Blossom CEO gives advice on how to manage distributed team
May 7, 2014

Thomas Schranz is the CEO of Blossom. We met in Silicon Valley approximately 2 years ago. At that time Blossom was a piece of great productivity software. I am curious whether there has been any progress since then and how they handle the challenge of managing a distributed team.

Please, tell us more about your startup Blossom.

At Blossom we build simple productivity tools to make the day to day of modern software developers easier. Our core product is a very lightweight agile project management tool used by companies like Twitter & Doodle.

We started Blossom about 3 years ago because we weren’t happy with the project management tools that we used at the time. They didn’t really help us to get a good understanding of what’s going on and what to focus on. Eventually, this became so frustrating to us that we just said ok this is enough, we can build something better than that.

Building tools for software developers is hard but really satisfying. It’s a bit like building tools for professional athletes. If you get something right you enable incredible performance. Also the people who strive for excellence really value what you are doing to help them. It never gets boring when you have amazing customers.

One thing I’m personally super interested in is to enable distributed teams. At Blossom we’re often distributed over various cities and continents so we really feel the pain points distributed teams face. This is super fascinating because the challenges of distributed teams are often the same challenges a co-located team struggles with. Just more extreme.

Blossom team is distributed in San Francisco, London, Antwerp, Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Ljubljana, Bratislava, Prague, Manila and Paris.

Another thing I’m super fascinated about is the location independence that working in software allows. So many people don’t really take advantage of the fact that you can get stuff done from anywhere. It’s a mindset thing.

Part of the Blossom team in Sektor5 in Vienna.

In what is Blossom unique?

At Blossom we obsess about simplicity and use-cases that software developers face in their day to day. Whether that’s a stand-up meeting or having to update team members about progress in a feature branch on Github we focus on streamlining and supporting scenarios that software developers regularly go through.

On the surface Blossom appears to be an agile project management tool for software developers but from a product design point of view we think of Blossom more like an intelligent assistant for your software development team that makes sure you have the right information at the right time to make smart tactical decisions in your day to day.

In a sense you can think of Blossom a bit like Google Now for software development teams. To make that kind of experience possible we integrate very tightly with Github and team communication tools like Slack, Flowdock and HipChat. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the more integrations we add, the more insight we can give.

What tools do you use for communication in your team?

We currently use Slack as water cooler and for most of our team communication.

Additionally we also use Google Hangout for virtual stand-up meetings and Gmail for good old email.

How do you manage emails? Do you have some special tricks?

I get a ton of email and it is incredibly hard for me to stay on top of all conversations and relationships that are going on in my inbox.

I’ve tried various productivity concepts like GTD and inbox zero to process emails and make them actionable but it is hard and email clients are still a mess. They don’t really help you to manage what’s going on in your inbox.

The main epiphany that helped me to get better at email was when I realized that emails are mainly just artifacts that are created by relationships you have with people, companies and products. That’s when I stopped to fight against symptoms like a flooded inbox and started to focus on the higher level things that really mattered and how to manage those.

One key app that really works wonders with managing relationships with people is RelateIQ. I stumbled upon it a few weeks ago at the Accel Design Conference and absolutely fell in love with it.

RelateIQ basically feels like a smart personal assistant. It integrates with gmail and social platforms and helps me to do magical things I’d otherwise forget like when it’s time to follow up with certain people and about what.

Do your read and resolve emails on your phone?

Yes, a lot actually. I currently use the Gmail and RelateIQ apps on iOS.

Do you use any special techniques to manage your tasks?

I try to stick to 2-3 main objectives I want to get done per day. I usually write them down in the evening for the next day so I have some idle time and so I can start the day with having immediate context about what I can do and why it makes sense.

This way I force myself to focus on only a few key things per day and make steady progress. I think of myself as a tortoise. It’s all about pace and persistence. Slow and steady wins the race.

Another related concept I am currently looking into is called ‘objectives and key results‘. Which is about defining objectives and measurable key results that are useful as indicators for progress towards an objective. OKR are used by companies like Google through corporate resources such as Profit Software to set high level company objectives quarterly but they also work great on a team and individual level.

Objectives and key results are a great concept to tie strategy to tactics and execution. I found that focusing on a good balance between strategy and tactics is way more valuable compared to obsessing solely about efficiency or about being good at listing and executing tasks. It’s easy to feel productive without getting anything meaningful done.