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April 1, 2020, 6 a.m.
How Thorsten Grantner Uses OmniFocus in His Business

Thorsten Grantner is a founder of OmniCert, a German company which is a certification body for sustainability management systems. He joins the show to talk about how he and his employees use OmniFocus to keep up with their many processes and clients.

Show Notes:

That business may sound dry, but don’t be fooled by how it sounds: it’s a critical part of helping turn our world safer and greener. And, as vitally important detail-oriented work, it’s exactly the kind of thing OmniFocus excels at helping with.

You can find Thorsten on the web at

Some other people, places, and things mentioned:

  • Getting Things Done®
  • Agile
  • Inuit
  • Danube
  • Baden-Württemberg
  • Tesla
  • GTD® Summit
  • Jira
  • OmniOutliner
  • OmniGraffle
  • Atlassian Confluence
  • MindNode
  • Transcript:

    Brent Simmons: You're listening to The Omni Show. Get to know the people and stories behind The Omni Group's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. Music.


    Brent Simmons: I'm your host, Brent Simmons. On the line with me today is Thorsten Grantner, founder and CEO of OmniCert, which is a certification body for sustainability management systems. Say hello, Thorsten.

    Thorsten Grantner: Hello Thorsten.

    Brent Simmons: So how are you doing? I should note to the audience that we're recording on March 18th and at Omni we're all working from home. And I assume you guys are too. You're in Germany, right? In Bavaria?

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, we're in Bavaria and we're doing fine. Thank you, Brent. And yeah, we're also the Omni and we're also working from home.

    Brent Simmons: All Omnis work from home. That's great. This virus seems to not be limited to one certain region by now. We're all being hit by it. So, hope you guys are good, and I hope all our listeners are good. Anyway, that's not what this show is about. So we'll move on from that.

    Brent Simmons: So you have a company called OmniCert. Now, I noticed that you've got the name Omni in there. How did that come to be? I love the name Omni, by the way. It's a great company name.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah, we love it too, actually, but it was back in 2009 when my wife and I decided to found our own company. We actually forgot to think of a name, and I've been using Omni Group's products for quite a while, back then. And then the lawyer who made all the paperwork for the foundation of the company asks, "Well, what's the company's name? I got to know it, well, in 10 minutes." Then we thought, yeah, well, Omni means everything. And we both had quite a lot of Latin in school. I went to a monastery school actually. And yeah, we thought something with certification, we would just certify everything. So it went out to be OmniCert.

    Brent Simmons: OmniCert. Oh, that's great. Tell me more about this monastery school. Were you studying to be a monk or is it just that a monastery has a school?

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, it's the latter. So the church, well, especially the Roman Catholic church, is quite strong here in Germany, historically, and they run a lot of organizations like hospitals, or home for elderly or the disabled people, or schools. So yeah. And this one just happens to be near where we live and it's a very liberal school. It's quite nice. It's also boys and girls mixed school and well, it's run by monks, but they employ teachers. It's just a normal school, basically.

    Brent Simmons: You mentioned having a Latin education. Was that something specific to the monastery school or is that just commonplace in your area?

    Thorsten Grantner: Well, there are two other schools for higher education around here and most of them run Latin. You can get around it if you go for French or Spanish instead of Latin, but normally, you would have English as a first foreign language and then go for Latin and/or French as a second and third foreign language. So it's quite common, actually.

    Brent Simmons: Latin is not taught very much here in the United States, but amazingly, my nephew is taking Latin classes. So somebody is still learning Latin around here.

    Thorsten Grantner: It's a pretty [logical] language actually, and it gives you a good foundation for all the Roman languages afterwards. But of course it's a pain to learn. But yeah, when you're 14 and you go to school, everything is a pain to learn, isn't it?

    Brent Simmons: That's true. I still have nightmares about geometry class.

    Thorsten Grantner: I went to become an engineer and so, well, I shouldn't have nightmares about geometry.

    Brent Simmons: Sure. Wow, I really didn't like school. Let's not talk about that anymore.

