How one founder overcame her initial skepticism and found freedom and efficiency by running a remote team.
By Poornima Vijayashanker (Founder, Femgineer)
When I started BizeeBee, I had one word in mind, freedom. More specifically, I wanted the freedom to be able to work from anywhere, and still make progress. However, having never built or run a remote team I knew I’d need help.
My co-founder Alex Notov had a very strong vision for how to make this possible. Having been a freelancer for a few years, he had developed a system for himself that made him successful at managing clients and projects.
Alex suggested that we get rid of our office space in downtown Palo Alto altogether and go remote. He had a legitimate reason, he didn’t want to commute two hours a day to meet with all of us! He thought he could instead spend the hours being productive.
However, I was highly skeptical, thinking that his system would only work for a team of one. As a young startup that was still formulating its product and identity, I wasn’t sure going remote would breed a collaborative company culture. Having limited experience leading a remote team, I feared all the things startup founders fear when it comes to managing employees: absenteeism, missed deadlines, lack of communication amongst teammates, little to no unity in the company culture, and inability to attract and recruit new employees.
Alex assured me that there were other companies that were successfully building products and fostering a collaborative culture, but I was still skeptical. However, I trusted Alex, and also wanted to create a company that would be conducive to his needs.
A Roadmap for Remote Work
We sat down as a team and came up with a plan to address each of my concerns.
Face-time is important, especially for a young team where people are still getting to know each other. So the first rule we came up with was: all meetings required all employees to share their video. This made it easier to see how people were reacting to what was being discussed in the meeting.
We also knew that people might abuse text for passive aggressive behavior, communicating via email or IM, because there really was no way to be confrontational in person. To avoid this situation we came up with the second rule: serious communication shouldn’t be conveyed via text. We needed to use video to talk it out. Once again this was to gauge people’s emotional intent.
After setting up both these rules I decided it was time to test their efficacy. If the team really was cohesive and able to communicate, then they should be capable of shipping product without me present.
A Test Run
As a test run I planned a vacation. Before I left I clearly communicated what needed to be done. Gave them a reasonable amount of time to figure out how to make it happen. I also made sure to set clear evaluation criteria, success was shipping product in my absence.
Then I got out of the way, and took my vacation! When I came back things were running pretty well.
I was able to delegate because I had hired competent employees whom I could trust. Then I backed off to let them do their work. They would check-in with me, rather than me constantly polling them. If they failed to produce it will be obvious.
Alex also taught me that deadlines are deadly. Employees fall sick, the scope of projects increase, or you might have to fight a fire, all of these cause deadlines to slip or be missed altogether. Instead we prioritized stories, and shipped when things were baked. Baked meant that there weren’t lingering dependencies that would confuse users, or bugs that would interfere with a user’s experience.
We knew that it wasn’t enough to just see each other online. We needed to spend quality time with each other, put work away, and just get to know each other. So we’d organize a fun activity or a yearly retreat.
Making in-person time a priority kept the team collaborative and caring.
Finally, we anticipated that new hires might not like our remote working culture. We highlighted it while initially screening candidates, to avoid it causing a problem after someone came onboard as an employee. Most candidates would be honest and say they were disinterested in working remotely and needed to be with an in-house team. Others who were curious would want to know what it would be like. In that case we’d have a couple practice co-working sessions to see if they really did fit into our remote culture and understood our processes.
Highlighting it helped us find people who fit well with our culture, and as a result made us a happy, productive, and collaborative team.
I ended up getting the freedom I wanted through Alex’s help. Clear rules that addressed my concerns, created structure for the company, and still fostered a collaborative culture that I cared about.
Remote teams for startups: are you a skeptic or a booster?
About the blogger: Poornima Vijayashanker is founder of Femgineer. Prior to Femgineer, she founded BizeeBee. Prior to that, she was employee #3 at Mint in 2006. Poornima blogs on Femgineer.com. Follow her on Twitter at @poornima.