Amir Salihefendić of Doist

Founder Coffee episode 044

I’m Jeroen from Salesflare and this is Founder Coffee.

Every few weeks I have coffee with a different founder. We discuss life, passions, learnings, … in an intimate talk, getting to know the person behind the company.

For this forty-fourth episode, I talked to Amir Salihefendić, Founder and CEO of Doist, the company behind the leading to-do app Todoist and the asynchronous team communication platform Twist.

Amir started working on Todoist in 2007 while he was a student, got some immediate coverage and a good amount of users, but then worked on other things for a while. He was the CTO of a social media company called Plurk and then tried building a project management system called Wedoist. Then in 2011, he decided to focus back on Todoist, which had hundreds of thousands of users by then and he’s been focused on growing it for the long term ever since.

We talk about the advantages of building products for yourself, how synchronous team communication is stressing us all out, the difficulties of finding product-market fit in a busy industry, and how to stay competitive in the long run.

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Jeroen:

Hi, Amir. It’s great to have you on Founder Coffee.

Amir:

Well, Jeroen, it’s awesome to be here. I’m looking forward to this.

Jeroen:

You’re the co-founder of Doist, which is a company that does both Todoist and Twist now. For those who don’t know Doist and its products, yet, what do you guys exactly do?

Amir:

We have been in this for over 10 years, and we are basically the creators of the Todoist digital task management app, one of the most popular ones in the world, and then we have also started doing Twist, which is an asynchronous team communication app. So we have basically tried to make a mindful team communication app. That’s about it, and we’re also remote-first, so we have about 80 people spread in over 30 countries, and we have been operating like this since the beginning.

Jeroen:

Cool. I think the company all started with Todoist, and it’s also the name Doist, I suppose. Can you perhaps tell us a bit more about how that exactly started, like where exactly did the spark for Todoist happen and how did you start it?

Amir:

Sure. I started Todoist in my dorm room while I was studying computer science in Denmark, in Aarhus to be precise. Basically I didn’t have any ambitions of actually turning this into a company or a startup. I just wanted to create a tool for myself. A lot of developers have this dream, maybe not a dream, they just want to make a to-do list. Just that not so many dedicate so much time as I did, and also I’ve been doing this for 13 or 14 years now, so it’s a personal project, a personal to-do list, and there are probably millions of them on GitHub that has basically turned into a significant product, and also I have built a company around it.

Jeroen:

What were you making a to-do list for when you started building one? What were you exactly looking to put into your to-do list?

Amir:

Yeah, I mean, something I really wanted is kind of like a tool that could organize my working life. So I basically built this type of tool for that. I have completed like over 50,000 tasks on Todoist, and I basically use it to kind of organize my work in life. It’s basically a system for myself, and I know that a ton of other people use it like that.

Amir:

Basically, at some point, when you get very busy, you can’t really keep everything inside your head, and then I also really think you can do great work if you do that, so that’s why I wanted to create this system where I could basically put stuff in and not forget them. And also if I had different projects or different follow-ups, and stuff like that, or just emails, and anything I want to do, I add it to the system, and I can then organize it neatly.

Jeroen:

You were a student when you started Todoist. So I imagine you were putting what you had to study, things you had to get from the shop or similar to your Todoist then?

Amir:

Yeah, I mean, honestly, I was a student but I also had two part-time jobs, and then I was also starting another company as well, and then I also had some side projects as well. So I didn’t really have a work-life balance. I just had a ton of stuff to do and a lot of stuff to keep track of, so that’s basically why the need was there.

Jeroen:

Yeah, so you had a lot of things and you really needed a to-do list. Is there any methodology that you personally follow when going through to-dos? There are things like getting things done, for instance, in a methodology. Is there anything like that, that you follow?

Amir:

Honestly, I have created my own system, and I call it Systemist. It’s very similar to GTD. It’s just a lot simpler and maybe also more modern-like. GTD was made without smartphones in mind and stuff like that.

On the Todoist site, we actually have all of the productivity methods listed, and we have guides for them, and Systemist is one of them. GTD is another. If you’re actually looking for something, and I think this is actually much more critical than a to-do list, it’s kind of like having a system. I think having a personal system that can organize yourself is much more critical than actually the tool that you use.

Jeroen:

You mentioned that you started Todoist while you were a student, and you had a bunch of side jobs, and you were starting a company. How did Todoist, then, exactly grow, if you were doing all of these other things? How did you spread it and where did these first tens, hundreds, thousands of users come from?

