How do you turn your own project management challenge into a successful business? Andrew Filev did just that with Wrike – practical and intuitive project management software.

Andrew Filev is a seasoned software entrepreneur, project and product manager with 10+ years of experience. Founder and CEO of Wrike, now the leading provider of social project management software that gets the work connected for thousands of companies and helps them efficiently collaborate in the cloud. You can learn more about Andrew’s views on project management, technology and business in his Project Management 2.0 blog or guest articles. Also, you can hear and meet Andrew at various conferences where he presents, e.g. PMI Congresses.

Let’s start with how you got where you are and how you got associated with project management. I know you have had other ventures before this. So maybe if you could quickly walk us through how you got to where you are and how you got connected with project management.

I got into programming at middle school and started getting paid for my work in high school. By the time I got to the second year of college, I was already running a consultancy. We were pretty good at what we did, so the business grew quickly. As the business evolved, my duties very quickly shifted from coding to managing teams. Bootstrapping a software business in the dot-com burst was a pretty tough experience. Combine this with studying math in college, learning business and technology outside of college, and you get a picture of the strong focus that I needed to put on making myself and my team productive and effective. My project management journey started like that and has always been very pragmatic. For me, project management is the art and science of getting things done more effectively.

This early crusade for my personal productivity, as well as that of the people around me, naturally scaled into a crusade for making every business more productive, which is something that I’m working on right now. So around 2006, I conceptualized Wrike.com, which is now the leading provider of collaboration software. Fast technological growth caused a real explosion of data. To tackle all this information work, we need to have better tools at hand. Luckily, the same technologies that created information overload can also make us more effective, if used properly. So, as a CEO and project manager, I put my focus on improving project management tools and practices. That’s what my current job and passion is about.

I want to talk about Wrike, but before I do that — you have the technical background, the project management background, the entrepreneurial background in project management product now, what would you say, if I were to ask you, is your vision for project management?

Originally, the discipline of project management grew out of the industrial economy around the middle of the 20th century. Over the last six decades, the world has seen a lot of work move from the field into offices or what you would call information work. Today, there are about a billion of us who operate a computer or a mobile device at work. Unlike the industrial economy, where teams are just as big as the projects they work on, in the creative economy, it’s smaller and more nimble teams that are in the spotlight. Sometimes ideas make a big difference on projects. These are the kind of teams where the individual talents and contributions of every single worker matter as much as the efficiency of the whole team’s collaboration. Business has changed a lot. We work in a very fast-paced business environment where things change rapidly. To move forward to success, managers need to be able to react to changes fast and instantly readjust priorities.

Collaboration, agility, productivity and leadership – these are the key components of the new lightweight approach to project management. This doesn’t sound like a rocket science, and it shouldn’t. The practices and tools need to be simple and pragmatic to help all the billion information workers in their everyday work. Of course, there will always be high-stake projects with complicated schedules where you need a professional project management commando, but for every such project, there are 1,000 others where people still need to be effective to keep up with today’s pace. So this is applicable to a broader audience – marketing managers, engineering team leads, professional services firms, you name it.

A friend of mine runs an agricultural business with 15,000 employees and gradually equips more and more of them with mobile devices to get real-time visibility into his empire. That feedback loop from head to field and back is very important, and the faster it goes, the more effective are the operations. I’d say this feedback loop and its velocity are very important for project management today and in the future.

That’s true. The agility, feedback loop and the velocity — these are all concepts that people are running with. That leads me into the next question. The agile project management movement that has been going on and is accelerating now, most of the things you spoke about seem like you are for agile. What are your thoughts on agile? Do you use agile within your company to develop your software?

Yes, definitely.  Agile methods contributed a lot to my view on project management. For instance, let’s take a look at these key principles in agile management: clear vision of the project, fast space, self-organizing teams, leadership that fosters teamwork. You can hear the same themes we just discussed when we talked about my vision for project management.

Holistically, I’m very pro-agile. Tactically, some agile practices were too focused on small, co-located teams in a specific industry, meaning software development. It’s not an issue when they are used in the particular context where they come from, but if you extend the context, you also need to take a broader look at the practices themselves.

For example, when your team is spread beyond one room, you need to have the right tools to keep your work together productive.  Obviously, you can’t get together every day and discuss everything when your team is spread across the globe.

Let’s talk about the company you have now, Wrike. I had a demo version of it, like a trial version. What struck me about it was its simplicity. Really the sense of what we need to do is there. It’s not a lot, it’s not too little, but really the essence of what we need is there. So how did this idea of Wrike come up?

As I mentioned, I was always looking for ways to boost my own efficiency. I was constantly on the lookout for new tools and techniques that would help. Traditional project management software that I came across back then was mostly focused on scheduling. It did a good job there, but it wasn’t really good at collaboration. It also didn’t fit well with agile practices, and you couldn’t call it lean, either. It was pretty expensive and complex.

At that time, I had to run multiple projects simultaneously with geographically distributed teams. Traditional software couldn’t help us much. When I couldn’t find one silver-bullet solution on the market, I had fallen back on e-mail as the primary communication tool, as many others do, and you possibly do the same.

I spoke to a countless number of managers who just emailed occasional spreadsheets, working on their projects. Messy reply-on-reply threads in emails, attachments in the middle of them – it was overall pretty chaotic in those mailboxes. There were a lot of lost tasks there and even more lost productivity. My team and I were struggling with this problem, as most other business teams do. Since we were working as a distributed team, the importance of smooth communication and collaboration became even more pronounced.

