InterviewJune 28th, 2024

FocusTime: The recipe for focus of Thomas Paul Mann from Raycast

The co-founder and CEO of the ‘shortcut to everything’ app shares his approach to his best work

FocusTime: The recipe for focus of Thomas Paul Mann from Raycast

If you enjoy good software, are into productivity and a Mac user, there’s a big chance you know Raycast. And if you don’t, you should give it a go. Initially launched in 2020 as a so-called app launcher – basically a replacement for Spotlight on your mac, it has since turned into a Swiss army knife to do a lot of things with just a few keystrokes. Their store of open-source extensions for Raycast includes hundreds of plugins that allow you to have features like Google Translate, ChatGPT, Slack, Spotify and countless others available.

Brilliant software is built by brilliant people, and we were delighted for the chance to sit down with Thomas Paul Mann, the co-founder and CEO of Raycast.

Talk us through a good week, Thomas

“We are with 30 people now, and it’s quite easy to turn my week into a lot of meetings and people management. But I’m working hard to keep that work at a minimum. Me and my co-founder are both engineers and product minded. Product always comes first and I’m also trying to focus on the product in my week as much as possible.”

Thomas shows us his calendar. His Monday is filled with meetings, there are recurring focus blocks for Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The neatly organized calendar of Thomas

“I’m planning out my bigger chunks of work for the week on Monday. I’m roughly linking my projects to the focus blocks I have mapped out in my calendar. And by having almost all recurring meetings on Monday, I can just focus on the work the rest of the week. Obviously there are one off meetings happening: chatting with investors, being involved in hiring and resolving technical or product issues can always happen. But I’m a big believer in the idea that if you’re not thinking through and mapping out your priorities, others will take control over your time.”

With a quick keystroke (obviously) he pulls out a note. Thomas is using the Floating Notes Window built right into Raycast to track his weekly priorities. Not more than a list of checkboxes, that slides in and out of his screen and obviously is controllable by keyboard. “It’s the best representation of a paper notebook, and it works really well for me. I can just jot down things. I roughly have a plan for when I’m going to do them, but very often stuff happens and I have to rethink. That is fine. What’s the saying? Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face? A rigid schedule stresses me out and does not help me do better work.”

In everything Thomas shows, there’s a certain cleanliness that shines through. From the organization of his Mac when he shares his screen, to the setting of the room he is in, it seems to be carefully arranged. “It has a function for me,” Thomas says, “because years ago I learned that I work really well when I have a good routine. As soon as I’m breaking out of that routine, reactive things take over. I always notice that when I’m traveling to Germany, which me and my family do for a month once a year. I have to force myself to not only do reactive things when I’m outside my usual environment. When I’m at home, my whole setting helps me to focus and do great work. I’m quite sensitive to visual noise, so a clean and structured environment is not just nice to have, but essential to me.”

We love the passion that’s visible in the things Thomas is sharing and showing. It’s rare in an individual and even rarer in a team.

How do you stay connected and aligned with your team?

“We don’t do standups. In fact, we have very few meetings at Raycast. Most people in the team only have two: the weekly meeting on Monday, which is a mix of a demo of what is built and where we talk a bit about what’s ahead, and a 1:1 meeting with their manager.” Lots would die for a freeform structure like that, we feel. “To stay connected, we have a few pretty busy Slack channels. We have one called #weekly-updates. Everyone on the team drops a note on Monday (and obviously there’s a Raycast plugin to do that) where you write what you did last week and share your plan for the upcoming days.”

Weekly update from Thomas

“Even though we are a remote company, we do quite a few things synchronously in chat. We have a pretty heavy Slack culture which is a comfortable way to stay in the loop. We have an #ideas channel where we all share things we find and are interesting, and a #show-and-tell channel where people share little snippets of video with what they have shipped and why.”

“On Fridays we have Rayday, and we also usually have a remote lunch together with the team where we chat or play a game.”

Hold on, what’s a Rayday?

“When we started Raycast, we noticed that so many of the good things in Raycast happened because we use the product ourselves constantly. It’s a tool that can always improve, and the best inventions came from all of us tinkering on it in our own time. We got so much value out of it that we decided to make it a significant portion of our week, and we introduced it as ‘Rayday’. Every Friday everyone in the team can just work on things that they think improves Raycast.” You can see Thomas enjoys this, because when he talks about it his eyes start to sparkle. There’s a lot of passion to build something wonderful. “A lot of cool things we ship are a direct result of us doing Raydays.” While most companies see this as an enormous luxury, to spend 20% of time on unplanned initiatives, Raycast seems to see it as the best way to unlock the best in their team and build the best version of the product. Thomas wrote a longer post about Raydays on the Raycast blog.

How do you manage workload, deadlines and people burning out with a culture that’s so high around autonomy and craft? That takes a lot of time.

“I think it’s a mix and there’s no silver bullet to it. It definitely helps to work on something you are using yourself, which makes the work a lot more enjoyable. We have a flexible PTO policy, so you can recharge when you need to. We also try to make sure we have ‘cooldown periods’ after completing bigger projects. This allows us to address the initial feedback and recover, instead of running to the next initiative straight away.”

What would be the workflow you’d like everyone to copy?

“Have a goal for your week and ship tiny, incremental improvements every single day towards meeting that goal. If you don’t have that goal, you’ll be run by the priorities of someone else. Second: don’t be too rigid. Rigid routines are hard to keep up with our dynamic lives, and when it breaks you’ll be back at square one. Keep things simple and flexible.”

That sounds like fantastic advice to leave you with.

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