This month, we sat down with Justin Mitchell, the founder and CEO of the remote company Yac. Yac is an async voice messaging tool for remote teams. Our conversation focused on common misconceptions around async collaboration and how slowing down the pace of team communication can actually lead to more stuff getting done.
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Hello everyone, welcome back to the Twist Future of Work series, where today we are talking about the future of communication, and specifically asynchronous communication. If this is your first time tuning in for a Twist Future of Work episode, then this one is going to be very interesting for you. The idea behind the whole series is to feature leaders in the remote work community, who are building products and services that support the future of work. That is something we’re very passionate about here at Doist.
Today, I’ve got Justin Mitchell with me, who is the Founder of Yac. We’re going to dive into what Yac is all about. My name is Chase Warrington, I’m the Head of Remote here at Doist. If you’re unfamiliar with Doist, if you’ve come across this some way other than through the Doist blog, we are the company behind Todoist and Twist, and this is the Twist Future of Work series. We’re a fully distributed team of around 100 employees in 35 countries, spread across all timezones. We are very passionate about making remote work, work, at the highest possible level.
Today, I have Justin Mitchell with me here, who is going to talk to us about Yac. Let’s dive into it. Justin, do you want to do a quick, better introduction for yourself than I can do?
Sure, absolutely. I’m a serial entrepreneur who started as a small designer in a startup and worked my way up to having my own agency. Inside of our agency, we’d always been remote. We built Yac as a tool for our own agency to use. And, really saw a problem with our agency clients wanting to have meetings all the time, so we built Yac inside of that agency to scratch our own itch and solve that problem. So now, I’m the CEO of Yac, an asynchronous voice messaging tool for remote teams.
That’s funny. We have some interesting parallels there because we also built Twist to scratch our own itch as well, when we were not enjoying our experience on Slack. We needed something more asynchronous so we built Twist. It’s an interesting parallel.
Those are the products, the ones that scratch your own itch. Absolutely.
Yeah. That’s it, that’s it. Well, let’s tell the people who don’t know what Yac is, you guys are building something that’s picked up a lot of steam recently. It’s catching a lot of headlines. I’m in Yac, I’m enjoying it so I’m familiar with what it is. But, for someone who isn’t familiar, how do you describe Yac to them?
Yeah. The best way to describe it is what we’re doing right now, but not live. If there was a way for us to communicate, to talk, to have a conversation about a topic, a subject, a decision, a question, a plan and you couldn’t get two people on the call at the exact same time, or three, or four people, or five people on a call at the exact same time, how would you have that conversation? Today, that’s emails, and it’s Slack messages and it’s a lot of text. Text has its time and place, absolutely.
But, one thing that we found in remote was emotions flare and relationships are hard to build, and we really believe that voice is the key there. What we started to build was what an asynchronous meetings platform would be like. What would it be like to have a Zoom call, or a Google Meet call, but do it asynchronously instead of synchronously? That means using your voice, using your screen, all those tools that you use in a typical meeting. What would it look like if they weren’t live, at the same time, scheduled on a calendar, everybody has to show up, derail their day, stop what their working on, just for that 30 minutes to an hour.
That’s really what Yac is at its core, is a way to replace those synchronous, realtime meetings with something that still utilizes all those core aspects of voice, and screen sharing and sometimes video. But, not at the same time, asynchronously.
It’s such a cool concept. One of the things that I really love about the product is the transcription, that you actually have everything stored in the written form as well. You’re utilizing the voice form but you’re also leveraging the power of the documentation aspect, that everything is searchable and you can go back and find it later.
Nobody’s done voice messaging well. It’s a frustrating experience on most platforms. It’s funny, it’s one of those things that we talk about as a startup, with our messaging. Should we tell people that this is voice messaging? Because nobody has a good experience with voice messaging, it’s usually really awful.
The reason for that, a lot of times, is honestly the lack of a transcript because there’s no way for you to get an idea of what the message is about, what you’re getting into, before you start playing that message. That’s really, oddly enough, a psychological thing for a lot of people. They like to have a feeling of what they’re about to dive into, right before they dive into it. The transcript gives you that is this urgent, is it not, are they talking about me, are they not talking about me, what’s the subject matter just so you can align your brain before you hit that play button. Nobody else is really doing that.
