that my favorite interviews are with people who listen to Mixergy, who have been building interesting things and I get to now talk to them about this incredible thing they built. That’s exactly the kind of guest that we have here with me today. And beyond that, the interesting thing for me is that he created what’s essentially a to-do app in a world that was just full of to-do apps, project management software, people who didn’t need any of it and just wanted to use a post-it note.
Really, in a world full of competitors, in walks this guy with the guts and the nerve to say, “I’ve got something else, something better, something different. You should sign up.” And a few months later, he says, “You should also pay me if you want it to be really good. And the interesting thing beyond that is that it didn’t die. It didn’t fail. The company just kept growing and growing and growing.
I’ve watched it grow over the years, not just growing in customers and employees, but growing in reputation as this really elegant well-designed piece of software that Mac fans love, the most discriminating of discriminating software people love. And they’re doing it all on their terms. Before the interview started, I was talking to the founder about how many different places he’d been as he was building up this business. That’s also interesting.
To top it all off, I didn’t know this until I read the research on his in preparation for this interview. He’s also the cofounder of Plurk. Plurk, if you don’t know what it is, I’ll tell you later. If you do, you don’t need any introduction about that. We’ll get into that in the interview. But first, I’ve got to welcome him. His name is Amir Salihefendic–how do you say it, Amir?
Andrew: Salihefendic. He’s smiling because I practiced so many times and I’m still getting it wrong. Amir Salihefendic is the founder of Doist. They make Todoist, which is a tool that can help you get things done or get them done individually or as a team. This interview is sponsored by HostGator, the company that will host your website right, and by Toptal, the company that will help you hire your next incredible developer.
Amir: Thank you, Andrew. It’s a pleasure to be on the show. I’m also a huge fan, like I told you. I have been listening to it for a few years now, on and off.
Andrew: At least since 2012 when you signed up to Mixergy Premium, which was really exciting for me.
Amir: Yeah. I think we were probably like some of the first to actually start to listen to this. It’s a pleasure to be here after all of those years.
Andrew: Well, thanks for being a part of it. I’m curious. Why did you? What did you see? In a world with to-do lists, in a world with people and post-it notes, what did you look out and say, “Here’s the problem no one is solving. I’ve got to get in on this and fix it?”
Amir: I think I had like a vision for a better way to implement this and to do this. That’s basically what I did.
Andrew: Better how?
Amir: Well, it’s really, I think, to build a really good to-do app is very difficult. You need to nail simplicity and complexity. You need to make it really simple to use, but also really powerful. I think only a few software packages have actually managed this. Todoist is one of them. That’s why when I started this, I looked at the market and thought there were a lot of them but they were all really bad.
Andrew: What’s one thing that was really bad about them?
Amir: I think they were either too simple or they were too complex.
Andrew: Let’s talk about one of them. You don’t have to give me the name, but think about them and tell me what made them so complex.
Amir: When I started this in 2007, software online was quite crappy, I think. You either have this text box with a button or you have like a thousand check boxes that you need to check off. There was like nothing that was like smart and simple and just worked. Yeah.
Andrew: The input box with the button bothered you because it meant there was a page refresh and an extra step, extra step of hitting that submit button, extra wait while the page refreshed with the new data, right?
Amir: Exactly. Even right now, I think most of the current competitors, they like at this and say, “Okay, let’s just simplify this to do the barebones. And then you can’t really do anything with it. Or they say, “Let’s do this enterprise thing and make it super complex.” Nobody really tries to like design things and think really carefully about the design of the software and the usability of the software. That’s like why I think we have succeeded in this market. But of course, it’s not a strategy I would actually recommend because you are going there and you’re going against almost any big company has actually a to-do app. Google has it. Apple has it.
Amir: It also should not surprise if Facebook made their own to-do app.
Andrew: They did?
Amir: No, but it’s probably coming.
Andrew: I wonder why they all do it. You’re right that they all seem to have it. Apple’s gets used but Google’s doesn’t get used. Now they actually just added it to their calendar to try, I guess, to get people to use it and to integrate it more.
Amir: I’m not sure. It’s a very basic functionality and I think that every person needs a to-do app.
Andrew: Or two or four or five. It seems like there are some people who are huge in to-do apps and they go through them a lot. All right. So, you had this vision for where the world should go, what a beautiful app should look like but still where it should be fully functional and so on. You were, at the time, a student, right?
Amir: Yeah. I was basically a student studying computer science in Denmark. Yeah.
Andrew: So, you didn’t have that much to lose. You were going to learn something as you built it up but you knew from the start it was going to be a business, right?
Amir: I didn’t, actually. I just made it to myself and I made it public on my blog. So, that was like my launch strategy. It was just like, “I’m going to make this and make it public.” I actually had a few thousand readers on my blog. I had that bit of reach. Then also one maybe weekend I just like looked at different sites like Lifehacker, Digg and stuff like that.
Andrew: Before we go into those sites, when you just posted it on your site, how many users did you get, if any?
Amir: I probably got like 300 or something.
Andrew: 300 users? That’s pretty good.
Amir: Yeah. And I was actually like really happy, like, “I had 300 signups. It’s amazing.”
Andrew: I think that is really good, actually, when you’re just starting a new product, to get 300 people to experiment, 300 people who care about you and would give you feedback. All right. So, then you said “I’m going to go beyond this.” So, you went to Lifehacker. You went to Digg, which at the time took submissions. You went to–do you remember other sites, other life hacking-type sites you went to?
Amir: Yeah. Basically I went like on a rampage. Like ReadWriteWeb covered it. Yeah. I think a bunch of sites got it covered.
