Miro’s Andrey Khusid on the art of distributed teamwork

The co-founder and CEO of Miro rarely does interviews but he agreed to chat with us about the future of distributed teamwork and the challenge of scaling a business across continents and timezones.

Andrey Khusid, founder and CEO of Miro, hasn’t done many interviews. In fact this is his first podcast appearance, so we were delighted late last year when he agreed to join us in the studio. We chatted about the company’s evolution from RealtimeBoard, a tool beloved by the UX community, to Miro – a rapidly growing SaaS innovator that boasts Dell, Netflix, Ikea, and Spotify amongst their steadily growing roster of clients.

The idea of a virtual whiteboard is so simple that even the least technologically literate amongst us could likely understand the concept. But what happens when you take away the constraints of an actual whiteboard – the location, the space, and the time? Andrey and his team are finding out. So too are teams of every discipline across the globe who are embracing Miro as a collaborative tool unlike any other – a vast canvas for them to create and share ideas.

Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. In 2011, Forbes Magazine called RealtimeBoard (Miro’s previous iteration) “a virtual whiteboard on steroids”. We chatted to Andrey about this description to see if the shoe still fits today.
  2. Miro has made the move from product to platform. In our discussion we unpack what this means for them as a company and for their customers.
  3. Like numerous users, I first became aware of Miro via a consultant and this channel has been really important to their growth story. Andrey explains why embracing the professional services sector in a unique way has paid dividends.
  4. Miro offers a completely blank and potentially vast canvas – but what about the users who aren’t used to operating in such an unconstrained environment?
  5. In order to understand the challenges of distributed teamwork the company operates out of four locations. We hear how sharing the pain that your customers experience is key to understanding it.

If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

A virtual whiteboard on steroids

John Collins: Andrey, we’re delighted to have you on the podcast today.  Can you give us a bit of background on yourself and your experience and how you came to found the company?

Andrey Khusid: Thanks for inviting me. My co-founder and I were running a design agency and we noticed a persistent problem in communicating ideas to remote clients. So we thought, surely there is a solution here? Maybe we can create something like a whiteboard but online. And that’s the idea we started with – at that time it was called RealtimeBoard and it became Miro just 6 months ago.

John: Why the switch of name from RealtimeBoard to Miro?

Andrey: That’s a great question. We wanted our brand to be not just a company name but a “love mark” to accelerate our word of mouth growth. So Miro is a famous Spanish artist who inspired us. His paintings have different shapes with very bright colors and we found that our boards developed in kind of the same style. We see every user or creator as an artist and their boards as their unique canvases. So we wanted to bring a little bit of art into the day-to-day job of each person who uses our product.

John: And of course when miro.com is available, I suppose that also helps if you’re thinking about changing the name.

“There are so many types of people who can benefit from a whiteboard in real time and in real life”

Andrey: Well actually, we bought this domain so it was not available at the time. We bought it from another company which was quite a difficult process. But it was great when we finally got the chance to have it. For us, it’s great – people love it. Especially those who are in design, product management, etc. These types of people totally understand the change and are inspired by the company and the product now.

John: Is that where you initially found traction with designers and product teams?

Andrey: So there were several groups of users who initially started to use our products. Designers are a good example of those and product managers. We also see other people who use whiteboards on a regular basis: scrum masters, job coaches, project managers, program managers, strategists. There are so many types of people who can benefit from a whiteboard in real time and in real life. So once they start working with someone who isn’t co-located with them it’s natural to move to a tool online. That’s where we come in and become helpful for those teams.

John: It was Forbes – back when you launched in 2011 – who called Realtime Board “a virtual whiteboard on steroids”. Do you think that description still fits?

Andrey: Absolutely. The only thing I would add now is that we are an “online whiteboarding platform on steroids”. We think about ourselves not just as a whiteboard but as a whiteboard and a platform. We switched recently from product to platform and we want to double down on that. So every user, every customer can extend the functionality of the product over the platform that we provide.

The journey from product to platform

John: That’s quite interesting. Are you building integrations yourselves? Are you opening up to partners? How have you made that switch from product to platform?

Andrey: We’ve built a lot of integrations ourselves. The core integrations, that people use a lot like JIRA, Slack, Confluence, we built and we want other people to build the integrations they need. One approach we have is that we provide the API for integration. But it’s not the only thing, there are other things that you can do with our platform. For example, you can embed Miro into any other product. So you can bring our whiteboard into whatever product you need for productivity, or learning, or collaboration. You can also build plugins and extensions for the core product. All of this allows you to shape the product the way your company wants to use it.