And then, on top of that, what we typically see is that voice messaging is shoehorned into another product. It’s shoved inside of a text based product. What you see is most people skip the voice message because it seems like a waste of their time, they don’t want to listen. They feel like they could just be lazy and just text. We typically see in something like Slack, is that even if you add voice messages to this experience, most people just continue to go back and forth rapidly over text because they’re chatting back and forth, and it’s convenient and easy for them at the time. And selfishly, that’s what they want to do, even if the other person wants to communicate over a different medium. That’s why we’ve been very specific about building the best possible voice messaging experience inside of our app.
It’s really difficult, as a product or a service, whatever you’re doing, to be really good at everything. I’m always impressed with companies that find their niche and say, “We’re going to be awesome at this,” and not try to be everything to everyone. It seems like you have done that with voice async communication.
A lot of it has to do with that, for one thing, to make sure that we’re focusing our features. But, a lot of it also has to do with just trying to guide the user as much as possible. We don’t want to put features in front of them that we know they’ll just fall back on, because they’re the lazy, convenient features that they can use.
Inside of most chat apps, that’s just line by line, hitting enter, return, return, return, over and over again, to get your point across in these small, micro, blasting notifications. We wanted to build a way for you to have thoughtfulness in everything you say, and encourage the product to be a little bit slower. I think you guys at Twist obviously know this, this idea of slower, calmer communication. A lot of that has to do with UX and features. It starts as a mindset, but if you give somebody the opportunity to not do that, they will because it’s the easier thing for them to do.
Absolutely. What is it with asynchronous communication? Because this is a word that literally, if you Googled this a couple years ago, the search for it would be almost none. And now, it’s a word that people throw around as common language. We’ve made this transition now, we’ve come over this hump where people know what asynchronous communication is. If you’re watching this, you probably know what asynchronous communication is. But, why has this become so compelling and such a pivotal part of the way teams work?
It’s an interesting word for us. We talk all the time about are we even using the right word correctly, because no one really seems to know what the word means. Like you said, no one was even looking at this a year and a half ago. We struggle to even communicate what our product is because a lot of people go, “Well, I don’t even know what asynchronous means. What does that even mean?”
That’s because people don’t think about chat as synchronous, they think about it as chat. That’s what they’ve learned to label that experience as. As we try and educate the market on this other way of working, it has actually been difficult. You see this huge spike in people like, “Oh, asynchronous. That’s interesting. What is that? How do I get in on it?” Literally, a lot of our content strategy is just writing blogs about what is asynchronous, how do you go asynchronous, what does that mean for your org.
I think one of the biggest things is that mentality shift of an “it can wait” mentality. I think that’s really hard, especially for probably anyone under 30. There’s a generation that grew up on applications, and information and streaming that was available like that. I think, even cutting it off at a very specific age, a lot of people waited for Netflix DVDs to come in the mail. You wanted to see a movie, you had to wait for it to come in the mail. That same generation of people who were using Netflix may have arrived to the service just a couple years later and been able to watch a movie like that. It changes the way you think about your expectations around information and satisfaction.
Inside of a workplace, we’ve been trained for so many years that my time is valuable, and that means your time is not valuable because I expect you to bend to my time. A lot of that has to do with, again, those expectations around information. It has to do with, “Well, I’m impatient and I want to get my stuff done, and I don’t want to wait around.” A lot of it has to do with just productivity and the way teams are set up, so that there’s this snowball effect. “If I don’t get my information now, that means you don’t get information then, which means the third person down the line is not able to work and they’re sitting there with their hands tied.”
There’s all these things combined that you have to rewind all the way back to the beginning, and just tell someone to shift their mentality around how they think about information. You can wait, it is okay for you to wait. There’s so many structural things about work that changed this, too, just hiring practices. If everybody was so used to everybody being in an office every day, or at least inside of a 30 mile radius, and then suddenly someone is halfway across the world, that’s frustrating. That’s not exciting and empowering like it should be, it’s actually frustrating for most people. That’s because there’s that mentality shift that has to happen. It’s hard to get people to do that when we’re using gigantic words like asynchronous communication as the thing we’re trying to get you to shift over to.
There were some really good points to pull out there. I think one of them, I’m sure you have to answer this often, I know I do. When people talk about asynchronous communication, there is this embedded mindset that it’s slower and therefore, slower is bad. We’re used to instant gratification, you talk about the Netflix example. What do you say to someone who says asynchronous communication is slower?
It is. It is slower. I think the thing that I usually say is, “Is that bad?” Is being slow bad? I’m sure there’s a poster probably in my room right now that says, “Move fast and break things.” Actually, it’s over there, yeah. It says, “Move fast and break things,” that’s a well known startup phrase. I think the implication is that you’re not being successful if you’re not being fast. I think a lot of people attribute productivity to speed.