Andrew: Okay. And then you got more users from that?
Amir: Yeah. Actually, I got people who were really excited about it, like one of my best reviews and I still like go back to it. It’s like Khoi Vinh actually is an advisor now to us. But he actually was a director of design at New York Times. He had like a really influential blog. He did like this amazing review of the design of the app and he said like, “This is amazing,” and stuff like that. I was not a designer, so I was like, “What is this?” I basically like designed it myself. So, I was really proud of that.
Andrew: I see, because you were a developer and not a designer.
Amir: Exactly. If you look at the first screenshot, like it looks horrific. If you launch something like that today, like people would laugh, “What is this?”
Andrew: I don’t know, actually. I don’t agree with that. You sent a screenshot of it to Ari, our producer. I think you meant to show it as an example of how horrific it was. I think it looks really simple. I think it looks clean. I think in many ways it looks like a Google product, where the function is there and nothing else. But that article that you were talking about as on Subtraction.com was the website. I read that article. It was a very positive article, like you said. Like you said, he even liked the design.
Here’s the other thing I did. I went in and I read the comments on that article. There were a lot of people who were really passionate about to-do lists. They talk about the different software they use. They talk about how they have a single doc on their computer screen with a list of things they want to get done and that’s as simple as it goes.
It seems like this is another thing about people who are into to-do apps and productivity. They’ll try tons of to-do apps. They will just try another one and switch to it and experiment and maybe one ends up being the one they stick with, but it feels like they’ll keep trying after that. Am I right?
Amir: I think you’re right. I think actually the issue here is that unfortunately, nobody has really nailed the real product market fit with this. We are trying to do it. We hope that we succeed at it. But if you look at the market, you don’t still have a clear winner. You don’t have anybody that has like tens of millions of…
Andrew: It looks like we just lost the connection. Let’s give it a second to fix itself and if it doesn’t, I’ll call Amir right back. I’ll call him right back. Oh, there we go. We just lost you for a second, but you came right back. You were saying no one has tens of millions of users. I wonder if it’s because of lack of product market fit or something else.
You tell me. You’re in the space more than I am. I feel like the to-do space is one of those worlds where people are looking for a cure where there just isn’t one. They’re looking for something that will cure their productivity challenge, cure their procrastination and there just isn’t a cure that’s outside. So, they keep looking for the next thing that potentially could solve it.
Amir: Yeah. I think that there is a cure, like there must be a cure, like almost all products have a cure, like why would this be very different? I just think the solution is very hard to do. You need great tech. You need great design, great marketing, great psychology to actually solve it. That’s, I think, one of the reasons why nobody has really succeeded at this yet.
Andrew: But you thinks somebody could create, ideally you, could create a to-do app that got people more productive and got them to actually take action on the things on their to-do list.
Amir: I’m pretty positive that this is possible. Yeah. Of course, I think it’s a really hard and challenging problem. I have worked on it for almost ten years now and I have still not solved it yet.
Andrew: You mean even for yourself?
Amir: I mean for myself I have solved it, but solving it for other people is much more challenging because people need to do investment in this and they need to find their own system. Even if you use some software, you’re not going to get productive by just using software. You need to force yourself to use it. You need to hook yourself into the system. That’s, I think, the challenging part as well.
Andrew: Let’s take a moment now and talk about Plurk. Around the same time, you cofounded Plurk. How would you describe what Plurk is or was?
Amir: Actually, it’s still active.
Andrew: I saw.
Amir: It still has a ton of users.
Andrew: Oh, really, people who are still actively on it?
Amir: Yeah. It’s mostly in Taiwan and the Philippines, Indonesia. Still, maybe 10 or 20 people are actually working on it.
Andrew: I had no idea. So, it’s an ongoing business still.
Amir: Yeah. Of course, we had much bigger opportunity, I think, but we didn’t really do it properly.
Andrew: I wonder why. Here’s what Plurk was in my world. At the time when Twitter came out and twitter kept going–years after even, Twitter kept going down. People felt bored by this blank 140 character page that didn’t have picture and was kind of boring. Plurk comes out and says, “Here’s another way to share what you’re doing. We’re actually going emphasize the timeline. Instead of having it go up and down, it’s going to go side to side. It will have some life. It will have this dog whose head was…” Was it a dog? What’s the animal, or pig?
Amir: We don’t really know which animal it is.
Andrew: Some animal with its head chopped off but the bone is sticking out. It got really popular. The social media crowd got into it. The tech crowd got into it. It was supposed to be the next big thing that would actually take down Twitter because it was more fun to use and then people stopped talking about it. Am I right in the opportunity you guys saw to make a more interesting way for people to share their status updates?
Amir: Yeah. It was a really, really fun and engaging platform and it still is. So, basically it was actually about conversations and not only status of it. Basically, you could post something and your friends could comment on it. They could use emoticons. We were actually doing emoticons before anybody else was doing emoticons.
Andrew: Not emoticons but emoji.
Amir: Yeah, emoji, emoticons.
Andrew: Or stickers.
Amir: Yeah. Our emoji and emoticons, I don’t know what you call them. They were really powerful. Still, we have some of the richest emojis out there. If you go to some Taiwanese profile and look how they use it, it’s full of emojis and it’s Asian emojis. You don’t really have any of this kind of experience anywhere else.
Andrew: So, why didn’t it take over Twitter?
Amir: I think our team was really inexperienced across the board. I think that’s the reason. And then we also didn’t see the mobile revolution that was happening around us and we didn’t really attack it head on. We actually talked a lot about that, like going after mobile, going after like picture sharing, video sharing and making this but like we didn’t have resources and manpower to actually go after this.
