MEET Karri

Karri Saarinen is co-founder and CEO of Linear and was previously principal designer at Airbnb. He and his teammates have replaced daily stand-ups with written “wrap-ups,” which not only make collaboration easier across time zones, but encourage people to unplug from work at the end of the day.

What’s something you’ve learned in navigating uncertainty?

Uncertainty is a constant for a founder, regardless of the macro environment. In my experience, you can never have too much focus. For both the team and myself, I try to always ask, “What’s most important or most meaningful right now?” Then I’ll work on that and worry about everything else if I have time. For example, Linear’s product is technically something any company could use. But at our current size, it’s helpful to set some boundaries around who we’re building for. That way if a large potential customer says they really need a new feature, but it’s not for a use case where we’re focusing our energy, we know we should say no. You have to strike a balance, and it’s not always perfectly clear what the answer is. But having that internal discussion creates focus.

What resource do you find yourself coming back to?

Most of the advice we’ve received boils down to “talk to your customers and keep building stuff,” and I remind myself of that pretty often. If you’re talking to customers, they will help you to get the insight you need to build the right things. And if you build the right things, you’ll probably get the customers you’re looking for. A lot of companies fail because they lose sight of those fundamentals.

It’s important to make talking to customers part of the company culture, so we add everyone on the team to our customer support platform—and when someone builds a feature, they’ll often contribute on the support side for a while to help them understand any issues. We also start every project by collecting user feedback, either through support or via interviews or our Slack user group. Usually the simplest way to figure out what to build is just to ask people what would help them.

What foundational step is most critical to building an enduring company?

I think you have to start with a belief about how the world should be different. At first, that probably won’t be a clear vision of exactly what you’ll deliver—more like a vague feeling that something is off. But over time, as you think more about the problem and get more feedback, the specifics take shape. You start small with whatever you see that needs fixing, and then as you build a community, you grow from there.

In Linear’s case, we felt like the current tools and processes in the project management space were geared toward the needs of management and ignored the needs of the individual engineers and designers who actually build things. Companies rely on their team members being productive, yet those people weren’t getting much help to do their jobs. We thought if we could flip that model and make the workflow for individual contributors run more smoothly, a lot of the problems teams experience would go away. It’s like the saying “growth fixes everything”—we believe team momentum fixes everything.

Which company-building feat do you hail as the hardest?

For me, it’s like that quote about jumping off a cliff and building an airplane on the way down—I think that’s a pretty accurate way to describe being a founder. You have to know something about all of the parts of the plane in order to put it together, and the more the company grows, the more complexity there is. Managing that increasing complexity has been the hardest part so far, and I think it will continue to be.

Deciding what to focus on usually comes pretty naturally; you realize you need help, or someone else points out something that needs to be fixed. What’s difficult is that you aren’t an expert in most of those areas, but in order to make progress you have to learn about them quickly—at least enough to find someone who is an expert. I tend to start by getting a sense of the landscape. I might read a book or some articles or look at what other companies are doing. I often ask advisors or partners if they can introduce me to someone who can give me context, too. And I think as a founder, it’s always helpful to try doing something yourself, at least a bit, so you can better understand what’s required.

What do you do differently than most?

I’m a designer by trade, and one thing you run into with design is people don’t always know what the problem is—or they come to you with something that’s not actually a problem. So I start by making sure I understand the big picture. I’ll ask myself, “Am I framing this correctly?” and “What do we actually want to accomplish?” and “What are the different ways to think about this?” I do the same thing when I’m cooking, in a way; I might read 5 or 10 different recipes and try to identify the common themes before I start.

Of course, I don’t always have time for a deep dive. But the more context I can gather, the likelier it is that I’ll get something right the first time.

How do you proceed when there’s no right answer?

It depends partly on what kind of decision it is—at this stage of our company, there are very few decisions we can make that we’ll have to live with forever. So usually, I try to give myself permission to just make a decision, even if it turns out to be wrong. That goes a little against my nature, since I prefer to understand things really deeply. But the truth is, the only way to be absolutely certain that you’ve chosen the best option is to try them all—and that’s not realistic.

I do ask myself, though, if it’s a decision that has to be made now. In most cases, it’s best to move quickly. If we wait too long to offer someone a role, for example, they might go elsewhere. There are also times when it makes sense to introduce an artificial deadline; we could do quarterly planning at any time, but at some point we have to come up with a plan so we can move forward. But in some cases there’s really no cost to waiting, and there may even be a benefit if you can gather more information in the meantime.

What future opportunities will be born from recent events?

I think the last year has shown us what’s possible, if not always ideal, to do remotely—not only at work, but with things like school and seeing a doctor. Linear has been remote from the start, because we saw the trend of companies moving to remote, and wanted to explore that and give our team the freedom to choose where we live. We never expected a remote world to become commonplace so quickly. It’s exciting. For most of human history, our lives have been built around where we work—friends, schools, hobbies, everything. I used to go back to visit my family in Finland for a week or two at a time, and that always felt so rushed. Now I can spend a couple of months there and still be working—and even connect more than usual with our employees who are in those time zones. It’s good to think not only about what’s harder in a more distributed world, but the ways our lives can be more meaningful.

Hard-won advice