Rethinking to-do lists
Making a todo list is a common practice for most productive people. It’s helpful to get listed down before you start working. But a recent conversation with Aron Levin, founder of Relatable and Willa, completely changed my perspective on how we make use of todo lists.
Aron believes todo lists are broken. In the sense that we can’t just list down all different kinds of tasks in the same list. It just doesn’t make sense. How do we put a 30 second task, a 30 minute task and a 4 hour task in the same list? This feels more chaotic than organized.
But Aron has a solution-
“What I do is, I make separate lists for tasks that will take 30- seconds, 30 minutes, 1 hour or 4 hours. When I have that in place, it becomes much easier to organize my time. Say I finish a meeting early and have some time left, I can quickly go to the 30 second list and knock some tasks off that list.
I actually write down the smallest of tasks on my 30- second list. Like reply to this specific email. Follow up with that person. Things like that. They can be done super quick.
This is, in my view, a more sensible way to manage tasks. All tasks are not equal and they deserve different treatment.”
As he said this, I had a brief moment of cry inside of me. I had been doing it wrong all my life. Ah terrible!
Nevertheless, I learnt a ton talking to Aron Levin. In this episode, he shares his story being an early employee of 2 wildly successful companies- King games and Spotify; how he started his own company by accurately predicting the rise of influencer marketing, not staying in one lane, managing distractions and much more.
Let’s dive in!
Aron introduces himself.
Hi I'm Aron! Founder of Relatable (recently sold to Bambuser) and Willa. I started my career in sales but I quickly realized that I wanted to do marketing. So if you look at my career at Kings Games, Spotify and the most recent 5 years at Relatable, it revolves around marketing and growth.
Relatable is an influencer marketing agency. It's different than other agencies in the sense, we rely heavily on technology and building scalable processes. What that means is, big companies these days spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising. It's very hard for them to move that money to creators and influencers. At Relatable, we help companies move that money easily using our technology.
How does a marketing agency market itself?
When we do our own marketing for Relatable, it's B2B (business to business) marketing. Basically us reaching out to companies that might need help with their marketing efforts.
The fascinating thing about B2B marketing is, you just need a handful of clients and some of them can even be million dollar clients. While in B2C marketing, say for Coca-Cola, you need to get in front of a billion people. That's a lot of work. My point is, in B2B you can achieve greater scale in less effort.
The primary channel we utilize for marketing our agency is email. That has worked well for us. I believe every company should look to find that 1 channel that works for them and then double down on that. Email is that one channel for us.
Another example to prove my point is Tesla. They don't advertise at all. But they're still pretty good at marketing. The only channel they use is PR, and mostly it's just Elon Musk doing weird things. *laughs*
I started out in sales. That was the first thing I did after getting out of school. I was really into sales. Understanding people's problems and then offering them a solution was exciting to me. I've always been fascinated by the idea of psychological persuasion and sales is about that.
Then I started teaching others how sales is done. So I got into sales managing, sales training and sales coaching.
After that, I took a year off to travel with my now wife and then girlfriend. In that time, instead of working in sales, I made websites. I actually read "The 4-hour Work Week" by Tim Ferris the year before and felt I also wanted to travel around the world working only 4-hours a week. I did that for about a year. I had some savings but 10 month in I started to make enough money from my website affiliate marketing to sustain myself. I slowed my expenses down to come to a point of break even.
When I came back home, which was in Sweden at the time, I realized that I don't want to go back and do sales. I wanted to do something on the internet. I no longer wanted to work 4 hours per week, instead I wanted to work 40 hours per week at a real company.
So I went ahead and applied for a bunch of jobs that I wasn't qualified for, as I didn't have much tangible experience. One job I applied for is Head of Advertising Operations at King Games, and I got that job. At the time, King was into gaming but 25% of their business was advertising, displaying ads to people that play games. We would sell those advertising spots to different advertisers.