    Thorsten Grantner: Well, we have to do homeschooling at the moment.

    Brent Simmons: That's right, yeah.

    Thorsten Grantner: And I think it's great, because they closed down all our schools. So we have our scrum board in here in our house, as well as at work. And then our eight year old is using this scrum board to get together his time table and we do our homeschooling. And well, normally, in Germany you don't have that. You do not have the option to do homeschooling because your kids have to go to school. So you can't opt into schooling your kids at home. So for us it's pretty special.

    Brent Simmons: What's the rationale for not allowing homeschooling? I mean, outside of the current crisis. Is it just that kids need socialization or…

    Thorsten Grantner: Oh, good question. Actually, I found out that there was such a thing as homeschooling when I first went to Australia back in 2000. So for us, it's normal. Everybody goes to school. If you don't, police literally picks you up after a while if you don't show up because children have to go to school. It's mandatory. So yeah. The police would pick you up and drive you to school, seriously.

    Brent Simmons: That's pretty incredible.

    Thorsten Grantner: The state makes sure that you go to school.

    Brent Simmons: Right. Yeah. Well, it's in the interest of everybody that kids get an education. So I get it.

    Thorsten Grantner: And now we got the chance to teach them about getting things done and scrum and all these sort of things.

    Brent Simmons: That's great. So your kid, your eight year old is learning agile processes.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, of course. Yeah.

    Brent Simmons: That's great.

    Thorsten Grantner: Since his parents are both in Boy Scout-ing, we are quite familiar with that. And that's why we started to use OmniFocus right when it showed up on our horizon.

    Brent Simmons: All right. So yeah. How did you get started using OmniFocus in the first place? Had you been, say, an OmniOutliner user before that?

    Thorsten Grantner: That's actually a good question because I started using OmniFocus, I guess it was back in 2008 when I got to buy my first Mac computer. And I didn't know, I stumbled over it. I liked the homepage a lot. I liked how the OmniGroup described their whole team, and there was a dog on there and, believe it or not, my second employee Yvonne, she came to me and she told me she would only start working here when she could bring her dog.

    Thorsten Grantner: And that was in 2009, six months after we founded the company. And I remembered the Omni dog. I don't know its name. We met Ken last year in Amsterdam and I think he said this dog is not with you anymore.

    Brent Simmons: Yeah, that's probably true. Yeah, I started working at Omni in 2014. So yeah, I don't think I ever knew that particular dog. But yeah, we have a lot of dogs in the office. People love bringing their dogs in.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah. We even have an office with a little dog door.

    Brent Simmons: That's great.

    Thorsten Grantner: Because normally our offices don't have doors, really. Only the meeting rooms have doors, but we have one office with a little door. It's about one meter high. So the people who work who bring their dogs can work there so the dogs feel comfy so they don't have to fight for their claim, so that they wouldn't bark when you enter.

    Brent Simmons: So how big is OmniCert?

    Thorsten Grantner: We are 38 employees at the moment, and still growing actually. People keep coming and yeah, we keep getting clients and so we keep getting good people who want to work with us. It's quite nice. And there's quite a bunch of freelancers around these 38 people whom we work together with. All in all, it's about 40, 45 people whom we manage.

    Brent Simmons: So you're a certification body for sustainability management systems. What does that really mean? So what do you actually do?

    Thorsten Grantner: Well, there are certain international standards like the quality management ISO 9001 maybe you've heard about that one?

    Brent Simmons: No I haven't.

    Thorsten Grantner: Well, it's an industry standard on quality management.

    Brent Simmons: Okay.

    Thorsten Grantner: So how you have your continuous improvement process, I think you would say DevOps in your branch, in IT. And there are some systems for managing your stakeholders and your environmental and social issues.

    Thorsten Grantner: And we specialize on these management systems. So basically, how a company is run, if they have their stakeholder dialogue in place, if they have identified who are the stakeholders, what are their expectations and how to address these expectations. And that also means risk management, like preparing for a situation like we have now with the coronavirus, and those companies who run these systems should be better prepared than those who don't.