John: We’ve talked about this a lot in the past and last year we even had a compilation episode bringing together all those discussions on moving from product to platform. So what was the spur for you to make that move? Because I think everyone talks about platforms but to actually do it properly – and it sounds like you guys are really invested in it – it is a big investment. What really spurred you on to do it or how did you know the time was right?

Andrey: There are several reasons why we think our platform makes a lot of sense for our customers and users. We want them to tailor their experience in the way they need. To do that they need some functionality and flexibility in our product in order for them to shape it in the way that they need. So we decided not to build everything ourselves but to make sure that people can build and extend our product and also we’re not just thinking about a developer platform. We also think about community and consultants and professional services as an ecosystem around our product. So our platform is also built for them to use. We recently released a directory where our customers can find professionals who already work with Miro and who also can help them to build the best processes in job development, in design thinking etc. So the platform is beyond them, beyond being just about developers. It’s more akin to an ecosystem that we want to build around our company.

John: So it’s not just a case of purely integrations? It’s partners who have an interesting way or very developed ways of using Miro – you’re also exposing them to the community?

Andrey: Exactly. So we want to foster a community. We want to have a community of people in professional services and consultants on top of our core products and we see ourselves as building an ecosystem that can help people to connect and get value out of our product.

“When you’re designing your product, you can’t imagine what problems people will have and how creative they can be in solving those problems”

John: Have you been surprised at any of the directions people have taken the product in, or the integrations that they’ve asked for or built for themselves?

Andrey: Oh sure. We launched the platform in private beta several months back, but we’ve already seen 200 private plugins that are built on our platform and companies are using them. So it was a surprise to see how quickly it started to ramp up. Also, when you are creating CSM plugins and you’re designing your product, you can’t imagine what problems people will have and how creative they can be in solving those problems. So we’re really inspired by some of those examples that will reshape our thinking around how our platform can evolve.

John: Is that a challenge for a founder? I mean obviously you’ve controlled the development of the product and the direction it’s gone in, but suddenly when you move to this platform play, it can go anywhere and you’re no longer as much in control as you were in the past.

Andrey: That’s true from one end. But there are two different dimensions. Currently all plugins are in private mode. This means they are used internally only by those companies that develop them, so it’s quite low-key. This mean companies can develop whatever they need and then we can add some of those into our public marketplace but it will be curated by us at Miro. When this happens we can pick things that are most relevant to our audience use cases. Ultimately, when something is developed for a company to use for private purposes, they can do whatever they need! We see a lot of those cases.

John: It’s quite interesting that you mentioned the professional services model because that was my experience with RealtimeBoard as it was two years ago. We were working with a WordPress agency and they were using it to share user research with us and suddenly we realised “Wow, this is a really easy tool. It’s a perfect tool for distributed teams” so we started using it ourselves. How have you structured the business model or even the product to make that type of viral spread easier?

Embracing professional services as a distribution channel

Andrey: We bet on consultants. We have a (pricing) plan for consultants with our product who we know will work with multiple customers. And this is pretty unique on the market. Consultants can use our product with their customers and the data will be separated from customer to customer. We see this as a big opportunity for us to expand our distribution and so we support consultants. So for example, for our power users and consultants we have a directory that we invite them to be a part of that so they can promote their services to our customers. They can promote the templates they create in our blog, they can tell the stories to our community. We benefit from that because we connect our customers with some of the best in class professionals. For example, a big design thinking consultancy, Just Mad, is a huge partner of ours. They do a lot which is mutually beneficial to us.

“We’ve tried to build out our product around major patterns. Major users matter to us because the product is so horizontal that you can shape it around like almost any idea, any use case”

John: Do you think your own experience running a design studio and being a consultant meant that from very early on you were conscious of the power of consultants, in terms of spreading the product?

Andrey: Definitely that was the case, but on the other side we try to follow our users and usage patterns in the product. So we try to continuously learn from what people are doing with our product, who is doing it etc. We figured out that there are a lot of consultants who use our product with their customers and we just doubled down on that. We’ve tried to build out our product around major patterns. Major users matter to us because the product is so horizontal that you can shape it around almost any idea, any use case. But then you have to double down on what has the most traction.