Andrew: And it was all bootstrapped.
Amir: It was all bootstrapped. Still with bootstrapping–later on actually came funding as well. We still burned millions of dollars just doing this.
Andrew: Doing what?
Amir: Just building Plurk. It was still quite expensive to do it.
Andrew: Okay. What’s the thing that because you were inexperienced, what’s one big mistake that you made that you might look back on now with experience and regret or feel like you could fix?
Amir: All kinds of things. For instance, retention tracking, tracking data. We didn’t really track anything. But then our system, social networks when they grow, they grow like exponentially. It’s really, really hard to scale it. You need a really strong engineering team. For us, it was just a battle. We didn’t design this to grow 50,000 users per day and millions of messages per day. So, everything was just like burning and we were spending all our time on actually going after fires, fixing stuff.
Andrew: I see.
Amir: Basically I think it was just inexperience. We should have probably also gone the funding route, just hired a lot of people to scale this out fast and we didn’t do that.
Andrew: Okay. And then at some point you left. Was it hard to leave?
Amir: It wasn’t really hard to leave. I was really, really tired. I have worked very long hours. I basically didn’t have a life. I slept very little because something was crashing somewhere. Then we were growing and it was very exciting. But at some point, I just felt like a huge burn out. I was tired of social networks, tired of it. Also at some point, you don’t really care that you have 50,000 new users. You’re just like, “I want to relax and take things slowly, design things.”
Andrew: I see. And you were running both companies at the same time, still going with Todoist, still going with Plurk as a CTO, which meant all these problems you mentioned are all on you keeping the site up, growing as more people come in. When you were burned out, do you remember one example of what that felt like?
I’ll tell you what it felt like to me. I remember once living on I think it was 47th Street in Manhattan walking to 40-something Street, I forget where it was. It felt like I was actually sleepwalking through the day. I was not fully awake, not conscious, not even moving my legs and like the ground underneath me was moving.
I couldn’t really pay attention to what was going on. But somehow, I made it over to the same store where I got my fruit bowl every morning and somehow I made it to my office door, but I wasn’t even alive. I was just like asleep through that whole walk. That’s when I realized, “I’m not living life. I’m not loving life anymore. Something is happening here.” Did you have an experience like that?
Amir: Yeah, definitely like a zombie feeling. When you have not slept for a long time, when you are very stressed for a long time, you get into this zombie state. For me, it’s some kind of indifference of everything. If things were going like really well, like we were closing a huge funding round or like trying to sell the company for like millions, I didn’t really care that much.
Amir: That’s like impressive that you can actually end up in a state that you don’t really care. And that’s why I also like decided I would quit this. I would go and build something that’s like a bit more sustainable, more planned.
Andrew: And that was Todoist and Doist as a company, which is going to do more than just one app. Before I go into talking about my sponsor, revenues for Todoist, where are they today?
Amir: We have like millions of dollars of revenue.
Andrew: Still bootstrapped?
Amir: Yeah, still bootstrapped.
Andrew: And profitable?
Amir: Yeah, and profitable.
Amir: Yeah. I think it’s very comfortable. We are trying not to be too comfortable and really challenge ourselves to the next level. That’s the thing. I’m told to relax and enjoy it, but I’m just like looking for the next step, next level.
Andrew: So, let me do a sponsorship message now for my sponsor Toptal. Actually, it relates to what we just talked about. There was this article in Bloomberg about a developer who worked for Google who was essentially heading down the path that you and I talked about of just not loving life and living it like a zombie.
He said that he had all these incredible perks at Google, things like that sleep cove where you get to go and take a nap in the middle of the day and you get the food and everything else. And he just didn’t feel that it was enriching enough. It wasn’t the life he signed up for. That’s not why he got into technology. It’s not why he got into being as good a developer as possible. So, he quit.
He decided he would join the gig economy, meaning working for other people but doing it from anywhere in the world in his case. He just wanted to travel and do great code but also not do it in the same box that just happens to have nice food delivered to him every day.
The article went on to talk about how this is a trend. This is where the world is going for a lot of developers. They don’t want to work at offices like Google. Now many of them are working for Toptal. Toptal is a network of a top developers and just like someone gets off on going through Google’s hiring process and rocking it and getting the job, people who are developers–frankly, anyone who’s listening to me can go check this out–they respect the hell out of Toptal. Their blog, for example, even their competitors ready their blog. You’re a developer. Have you read Toptal’s blog? You haven’t?
Amir: No. I haven’t. I will do that.
Andrew: Check it out and you’ll see whether I’m just like blowing smoke or the real thing. I’ve talked to developers who are kind of competing with Toptal. Their shops are competing with Toptal and they just love Toptal’s developer blogs. Anyway, they want to work for Toptal. So, they go through the process to get into Toptal’s network. And then many of them, the top ones, end up getting hired by companies like the ones that are run by the people who are listening to me right now.
So, if you’re listening to me and you want to hire a top developer, go to Toptal, Toptal.com/Mixergy, hire someone from there. In fact, the first step you’ll have in the process and telling them what you’re thinking. When I say telling them, I mean a real person. You tell them what you’re thinking of for your business, what kind of developer you’re looking for. Is it a full-time? Is it a gig project?
Then they go out to their network and they find someone for you, like this guy who was working at Google. And they’ll hook you up with them. The person will not work out of your office. They’ll work wherever they want, but they will produce some of the best work that you’ve ever had. If you’re not happy, there is a guarantee. I want you go to Toptal.com/Mixergy to read about it because they’re giving us a unique opportunity here. They’re saying they’re going to give us a no-risk trial period of up to two weeks.