    Brent Simmons: So do you help people with their systems, or are you purely certifying their systems, giving them a grade of some kind, I assume?

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, it's like 98% certification and then we have a little spinoff of our company. It's another company, it's called OmniCert Consulting. There's a few employees who have shares, together with me and my wife, in that company, and this company has about 20 clients and we help those clients to get their systems up and running. But, of course, those clients we are not allowed to certify.

    Brent Simmons: Oh, that makes sense. It would be a conflict of interest, sure.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.

    Brent Simmons: So how do you use OmniFocus to help you run OmniCert?

    Thorsten Grantner: Our whole philosophy has always been based around people managing their own work and being able to manage their own life, obviously, because people make it to work in the morning and they make it back, and the next day, they show up again. So I guess they are doing quite fine with that. So we never had the philosophy to tell people what to do, but rather to have them tell us what we can do together. That's our whole philosophy. And then from there on, I suggested our first employees that it might be a good idea to run our processes with OmniFocus.

    Thorsten Grantner: And in the first months, we didn't have any process whatsoever. So we set up processes for ourselves and we built all that into OmniFocus. So we made long lists of projects and tasks and subtasks. And to serve one customer, we had about 52 steps, tasks which we had to fulfill to be able to issue a certificate.

    Thorsten Grantner: And then the first year, we were five employees and we had 600 clients. So if you add that up, and we use this Getting Things Done methodology by David Allen quite a lot, and every new employee gets quite a nice range of books and GTD is one of them. And yeah, people start to use OmniFocus for different occasions. And into our software, we built export functions so we can push tasks into OmniFocus and back again. And so it has a nice API. Our programmers found out that it's quite nice to use this interface.

    Thorsten Grantner: And yeah, so everybody is using it quite in a bit of a different way, but we get everybody at our company to do a weekly review at the end of the week. Maybe at 1:30 on Friday afternoon, the whole company gets together and we have a little panel for two or three minutes, just as an impulse, as a motivation impulse, that everybody would do their weekly review.

    Brent Simmons: Oh that's great.

    Thorsten Grantner: And we tell people they can also use their private stuff and because I want them to go home with a clear head and show up on Monday with the motivation and know they have a clean desk and nothing's falling through the cracks. We call it Eskimo Rolle. That's from canoeing. You know when the Inuit or whatever, I'm not really familiar with the people originally from Canada, when they do this 360 flip through the water, you know what I mean?

    Brent Simmons: Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative).

    Thorsten Grantner: This Eskimo roll and I don't know what you call it in English with a kayak.

    Brent Simmons: Yeah, I don't know either.

    Thorsten Grantner: We got a lot of people who are living at the Danube who go paddling a lot, including me. So we call this weekly review the Eskimo Rolle because we take a deep breath, dive under and then come back up again and we are completely refreshed. That's our weekly review. Yeah.

    Brent Simmons: Ah, I get it. That's nice.

    Thorsten Grantner: Lots of people use OmniFocus, therefore.

    Brent Simmons: Do you buy a license of OmniFocus for each of your employees or…?

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah. I think we were switching back and forth a little bit because some buy it from the App Store and some have licenses directly from The Omni Group and some guy at our company had tried to harmonize that. Now we have an Apple business account and we can push the licenses onto other devices. I don't know the correct name for it, but-

    Brent Simmons: I forget the name. The name has changed and I'm not sure what it is right now.

    Thorsten Grantner: We have a special machine, an old iMac for it. It's called Appomat because it's pushing the apps. That's all it does. And you can log into this machine via screen-sharing and you grab your apps from the app store and you push it onto your device. So everybody at our company can choose their own apps.

    Brent Simmons: Oh, cool.

    Thorsten Grantner: But we teach OmniFocus as part of our onboarding process as well as the whole GTD methodology and the whole scrum framework. We also teach them about OmniFocus and yeah. Then quite a few people use it and it's become a habit that people ask, "Well, what's the next action here?"