John: It is both a challenge and a blessing I suppose. Because it is like a real white board that you can pretty much use it for anything. So obviously there’s particular people who are going to show a high usage and interesting usage patterns and then that’s what you decided to double down on.

Andrey: Exactly.

John: It’s interesting, a significant inflection point in growth for us at Intercom was when we introduced a CSV import tool. So, you didn’t have to integrate a JavaScript snippet to get your customers into Intercom anymore. Des and various people have spoken previously about this in terms of what it did for our growth. Has there been any similar moments for you in terms of seeing sudden growth due to changes you’ve made in the products or maybe your business model?

“We decided to switch to a team based subscription model which became a huge driver for our growth back in the day. Now we see that this has become a huge trend across SaaS”

Andrey: One of the biggest examples of this for us was moving from personal subscription to a team subscription. This was back in about 2015. At that time Slack already gained some traction where they offered team plans by default, where a lot of products on the market had an individual plan by default. We do offer an individual plan but we saw that people collaborate with each other and we thought that it would be much easier for them if they are all signed up within one team as one entity and they can collectively upgrade that entity. We decided to switch to a team based subscription model which became a huge driver for our growth back in the day. Now we see that this has become a huge trend across SaaS.

John: Moving from the personal to the team has all sorts of implications – particularly in terms of things like onboarding. You have to figure out how to get groups of people using your product, not just an individual.

Andrey: Onboarding is something that we constantly change. We have a dedicated team that work on onboarding within the product where we iterate to find ways of getting people to an “aha” moment where we change how we showcase the value of the product and how we explain the use cases you can do in the product. We try to tailor those things towards specific personas and the problems they came to the product with. So a big focus for the team is to make sure that the onboarding process is as good as possible for all the different personas and the use cases they might have.

“There are two steps people have to do. The first is to create something meaningful and the second is to invite others to collaborate”

A blank canvas for collaboration

John: Have you actually tracked those “aha” moments to activation metrics? For example, once people created three boards, they’re hooked. Or is it to do with the number of collaborators? What are the sort of the signs that someone’s really starting to engage with your product and become hooked?

Andrey: Generally there are two steps people have to do. The first is to create something meaningful and the second is to invite others to collaborate on it. These are the two major steps we are always trying to focus our users on. Firstly, can we help you to understand what you can create or what problem it can solve for you? And then, how can you engage your team and make sure you build on top of each other’s ideas? These are the two major steps we take to make the activation rate as high as possible.

John: It’s very easy to invite someone and get them to collaborate. I mean, I certainly remember my first experience with Miro. Yes it was another tool but suddenly it was another tool that I was in very quickly. I suppose the metaphor of a whiteboard is so easy to understand.

Andrey: Yeah. Thank you. Great to hear that worked for you.

“We try to make sure people get value in the first 90 seconds, and to do this you have to polish your user experience”

John: Is that an intentional thing in terms of making sure that it is easy to get collaborators set up and working straight away?

Andrey: Yeah, so this is another focus. We try to make sure people get value in the first 90 seconds, and to do this you have to polish your user experience. This is another focus that our team has which is to make sure our user experience is super simple for anyone who joins. And a canvas tool is not a tool that every person uses regularly. There are a lot of people who’ve come from documents, from tables, from other types of tools and a canvas is something new. For designers it’s much easier because they use canvas based tools a lot. But for others who are not canvas power users and it’s a new product model, we have to make sure they understand and make it as simple as possible for them.

John: That metaphor of a blank canvas can be actually scary for some people who are used to working in spreadsheets or much more structured tools I suppose?

Andrey: Exactly. And all the more so when the canvas is infinite so you can zoom out and see everything you want on one canvas – wow! So it can be a mess if you’re not thinking about how to structure it, but on the other hand can be super powerful. We see some users add 20,000 visuals (e.g. sticky notes) to the canvas and it becomes a huge canvas where they manage the big picture of their whole project or even their whole strategy with multiple projects.

“It’s kind of a unique proposition compared to offline whiteboards. You can’t move beyond the walls you have in the room and on Miro you can make it infinite”

John: We have some product teams in Intercom who would definitely fill 20,000 pieces on a whiteboard. I think that they’d like that. They certainly run out of space in our whiteboards!

Andrey: Yeah, it’s kind of a unique proposition compared to offline whiteboards. You can’t move beyond the walls you have in the room and here you can make it infinite.

