How Zeb Evans Built ClickUp from Life-Threatening Moments — Exclusive
Foundr Magazine publishes in-depth interviews with the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. Our articles highlight key takeaways from each month’s cover feature. We talked with Zeb Evans, cofounder of ClickUp, about disrupting the project management industry. Read excerpts from that in-depth conversation below. To read more, subscribe to the magazine.
The 17-year-old’s hand shook as he raised the gun to Zeb Evans’ forehead. Adrenaline overwhelmed Evans’ body as the metal rubbed against his skin. Then, in that moment of extreme uncertainty, he gained clarity.
His identity didn’t need to be defined by a diploma.
“I had that realization when I had the gun pointed to my head—that this isn’t what I want to do with my life,” Evans says.
Evans was an undergraduate student when he was a victim of a home invasion robbery. Fortunately, he wasn’t harmed, but his future had a new outlook.
“[I realized,] I don’t want to go work for someone else. I don’t want to continue learning business, because you learn business by doing,” Evans says.
The next day, Evans dropped out of school and started working as an entrepreneur. Twelve years after the home invasion, Evans is now CEO and co-founder of ClickUp, an all-in-one productivity management tool valued at $4 billion.
The robbery wasn’t the only near-death incident that shaped Evans’ journey. Since that fateful day, Evans has experienced a number of life-changing moments that have informed his entrepreneurial path and contributed to his current work: disrupting the project management industry with ClickUp.
The Solution That Became ClickUp
ClickUp started as a means to an end. Evans wanted to create a competitor to Craigslist by making buyer and seller communications safer. But before tackling his next startup project, Evans wanted to solve a productivity problem that had bothered him since his first business.
“It was just this clusterf**k of productivity tools. And they were supposed to make you more productive, but I couldn’t help but think that we were less productive by using all of these different tools.”
He started studying heavy-hitter productivity platforms like Asana and Trello to see if there were ways to unify their solutions. As he and his team began building their custom tool, they discovered they weren’t the only ones frustrated with the costly and complicated tech stack necessary for many businesses to get up and running.
“We thought it was just going to be an internal tool at first, aimed at saving ourselves time. And then we shifted that to saving the world time once we realized that there’s a huge need for this.”
In 2017, Evans stopped battling Craigslist and started building an all-in-one solution for productivity, ClickUp. He set up the business in signature Silicon Valley fashion: a two-story house where the small team worked on the first floor and slept on the second.
Evans still misses the speed at which the team worked on their product in those early days. If they decided on a feature to build on Monday, they’d ship it by Sunday.
“It’s all about the product in the early days,” Evans says. “We were 100 percent community-led, 100 percent community-driven, and I was the product person—the only product person.”
The first version of ClickUp was built in six months using $2.5 million from the sale of Evans’s previous business. To compete with the productivity industry establishment, the team used an organic SEO strategy by targeting search terms associated with Trello, Asana, and productivity software.
Evans attributes ClickUp’s fast growth to the community of users and their active involvement in the product’s development.
“You have to use your users,” Evans says. “You can’t take action on everything, but you can take action on the trends, the common patterns that people continuously bring up.”
Scaling to Billions
ClickUp proved successful right out of the gate, and the team quickly outgrew its original house/office space. In 2020, ClickUp was named the best project management product by Proddys, the gold standard award for the product management community.
That’s when Evans started reaching out to investors for the first time. Investors were shocked that ClickUp wasn’t burning money and even more surprised that the company was profitable.
“If you can create a profitable business at first, you know you have a business,” Evans says.
“Too many companies go and get funded, and they don’t have a real business.”
ClickUp raised capital through a high-net retention model—meaning they expected to expand their customer base, and then those customers would pay back tenfold.
“When you raise a lot of capital, it’s OK to grow inefficiently. But you have to understand how to [move] toward efficiency,” Evans says.
With a profitable model, investors, and active users, ClickUp has exploded in growth over the past two years and now has offices in San Diego, Salt Lake City, and Dublin.
Evans says the main challenge of ClickUp’s swift rise has been managing culture. The team is 40 percent remote, but Evans says remote communication can only go so far in building a cultural connection. That’s why the company brings the team together in person multiple times a year and encourages local workers to be in the office twice a week.
Evans’ other culture preserver is using the company’s core values to coach employees. “I think, as the founder, you assume everyone sees the vision,” Evans says. “But the reality is people need to be reinforced with this stuff very frequently.”
Evans says it’s also important for core values to evolve alongside the company.
“You’ve got to be OK with it being dynamic,” he says. For example, one of ClickUp’s early values was “progress over perfection.” As the company scaled and its systems became more robust, the value was adapted to “progress toward perfection.”