    Brent Simmons: That's great. Everyone knows the terminology.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah. Yeah. And everyone talks in like a "definition of done," because the next action always needs a definition of done. And so that's actually quite a nice habit we set up around this whole GTD philosophy, which OmniFocus is the visualization for.

    Brent Simmons: That's cool. Are most people using it on their Macs, or on their iPhones or iPads, or is it really a mix?

    Thorsten Grantner: It's a complete mix. Well, whoever has an iPhone and using it on their Mac, they would use it on their phone as well. Some have licensed it privately because they came to our company and they brought it with them already, but they would synchronize it quite a lot. Yeah. I even try it on my Apple Watch every now and again, but I have too many open items all the time. So I need a bigger screen than on the Apple Watch. It doesn't work for me. Too many hobbies, I guess.

    Thorsten Grantner: But actually this whole philosophy around this GTD allowed us to switch our whole company into the home office from last Wednesday to Thursday. We just said, "Well, we have this Corona crisis now and we will get a shutdown in Germany in a few days. So let's just take down our tents and go home everybody." And this went very, very smoothly.

    Brent Simmons: Oh, that's good. Yeah. Well, I'm glad we could help with that, with our software, in some small way.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.

    Brent Simmons: So do you use any kind of custom Perspectives or anything interesting in your workflow that our listeners might be interested in?

    Thorsten Grantner: Personally, I work with a lot of Tags. That was a really great function for me because I'm talking to quite a lot of people every day when I'm in the office. So because people would come up and would ask me questions and while we're at it, I can open my OmniFocus and check if they are tagged somewhere so I can address other topics as well. That helps me quite a lot.

    Thorsten Grantner: And also the Focus function to really go into monk mode, into deep work mode. I use it quite a lot. And yes, Perspectives as well. I got quite a few of them because I'm on the road a lot. I would say on average, I'm in the office one and a half or two days a week and the rest of the week, three to four days, I'm on the road. And whether I'm on the train or in the car or in some kind of boring meetings, I would use those perspectives to show me the tasks I can do there. Small tasks or simple tasks or yeah, whatever.

    Brent Simmons: So you must have clients all over Germany if you're on the road so much. Or are they largely fairly local, or are you traveling outside the country sometimes? I'm curious about all the travel.

    Thorsten Grantner: We are traveling to Austria every now and again, but from Bavaria, this is not really another country.

    Brent Simmons: Sure.

    Thorsten Grantner: If you live in Hamburg or in Berlin, Austria is another country, but if you live in Bavaria, Austria is closer to us than Berlin is actually.

    Brent Simmons: Oh really? Okay.

    Thorsten Grantner: Well, I don't know about Seattle and Canada or Texas. I can imagine if you drive across the border to Canada, maybe it's a bit nearer, philosophy-wise than, I don't know, Alabama or Texas.

    Brent Simmons: Yeah, that's true.

    Thorsten Grantner: I've never been to the States, but I can imagine that.

    Brent Simmons: Yeah, a few hours north of us by car is Vancouver, British Columbia, and Vancouver is a lot like Seattle. It's a wonderful city. But if we were to go to Houston, say, it would probably seem quite a bit more different than Vancouver is to us. Yeah.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, yeah, I guess so. Yeah, so we have clients actually all over Germany, yes. The density is higher in Bavaria or in Baden-Wurttemberg which is our neighbor state than it is. But I'm also doing a lot of work on ... Well, I'm a consultant for the federal government. I've been doing that for nine years and I have to travel to Berlin a lot.

    Thorsten Grantner: And then I'm working in other interest groups in Hamburg and Frankfurt. So I'm taking the train quite a lot. We don't fly. So flying is not an option for us as a company, as we have a strong sustainability approach. And Germany is not that big. I mean, you can reach Berlin by train in four hours.

    Brent Simmons: That's not bad. Yeah.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah. We have quite a nice high speed railway system. Not like Japan, but it's really good. I love it. And so we would just hop into the train and drive to wherever we want. Yeah. Or we would take the car, but I don't drive the car to Berlin, which is 500 K back and forth in one day. You wouldn't do that.

