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Chris Cardell

Interview with Alari Aho (Toggl)

Toggl is an online time tracking tool.

I interviewed Alari Aho, Toggl co-founder and CEO to find out more. This interview is the hundred and fifteenth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Alari!

How would you describe Toggl in under 50 words?

Toggl is a simple tool to help you easily track your time – work time, personal time, onsite, offsite. It is suitable for everyone, but works exceptionally well for teams.

Tell us more how Toggl is used.

There are two main reasons why people use Toggl: to easily get accurate time reports to send to clients, or to improve their own productivity by keeping track of where their day really goes.

The average workflow looks like this: you come to the office, you click ’start’ as you begin with something, enter a description and choose the project that you’re working on, then click ’stop’ when you’re done or take a break. Then continue this with one click.

Alternatively, you can always fill in the things you worked on at a later stage. Most people use a mixture of both.

Depending on the kind of detail they need, some users set up clients, projects and even tasks with time estimates. For others, a simple time entry description is sufficient.

To make tracking even easier, they use our simple interface on their laptop, phone or tablet and use the web to pull varying kinds of reports – Toggl syncing capabilities between devices makes this very easy.

Who uses Toggl?

Toggl is mostly used by so-called professional services companies. Bookkeepers, lawyers, PR consultants, software developers, graphic designers, business consultants, etc. There are even some university students who have told us that they find Toggl useful in tracking their studying habits. We also have a lot of productivity hackers who constantly measure and improve their time usage. Our user groups vary from freelancing individuals to large corporate teams.

Toggl was initially created for your own in-house use, because existing time-tracking software was far too complicated. What led you to launch Toggl as a product?

We’re in the same town where Skype was established. At that time we were still doing software consultancy gigs, we saw how massively a product can scale, we thought that we could try it ourselves. We just took an existing in-house tool we had made, and turned it into a product.

What challenges have you faced, and how have you overcome them?

I guess there isn’t a mistake that we haven’t made. Our start was quite slow, and coming from a software consultancy sector into making a cloud-based product meant that we had quite a steep learning curve. We have had a lot of technical issues, and product usability was initially a huge problem-child.

What is the startup scene like in Estonia?

The startup scene has become really vibrant back here in Estonia. It’s quite a closely knit bunch of people who openly share their experiences and help each other. The country has a good infrastructure for starting companies – it’s easy and not expensive to incorporate, you can get government grants for starting up, there are several incubators that support you with backoffice and mentoring. VC market is not so active, though, so most of the post-seed money-raising is done in the US and Europe.

How did you come up with the name, Toggl?

That’s a good one. I used a random name generator (NameStation) to jot down different name options. When the list was approx 20 names, I noticed that one name had appeared in-sequentially twice. It was Toggl.

What technologies have you used to build Toggl?

Toggl was originally based on Ruby on Rails. We started with version 1, and have worked with it since. Starting this year, most of the data-crunching in the backend is handled by Go, a new open source language by Google. Frontend is heavy on Javascript (Backbone.js, Coffeescript). We also utilize several new and cool features of HTML5 (offline storage), and websockets for realtime syncing between different devices. Database is handled by PostgreSQL and occasionally Redis.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing Toggl?

The application itself is nothing complicated. What made it challenging was our decision to support Toggl also on mobile devices and as a desktop application for Windows/MacOS/Linux. After trying out native clients we decided to stick with HTML5, and encapsulate a web interface into native applications. For mobile devices we use Phonegap, and for desktop we use Chromium.

How long did it take to put together Toggl?

The first version was launched in 3 months. This was 6 years ago. Since then we have rewritten it multiple times, and continue doing so to pursue speed, scalability and great usability.

Do you have any new features in the pipeline?

We have 2 main targets – mobile and integrations. We’re improving our mobile interface extensively to keep up with professionals who spend more and more time working on phones and tablets.

How did you decide on your pricing model?

We wanted to go freemium from the start. Getting a good pricing point has been an evolutionary process. The current pricing model is our third. We started out as being too low-priced, and the lesson learned here is that it’s always harder to increase your prices than lower them. So, when starting up, don’t be too shy in setting your prices.

What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?

Focus brings success. For the first couple of years Toggl was more of a side project for us. Only when we really started focusing on the product and decided to drop software consultancy gigs, we got traction. It’s all or nothing, you can’t build a successful product by trying to leverage your risks.

Where do you see Toggl in 5 years time?

Toggl is a synonym for time tracking in the New English Dictionary.

Has Toggl got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

We love user feedback, and try to encourage it in every way. It’s the most important source of our development decisions. Our growth keeps accelerating, but I still believe we’re only in the early stages of our story.

Who would you say is your biggest competitor?

There’s an internal joke that our biggest competitor is Microsoft Excel. Many of our new users have used some kind of spreadsheet with complex macros. There are a couple of cloud-based tools that we consider as competitors, but everybody is growing quite fast. It seems that the whole cloud sector is exploding and taking customers away from the old ways of business computing.

You are a mentor at Startup Wise Guys, an accelerator that provides seed funding and an intense mentorship program to early stage technology startups. What one piece of essential advice would you give to someone starting up?

Start now, find your customer, give them something of value. Do it fast. That’s it.

Do you think entrepreneurs are born or made?

You need a certain amount of stupidity and persistence to carry through. Most people fail because they give up too early. Other than that, every normal human being can be an entrepreneur. How can you do it?!

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

It’s so easy to keep chillin’ in your comfort zone. Getting out of it is a constant effort and is not easy at all.

Name 3 trends that excite you.

  • Clean energy
  • Commercial spaceflight
  • The way internet is changing how companies work

Which entrepreneurs do you most admire?

People who are not in it for the quick buck. Who value long term partnerships and care about the general environment they’re operating in.

Can you convince the reader to start using Toggl in under 50 words?

How often do you find yourself wondering what you spent your whole day doing? Any idea how long you really spend every morning replying to your emails? Try Toggl, it’s a real eye-opener.

Finished reading? Check out Toggl!

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 18th, 2012 at 11:49 pm GMT. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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