What we really think about, especially here at Yac, is just this idea of input versus output. We don’t really care what your input is, I don’t care how many hours you put in during the day. If anything, the only thing I care about is if you’re putting too many hours in and you’re overworking yourself. But, it’s not really about how much you’re working, or how fast you’re working. It’s really just about, “Did you get your stuff done?” If you’re really productive and you can get it done in a certain amount of time, where you can knock out one task today and one task tomorrow instead of one-fourth of four tasks in two days, you should work that way.
I think a lot of people misattribute productivity to speed. “Oh, they’re very productive because I saw a lot of stuff getting done.” What you typically see happen is that that stuff’s done sloppily and you have to redo it anyway. I think that there’s probably a bunch of parallels in general to different modes of transportation in life. There’s a top speed you can go on a highway before you’re just being reckless, and it’s dangerous and you’re going to end up in a hospital not your destination faster. I’ve heard this for years, I don’t actually know if it’s true or fact check, but I had heard that the speed limits are set to the actual lights so that going faster actually causes you to end up hitting more lights because you’re throwing off the flow of traffic. There is a point of diminishing return.
Sometimes, actually just going at a normalized pace is a more productive way of working. I think for all those naysayers that are like, “Well, that’s a slower way of working,” I’m like well no, it’s a more productive way of working. It’s a cleaner way of working, it’s a more accurate way of working. You have to use these others words. Where slow has this negative connotation to it, especially in startup culture, where I think if you start using these other words maybe they’ll say, “Oh, asynchronous is more thoughtful. Okay, now I understand the benefits of it.”
I love these words. These are the better words to connect to asynchronous. Because it is true, it’s the quality versus quantity thing as well. It’s not just about the frequency of communications, or the number of communications, the hours in the seat, it is about the quality of the output at the end. A lot of times, when you have a bit more time in a slower process, to process something, to think about it, and to dedicate some actual energy to it when you have that energy, the output is so much better than what you would get if you just have a quick second, just to make a decision, throw out the first answer that comes to mind. This is what often happens in a super synchronous environment, I think.
Yeah, absolutely. 100% agree.
I would be interested to pivot and I want to ask two questions at the same time, and hear your thought on these. I think a lot of people that are watching this are probably already Twist users. Or, maybe they’re Yac users. And now, they’re interested in both products. I’m interested to know, is Yac all that you guys run on, from a comms standpoint, or are there other tools in the suite? And as a part B to that, how do you marry these different tools together with Yac so that you get the best output for your team as a whole?
Yeah. I think that’s been one of the biggest things in our startup journey, just even as a product company or as our own internal team, is just what’s that stack look like and what are you solely reliable on. I think one of the things that we have done internally is, for me I’ve cut out synchronous meetings completely. I don’t have any Zoom calls at all. I work completely asynchronously with my dev team, I work completely asynchronously with my design team. That’s tasking, that’s feedback, that’s reviews, that’s questions, all of that is done over Yac.
And, we have Slack but if you look at … This always makes me smile a little bit. I’ll open up a conversation with one of my designers and I’ll realize that there’s no recent history for a week, or two weeks. Where there is, there’s two messages. I’m like, “Ah, that’s what I like to see.” There’s a huge contrast to, before Yac, which would have been a barrage of just an insane amount of text back and forth. That’s because we shifted that cognitive load, where that information is over to Yac as our asynchronous, main messaging source.
Instead, what we’ve found is Slack still exists but it’s used so infrequently that it’s no longer this chaotic mess of notifications that you have to deal with. It’s actually quite calm. But, that’s because we shifted all of our communication over to a tool that was purposefully calm. I think the same thing could be said about anything. A lot less emails are being thrown around. Obviously, a lot less calls are happening because we’re seeing that the communication is shifting into a different direction. You start to notice, “Oh wow, my notification overload, it’s not really there anymore. This is awesome.”
We’ve started using different types of tools. I actually use Todoist as my personal task management system. My wife and I do everything through Todoist. It’s how I’m reminded to feed my baby, at an interval. It just reminds me every three hours that I need to feed him and I get my satisfaction of checking it off as well. But, we have our stack of tools and Yac doesn’t necessarily eliminate those tools, it eliminates the chaos of those tools.
For us, we’re looking at can we eliminate calls, can we eliminate meetings, can we eliminate messages, can we eliminate emails. That’s really what we’re trying to achieve by having this in our tool stack.
It sounds like we take a very similar approach to meetings. People ask me all the time, “do you guys ever meet?” I say, “we do, occasionally, but it’s not the default. It’s not what we go to first.” There’s got to be a really good reason for a meeting. It’s sort of a last resort.