    Brent Simmons: Right. Makes sense.

    Thorsten Grantner: Although we could reach it because we have three Teslas actually.

    Brent Simmons: Oh yeah?

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, we do, yeah.

    Brent Simmons: That's cool. You like the Tesla?

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, well the first thing we really like about it, it's that it's running on electricity and not on fossil fuels so we can actually charge it with green energy. And since we're a certification body for green electricity, we really know what we're doing.

    Brent Simmons: Right.

    Thorsten Grantner: So we make sure it's filled mostly with green power. And so we really like to bring our CO₂ footprint down and Tesla helps us a lot with that, really a lot. And that's fantastic, because four years ago, we didn't have a real alternative and… but we leased the first Tesla model S four years ago, and last year we bought two Tesla model 3, and they keep us running.

    Brent Simmons: We have a few Tesla owners here at Omni in Seattle, including I think maybe Ken. I feel.

    Thorsten Grantner: Okay. Yeah, I didn't ask him about that one when we met in Amsterdam on the GTD Summit last year.

    Brent Simmons: Our electricity in Seattle I think is largely hydroelectric. So we have a nice green source of energy of electricity here, which is cool.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, it is. We really need to address this climate change issue. It's a really big problem. That's another thing that OmniFocus helps us in our work because we often have big ideas or we want to tackle big problems and OmniFocus or the whole, OmniOutliner and whatever you use, or OmniGraffle, it helps us to break down big problems or big questions into bits and pieces and give it a structure and make it workable until it lands in our Jira, in our scrum boards, or Kanban boards, whatever we use to manage our team.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, since OmniFocus is a personal management tool, we need a collaboration tool as well, and we use Jira for that. But for me, it doesn't work to structure the big projects in Jira upfront. I need some other tool to give me the big picture. And this is where OmniFocus helps me a lot and it teaches me to think in the way you need to break it down into manageable tasks.

    Brent Simmons: And tasks that have a definition of being done, which is…

    Thorsten Grantner: Exactly.

    Brent Simmons: Really important, yeah. Do you or people in your company also use OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle?

    Thorsten Grantner: We use OmniGraffle a lot, really. Since we started using Atlassian Confluence and it came with a plugin, it's called Gliffy. People use that to draw directly inside Confluence. So OmniGraffle fell a bit into the background, but for me, it's quite superior because the graphics, the whole handling of things is much nicer. But it's not inline. You can't post it to the Confluence.

    Brent Simmons: Ah right, sure.

    Thorsten Grantner: That's the only reason why a few people step back from using OmniGraffle, but it gave us company for seven or eight years, and some people still use it, including myself. It's really nice. And OmniOutliner as well. I really love how it corresponds. I'm using MindNode as well, this mind mapping software, and I can just export it into OmniFocus. I really love that feature. For me, that's perfect. That's really perfect. I use it quite a lot.

    Thorsten Grantner: We made a huge mind map last week, in the night from Sunday to Monday, to organize us fleeing from the office into the home offices. And it went so smoothly, and with a flick of a switch or with a press of a button, I can just push the whole thing into OmniFocus or into OmniOutliner. And I have my structure there and I'm good to go.

    Brent Simmons: Yeah. That's awesome.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, that's really awesome. Seriously, it's like natural way of working.

    Brent Simmons: That's the way software ought to work. Yeah, that's very cool.

    Thorsten Grantner: So this helps us a lot in our whole thinking process. And when you set up a management system or when you certify management systems, so actually we look at other companies and how they run their business and we have to compare, do they run it like this kind of norm framework would see that or not? Do they comply to it or not?

    Thorsten Grantner: We always try to understand if they know why they're doing things the way they do it, which means they've identified their stakeholders and they know their expectations and they are able to break down the work into manageable tasks. And this is where the whole thinking of OmniFocus helps us.

    Brent Simmons: Oh, that's great. So in a way, you're trying to see if they're managing things the way OmniFocus or a GTD system would have you manage things.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, in parts, absolutely, yes. There's a few add-ons but what they have to do is they have to do internal auditing, which is like the inspector function. I think it's called inspector in English, isn't it?