Amir:

I have a very popular blog, so I was actually a big-time blogger at that point. So that’s where a majority of the early users came from, and I think I also submitted it to Digg. I’m not sure if you recall Digg, but that also got traction there, and I think also at some point a Lifehacker covered it, and Lifehacker was a pretty big deal at that point. That’s basically how the initial users came in. And then after that, I kind of forgot it for a few years, where it basically ran by itself, and of course, I worked on it during the weekends or nights, that kind of stuff, but it wasn’t my full-time job.

Jeroen:

But you didn’t forget about it really. You were just not really trying to grow it.

Amir:

Exactly, and if you also look at Google trends, it was basically dead for some time. The big growth actually began when I returned to it in 2011, and then I focused full-time on it.

Jeroen:

Again, when did you exactly start building Todoist? Which year?

Amir:

In 2007, yeah.

Jeroen:

2007. So you started in 2007. You got in Lifehacker also in 2007, or was that in 2008?

Amir:

I don’t actually recall. It was in the beginning. When I launched it, then I got some press, and I submitted some stuff.

Jeroen:

Yeah, and then about three, four years later, you started working on it again. Why was that?

Amir:

I was doing a social network. Like I was the CTO of a social network that actually grew pretty big, and it’s actually still running today, but back then we grew it to millions of users and in a short time span. Maybe in like six months to a year. And honestly, after working on a social network for some years, my heart was just not in it. I didn’t really feel very passionate for optimizing for wasting people’s time, and yeah, so I just wanted out of that and focusing on stuff that could actually add value to people’s lives, and help them create more time, stress less, and that’s something that, honestly, I don’t really feel very stressed in my work with.

Amir:

I feel like this. When you wake up in the morning you feel like, “Oh, shit, I need to work on this again.” Right now, I wake up every morning, and I’m very excited to work on this because I feel like we are making a difference and working on something that’s important. I didn’t really feel this way with the social network. I felt like, “Holy shit, servers are burning. We are optimizing the wrong things. We don’t have a business model.” You know, and then, “We need to raise money.”

Amir:

And it was a very, very bad situation, and I think maybe also, honestly, if I look back, I probably burned out in this social network role, as well. I was very close to kind of a huge burnout, I think.

Jeroen:

What was the name of the social network?

Amir:

It’s called Plurk. It’s still actually running. It’s actually still growing as well, but it’s growing in the Asia Pacific, and especially in the art scene. So the manga community in Japan, Taiwan and Korea, a lot of them are actually using that. I mean, it’s kind of like, it’s a bad story, but yeah.

Jeroen:

And you were working on Plurk, and at some point, you were like, “Okay, I cannot do this anymore.” And you saw Doist’s still there, and that it had grown, or how did that exactly happen? Why did you choose to go back and do Todoist?

Amir:

Actually, before I went and worked full-time on Todoist, I actually tried to start something else called Wedoist, which is basically a live tool, project management tool. I did that for maybe six months, and I got like zero traction, then it was like, “What the fuck am I doing?” I had this tool that, at that time, it had like hundreds of thousands of users. It actually had a business model. People were paying per month. I think it was three dollars per month, and there was a lot of excitement as well. I would get these huge emails from some fanatical users that would basically tell me what I needed to improve, and it was just like, “I don’t have time to read your PhD dissertation about what we need to do.”

Jeroen:

And then you said, “Okay, I’ll go for this.” You’ve now been building Todoist for nine more years, but also last year or the year before, you launched Twist in addition to Todoist. How did that exactly happen?

Amir:

Honestly, you know, our tactics are based on “we’ll build stuff for ourselves”. Also, some of the most active users on Todoist are actually Doist employees. So we care deeply about that, and Twist is kind of a very similar story. We were using Slack, and we were some of the early adopters of Slack, and Slack was amazing when it came out. It still is, I think, a very, very great product, but the model is just antihuman, I think. I think it’s very destructive for people, and the reason is there’s kind of this chit-chat, real-time communication, being connected all the time. We found this really, really hard because we were kind of this remote-first company, and basically given that we have so many time zones, I needed to be connected all the time to do my work.

