A network of far-flung employees wasn’t what Amir Salihefendic had in mind when he created Todoist more than eight years ago.
Salihefendic, who fled Bosnia when he was six years old, was just a college student in Denmark when he designed the to-do list manager, primarily for his own use. When he decided to work on it full-time a few years later, he realized he needed employees, and couldn’t afford to be picky about their locale.
Today, Doist—that’s the official company name—employs more than 40 people in more than 20 countries: Belarus, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Spain, and elsewhere—including five who work in the U.S. at least part of the time. This team serves more than one million active Todoist users. Through optional subscriptions, it has remained profitable from the beginning without any venture capital, and is adding roughly 10,000 new registered users every day.
The experience has turned Salihefendic into something of a remote-work evangelist. He’s hardly alone—companies like WordPress creator Automattic and Buffer have been preaching the benefits of distributed workforces for years—but what’s interesting about Doist is the extent to which it’s powered by its own self interests. It’s a distributed workforce making tools for remote workers, drawing on everything it learns in the process.
Salihefendic is talking to me via Skype from an office space in Porto, Portugal, where he and his wife-to-be decided to move a couple years ago. Nine of Doist’s employees list Portugal as home—Salihefendic fell in love with the country during a visit—so having an office makes sense. But no one is required to be on the premises.
Doist’s distributed workforce arose largely out of necessity, Salihefendic says. He’d been working from Taiwan on the social network Plurk, when on a whim he applied for a grant from a startup accelerator in Chile. He packed up and moved upon acceptance, and Todoist, which had been on the backburner since 2008, became his focus once again. Salihefendic started hiring remotely while building the app’s first mobile versions.
Doist’s first employees were recommendations from Salihefendic’s accelerator colleagues. To build the workforce further, Doist used “guerrilla tactics,” he says, recruiting through forums like Hacker News, Github, and Reddit—at least until the company was large enough to attract applicants directly.
“It’s not like I can go out and hire great Android developers in Santiago,” Salihefendic says. “There were probably some, but I could not find them.”
Salihefendic quickly figured out that a remote workforce had other virtues. He estimates that his employee costs are a half to a third what they would be in a tech hub such as San Francisco—not counting savings on office space and other overheads—and he doesn’t have to worry about tech giants like Facebook and Google stealing his best employees.
“It’s not only about expenses, it’s also about talent,” Salihefendic says. “If you go to San Francisco, you’re competing against companies that have a lot of millions in investment.”
Perhaps the greatest benefit, however, is that Doist was able to grow on its own schedule, learning how to build a remote company as it went along. By comparison, Salihefendic seems wary of Silicon Valley funding, and the pressure it puts on companies to rapidly staff up.
“This kind of thing forces you to grow really fast without having time to really build a team, build a culture, build a process,” he says.
Much of Doist’s process doesn’t sound drastically different from what’s being preached by other remote-work evangelists. The company’s screening for new hires, for instance, involves a test project to see how well the candidate works independently. Employee perks include an offer to pay for co-working space and the occasional team meet-up. Salihefendic also stresses the need for written communication and an emphasis on achieving specific goals over time. In other words, employers must go all-in with a remote-work mindset, otherwise they’ll fail.
But in building a remote company over many years, Salihefendic has also started thinking that the tools are incomplete, and that Doist can build better ones as it grows. Todoist itself has already been part of that process, as the company adapts it to the needs of its own employees.
When it came to supporting different languages, for instance, Doist’s job was made easier by having a financial manager in China, who helped deal with the complexities of date parsing. “For a normal company, I don’t think you would focus on implementing Chinese date parsing, and spending a ton of time on improving and using and testing it, but for us it’s just natural,” Salihefendic says.
More broadly, Salihefendic believes a product stands a better chance of resonating with a global workforce when it’s created by people around the world. He points out that Doist has a designer in Taiwan, who provides a different perspective on design than someone in Europe. “In the current world, the product that we need to build has to target the whole world, and not only white rich people,” he says.
Beyond just its to-do list product, Doist is working on something completely new, borne from its own experience as a distributed workforce. Salihefendic describes it as somewhat similar to Slack—which the company already uses—but with an emphasis on threaded communications. It’s in early alpha, but the plan is to eventually release it publicly. Not unlike Todoist in its dorm room days, it could be another self-serving tool that ends up being useful to millions.
“We are doing this communication app, and we are using it inside our team, and we can evolve it and fit it to our structure,” Salihefendic says. “And the same thing with Todoist: We can develop stuff that solves our needs, and maybe in the end will solve the needs of other remote companies as well.”
While remote work has plenty of success stories, most of them have head counts in the dozens, not hundreds or thousands. There’s not a lot of proof that a massive organization can have a fully distributed workforce. Salihefendic wants to try.
“I can’t really see why you should not be able to scale to thousands of people,” Salihefendic says. “One of the things we want to do as a company is create tools that enable remote work. You will see a lot of innovation in the tools that we have access to that enable us to communicate, share thoughts, and organize thoughts inside huge remote organizations.”