    Brent Simmons: Yep.

    Thorsten Grantner: The function with the coffee cup? In German, it's called Überprüfung.

    Brent Simmons: Okay.

    Thorsten Grantner: You wouldn't want to use this word in English. Überprüfung. Well, they have to self-inspect in regular timeframes.

    Brent Simmons: Okay, so that's like the weekly review.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, yeah.

    Brent Simmons: Yeah, okay.

    Thorsten Grantner: Well, they would call it an internal auditing and some companies would do it once a year because the external auditor would come three weeks after that and they need to show him something or her something. But those are actually, normally the companies who run the systems because they want to have a piece of paper on the wall.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, but the ones who really want to manage their company according to these norms, and to really want to be sustainable, or good in quality, or efficient on energy, they would do these internal audits all year round of course. And they would have a quick continuous improvement process.

    Thorsten Grantner: That's one feature I have to do myself. Like in OmniFocus, I'm not 100% sure how to manage my continuous improvement process, so actually I just had this idea. It would maybe be a nice idea to include that in OmniFocus as, well once you're done with your Überprüfung, your inspection, the weekly review, maybe it would be nice to define a task: what can you do better next week? And this is mandatory so it jumps into your inbox.

    Brent Simmons: Right.

    Thorsten Grantner: Because this is something, my teams, we run seven scrum teams in our company, and we sometimes keep forgetting that. After the retrospective, we are like, "Yeah, what do we want to do a better job on next week?" And then we write it down, we make it a Jira item, and the next week's review, we are looking for this Jira item and nobody knows where it's gone. So it's not that important. So maybe OmniFocus could have a feature like continuous improvement.

    Brent Simmons: Yeah, I like that idea. Well, I will bring that up with the team.

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, that'd be nice. Thanks.

    Brent Simmons: Well, it's important. I mean, we should all be, hopefully, all be getting better all the time. So if OmniFocus can help with that, that's a good thing.

    Thorsten Grantner: If I could, I would also add a green button somewhere, to see if the task is paying into our company's vision and mission to help make the world a better place, in terms of sustainability.

    Brent Simmons: Yeah, right.

    Thorsten Grantner: Not only do I need those orange flags, but I would also need a green flag.

    Brent Simmons: A green flag. Yeah. That's a great idea. Well, I want to thank you, Thorsten, for joining us on the podcast and also thank you so much for the work you're doing, making the world a greener and more sustainable place.

    Thorsten Grantner: And thank you for helping make the world a more organized place and helping people to be more organized and yeah, be happier. I think that's really important because I think with happy people we can manage to have the world more sustainable, because with grumpy people it won't work.

    Brent Simmons: I agree with that. That sounds great. So how can people find you on the web?

    Thorsten Grantner: Oh, we have a home page. It's

    Brent Simmons: Okay.

    Thorsten Grantner: There is also an, I think they are actually from the Valley, as you would call it, I guess. They're doing software and we are the .de is for Deutschland, for Germany. Actually, 10 years ago, I didn't think about reserving a ".com" domain because I thought, "well, I don't know. If I ever work outside of Bavaria," and now I get the chance to have a telephone call with the United States. I'm quite excited actually.

    Brent Simmons: That's cool.

    Thorsten Grantner: So it's, they would find us. But the whole homepage is in German. We have some nice pictures on there, but yeah.

    Brent Simmons: Oh, sure.

    Brent Simmons: Any pictures of dogs?

    Thorsten Grantner: Yeah, I think Yvonne would have her dog, because we have all the ... Like you have, we have all the employees with a little profile on there and I'm sure one of them would have their dog on the photo as well.

    Brent Simmons: Well, I'll make sure that's in the show notes so people can click on it and look at the dog picture and everything. So I'd also like to thank our Intrepid producer, Mark Boszko. Say hello, Mark.

    Mark Boszko: Hello Mark.

    Brent Simmons: And especially, I want to thank you for listening. Thank you. Music.