Amir:

And it created a lot of stress for me, and this idea, like fear of missing out, so it was just like there must be a better tool than Slack for this. Let’s try to see what others have done, and then we looked at the market. Everybody was copying Slack, so there was no innovation, and nobody really questioned this absurd model of communication, and we were just like, “Okay, we are very strapped for resources. Is it really that smart to actually start our own team communication tool?”

Amir:

And then we were like, “This isn’t very smart.” If you read any kind of strategy post, nobody will recommend you to start another major tool if you haven’t really already saturated your current market with your current tool that you’re doing. But the problem for us was that we needed this kind of tool. We needed the tool to create the culture we actually wanted inside a company, and that’s why we basically went and did this.

Amir:

But honestly, I would not recommend this. Becoming a multi-product company is a huge challenge, especially if you’re not VC funded and you don’t have a lot of resources to spare. So far we have also invested probably millions, and we worked on this for four or five years now, and it’s still not a profitable product for us. It has been a huge investment from our side, but we feel very passionate about this and we feel kind of like the whole market right now is still just kind of copying Slack, like Microsoft Teams, and even this real-time communication. From our side, it’s kind of empty padding. I don’t think you create great work with it. I don’t really think you have happy people, because people can’t really disconnect, probably.

Amir:

Yeah, so we really want to challenge this, but it’s kind of an uphill battle.

Jeroen:

No, yeah. I actually had a guest on the show that you probably know, Jason Fried, who gave very similar comments as you are doing now, about how Slack by itself is a great product but it sort of pushes this new, always-on, distracting kind of flow, wherein you also can’t have really deep discussions. And it’s funny that this comes from two companies that are fully remote-first by design. Do you think this is something that has to do with it?

Amir:

Yeah. Honestly, we are huge fans of Basecamp and their work, and something that was just very puzzling is at some point we were already working a lot on Twist, and at some point they posted this post which was basically kind of like the problem we were solving. And we were just like, “Oh, wow, this isn’t only our problem, but it’s kind of a deeper problem.” And I think you really feel this problem when you are remote-first, and you are spread around timezones, or you actually want to enable people to work whenever or wherever. I think you will run into this problem if your baseline is real-time communication. So that’s maybe why both Basecamp and us have this problem.

Amir:

And also, why, for instance, Automattic, Buffer and GitLab are also all asynchronous first. You have asynchronous communication as the baseline. Yeah, but honestly, of course, this applies a lot to remote first. But I think for all companies this will actually be a huge advantage because you can basically enable people full freedom to plan their day as they like, and then also manage their energy. Yeah, so you know, our CTO, for instance, is a night owl, so he works a shift from 9:00 to 2:00 or 3:00 AM, and he has done this since the beginning, and this kind of remote-first asynchronous environment enables that.

Jeroen:

You mentioned that part of the team is working on Twist right now. How many FTEs of the total do I have to imagine?

Amir:

Initially, we only had a small startup-like scene. Maybe five or six people that actually worked on this, and then later we actually integrated this inside the whole organization. So we don’t actually have a dedicated team working on Twist, and we basically allocated resources. The whole way that we actually work is very different from any other company that I know of. So it’s kind of like we have our own system and also our own structure of how we actually do work.

Jeroen:

You guys are 60 people in total?

Amir:

We are actually 80 right now.

Jeroen:

80 people. And how many of those would you estimate work on Twist right now?

Amir:

It’s a good question. I mean, it depends. Maybe 10 per cycle and our cycles are like one month long, and we have different projects for each cycle, so maybe 10. Most of our resources are actually still put into Todoist because Todoist is much bigger than Twist right now.

Jeroen:

I see that on the website it has 230 people collaborating on Twist. That’s not bad, right? Why is it so hard to monetize exactly? Is it because it’s free first and then five euros a month if you want history?

Amir:

I think something you will note, it’s probably a recurring theme, is it’s easy to launch something right now but it’s very, very hard to get traction and build something that actually has a product-market fit. And I think the bar is just set very, very high. I doubt you could actually launch something like Todoist right now and actually get any traction, and maybe sell a lot of products. Especially team communication. If you want to get a whole team to commit to Twist, it needs to be a huge commitment, because you are basically changing all of the internal communication to be Twist. So the ask is pretty big.

Amir:

That means the quality and the future parity and robustness, and everything regarding the maturity of the product needs to be super high. Especially, like we are competing against companies like Microsoft, that has almost unlimited resources, and then Slack which is, I don’t know, a 20 billion dollar company that has thousands of people, and then we have our very small team working on this.