I'll point out that King wasn't into mobile gaming at the time, they were more into desktop gaming and on king.com. But it was a 100% business and they were profitable. Just that they were not growing at the time. During the 2 years I was there, very little happened.
A lot of early employees saw the success of game companies like Zinga, FarmVille, Angry Birds and they felt we missed the opportunity of mobile and Facebook gaming. I felt the same when I was there. Then I left the company as I didn't see much happening there.
Immediately after I left, the company became wildly successful. *laughs* They literally 6Xed their valuation. They were valued somewhere around 50 million when I was there and then in a matter of time they were privately acquired at 6 billion dollars!
That taught me something, that things like that do happen. Other thing is, a lot of people there were patient, they stayed there and made a lot of money.
That being said, I was also moving to very interesting, at the time 100 people company, Spotify. I owe this to Alex Norstrom, who was my boss at King, then he went to Spotify as VP Growth and he was building a growth team. I was among the first few hires he made there.
At Spotify I was tasked with the goal of taking the existing paying subscribers (1Million) to a 100 Million paying subscribers. I worked there for 5 years. By the time I left, that number was at 40 Million subscribers. Now it's over a 100 Million. That's quite successful.
What I did at Spotify is, I lead a lot of special projects. A lot of projects were high risk and high reward. Strategic partnerships with companies like Uber. Different kinds of artists' promotions. Building platforms to scale up communication to users. Things like that.
The Spotify play button, which is now everywhere on the internet, is something that our team worked upon. All our activities were aimed to drive communication, build acquisition, educate users, drive growth and build a brand.
We talk about trajectory and one thing leading to another. I sometimes think if I would have stayed at King for 5 years, that would be real fun. I would have made a lot of money. I would have had a lot of opportunities, it was a small company back then.
It's the same story with Spotify. The company is 10X from the time I left if you look at the company's worth. That again would have made me a lot of money and a lot of opportunities.
But all that's fine. I don't believe in regret. I've started my own company since and we did a million dollars in revenue our first year. It is entirely bootstrapped with no external funding. Just last year we did 10 million dollars in revenue.
These days I'm spending more time on our new venture which is a company called Willa. That'll again take me another 5 years. I'm excited for that. It's an app service that helps freelancers and creators in solving a big problem they're facing, that is chasing payments and doing admin work. Willa is an app where you get paid from clients for your work as a freelancer. It's as simple as the press of a button. This will help them spend their energy on doing the work they actually love doing.
Note- Relatable has recently been acquired by Bambuser.
Never staying in one lane.
If you look at my career, you'll see I was doing different things at different companies. At King, I was into operations. At Spotify, I was into growth. At Relatable, I'm into influencer marketing. And now with Willa, I'm into the fintech space.
I never stay in one lane. I just observe the world at a larger scale then figure out how I want to participate in it.
People are becoming media companies.
The reason I started Relatable is for one big insight I learnt while at Spotify. I saw that people are becoming media companies. They are becoming media companies for 2 reasons- the first one is democracy. What I mean by democracy is, there aren't any restrictions anymore. Anyone can create and publish content at any time at very low costs.
Like right now, we're recording this podcast. We are essentially competing against Netflix. Someone has to choose this podcast over all other options to be listening to us.
The other insight is, the attention is shifting. People prefer watching content created by individuals more over content produced by traditional media companies. If this trend continues, the advertising world will also see a shift.
It's a saying that "wherever the eyeballs go, the advertising dollars follow". I saw that this shift will be incredibly hard for companies to make. They can't simply move their advertising dollars to people. It'll be hard for them to allocate that money to creators who have those eyeballs.
I saw this as an opportunity to help companies and creators. That's where Relatable was born.
A typical day in Aron's life.
My typical days start very early. Some people believe that the hour you wake up in the morning determines your level of success. I don't think that's true but I do wake up at 5 in the morning. It's a recent thing, I started waking up that early only 3 months ago. It's for multiple reasons, one of which is having conservations like this with people who are in a different time zone. Big part of my team is in Europe, that's only way to make it work or they're off work if I get up late.