Here’s the offer. If you go to Toptal.com/Mixergy, you’ll see it. Mixergy listeners will get 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when they pay for their first 80 hours. That’s in addition to that no-risk trial period. Go sign up and you’ll have a phenomenal developer often within days. I’m grateful to them for sponsoring.
Amir, I’m actually noticing there’s like a little streak on my camera here. Most people don’t even watch the interviews. Do you see a streak down my face? You probably don’t.
Andrew: Do I look any better now?
Amir: I don’t know. It’s kind of pixelated.
Andrew: Am I coming pixelated to you?
Andrew: Where in the world are you?
Amir: I’m in Portugal?
Andrew: In where, Portugal?
Andrew: And you’ve been traveling a lot yourself, as we said before we started. What are some of the more interesting places where you’ve been?
Amir: I have been to a lot of places, but I think I have lived in a lot of places. So, I have lived a year in Taiwan, two years in Chile and then two years in Portugal. And then like my family is from Bosnia, so I have also like lived, I think, maybe four months in Bosnia and then the rest of the time in Denmark.
Andrew: That’s it? You moved out of Bosnia when you were four months old? Why did your parents leave?
Amir: Because of the war. I was actually 6 years old.
Andrew: I see. You left because of the war. You guys went to Denmark. What did your parents do in Denmark?
Amir: Well, as an immigrant, you can’t really like pick and choose, especially like my parents, like they didn’t know the language, so you can’t really get a good job. So, basically they started like a fruit selling shop. So, that’s what they did.
Andrew: So, they had a store where people could buy fruit and vegetables. Could they buy cereal too?
Amir: No. Just fruits and vegetables. That was their niche.
Amir: Actually, they kind of grew it to a nice business that could pay for everything.
Andrew: It’s still going on right now?
Amir: No. My father actually got sick and they had to sell it.
Andrew: I see. It’s challenging when you have a parent who has a store. My dad at one point had a store. It seemed like such a cool thing to have your own store, but it’s a nightmare. We could never leave the store. He had to go work Saturdays. Yes, he had someone else go in there, but there’s a good chance that person won’t show up or they’ll need another person. So, you could never really go on vacations, right?
Amir: Actually, I hated it. I hated everything. I actually never really imagined myself owning my own company. I was really envious of my friends. Their parents, they would go on vacation. Also, I had to work. So, vacation came, I worked in the store and did like stuff in the store. Why can’t I just have normal parents that worked like 9:00 to 5:00 and don’t have their own business? I grew up in the same situation and my brother did the same. So, it’s kind of bad.
Andrew: I know. I had to work at the store. There was one time that I noticed in high school that they were taking the bricks off the high school building and throwing them in the dumpster because they were going to change the façade of the building. So, I said, “We’re going to go in the dumpster, get the bricks they just took off the building, put them on a plaque and sell them to the alumni.
I fought so hard to get the right to do that. I really worked on it. This guy in the shop class actually mounted it for me. He was such a good guy and put a plaque underneath it. The day that it was time to sell it to the alumni when they came back to school for homecoming, I had to work at my parents’ store. I couldn’t freaking be there to sell. A friend of mine sold for me, my girlfriend at the time, actually. That’s the kind of thing you miss out on because you have to go to the store. You have to work your freaking job.
Amir: Yeah. I have huge sympathy for people that had parents that like owned stores or owned businesses.
Andrew: Yeah. So, speaking of, then you ended up owning your own business, but obviously you don’t have to be in the store every single–well, actually you had it worse. You had ever night to be there with Plurk. But with Todoist it seems like things were a little bit easier, right?
Amir: Yeah. Right now, I think also I have a lot more experience. I have learned my lesson. I take things much slower. Not slower, like we are still moving fast and I’m not burning myself out.
Andrew: More deliberate.
Amir: Yeah. I think also it’s about being proactive on things instead of like reactive, like the worst situation you get yourself into is like just being reactive to stuff happening, especially if it’s serious stuff like fires that you need to turn off, like nobody can really sustain that kind of pace for a long time.
Andrew: A few months into starting Todoist, you decided that you were going to charge. What did you charge for?
Amir: So, basically I was paying for the hosting. There were people signing up and using the service. Okay. Why should I actually pay I think it was $50 or $100 per month? Let me put PayPal on it and just like charge people for reminders. So, that was the invention of the business model. It was paying for hosting.
Andrew: Just enough to pay for hosting? But you sad, tell me if I’m wrong, but you had this vision that this was going to be a business. You needed to start charging for it if it was going to be a business. This was your first step towards making money with it. Am I wrong?
Amir: Actually, my motive wasn’t really to build a business, I think.
Amir: If it was, like if I could actually see potential in this, I would probably not have cofounded Plurk. I would actually have invested more time into this. So, for me it was just like a side project that I was doing and earning some money doing. It was not meant to be like, “I’m going to build this super big.”
Andrew: What did you charge for?
Amir: So, basically when I started, I charged $3 per month. When I did this, I had like, I think, maybe 1,000 people signing up or 500. I don’t actually remember. But I was like really impressed that people were actually willing to pay for this.
Andrew: What were they getting for their few bucks a month?
Amir: So, basically they got like reminders.
Andrew: That’s it? Just reminders.
Amir: Yeah. I didn’t even have like SMS reminders and push wasn’t really like a thing in 2007. So, there were basically email reminders.
Andrew: All right. That’s pretty good.
Amir: I think a lot of the first users, they just paid to support. They were like, “I really hate this feature.” Maybe they were. I’m not sure.
