#26: Krister Haav/Toggl: How to Manage a Remotely Working Team
23 March 2017
00:00 00:00 CC Download
“Stop thinking in local market terms and start thinking in global terms.”

From today’s episode you’ll learn:

Today's guest

Krister Haav
Krister Haav is a co-founder and Product Leader at Toggl. Krister has no programming background whatsoever, which is why he’s so good at bossing the rest of his team. He’s a passionate scuba diver and reports once seeing his hand in front of his face while diving in the murky Baltic Sea.

Podcast transcript

Hello guys, it’s Justyna, LiveChat Content Writer, and you’re listening to Business Sidekick, a podcast dedicated to growing your business and guiding you through en eCommerce jungle!

My today’s guest is Krister Haav, a co-founder of Toggl. Since the majority of the Toggl team works remotely from across the globe, Krister’s job is to oversees everything from development to onboarding and marketing. He’s also responsible to hire people and deal with all problems that remote working can cause.

So, in today’s episode you’ll learn everything about remote working, about its pros and cons and we’ll try to dispel some myths.


Hello Krister, it’s nice to meet you, can you just tell me something about yourself and your role at Toggle?

Well I will start with Toggle first because it’s a bit more interesting.

Oh come on!

Yeah. Well, Toggle is actually a pretty old company now, because we actually started out way back in 2000, but we started out with a different company back then. It was a company for providing services for different companies around Estonia, and of course that meant that we had a lot of clients, we had a lot of projects and so on and well it wasn’t so easy going, so we needed to be more productive and so we started next looking around for a good time tracker. And there wasn’t any.

So of course us being a software company, we built our own. So that meant we were happily tracking the time, and then some of our clients came back to us, and said hey there are really cool reports you have there. Can we have these as well?

And we said “no,” because it was a very bad tool at the time, it was some Windows desktop application and it was crashing all the time and so on, but we said to ourselves that we haven’t been like thinking of having a product for us for a long time now, so maybe we should just build one because there seems to be interest.

And so the Toggle was born in year 2006. So it’s already 10 years old. But back then it was actually rather like a homing project. We still had our own clients, we had our own projects, we had all the resources dedicated for like, well earning money.

Toggle itself wasn’t very successful back then because it only had like, I think 2-3 thousand paying users or something like that but it wasn’t also unsuccessful to just kill it off. So we were just like muddling along and then in the year 2008, when the big banking recession kicked in, unfortunately that meant that our consultancy business lost pretty much all the revenue that was there.

So we lost 50% of revenue overnight, and so we had to do something. We had like people sitting in the office doing nothing, so we thought that, you know, let’s just well develop this more, and that is what we actually called the birthday of Toggle which is like early 2009, and from that year we actually have been growing, well 3 times a year pretty much every year and it seems that we actually hit the hit right.

And since 2012 we actually ditched all the other projects we had. From that onwards we had been just pure product company and that is what we are now. Its 2017 and we have got, well in last accounts we have got close to 300 thousand daily active users and well, we have got more than 50 people working for the company, and yeah almost, no, it’s more than half of these are actually working remotely!

I’m wondering who needs a time tracker. People who work remotely?

Who needs a time tracker? That is actually a very good question. That is the one we had asked many times over the years, but actually if we look at ourselves we were actually the prime suspect, because we as a company when we started we were the people who were dealing with all kinds of other clients and projects, so obviously we needed to know where the times goes.

So actually Toggles kind of sweet spot is either companies or well professional consultants who need to keep track of the time. So it doesn’t need to be a remote company at all because we have for example we have a couple of very big, I think accounting companies that are mostly like you said, they are using it in mostly one location but these are more like totally small for people who need to hand alt either reports at the end of well weeks, months or to know if they are productive enough to be profitable and that means that it’s mostly like companies or freelancers, but there are actually also quite many people who are just like using it for the personal purposes.

For example there was one guy who was building a house by himself, and he track his time to see how much will it take.