John: That’s pretty cool. Who do you see as your big competitor? Because, you talk about being a visual collaboration platform and that’s quite a broad definition. So who does that bring in terms of competitors and how important do you think it is to focus on a competitor’s for a company like at your stage?

Andrey: To be honest, we focus on the use cases, we focus on the value that we can create to our users and customers. We have yet to see any company building something similar to what we build. We see a lot of companies who are focused on specific use cases. So they’re doing mind mapping, diagramming, wire framing and user story mapping. These specific use cases that can be developed within one product. We try to build a platform where you can do all of those things and you don’t need to switch between tools and you can have your whole creative process in one place and we don’t see any company doing that. So our major challenge is to make sure that all of these things are done to a high quality and that there is a seamless switch from stage to stage.

Andrey: And this is where we see the biggest challenge. If we look at our competitors, we are competing for the time of users. So there are various tools that are suitable for different use cases – starting from a physical whiteboard and ending up with spreadsheets or Airtable or Notion. All those tools are absolutely great and we use them inside our company as well but when they use these tools, they are there with them and not here with us. For some use cases you really need the canvas, for some you need a more structure toolkit. We are useful when you really need the canvas.

The distributed teamwork tech stack

John: You mentioned some of those tools there, and I think there is definitely a move in SaaS and the broader software industry to creating tools that are really useful for distributed teams. Is that a trend that you’re capitalizing on? I mean obviously the use cases you’re looking at, they do tend to be ones that are common for distributed teams, product teams and design teams.

Andrey: Yeah, absolutely. We see this trend and we are a distributed team ourselves, so we are mostly on Slack, Zoom, Miro, G Suite and Confluence. These are tools that we all use throughout the whole company. And then we have maybe more than 50 other tools that are used by different teams within the company. And there’s other new tools that I like such as Remote HQ or Tandem for example. These are great tools that are remote first tools. So they were designed for remote teams who started their journey as remote team or a fully distributed team.

Andrey: I see this trend kind of more and more where new tools appear and they solve a lot of real problems. I was very impressed recently when I had a meeting with Remote HQ founders at Remote HQ and I was so impressed by their tool. And I’ve said this to them, I had three “aha” moments when we had the first session, and then when I went back to the tool the next day I had the whole log of our conversation and all the assets we created during our meeting. It was really impressive and there’s lots of these tools coming to market.

John: That’s an almost Superhuman-esque experience. Your first call is with the founder, so you’re kind of getting onboarded then by the founders to the product?

Andrey: Yeah, I guess so. I even asked, “Can we do an integration?” So I mentioned that we have started to bring Miro into any other tool that you can imagine for collaboration for productivity. And they were super open for that. We had a conversation and then we played inside the tool on our first meeting. Then a couple of days later we saw Miro inside Remote HQ and that was amazing because now people can use two tools together. I was impressed at how quickly they moved along those integrations and how they are developing their internal ecosystem.

“We don’t actually push people to use Miro within Miro. It happens organically and then we see the same use cases as for people outside of Miro”

John: You mentioned that Miro is one of your core tools that the team use and I suppose you’re similar to to Intercom, in that you use your own tool to run the company. Are there pros and cons to that? Because I’m sure you guys are really pushing the boundaries in terms of what you use Miro for – because it’s the tool you’re familiar with and you’re building – and potentially that pulls you in all sorts of directions that your users may never want or need. But because it’s your own tool, you’re definitely using it in unusual ways. What’s your thinking on that?

Andrey: That’s a great question. So we don’t actually push people to use Miro within Miro. It happens organically and we see the same use cases as for people outside of Miro. So for example, our whole product development is run on Miro and we do marketing huddle boards in Miro. We also do sales strategy plan in Miro. So we do a lot of things in Miro. But we see some other external companies do the same. The question for us is how frequent are these use cases?

In product development we see absolutely the same use cases across almost every company who uses Miro. But amongst other teams like sales, marketing, L&D, those use cases are there but we find them less frequently. I guess it’s because whiteboards are really popular within product development and while other functions use it, they don’t use it as much.

And the fun part about it is that sometimes we see use cases that I would never do! And I’ll ask them “Why are you doing this with Miro? That doesn’t make sense. Why don’t you use spreadsheets for that?” And it’s really fun to see it what different teams use it for, but it’s organic because people love Miro.

John: You have to realize that your own company’s not necessarily a typical use case.