Andrew: How did you come up with that as the feature to charge for?
Amir: I’m actually not sure about it. The thing is the whole creation of this product, like it was not something I planned very well. Even right now, like when we did the logo redesign, we spent like six months on iterating on the logo. When I launched, I launched Photoshop and I picked Tahoma and I wrote Todoist and that was the logo.
So, it’s kind of like the same thing about features to do or like I was just like bored one night. Let’s do a feature. Somebody pinged me and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do implement this.” And then I just implemented it. There was no design in it, no deep thought, I think.
Andrew: Yeah. I see the first logo. The first logo is basically the word Todoist in some font, essentially, on the site.
Andrew: Is that what it is?
Andrew: And the first website, I think the product looked really great. I think your landing page was pretty crappy, the first one.
Amir: Yeah. I had like zero experience doing landing pages, marketing or anything. Yeah.
Andrew: At least it made its point really well, so I shouldn’t say it’s crappy. It just does not look that good. The signup button was not extremely prominent. But I always like how you say, “Sign up now,” and in parentheses, “(It’s free).” Just take away any of the pressure. I think you guys still do that now. Let me see if I go incognito, Todoist. Yeah. “Get started (it’s free),” always encouraging people to at least get started and then the upsell happens later if they want the extra features. All right. So, you finally started to get some revenue in. What was the next step?
Amir: Well, the next step was like the founding of Plurk and creation of Plurk. Basically I had like three or four years where I basically didn’t really develop the product.
Andrew: So, Todoist just kept going?
Amir: Yeah. Even some point, I didn’t even have analytics. I would actually like fix stuff if some of the users like emailed me or called me, even some of them had like my number and they would call and say, “Todoist is down.” I would say, “Okay, I need to fix it.”
Andrew: I see.
Amir: So, that’s basically how–even I was not really looking at analytics, even tracking that much the payment. Payments came in, but it was very, very little amounts of money.
Andrew: What kind of revenue are we talking about?
Amir: I would probably say under $3,000 and probably less, probably maybe $1,000-$2,000 per month.
Amir: I also had like even the first users that signed up, a lot of them left. You don’t retain them. I think maybe like a few thousand dollars.
Andrew: I’m looking at old articles about the site. Is it true that you created the first version?
Amir: I lost you.
Andrew: Can you hear me now? Did I lose you completely?
Amir: I lost you for like ten seconds.
Andrew: Okay. I’m looking at old articles about the site. Is it true you wrote part of this while you were in the hospital when your dad had cancer?
Amir: Yeah. Exactly. So, my dad battled with cancer for like two years. That’s where most of the development happened.
Andrew: I see.
Amir: So, basically, he was getting his treatment and was just like there waiting and doing work.
Andrew: Coding it up. How did he do after the two years?
Amir: Unfortunately he died.
Andrew: I’m sorry to hear that.
Andrew: Did you ever have even time to cope with that then?
Amir: I think like everything just collided. It was probably one of the reasons why I kind of left Plurk and stopped it because my dad was dying, had died. So, it was kind of like a very rough period for me.
Andrew: I can see that. It looks like as we’re talking it’s getting darker and darker there, huh?
Amir: Yeah. Maybe I should actually turn on some lights.
Andrew: I’ll tell you what–while you’re doing that, I’ll talk about my second sponsor and that is HostGator. HostGator is a hosting company that actually will be there for you. I noticed that there are a lot of people who I’ve interviewed who had HostGator accounts at one point in their careers and often while I’m interviewing them, they say, “I’ve got a HostGator account right now.”
The reason is that they’re easy to start with and they’re really inexpensive. What I like about Amir, your story, is you had this idea, this thing you wanted to create for yourself and you just created it. You were just messing around, improving it, making it the way you wanted it to be, letting it just sit there sometimes, coming back to it afterwards. There are a lot of entrepreneurs who do that.
What’s great about a HostGator account is that it’s so inexpensive that if anyone out there is listening and they have another idea for something, if they want to just try something creatively, it’s easy. You just go to HostGator.com/Mixergy. You get started within minutes. They’ll give you a 30% discount off their already low price. Right now, that means that their starting price is $4.87 a month. So, we’re talking really inexpensive, but you get a lot for that money. You get 24/7, 365 tech support.
That means there is always somebody there. You get easy install of things like WordPress or other software too if you want it. You get unlimited email addresses, unmetered disc space and bandwidth, tons of templates, 45-day guarantee. They just make it super easy. So, if you have an idea, go get a HostGator account, get started right now. If you have a website and you’re not happy with your hosting company, it’s really easy to switch over to HostGator, HostGator.com/Mixergy. Start the way that Amir did.
You disappeared, the business kept going on its own. You come back to it at some point in 2011 and you say, “This is it. This is a new business.” You actually then call it Doist and you start to turn it into your livelihood, right?
Amir: Yeah. Exactly.
Andrew: What does that mean? What s the first big thing that you did?
Amir: I don’t really recall, but I think it was probably fixing stuff, like improving the landing pages, improving the SEO, improving the premium pages, improving the product. So, that was basically it. I think it took me like a few months, like maybe two or three months to actually double the revenue.
Andrew: By doing things–I’m now looking at a version of the landing page from 2011. The basic elements are still there, but now it’s really clear what I need to do. There’s a big button that says sign up today. There’s a video that explains what it is for someone who doesn’t want to just get lost in it. There’s I guess it’s a Firefox extension already created. There’s a Chrome extension, an Outlook extension, a Mac something. What did you create for the Mac?