But even with that, I think also something that’s very challenging is that we are very, very differentiated from these real-time models. It’s asynchronous first, and I don’t think most people in the world know what asynchronous means or why it is important. So we also have a huge barrier there as well. It’s a very different product than the rest of them.

Jeroen:

Yeah, yeah. I definitely feel your pain with regards to dealing with huge giants and having to convince people to use you. We are in the CRM space and it’s a similar issue, I suppose. Switching to Twist, we are on Slack ourselves. I can definitely see the benefits as well, but it must not be an easy endeavour to do that, right?

Amir:

Yeah. I mean, you know, even when we did this internally, we switched from Slack to Twist. A lot of people were actually unhappy, because Slack is a very addictive product. One of the reasons why they have been so successful is they really optimized for addictiveness, and attention-grabbing. So when you remove that from an organization it’s basically like removing heroin from an addict. There were a bit of problems and we drove all the facts of that, but honestly, after a while, it’s a much more calm environment and much more sane environment. But, of course, it’s a huge, huge ask, and a huge commitment from a team when they actually do the switch.

Jeroen:

You also mentioned that you guys are fully bootstrapped, so working with your own resources and not raising any VC money. What’s the reason behind that? Why are you choosing this path versus the other one?

Amir:

With the social network, I was actually part of a venture-backed company, and I didn’t really like that environment at all, so that’s one reason. Another reason is that this is kind of like my life’s work, and I don’t really have an exit strategy, and something I like to say is my exit strategy’s my own death. That’s the commitment that I’m putting into this and the long term effects. I’m not really against them, like the Basecamp folks.

Amir:

I see that as a tool that you use at some point and you’re maybe forced to use at some point, but as long as I’m not really forced to use it I’m not going to do that. I will just optimize for long term sustainability, long term vision of the company. Really building something for the long term. That’s also one of the pillars. It’s not really going for an exit. For me, it would actually be a nightmare, kind of selling this and seeing somebody ruin it.

Amir:

It’s basically like somebody selling your child, and just, yeah, that’s kind of how I feel about this. Rationally and economically this may not be the best thing I could do, but it has worked well so far. I will just continue this journey.

Jeroen:

I suppose you have good revenues coming from Todoist that you can use to do good things, right?

Amir:

Yeah, yeah. I mean, yeah, honestly, we have never been limited by cash. I don’t think we are even right now limited by cash. Of course, with more money you could actually hire more people. But I think actually if you do that, if you solve problems by hiring more people, then you have more problems. You know, because more people usually equals more problems, and also something that we have felt ourselves is we had a huge slump period where we actually grew from maybe 20 to 50 people, and we actually got less productive because we just didn’t have the structures, the process in place, to actually make more people more productive.

Amir:

Yeah, so I definitely understand this notion that for me personally, I think it’s more about building strong teams, smaller teams, than hiring a lot of people.

Jeroen:

Yeah, I can definitely see that. Adding more people does not always increase productivity if you don’t handle it well or if you do it too fast. You mentioned that your exit strategy is your death, so that means you have an extremely long term vision because you’re not that old yet, right, with Doist. Could you share a bit more of where you see first, let’s say, task management, and then second collaboration? Sort of where you see that going? What is the future you are aiming yourself at with your role to apply the same?

Amir:

Yeah, that’s something I think that’s part of it. The core vision isn’t really what we can do in a few years, but what we can actually achieve in decades, and what are actually the hard problems that we are going to tackle. And honestly, I think for us what we want to do is we want to invent a better way to work, and maybe also to live as a side effect, and then basically create the processes and the tools that kind of enable this, and I think organization, both individual organization and team organization, are a core part of this, and that’s what we are going to tackle with Todoist.

Amir:

And then team communication, especially internal team communication is also a huge problem that we want to tackle as well, and then maybe later on we actually add some other stuff to Doist. For instance, knowledge sharing could also be a very critical thing to solve. That’s basically the core vision. It’s kind of like, “How do we actually invent a better way to work?” And that’s what we are aiming at, and that’s why it will probably take us maybe decades to actually achieve that.

Jeroen:

Yeah, especially with the world always changing, new sort of technology, new sort of devices, all of these kinds of things to which you need to adapt.