The other reason is that I have 3 kids. There's a new born, a 5 year old and a 7 year old. Waking up early gives me the opportunity to do 3-4 hours of focused work and get a head-start on them. Like right now they're all upstairs all asleep and the second they're down here, my productivity falls from 100 to 0 real quick. The schools are also operating remotely, so the kids are home most of the time. Waking up early becomes my only way to get some work done.
By 8 or 9 in the morning, I've done all my meetings. My mornings are meeting heavy, so I can free up the rest of the day for deep work.
My days end early. I take a break around the afternoon for lunch, I do another couple of hours work and then I'm done for the day.
Getting into the creative zone.
I feel the we care too much about productivity and time management. But the thing is, society doesn't value the amount of hardwork you put into something, it only appreciates the value you create.
We're compensated not for the hours we put in, but for the value that we put out.
I group my tasks by the amount of time they take. There are 5- min tasks, 30- min tasks and lastly there are 2- hour tasks or whole day tasks.
Most tasks that fit into those are clearly defined. But if there's a complex problem that needs to be solved, I can't simply allocate a time slot to it. I just don't know how much time it'll take. So if I'm not in the zone, I'll not sit on it for too long and waste my time. Instead, I'll do tasks that don't require much focus, like answering emails, managing the invoices and stuff like that.
The other thing I do when I'm not feeling focused is trying to break the current state by doing something completely different. Like going for a walk, watching a movie, playing with kids, basically anything that gets me out of your work routine. That helps me get back into good mental state to take on those complex tasks.
On managing distractions.
My biggest challenge is distractions. I get distracted very easily. The first thing I've done to counter that is I don't get any notifications.
To give you a sense of it, I currently manage my time between 2 companies in different timezones, my 3 kids, wife and my friends. If I wake up and check my phone, it's game over. There's a lot of stuff that can distract me. So I can't look at my phone before I organize my day.
I can easily spend the entire day just responding to messages and notifications. For that reason, I've turned off notifications everywhere. For email, I use a combination of Superhuman and Mailman to achieve that. Mailman has become an essential tool for me. I think I've eliminated 80% of the time I used to spend on email by using those 2 tools. Similarly for slack, my notifications are off most of the time.
I've set it all up in a way that I go to the information when I want and not the other way round.
Rethinking to-do lists.
I feel it's weird how most to-do lists are structured. It's just a list of one task below the other. But one task can be a 30 second task and the task next to it can be a 4 hour task. It doesn't make sense to keep these tasks in the same list one below the other. They're definitely 2 very different tasks.
So what I do is, I make separate lists for tasks that will take 30- seconds, 30 minutes, 1 hour or 4 hours. When I have that in place, it becomes much easier to organize my time. Say I finish a meeting early and have some time left, I can quickly got to the 30 second list and knock some tasks off that list.
I actually write down the smallest of tasks on my 30- second list. Reply to this specific email. Follow up with that person. Things like that. They can be done super quick.
This is, in my view, a more sensible way to manage tasks. All tasks are not equal and they deserve different treatment. We can't simply put them all on the same list.
Optimizing the day for energy.
I don't optimize trying the get the most work in a given day. I optimize for doing work that gives me energy, fuels me and gives me that drive. I've found that's where I'm able to do my best work.
If I have energy, focus and clarity, I can do brilliant things. While if I try to get overwhelmed, I can spend the entire day getting absolutely nothing done.
One extra hour.
I've thought about this one. I'll actually spend it by myself, doing absolutely nothing. I'd leave my phone and go for a walk down on the beach for an hour.
I would probably bring a book with me to the beach and that book will not be related to work.
How to reach Aron?
LinkedIn is the best place to reach me, it's where I share my thoughts from time to time. My email address is another good way to reach out.