Amir: Like a desktop app.
Andrew: Okay. But it was essentially HTML within a window, right?
Amir: Yeah, same with Windows. It was quite easy to do.
Andrew: So, you were on fire. How did you know what to do? How did you know what to create?
Amir: The thing is I came back with a lot more perspective. I had to learn, so I was just like,” Let’s do this.” Also, if you look at my founding story, like I actually listened to shows like yours. I read everything that could be read about companies, technology, design. So, I’ve invested a lot in knowledge. So, when I actually came back, I came back with a lot more experience. It was just executing this, I think.
And then I also hired some amazing people. That was like the next stage, like, “Okay, now I have maybe $5,000 or $10,000 per month, let’s hire people.”
Andrew: So, first you got it to $5,000 to $10,000 on your own, then you started hiring people.
Andrew: A lot of people who go off and study like that–I’ve noticed that in several people who I interviewed, like Drew Houston from Dropbox had a period where he had a company that didn’t do so well. Then he went into a sort of hibernation, studied his ass off, realized what he needed to then came back different and then came back different. That’s what helped him launch Dropbox. A lot of people who come out of those periods end up with some set of principles or some approach to business or some framework they’re going to apply. Did you have anything like that?
Amir: Definitely. I think having worked on a startup and help build the product, having it used by millions of users, it teaches you a lot. You come back enlightened, I think.
Andrew: What’s one thing that you said, “I have to come back and do?” I’m guessing one thing is you said, “I can see the power of a landing page. It has more power than maybe any other page on the site. I’m going to redo that.” Does that seem like one of the things you came back with or am I putting words in your mouth?
Amir: No, that’s like one thing. But another thing is like okay, we really need to–like, we need to have mobile apps. Actually, in 2011, we didn’t really have mobile apps. We were like really, really late to this market. Another thing was like design. Before, I didn’t like care about design. I was like very ignorant. And then you figure out design is actually really, really important.
Andrew: So, when you know that design is really important, how do you know what to do with that? How do you study design or did you hire someone that would improve the design?
Amir: I hired somebody. I’m not a designer, so I couldn’t really do the magic. That said, as a founder, you really need to know your stuff. You need to know what is actually good design. If you don’t, it would be very hard to hire people that can do the job for you. So, I had like a vision of what is actually good design, but I couldn’t really do it myself.
Andrew: Okay. I’ve got to push a little bit further. I think Allen, who’s also at your office, he’s employed in your company, he’s a Mixergy fan, he would want this–you come back for about six months or so, it’s just you on the app and you double sales and you get it to the point where you can now start to hire people. You did some things that got you there. What did you do? Let’s get a little more specific about it.
Amir: You know, I must go back in time. But basically, it’s really like understanding your business, understanding your users, tracking stuff, improving stuff, stuff like copy design, landing pages. This is very important stuff. I didn’t really care about it that much before.
Andrew: I see.
Amir: Even stuff like email is very important as well. All of these things, when you actually improve them, then you can actually improve their numbers.
Andrew: By emails, you mean the emails that you sent out to potential customers and people who were trying out your software to get them to convert?
Amir: Yeah, just like the whole email cycle, like how do you actually do the welcome email. In the beginning, it was just like plain text. I had written it at one night, no thoughts into actually doing much about it. Then you’re more careful. You think about how to engage people and stuff like that.
Andrew: I see. And then you started hiring.
Amir: And also I think another part is product. Even if you have the best landing pages, if the product sucks, at some point you will use these users even if they pay you for it.
Andrew: How did you know how to improve the product?
Amir: I have used Todoist every day since its launch, so I have a pretty good idea of what should be improved.
Andrew: I see. There were a few things that bothered you as you were using it?
Amir: Yeah. My first hire, I think I did this hire in 2008, it was a support person. I was getting bombarded by emails from people that had like all kinds of stuff. As we talked about, to-do apps are very subjective. People are very happy to share changes you need to do. Basically, we got these ten-page emails where people would go in and tell me, “You can improve this, you can improve that.”
It was like very odd, so I basically hired a support person to actually interact with people. I had a lot of feedback from users on what to improve and where the faults are. So, feedback was also really important, I think. And of course like being a user of the software.
Andrew: I’m looking at your YouTube channel now. You have a video that you posted with screenshots from 2011–February 8th, 2011 you posted it, explaining how to use the software. On the right margin is something called… Where is that? It just moved off my screen. There it is, Wedoist.
Amir: Yeah. I must say you are doing amazing research. I didn’t even know that I had this.
Andrew: This thing, by the way, four minutes and ten seconds of you walking people through how to sign up for Todoist, what Todoist is, how it works, has 74,000 views on it.
Amir: Oh my god.
Andrew: I’ll send you the video so you can look at it later. What is Wedoist?
Amir: So, basically in 2011, I also signed up for Startup Chile. In Startup Chile, I signed up with another project idea. It was project management software called Wedoist. It was basically like Basecamp where you had status updates, files and tasks into like one product.
Andrew: Okay. You launched it. Is it that much different from Todoist?
Amir: Todoist is just like task manager for yourself, for your team. You don’t have files. You don’t have status updates, it was very focused.
Andrew: Can’t you with Todoist? You can add files to it, especially if you have the business version, right?
Amir: Yeah. You can do that, but everything is centered around project files. We have like a file manager, you have status updates, you have comments, you can interact. We have chat. We don’t have that in Todoist.
Andrew: I see. So, it really is much more project management. It’s not really being developed anymore, right?
Amir: No. We started two or three years ago.
Andrew: And still you told me before you started that you have customers for it.