Yeah that is interesting.

Yeah it is. Okay so maybe before we get to the benefits of remote working, how about dispelling some myths? The myth number one is that remote working means that the productivity of your employees will decrease, and I wonder what can you tell about it?

This is actually a pretty hard question because I think this goes actually down to the very person, because some people actually strive in office environment.

They like to interact with people all the time. They like the water cooler talks. They like to see other people’s faces and so on. On the other hand some people actually feel that they can’t get any work done in the office. They prefer for example coming to the office in the early hours, because no one is there and they can get a lot of work done or staying late, late night shifts yet again to have all the work done. So it depends.

So I would say that the people who are very relaxed about the working ethic and well don’t like the word job too much. I think for them the productivity decreases when they go remote, because there are very many things you could do instead of working, but if you are on with a very strong ethic, work ethic and you really want to get things done, than actually being remote helps to really focus on things, and really focus on what you are working on and to get really good results.

So it really depends on the personality of the person, and the other thing is that if your job needs very much like communication with people who are, well basically in the office, then I would say you would probably be better off in the office but for example, well software developers because we know them very well, social developers are actually prime candidates for being remote because they can really zone off and write some beautiful code, and really be productive when the project manager is not like creeping over the shoulder all the time.

That’s true and yeah the funny fact is that if you want to slack around then it doesn’t matter if you are working remotely or in the office right?

Yeah exactly.

Yeah and another myth that I hear very often is that remote workers are out of contact, and it’s not possible or its very difficult to build a team spirit and we know how team spirit is important for a company’s culture, so what about the team spirit?

That one actually I believe is not a myth.

I believe this is a serious issue and this is one of the best issues we are facing actually ourselves, because we think that working in Toggle is actually kind of like a close knit community, so we really want to get along with each other and really work towards the same goal, but that also means we have to kind of share the same culture so to speak and it’s really hard to do that remotely, but how we do that is that whenever we get a person working with us, we will definitely the first thing we try to get them over to the main office and have at least a week here, and just drag him or her around the bars and have some cool extra work activities.

For example, last week our guys went for track biking with the new person, and that actually can go like long way to actually fuse the new people into the team, but the other thing is that it doesn’t actually end there.

Another thing that we try to do all the time is we try to be very communicative. We are using Slack and different channels and besides the team ones there are also like general ones. So there is always a chatter going on there and some fun channels I look forward to, and movies and so on. So it actually helps to share all kinds of information and insights which are not work related.

So this is kind of what I said earlier, kind of like a water cooler talks but these are like a virtual water cooler talks, and I believe that these are really important to actually get everyone well thinking the same.


And it helps really with the company culture but the other thing is that we always do, we actually have two companywide get-together’s each year.

So we have one actually coming up in April now, and there is another one coming up in October. The April one will be held in Lisbon in Portugal. In October everyone will be back here in Tallinn office and there are also smaller kind of team meet ups so there are either one team only flying out somewhere, having some kind of weeklong coding or marketing session whatever, whatever they have there or they can be kind of like inter team meetups, because there are sometimes really cool stuff happening there.

For example if you have seen we have this really cool startup unicorn game. If you haven’t, check it out it’s on our website as well. And this was done by our front-end and marketing teams over the week long team meetup and that was a really successful thing.

So yeah it needs a lot of work. It’s probably not cheap either, because the plane tickets still cost money, but it’s not as expensive either. So I think it’s really good and it really helps because people want to work for us and they want to stay with us. I think this is good.

The funny thing is that you are talking about the budget, because I was to ask you about it because one of the myths is that it’s cheaper to have a remote team.

Yes and no. But I think that even before we start talking about the money issues, I would actually touch first the kind of like people issue because I don’t know how it’s in bigger countries, but I think it’s probably the same, but here in Estonia the IT sector is actually really booming. And that means that all the kind of developers who are, well capable of programming something, they have been already set up and that means that all the salaries and stuff going on. On the other hand that means that there is a shortage of skills.