This is how a collaboration platform became one of the key pillars in my vision of Wrike. Right now, collaboration tools are on everybody’s wish list. But I was lucky that my personal constraints (distributed teams, trying to be very productive) drove this thinking ahead of the trend and lead to some key innovations that Wrike brought to the world.

In brief, Wrike is the leading social project management software that brings the best of social tools into the work environment. We leveraged them in what we called the “work graph.” It’s a model that connects people and helps them get work done efficiently. Wrike gives you one entry point, one hub for all your work items. It’s easy to navigate for any team member and secure at the same time. We have customers who manage over 100,000 tasks in their workspace. But even with such a big workload, everything is accessible easily.

That’s the big idea of scalability, effectiveness and technology leverage. Today’s user-interface options can make you really productive in managing that much work. There’s a lot of research showing that the amount of information work and the amount of data we have to process grows pretty quickly, so we need to keep up with that pace.

Our social project management mix is trusted by thousands of companies all over the globe, ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies. We’re really happy that we help these people to be more productive.

On the Wrike website, there is a great timeline starting from 2006 to how you’ve progressed. How did you get your first customer?

There were two phases of the product. One was more of a conceptual phase when we were just trying to see what works. The biggest customer at that time was ourselves. So we started building a solution that we thought would be very helpful for ourselves. Like I said, we were very lucky in the sense that we were very constrained. We already operated in that fast-paced world, managing lots of projects on a tight budget. Some good decisions grew out of those constraints pretty early. It often happens that the more you actually constrain the solution, the more beautiful it comes out.

When we were doing that prototyping, we were our own customer, and we also plugged in some friends later. Sometime later, we opened the product to the market. We tried to spread the word out. We talked to our new customers, now people whom we hadn’t met before, and we gathered feature requests from those conversations. It was a good mix of companies from different countries, different industries, possessing different backgrounds, and that diversity was very helpful.

In a sense, it also constrained us that we tried to build a product that people would use without somebody selling it to them aggressively. We wanted people to find out about the product through Internet and word of mouth, then come, try it, like it and use it. That’s actually a pretty big constraint, as traditional software is sold by sales people. Traditionally, you had to train your employees to use the software and sometimes even force them to use it. We wanted something very different. We wanted people to be able to understand our tool on the fly. This idea helped us to create a unique product.

Because of the way you marketed the product, made it scalable. Because you could do that on the Net, you didn’t need sales people on the ground. That’s a pretty good strategy.

Exactly, it’s a very scalable strategy. Right now, we have several thousand companies trying Wrike every month. I think this would be absolutely different, if we worked with the traditional enterprise sales model. We wouldn’t be able to afford the price-point where we are now. We operate in such an efficient, scalable way, so that we can pass all those savings to the customer. So instead of customers having to pay for an expensive sales team at Wrike, there’s no overhead. All the money we get just flows back into product and allows us to innovate at a pretty good pace. I think the Internet, in this sense, is working to everyone’s benefit.

I was looking at the timeline. I saw that you didn’t go for a lot of features initially. It was sort of a minimal, viable product at the beginning, and then you built the features on top of it as you went along. Was that a conscious decision or was that because you were constrained in terms of resources?

It was more of a conscious decision. There are different schools when it comes to releasing early. From a product management perspective, the earlier you roll out the features, the earlier you get the feedback. As we’ve just discussed – the faster your feedback loop is, the faster you progress and optimize. In that respect, releasing early makes a lot of sense.

There are a lot of different opinions when it comes to product marketing. Some companies try to wait for the big bang. They do their more traditional launch and try to impress people with something that would make them immediately go “Wow.” I think in today’s start-ups, especially software, I would rather just get the feedback early and make sure we’re moving in the right direction. It goes back to selling your solution online where the best product wins. I think that becomes more and more true. The big bang is good in the short-term, but in the long-term, if you have the right product, your customers will spread the word themselves, they will keep using the product, and they will eventually pay for it. A good product brings you word of mouth, retention and a deeper connection with the customer.

As the product matures, we have to make sure that the transition is smooth for our users. For example, when we launched a big redesign of Wrike’s user interface, we actually kept the old version of the interface available for our customers for more than six months. They could easily go back and forth. We gave them that transition period to ensure they’re the most productive. That’s our core goal – to save our customers time and make them more efficient.

Very interesting. Other than running the company and the job you have, any other hobbies or interests?

Yes. The biggest one is that I’m the father of two wonderful boys. Each one has at least as much energy and curiosity as I do. Their company is both very rewarding and sometimes demanding.

I also train in Brazilian Jujitsu. If you’re not familiar with the name, judo is the closest sport. It’s a great sport that keeps both your body and your mind in shape, which I appreciate. The core idea behind Jujitsu is that a smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger opponent by leveraging the proper technique. Isn’t that what start-ups are ultimately about — winning over bigger players by being more innovative and focused? So we’re getting back to the efficiency theme, even in sports.

I’ve also never stopped learning. One of the themes that I always get back to is human and artificial intelligence – from cognitive psychology to neuroscience to machine learning. So in my spare time, I sometimes build robots, train my computer to recognize images, and do other fun hobby research projects.

Thank you for your questions. I think they were very balanced and very well-versed.

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