Amir: There are still like thousands of people using and paying for it. So, that’s like kind of really amazing. Even actually killing this project was a very hard decision. We had like tens of thousands of users using it. So, it’s kind of like, “Are we really going to do this?” But we did it. I think it was the right choice.
Andrew: Why? Why was it the right decision?
Amir: The thing is like Wedoist was designed without taking mobile into consideration. If you actually design something for desktop, then adopting it, especially like a complex product like a project management suite, if you don’t design it for mobile first, it’s almost impossible to actually change it and adapt it. If you do, it will not be a great product because it will take desktop things and move them over to mobile. So, we could not really see a vision where we could actually adapt the product for mobile.
Andrew: What’s amazing to me is with SaaS, you can still have customers ongoing, after you stop supporting an app. I told you before we started that there was one app that I just signed up for yesterday that I’m almost positive is abandoned. It’s called Kindle4RSS.com.
The reason I’m so excited about it is that I just read on my Kindle before falling asleep. I don’t want the distractions of all the stuff that’s on my iPad or iPhone, but I do sometimes want something lighter than a book. It’s hard to get something lighter than a book on there. The web browser is pretty junky. It takes forever. You can’t really scroll on it.
It’s this thing. It’s Kindle for RSS. You sign up for $3 a month. They send you your blogs, your favorite posts over there. That includes Medium articles, any blow. It’s really a simple little app that just works. I wonder how much revenue they’re making from this thing that’s pretty much been abandoned.
Amir: Yeah. That’s the magic of the internet. You just post stuff. I have not logged in to the video center for a long time. So, I don’t know actually the stats right now.
Andrew: Half of, by the way, Kindle for RSS is in China. We’re talking about something that really I should not be signing up for, but it works well. I’m happy with it.
Amir: That’s an amazing story. Actually, it sounds very useful. I love my Kindle, so I should check it out.
Andrew: I do too. When do you read your Kindle?
Amir: I read also at night or in the weekends just hanging on the couch and reading.
Andrew: That’s good discipline. Like if I have my Kindle in my hands and I hide my phone, I’m much more not just productive, but I’m much more satisfied, where if I have my phone in my hand, I might just feel like the hour disappeared without any value coming out of it.
Amir: Yeah. I feel the same way. The problem is on mobile, you have like so many distractions. Like on Kindle, you just had a few books, maybe, and that’s it.
Andrew: Yeah. So, you get to Chile. They give you some money. They give you space to work. Was it helpful for you?
Amir: It was, actually. I think it basically changed my life to the positive, especially like after burn out when my dad had died. I was a little on edge. That was basically the change I needed. Also, I met some really cool people, actually. A lot of the early team from Doist are directly connected to Chile and Startup Chile. So, I would say that it was a very good choice.
Andrew: I wonder if they got anything of value out of it. I know the country was really hoping to kick start their tech community. But I noticed that a lot of the people who took money from them ended up moving somewhere else afterwards.
Amir: Yeah. I think it’s very difficult to change a whole country. But I think it was actually for the effort, at least, because it’s still not that much money for a country to actually try this out and see if it works. I think those probably could have optimized it a bit more, maybe force them to found their companies in Chile, maybe take some equity from the companies. It was very free. You were not forced to found your company in Chile.
Andrew: Yeah. You had yours up and running for a few years before you went there.
Amir: Yeah. If they actually had made it more restrictive, I would not have joined that program. I joined basically because it was like totally free, equity free. You go to Latin America and you try to create your company. It’s pretty fantastic.
Andrew: And in many ways, just being in a new environment and getting to focus seems like it would help.
Amir: Yeah. They said like it was very… Like I was very distracted at first. The first few months I basically spent going out, being with people, going surfing, going skiing. There were a lot of distractions. It was only like a few months again where I thought, “I must actually do something here.” I’m not here just to do the fun stuff.
Andrew: So, what else did you do to grow the business? Wedoist was a good idea. It didn’t work out. What else did you try that actually did work out, that helped get the business to grow financially?
Amir: I think a lot of the stuff that we did on the product, especially huge investments are mobile. So, basically, a very early–I actually very early on hired Allen, who started–actually I have no clue why he accepted this job because I was paying like–I think like $1,000 or something like that a month. He had like an MBA. Even like the first people that we hired, they were not paid a lot. So, a lot of the early hires were basically I have no clue why we hired them.
Andrew: What was your process for finding good people?
Amir: There was basically no process, I think. It was just… I don’t know, speaking with people, checking out the work they have done and then doing it. Even actually not all the decisions were very good. In the beginning, we wanted to do mobile. We found these outsourcing companies in Romani and said, “This is so cheap. They have done some kind of work.” Then we do this and it was just like disaster.
Working with them was a disaster. The product was like a complete disaster. And then we were like, “Okay, we have spent a ton of money on this and we have nothing to show for it.” So, that’s basically where we hired people, individuals that actually we could talk to, we could interact with.
Andrew: And it was still an outsourced development team that built your mobile apps?
Amir: No. it was like our own team.
Andrew: The second go around you started hiring your own people.
Andrew: What was our process?
Amir: Those people that we hired mobile people they are still working here in the company, the same with the designers. So, I think we did some really amazing hires.
Andrew: You mentioned Allen, he’s your COO now. He started as business development. What kind of business development did he do?
Amir: In the beginning, he did a lot of stuff. He got hired as business development. I didn’t even know what business development was meant to do. So, he did the marketing. He did company creation, financing. I think he even did like support.
Andrew: So, he basically did everything. He just took the title of business development.
Amir: Yeah. Exactly.