So for us it was actually really tough when we started growing, because we needed more people, we needed good people and there weren’t any on our market. So what we did actually, we started doing the tests and we actually started doing them globally. And that’s really working because right now I think there are like some 16 different countries represented in Toggle.



That is something.


Maybe let’s talk about the benefits from old working. So as I hear one of the benefits is that you can work with really talented passionate people from around the world right. What are other benefits?

Well from the company standpoint there is a saying that the biggest one was that we actually both free from the confines of our very small markets, and that meant that we are actually not like hiring among one million persons, we are a hiring among 7 billion persons.

So that means that we have a lot more options to choose from, and we have really cool people actually. So this is like from the company standpoint.

From the employee’s standpoint or the other people, I would say that you say to the first one, which is cool and talented people but also a lot of traveling because as I said earlier there will always be a lot of traveling because we need to get the people together, but also we are sending them out to conferences and workshops and so on because they still need to learn and be even more cool persons in the future.

Also you can work with different cultures because I think people, well European working cultures probably well somewhat like more south divided. So I think that the southern people are really interested to see how the northern people work and so on, also people from different continents and yeah in some places, well just like the salaries we are offering are also like global salaries. In some places these are very good salaries for their own local market.

So there are many positives I would say.

Okay so I’m wondering how do you hire people to work for you? Is it very difficult?

Well this is a very good question.

Well actually, we have been hiring as I said we have been around since 2000, so that means that we have been hiring a lot of people and first it was very traditional. So you just go to a CV site and scan the CV’s and then send in some emails and then be very frustrated when there is no reply, and then get someone and call them to an interview and then it turns out they are just totally unsuitable for you and so on.

So it was very hard and we actually, I don’t know we scan through I think thousands of CV’s and so on but the kind of return was very poor, and then we thought that why not do it a bit more clever way. So we actually clobbered together some kind of a very cruel test and put it up in the web and advertised this in our Facebook page, and we actually got one guy.

A very good front-end programmer who is actually still working for us and he actually came along and we said hey this is so cool, this is so easy. So we actually started using this test and online tests and we started improving up on it, and now actually we have hired over 20 people with this test. Mostly it will be persons but also from Estonia and we haven’t actually seen a CV since.

Oh, good for you!

And actually what might be a bit of interesting news is that we actually just spun out this tool from Toggle, and we actually launched it as a new product which is called Hunted Fire and it will be live in the end of April.

It’s a tool that helps to hire people right?

Yes exactly.

Wow that’s so interesting.

Yeah and mostly remote people actually.

Yeah and how about people that can’t do tests, like for example content writers let’s say?

We actually have had content writers test as well.

You did? Oh my god I’m dying to see it.

I don’t know if we have one up right now but we have had one at least, I think even 2 but the thing is that in most of the time what you want to know is does the person actually have brains, can they answer some logic or some kind of like broad questions within a pretty tight time frame, and then of course we check also the kind of portfolios but only if they cross the threshold on the generic questions.

So that is actually the beauty of this online testing, is that you are not checking everyone in detail but you are only checking the persons who will cross the threshold. So the persons are different for each test and each position, but there is always the thing that what we want to do, is we want to actually eliminate the 95% of the persons who are not really capable of doing that, and we will only deal in person then with the people who are promising.

How do you check mindset of those people? Because you know, your clients can have great skills but they may not be a good fit for your company, and you know when you are working remotely you need discipline, a good organization of job, motivation I guess. So how do you check it?

This is actually rather easy because as I said that we are only checking very few people who will actually pass the test.

The next hurdle for them is actually an interview with the team lead and most probably someone from the management side as well, but then we actually want to see them face to face. See how they react to maybe provocative questions, how they are communicating, how they are talking and so on and if that test or well meeting goes well we actually offer them a test job, which is a paid job.