Yeah. They’re not, “Hey, can I get 15 minutes here, and 15 minutes here?” It’s if you’re going to have a meeting, this is the meeting. This is the important one. I’m not just stealing five minutes from your day, every couple days.
Yeah, exactly. Something I think is really interesting, and I think it’s a great way to tie this all up, is the why. I’d be interested to know your why behind building Yac, if it’s anything more than just for productivity’s sake. I gather it’s not and I find this really interesting. For us at Doist, it’s asynchronous communication and that being the cornerstone of how we communicate provides everybody on our team not just the ability to be the best version of themselves at the office, but it also gives us the chance to disconnect completely, without any guilt strings attached and go enjoy life elsewhere.
I know you have a busy life outside of being a founder and trying to run this company and launch this awesome product. I wonder if those things connect, or just more on a deeper level, what is the why for you with Yac?
Absolutely. I think you’re right, there’s a very large overlap there. I would say that productivity is very nice byproduct of our product and not at all the direct reason.
The why for us I think has to do with flexibility. I just wrote a little blog snippet today that with just talking about what are the main pillars of remote work. The three things that I came up with was work from anywhere, work any time and work whenever. Any amount of time, so as many hours in the day as you think you need to accomplish your thing, do it. I’m not going to dictate that you work eight hour days. Work from anywhere, so any location in the world, any spot in the world, whether it’s a coffee shop, or a coworking space, or your bedroom, or your porch, work from anywhere. And then, this concept of work any time. All three are so tied together.
Because if you can work from anywhere but you can’t work any time, all of a sudden, you can’t really work from anywhere because your life is miserable as soon as you move to a totally different timezone, and you have to wake up at a completely different time than your spouse, your family, the rest of the world, the mall, the restaurant because you’re working such a bonkers different schedule. So you have to work anytime. As a result of working anytime, you also have to get work any amount of time. Because if you’re not necessarily working a strict schedule, that means that the amount of time that you’re putting into your day is going to shift because it depends on what you’re doing throughout your day, and how you’ve set your day up.
For us, we look at remote work in general as flexibility. So I look at the stack of tools that are available for remote work and I go, “They’re not going to cut it.” None of these tools represent … Zoom, as a tool, does not fall into those three categories because it inherently means you have to work a certain amount of time, you have to be there for an hour, even if an hour is not what it’s for. You have to be there at that specific time, you have to show up and be there. And, it means that if that times falls out of your typical range, your typical availability, the timezone that you’re currently living in, you either miss out on that or you’re being crawled out of bed to be there.
For us, we wanted to build a tool that enabled the biggest thing that we saw companies doing, which was meetings. Meetings in general. So this is not necessarily about communication, productivity, coding, designing, whatever, all these other things. There’s so many other tools out there, Twist being one of them, that solves a lot of issues. Ours is very strictly for meetings. We wanted to eliminate the only main thing in your life that was purely tying you to a schedule, and those were calls and meetings. That is the thing that would restrict a company from hiring wherever they need to hire. Flexibility, being able to hire wherever you want to hire. A designer or a developer being able to live wherever they want to live, flexibility.
As soon as you eliminate the one thing that’s really tying you to your schedule, all of a sudden that flexibility as a startup, as a founder, as an employee, as a team member, all that stuff goes out the window and you live a little happier, you live a little bit more flexible. You aren’t inconveniencing your family by uprooting them and moving to a different city for a job. The commute that you had before goes away so you’re happier in the morning, you’re happier at the end of the day. You have more time with your family. It’s an explosion of opportunity. Yeah, for us it’s really not about productivity. It’s about lifestyle.
And, what that looks like in the future. I want companies to have the freedom and flexibility to hire wherever they want. And, I want team members to have the freedom and flexibility to live and work whenever and however they want.
What a beautiful why to have behind a really awesome product. Justin, this was great. Thank you so much for sharing a bit about Yac and all the great content you guys are putting out. We will link to all the right places at the end of this article and recording. But while we’ve got people’s attention, tell us where we can learn more about you and Yac.
Yeah. I am super available on Twitter and Yac, same handle, jmitch. Definitely hit me up on either of those spots, yac.com/jmitch. And then, Twitter, we are @Yac and we are yac.com, Y-A-C, yelling across cubicles. That was the original name for the company. Y-A-C.
That’s a great point. We didn’t get to that before, but that’s a great way to end this. I love it. Thank you so much, Justin, great to chat with you today. I really enjoyed it.
You, too, man.