Andrew: I see from his LinkedIn profile that he was in Santiago with you.
Amir: Yeah. Exactly.
Andrew: How did he end up there?
Amir: He did an MBA in Berlin with a Chilean guy and then he basically went to Chile to maybe finish off his MBA or just be with his friend. I’m not sure, actually, what the backstory is.
Andrew: Let me ask you this to close things out. Just to wrap up the story and then I want to ask you something else to close things out–what helped you grow was going mobile, right? But actually, I don’t feel like I have enough there. Just having a mobile app is not enough. What did you to promote yourself, to get more people to use your software, to get them to know about it?
Amir: It’s a very good question, Andrew. The thinking is like we didn’t really have that silver bullet, I think. It was just like improvement all around.
Amir: Yeah. But I think improvement to like the landing pages, the emails, it did help. But then also like huge amounts of product development.
Amir: So, I think it’s really a combination. I don’t really have like, “This is the trick with it and then it grew like this. It was just like a long struggle. You do stuff every day and then it grows, grows, grows. Also, if you see on our curve, you see just like growing.
Andrew: There’s no hockey stick, but there’s continuous growth.
Andrew: Could you turn on your screen using screen share and show me how you keep track of your to-dos in Todoist?
Andrew: Okay. So, now I see it.
Amir: Awesome. So, basically, you can see that I have actually had a lot of other stuff today, but I still have like 25 tasks today and I have not really kept up with my to-do list.
Andrew: It’s pretty late where you are.
Amir: 8:00 p.m. I will probably do stuff a bit more and postpone some of it. But basically I have stuff like emails here, really important stuff.
Andrew: What’s the Welcome to Business Internet Banking Email?
Amir: Basically, we are opening a bank account and I need to login and set it up.
Amir: Then you have like issues on GitHub. I need to write that specification. I will probably not do that. So, I can postpone it until tomorrow.
Andrew: The issues on GitHub, does that come in from an integration or is that you guys handwriting it in there?
Amir: It comes from the Chrome integration.
Amir: Yeah. But actually, you can use Zapier to create some very powerful workflows. I have that like with my calendar. Yeah. And then I have some stuff, like checkout sidebar, product, clear my inbox, stuff that I do every day.
Andrew: And every day you have another task that says, “Clear your inbox and check product hunt?”
Andrew: So, you haven’t even checked product hunt today?
Amir: No. I have not.
Andrew: Wow. That’s a really busy day.
Amir: Yeah. I have not even checked my email inbox.
Amir: And then I have different issues, people that are reporting stuff, like I still sometimes, going and actually bug fix.
Andrew: Is that automatically coming into your system, the bug reports?
Amir: No. I add it.
Amir: Again, via Chrome. I could have this automatically setup, but I think it would be too spammy. I don’t want automatic stuff coming into my to-do list.
Andrew: Is there one thing that you do that makes our list more productive that other people’s list?
Amir: I use priorities. So, all of these things I want to finish today and these probably as well. These can probably be like postponed until later. Actually, I use this a lot. So, if you go in and see, you can see that on a daily basis, I complete like 30 to 20 tasks.
Andrew: That’s one of the best parts of your software, most unique. No one else that I know of does this, shows graphs showing how productive you are every day.
Amir: Yeah, even here, you can actually see here the last four weeks, I can actually see where I allocated my time. All of this red is actually Todoist. This blue is our new product. Then I have the grey stuff, which is like adding interesting stuff for the company. The blue here is like learning, so like articles, videos that I watch. I can easily see where I’m spending most of my time.
Andrew: Okay. Is there one time that you’ve been sharing with someone else on the team?
Amir: Actually, I don’t have anything right now. We have a lot of projects. So, all of these are actually shared projects. So, you can see here…
Andrew: So, now I get to see when other people have completed tasks and what tasks we have to do.
Amir: Yeah. Todoist right now is mostly for individuals, but we are actually doing huge amounts of works on making it better for collaborative usage and for teams.
Andrew: Okay. All right. Thanks for sharing your scene. You can turn it off now just in case you’ve got something private.
Amir: Cool. I’m not sure I had anything private here. Probably not.
Andrew: I don’t think so. Great. Congratulations on everything you’ve built. Anyone who wants to go check it out can go check out Todoist.com. And of course, my two sponsors today go, check them out, HostGator for hosting, Toptal if you need a new developer.
Finally, you should know that in addition to this Mixergy, which is interviews automatically coming to your phone if you subscribe to the podcast every day, every week, we also have something called Mixergy Premium, where we do courses with entrepreneurs and they specifically talk about one thing that they’re especially good at. That can be anything from how to give presentations really well or how to run a team remotely.
We talk about personal productivity a lot, but if you can increase your team’s productivity, then of how much more powerful that would be. We have a course on that with Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp. Over 100 different courses–if you want to join, go check out MixergyPremium.com. You get over 100 courses plus over 1,000 interviews and I’m looking forward to having you check it out, MixergyPremium.com.
Amir, thank you so much for doing it.
Amir: Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew: You bet.
Amir: It was awesome and I really hope that I gave some tips and general feedback to the people that are actually building stuff.
Andrew: I think you did too. I hope you did. We’ll get feedback. Guys, let me know. If it didn’t work out, email me, Andrew@Mixergy and tell me how bad I did or if I did great, let me know that too. I want to be as useful as possible. Do check out Todoist. The site is so beautifully elegant and so simple. Again, all those extra things that you need are just kind of tucked away until you need them.
All right. Thank you so much for doing this. Thanks for listening for so long, Amir. Thank you all for being a part of Mixergy. Bye, everyone.