Amir:

Yeah, and also I think the way that we actually do work right now is highly inefficient. It’s highly outdated, most of it. A lot of the stuff we have is kind of from the factory era, and I don’t think really it applies to the work that we do now. I also think first we can use technology to empower people and I think this will be clear even in the near future where you could actually use machine learning and AI to actually empower people and help them out more than ever in maybe the history of humankind.

Amir:

You know, I think there’s a lot of opportunity here and I think also really hard problems as well, so that’s why we focus on the long term.

Jeroen:

Another hard problem there would probably be to stay around as a company, to always stay competitive, have the right modes in place versus competition. How do you exactly think about these things?

Amir:

That’s a great point, and honestly I think it’s really about investing in your people, because it’s all about the people you have. They’re kind of like the creators of the stuff that is to come. So something that we do, for instance, we have something called personal dues, which is basically like everybody inside the company can allocate a month to work on something that will actually increase their personal growth.

Amir:

And all of our core values, it’s kind of like, for instance, mastery is a core value. A lot of other companies, they kind of have these core values summed up, but actually our core values are things that are really ingrained in how we evaluate people, how we structure things, how we pay people as well. So mastery, becoming really good and constantly growing, that’s a really core value that we invest into.

Amir:

You know, if you think about it, we invest in like one month per year into personal growth for everyone, 80 people. I don’t think there’s many companies that do this, especially on our scale, and I can see us invest even more into this. I think it’s like basically creating an organization that forces people to grow and helps them to grow.

Jeroen:

Are you also doing this yourself, this personal growth month?

Amir:

Yeah, I am. Everybody needs to do it.

Jeroen:

What are you working on, if I may ask, of course, in terms of personal growth?

Amir:

Yeah. I have a personal due that’s basically like creating a quicker SDK for the app, because my passion other than product is development, and I really love to develop. So that’s why I basically do that. It might not actually be the smartest one, but personal due should also be something that you find fun to do, as well, so maybe doing this process I can also learn some new stuff, like the development that has happened in the last few years. There’s some changes there that I have not really been super aware of and I’m just interested to learn about.

Jeroen:

For your personal growth, you’re basically having fun being a developer again and sort of adapting to new things there and sharpening your skills, right?

Amir:

Exactly. Yeah.

Jeroen:

What is it exactly that you do on a daily basis?

Amir:

Honestly, I started as a developer, and development is my huge passion. I really love to do that. I think I stopped development a few months ago, and I’m still actually doing some of it because I still find this very not-stressful. If I actually want to de-stress, I pull up the editor and just do something. But right now what I actually spend a lot of my time on is maybe just learning stuff and reading actually, because inside a company we have actually very few meetings as well, given this asynchronous-first approach.

Amir:

This means I don’t really have a lot of meetings per week, and I have just basically a lot of free time, so of course, I help people out with providing my feedback as well, so writing is a big part of my work as well. And then also sometimes I do these posts where it’s like, last week, I basically did a post that aligned the company on the product vision for the next year, because I’m also a huge part of the product organization still, and soon we will hire a head of product that will help with this, but I’m still kind of acting as a head of product as well.

Amir:

That’s basically it. Product and a bit of development and a lot of learning and reading.

Jeroen:

What is it exactly that you read these days?

Amir:

Honestly, something that’s booming right now is kind of newsletters, and I actually follow some of them, but Ben Thompson with Stratechery. I’m unsure of how you pronounce his name, but I’ve been a huge fan of him.

Jeroen:

Stratechery, I think it’s called? I’m also not sure whether I’m saying it correctly.

Amir:

Yeah. I mean, why didn’t he pick an easier name? Yeah, and spelling that is even worse, but you know, he started this many years ago now, and honestly there’s a lot of those that are popping up. For instance, Benedict Evans. I’m not sure if you are aware of his, but he has also started a newsletter. He has actually had one for a while, but he’s starting a paid newsletter, and there’s a lot of great content there and very insightful stuff. Yeah, so that’s one thing.

Amir:

Another thing is kind of podcasts such as these. I think these are amazing. Just going into the head of people and learning stuff from some of the best people in the world. I find that also very, very insightful, and something I didn’t have access to when I started, so I’m pretty sure we will see some amazing founders right now because there’s so much content and so much knowledge available.

Jeroen:

Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Amir:

It completely wasn’t there before.

Jeroen:

Yeah, yeah.

Amir:

And so that’s it. Then maybe also books as well. I enjoy reading as well, and then articles. Just random articles that I find via Twitter by following smart people. That’s about it, yeah.

