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In episode #21, Anna Nadeina talks with Tobias, CEO and co-founder of awork, a project management tool for happy collaboration.

The Inspiration for awork

Tobias Hagenau, the CEO and co-founder of awork, a project management tool for happy collaboration, has an intriguing background. Initially, Tobias pursued a career in mechanical engineering, driven by his childhood dream of becoming an inventor. However, he soon realized that the day-to-day grind of being a mechanical engineer was not his true passion.

After completing his master’s degree in engineering, Tobias recognized that his true calling lay in entrepreneurship. He met his co-founders and together they started a business right out of university, called HQ Labs. This software-as-a-service (SaaS) company focused on the financial side of creative agencies, providing tools for tasks like writing quotes and invoices.

After running this business for a decade and achieving significant success, Tobias and his team realized that their creative agency clients were struggling not only with the financial aspects of their business but also with the day-to-day organization and collaboration within their teams. This realization sparked the idea for awork, a project management tool designed to revolutionize the way teams collaborate.


The Future of Collaboration and Teamwork

Tobias believes that the future of collaboration and teamwork will be even more interconnected, with blurred boundaries between companies, teams, and even individual roles. He foresees a trend towards more freelancing and virtual teams, where the distinction between where one company or team ends and another begins will become increasingly fluid.

This shift towards more fluid and flexible teamwork, Tobias argues, necessitates the need for more adaptable and integrated work management tools. He envisions a future where hybrid work, with teams spread across different locations, becomes the norm, and collaboration tools must evolve to support this new reality.

Tobias believes that the tools and processes for project management and team collaboration will need to adapt to account for this shift towards more interconnected and hybrid work. This includes better target definitions, more integrated communication channels, and tools that enable the review of agreed-upon deliverables and goals across company and team boundaries.


awork’s Culture and Collaboration Practices

awork’s approach to collaboration and team culture is a reflection of Tobias’ vision for the future of teamwork. As a hybrid team of around 50 people, Awork has deliberately designed its processes and practices to support remote and distributed work.

Some of the key elements of awork’s collaboration approach include:

  1. Quarterly in-person offsites to foster team bonding and culture
  2. Weekly all-hands meetings for strategy, communication, and open Q&A sessions
  3. Standing weekly social “donut calls” where team members connect one-on-one
  4. A dedicated office space in Hamburg that serves as a physical hub for the team
  5. A heavy reliance on collaboration tools like Slack, Notion, and Awork itself to facilitate remote work
  6. An “ownership framework” that empowers team members to take ownership of their work and make autonomous decisions

Tobias believes that this hybrid approach, with a balance of in-person and remote collaboration, is key to building a strong and cohesive team culture, even in a distributed work environment.


Building awork with an Exit in Mind

When Tobias and his team sold their previous company, They were transparent with the acquirers about their plans to continue working on awork. They negotiated the terms of the sale to ensure they could retain the necessary resources and team members to pursue their vision for awork.

This time around, Tobias and his team have taken a more traditional venture capital (VC) funding route, raising a Series A round from a French VC fund. With this VC backing, Tobias acknowledges that awork is now on a trajectory towards an eventual exit, where they will need to deliver value to their investors.

Tobias believes that this VC-backed approach will provide awork with the scale and speed it needs to compete in the crowded work management market, where some of their direct competitors have significantly more employees than Awork has clients.


Focusing on Growth in the European Market

awork’s initial growth strategy has been to focus on the European, and particularly the German-speaking, markets. Tobias explains that as a European company, this provides an “unfair advantage” over their mainly Silicon Valley and Israel-based competitors.

By doubling down on the German-speaking markets first, awork can leverage its ability to provide German-language support, messaging, and other localization efforts. Tobias acknowledges that they do revisit this decision periodically, as the global market for a product like awork is undoubtedly attractive. However, for now, the team believes that focus and maturity in the European market is the best path forward.


Customer Communication and Engagement

awork places a strong emphasis on product quality, customer support, and engagement with its user community. The company has a personal hotline available daily, with a dedicated support team handling tickets, chats, and phone calls.

Tobias himself is actively involved in engaging with awork’s users, hosting “ask me anything” sessions in the community and providing insights into the company’s product vision and decision-making processes. This focus on open communication and responsiveness to customer feedback is a key part of awork’s strategy.

awork also actively solicits reviews and testimonials from its clients, recognizing the importance of social proof and third-party validation in a crowded market where they compete with much larger players.


Balancing Vision and Feedback

Tobias acknowledges the constant challenge of balancing awork’s long-term product vision with the more immediate needs and feedback from its customers. The company has a clear mid-to-long-term vision for the core capabilities it wants awork to excel at, such as planning focus, cross-company collaboration, and integrated project management.

However, awork also actively incorporates customer feedback into its more incremental feature development. The company has organized its product teams to work semi-independently, allowing them to release updates on different cadences based on the scope of the features being built.

This hybrid approach, with a strong guiding vision combined with responsiveness to user needs, is a key part of awork’s product development strategy.


Efficient Development Cycle and Teams

awork has refined its product delivery process to strike a balance between speed and quality. The company has a roughly 6-7 week development cycle for its product releases, with four standing product teams that work semi-independently on different areas of the product.

awork has also made the conscious decision to eliminate its staging environment, instead relying on the product teams to be responsible for thoroughly testing and ensuring the quality of their work before it is released to production. This, Tobias believes, fosters a more conscious and direct approach to product decisions, without the safety net of a staging environment.


Data-Driven Pricing Decisions

Pricing is an area where awork takes a collaborative, data-driven approach, though Tobias acknowledges that it doesn’t have a single clear owner. The company’s management team, which includes Tobias, regularly revisits pricing, taking into account feedback from the sales, marketing, and customer teams.

awork closely tracks metrics like the number of potential customers who leave after viewing the pricing, as well as the pricing conversations that come up during sales deals. This data, combined with the team’s collective experience and intuition, informs the company’s pricing decisions and adjustments over time.


Building Company Culture through Values

One of awork’s most unique and impactful practices has been the way the company has built its core values. Rather than simply brainstorming a list of values, awork asked its team to submit stories from their experiences that they felt were representative of the company’s culture.

The team then worked together to extract the underlying values from these stories, identifying both positive traits they wanted to reinforce as well as some “blacklisted” behaviors they wanted to actively work to eliminate. This collaborative, story-based approach has resulted in a set of nine core values that are deeply embedded in awork’s hiring, performance management, and day-to-day operations.

Tobias believes this exercise in self-reflection and value-setting has been instrumental in shaping awork’s unique culture and guiding the company’s evolution.

Head of Growth,