Mostly if it is a developer, one week of development issues we will just stay for that week. If its monitoring person for example there might be a couple of days working on some kind of small project, and trying to come up with text or I don’t know, Google Ad stuff or whatever we need at this point but the thing is that we let them do something that we actually need.

This is not virtual, this is really needed stuff and they are working on actual tasks for us and then the team lead will definitely have a look most of the time when we are dealing with developers. Also the developers will have a look because it’s very easy to check it out because if you see the full requests and then you can go over the code, and so on.

And that will actually tell you if the person is, well as you said, they need a very good work discipline, they need a very good work ethics and they also need to have a good communication skills because they are remote. You can actually see that very clearly with this one week test job.

Awesome and okay, when you have your team how is it possible to keep it all together running smoothly?

It’s easier to actually think in small bits. So it’s easy to actually make work one team smoothly because they are smaller, and then you can when the one team is working smoothly you can then start like putting them together with other teams.

But I think that as I said before, and these kind of water cooler talks and stuff like these are very good things to have, and we actually have one, I think really cool initiative in the company, on every Thursday at 4 o’clock in half an hour, we will have this kind of like presentation or a dialogue kind of a video conference.

There will be different persons every week talking and they mostly talking about stuff they have done or about themselves, or about their hobbies or something like that which is totally different than the things they do at work every day, and that means that the older people can actually get to know them better and there has actually been actually a lot of people who have found, kind of like similar minded people from the team working for example in other teams as well and I think this works great.

It sounds like a lovely idea as well but what if it happens that you have an introvert?

Well we do have these ones as well.

These ones.

Yeah Estonians are very, well most of them are notoriously introverted as well, well all the kind of Nordic people are, but they still have something. For example one of our finish guys he actually had a talk about the dog shows, because he is actually attending the dog shows because he has a dog as well so he attends them and so on. So it’s interesting to hear about that. One other guy was also quiet introverted, he actually had a talk about team development and how do you develop games, and how you can market the games and so on.

So it’s rather interesting because there are many different people working in Toggle, and it’s actually interesting how different their hope is or.

And okay one of the last questions because we have been talking for almost half of hour. Can you tell me which apps do you use that can help you to manage your team?

Well yes Slack for the inter-team communication, which is very important. There are already like several conversations ongoing that demand my attention.

We are actually using Google Docs a lot because we actually generate quite a lot of documents and stuff we don’t want to put into accounts, so we just share them in docs. We also use calendars like Google Calendar to sort out the meetings.

We also use Team Week this that and other products of ours. And that’s actually if you go to it’s for planning kind of like, we call it helicopter view planning and its helping to plan your team members tasks for longer time. It’s not really detailed but it’s more like someone is working on this project for next couple of weeks, and then they will switch to another project for 3 weeks and so on.

So it’s kind of like a very broad planning tool and we also use Trello a lot because well Trello is a very good place to put the very generic ideas, and for brainstorming and of course because we are a product company or developing company. So we use a lot.

Awesome. Alright so the last question. Can you just share your thoughts about remote working and the most important things that in your opinion our listeners should know?

I think the most important thing for company owners or people who are seeking employees is too actually as I said, is to stop thinking in local market terms and more like I think global terms, and that means you will get a lot more people.

Of course it doesn’t mean that you can’t do this kind of CV based hiring, because that doesn’t work but as I said before we have a new product called Hired Fire that’s coming up, and you can actually do these tests like we have done for 3 years now very successfully.

From the employee's standpoint I would say that well we have actually covered most of the points, but I think for like working for companies in different companies is actually very refreshing. You will really learn a lot about the different cultures.

You will meet with very different people and I think that these actually help to perform better in the future as well.

Well thank you very much then and thanks for the chat.

Yes thank you.

That’s all in today’s Business Sidekick, I hope that you know much more about hiring and managing a remote team! The next episode will be published next week, but in the meantime you can check other Business Sidekick episodes on Don’t forget to give me 5 stars if you like this show.

Take care, bye bye.

#Business Psychology


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