Jeroen:

Yeah, sounds good. You don’t have too much to worry about, it seems.

Amir:

You know, there’s always some worries, but my days, especially in a non-coronavirus period, are not really stressful, and I think also being busy and doing all of this busywork and stuff like that is just an anti-pattern. It’s much more critical to kind of work on high-impactful stuff than just try to fit in all the hours of the day with something.

Jeroen:

If anything would keep you up at night lately these days, what would that be?

Amir:

Honestly, I think the coronavirus situation, especially the economic situation, I’m very worried about that. And I’m not really worried about Doist per se, but just society as a whole. Yeah. I’m actually unsure where we are going, but it does not really look very good, so that’s something that I’m kind of very worried about.

Jeroen:

What are you especially worried about there?

Amir:

Honestly, if you look at history, a lot of times if you have economic problems, it usually results in leaders being elected that are very, very bad. So Hitler was a great example of this. I’m kind of worried, what comes after, for instance, Trump, or Putin, or whatever, when you actually have maybe millions of people starving, economies ruined. This won’t be, I think, the time where we’re actually going to make very rational decisions, and you can see this play out especially in the US, but I think this is coming everywhere, so that’s something that worries me a lot. Yeah.

Jeroen:

What worries me too is that there might not be something after Putin or after Trump. That’s maybe worrying too.

Amir:

Yeah, I mean, you also see a lot of leaders basically becoming like dictators. With China, with Russia, and Turkey as well, and maybe more countries will actually join this, and this usually isn’t very good. It’s very, very bad.

Jeroen:

Yeah, no, for sure. If powers are concentrated and people don’t need to please a lot of people to stay in power, then the situation doesn’t become better for the rest of us. On that note, you’re currently in Chile, you said. You studied in Denmark. Why is that you made the move from Denmark to Chile?

Amir:

Something to know as well: I have actually lived in many different parts of the world. I’ve lived in Taiwan, in Spain, in Portugal, and Chile is basically like, my wife is from Chile, and we have an apartment here, and we basically switched between Barcelona and Chile, or Santiago, Chile. Usually my base is actually in Barcelona, but sometimes we’re in Chile, and right now we are actually stuck in Chile, and we have been stuck here for some time now.

Jeroen:

You mentioned before we started this that Chile is in total lockdown right now. You cannot travel, either, to Spain?

Amir:

The thing is we could, but my wife wants to help her mom move to an apartment, so we are actually doing that and waiting for that to actually settle, and it was very hard to actually do that with a total lockdown, so yeah. But right now things are actually opening a bit up, so it’s looking better. At least you can kind of go outside and walk around outside.

Jeroen:

Yeah, that’s good.

Amir:

It’s much better than in the past.

Jeroen:

In a remote-first company, how is it to switch the place where you work? Like, instead of Spain, work in Chile, for a few months. What sort of effect does that have?

Amir:

That’s a great question, and honestly it’s very, very easy to do that. But something to know is I have actually found out I’m kind of a creature of habit. So I like to get my routines and get this daily routine going. So basically, when I relocate I need to recreate the routine. But usually, it’s not really that hard for me. Even in a remote-first setting, I almost always worked from external office, or like coworking spaces. It makes it much easier for me to kind of separate home and work.

Amir:

Basically what I do is when I go to a new location, I look for coworking spaces where I can work from.

Jeroen:

Are you working from a coworking space now?

Amir:

No, I mean, we have basically been stuck inside, so that’s also why I don’t really feel super productive in this kind of environment. Mentally, it’s also very hard for me, because I’d prefer to kind of have a clear separation between work and home.

Jeroen:

Got it. Cool. Now, we should slowly go into learnings. What is the latest good book you’ve read and why did you choose to read it?

Amir:

Oh, that’s a great question. Let me actually just bring this. Actually, right now, I’m reading a book by Matt Ridley, I think, and it’s called How Innovation Works, which I find very interesting. It’s basically stories of how innovation works, it’s not really tech-related and touches multiple stories. For instance the Wright Brothers, and how a lot of times you actually have many different creators of the same thing, and a lot of times when we give credit to only one person, behind them there are many co-inventors that have basically helped to create a thing. The same thing basically happened with flight, or with penicillin, or with the light bulb. It’s just not the creation of one person but kind of a collection of people that have inspired each other.