Andrey: Yeah, absolutely.

“We find it crucial to be distributed as a team in order to feel the pain of our current and potential customers. I personally think that this distributed thinking must be part of our DNA”

Sharing the pain with your customer base

John: And in terms of your own team, you’re distributed, you’ve got four or five offices around the globe at this stage. What sort of scale are you at and what kind of challenges are coming with that scale at the moment?

Andrey: We have 210 people now across four hubs; in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Perm and Amsterdam and we have this concept of distributed headquarters in our company meaning our leadership sits in every hub I’ve mentioned. We find it crucial to be distributed as a team in order to feel the pain of our current and potential customers. I personally think that this distributed thinking must be part our DNA. For example, now we doubled down on building our product development team and Amsterdam hub. And of course we use Miro to enable processes and we see how hard it is when you are a distributed development team. We call it drinking our own pain. And we do it across the whole organization. So for us it’s hard to imagine some processes working without Miro to be honest – people really rely on Miro in their work.

John: We actually took the opposite approach where we deliberately tried not to have teams split between offices for as long as possible. But you’re deliberately saying, “Let’s have marketing people in all four offices. Let’s have product people in all four offices.” Is that the way you’ve approached it?

Andrey: So to clarify a little bit, we think that product development teams should sit together. And when I say product development teams, I mean engineers, designers, product marketing managers, a QA and an analyst. They should be co-located. But then there are teams that can sit in different offices and they have to communicate with each other. So this is the way how we design our company.

John: What’s next for Miro? I mean, what can we expect in 2020?

Andrey: So we’ve doubled down on our platform. We’re starting to build communities across the globe. We’ve invited people who want to run our communities and share some best practices with other users to apply for that. This is a big thing we want to do; we want to unite people offline. On the product side, we are iterating on several cool features that will be launched soon. We want to make sure that the experience of creation is not finished when you just create something. We want to make it very easy for people to share things and where stakeholders can contribute to the ideas and easily digest the ideas that other people create. So we want to make sure that the product is easily shareable and consumed by people outside of that core product experience. That’s really what we are focused now on.

John: And that seems to have been a pretty successful strategy for you in the past because you have some pretty big names on your customer list, e.g. Dell, Netflix, Ikea, Spotify. Is that largely down to the freemium model that you get people using it and then once you get into companies like that, you do everything you can to encourage them to move to a paid account?

“It’s super impressive to me that you can build this amazing company in such a short period of time which is helping creative people and making people happy”

Andrey: Exactly. But more of these companies are moving to a paid plan themselves rather than by us encouraging them. So they just adopt the product and then they see the value of it and start looking into more security features, advanced user management, and other value that we provide at an enterprise level and they start to be bigger customers of ours. And for example we are proud of all of them and we have customers in all different verticals. One of them is Pivotal which deployed the product across almost the whole organization and they are behind this extreme programming thing. We recently did some research inside our product, to see who is creating the most number of sticky notes, etc. And it was Pivotal.

It was not a surprise to me. I was in their office a couple of times in San Francisco. This company is run on sticky notes! So, they created an enormous number of sticky notes within Miro, which we are really proud of. And they’ve already built some really cool plugins on our platform, that is enabled for a lot of people across their organization. So they have started to tailor the experience for their internal users, which is really cool as well. So we’re seeing this platform thing gain traction with the best and biggest customers we have.

John: I know that Pivotal have an office here at Dogpatch Labs in Dublin. I can confirm they definitely love sticky notes in real life as well as on their virtual boards!

Andrey: Absolutely. So that was surprising because it was hard to imagine how they could move those processes to the cloud and that’s happened because we see those sticky notes in Miro now.

John: That’s pretty cool. Andrey, that’s been really, really insightful. Before we let you go, is there a business leader that you aspire to in your work? Who inspires you other than obviously Miro, the Spanish artist?.

Andrey: I’m personally very impressed with Eric Yuan, Zoom founder. He is a super humble person who has seen super results and is very open and aware and outcomes focused. He’s building amazing products and his company’s moving so fast and they’ve delivered so much value in a short period of time. I’m trying to follow how they do this and it’s super impressive to me that you can build this amazing company in that short period of time which is helping creative people and making people happy.

John: And finally, where can people keep up with you?

Andrey: LinkedIn is the place where I spend most time so I’m happy to connect and have chats there. I try to share some interesting information around the company, the industry there as well.