Amir:

And then maybe if you remove one of these persons, then another one will actually step into this, so it’s a very interesting thing. Especially for a technology person, I think it’s very critical to actually read something like that. I find that very interesting. I’ve still not read much. I think maybe I’m 20 or 30% in, but it’s very good so far.

Jeroen:

I’m checking it out on Goodreads. It looks like an interesting book. I put it on my want to read list. So yeah, it seems, it explains that innovation is not a simple from point A to point B process, but it takes a lot of funny turns. Right?

Amir:

Exactly, and I think he kind of questions the narrative that we are doing as a society, and he also explains why you actually have to have freedom and prosperity to actually foster innovation.

Jeroen:

Yeah. I mean, it’s very hard to also explain innovation in the right way. At the beginning of this talk, we discussed how you started Doist, and it seemed like a very simple – you wanted something, you built it – kind of process, but that’s probably not exactly how it happened. But if you would try to discuss that in all the little detail, then people would probably get bored. You would have an enormously long podcast. So yeah, it’s kind of normal that we start simplifying things, I guess.

Amir:

Yeah. I mean, something to know is we are storytellers, and we all like to compress everything into these stories, and a lot of the stories are kind of following the same style. And I love this: there’s a story, and then there’s the truth. And a lot of times we don’t really see the truth and all the complexity that is hidden behind everything.

Jeroen:

Are there any very significant things that you learned along the way with Doist? Or if I could phrase it differently, is there anything you wish you would’ve known when you started out with Doist?

Amir:

Honestly, I think something that I can really recommend to all the other founders is basically investing in your own learning, and maybe also be part of a community or connect to people that are maybe a bit longer than you on the journey. For me, for instance, what was a huge, just eye-opening thing, is joining Hacker News. And if you look on Hacker News, I was actually one of the first users there, and I kind of found a home, and especially Hacker News, in the beginning, it was actually really, really great.

Amir:

Right now, it’s kind of a bit toxic, maybe, because of all of the people that have joined since then. But initially, it was really quality stuff and you could learn a ton there, so I’ve always actually tried to find ways that can just accelerate my learning, and especially from others and being inspired as well. Knowing what’s possible and what isn’t. Right now, for instance, it’s kind of amazing. Podcasts such as yours, and many others, are just amazing because you can basically get many insights and peek into the heads of other people and get some super insights and be inspired by that. And the same thing is kind of like these news articles are popping up as well where some super smart people, investing a lot of time, are just sharing their secrets and their knowledge.

Amir:

Yeah, so for me, at least, that has been a superweapon and something I wish I actually started earlier, as well. But I was probably 20-something when I actually found out that you could actually learn a lot from others.

Jeroen:

Yeah. You mentioned that you’re listening to podcasts, you’re following these newsletters, reading books. But if you would have to look for a community right now, where would you go? A community of peers to learn from.

Amir:

Honestly, Twitter is amazing. I think it’s probably the best tech community right now there is. So at least for me, I get a lot of value from that, and maybe that’s where it would actually start.

Jeroen:

Cool. Final question. If you would have to leave the listeners with a piece of advice, anything you want to share with fellow SaaS and startup founders, what would you share with them?

Amir:

Yeah, I mean, I think that something in our community that’s kind of bad is this very hard focus or big focus on the short term aspects. Basically, raising money, building something and selling it, and I think there’s way too little focus on actually trying to build something over the long term and kind of seeing, “Okay, what would happen if I invest 10 or 20 years into this, or maybe 30 years? How would my thinking change based on that?” And maybe thinking in terms of decades instead of years or even months.

Amir:

Because I think it kind of changes a lot of the ambition that you can actually go after. How you structure your companies, how you run them, how you build them. Honestly, I think there’s way too little focus on this, and I think some of the biggest companies have actually built with this mindset in mind. If you look at some of the most critical companies that have had maybe most of the contribution, they are basically founder-led for decades, a lot of them. That’s something that I think is very critical for founders, and I would actually love to see this, and also I would love to see the European scene stepping up.

Amir:

You don’t need to be in Silicon Valley to create amazing things and you can also dream big while living in Europe. So I would love that we put Europe on the map and build some amazing companies there.

Jeroen:

Definitely. Well, thank you, Amir, again, for being on Founder Coffee. It was great to have you.

Amir:

Well, thank you a lot for having me here. It was some great questions and a great conversation and I hope people will get something out of this.


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