Work from home startups: are offices dead?

Image contains a white office icon representing work from home startups over a red background

Last week, we celebrated our 100,000th subscriber on YouTube- we had pizza and beer and fun... on a Google Meet session. 

Our office has now been pretty much empty for the last three months, and there is no sign of when we'll see it full of people again. But, hear this, we are not considering canceling our lease. 

First, we spent around $50,000 in adapting the space to what it is today, most of which we would lose if we got rid of the office. I don't know if $50,000 sounds like a lot to you... but well, it was a combination of interior design, chairs, desks, TVs, projectors--- you know, the stuff that's needed to have an office. And that I don't want to waste. 

But more importantly, I continue to be a firm believer in the power of in-office collaboration. While working from home makes people happier and potentially even more productive as individuals- I believe that live human interaction (still) can't be replaced for groups or teams. 

I am going to go over some of these reasons, but also, how we built our team in a way that allowed us to become fully remote while maintaining the essence, company culture, and productivity of the old days. 

This is my take on Remote Teams. 

Building a Team 

We 'prepared' to work remotely from the get-go, from our first hire. Not because we could predict the future, but because all three of us founders are not micro-managers. We understood that we wanted a company with no fixed schedules, flexibility to work in different locations- and we couldn't afford to hire people that needed to be closely supervised. 

But being compatible with remote work is not all of it: the second, and probably most important part, is company culture. Creating a team that feels part of a whole. That enjoys working together. 

So two objectives when hiring:  first, creating a company culture. Second, hiring people that can work remotely.

Company Culture

When we started the company, we absolutely could not afford to hire top-tier talent. More importantly, I didn't have the runway visibility to ask somebody to quit their job and come work for us. This has been a phobia of mine, to be honest. 

In the early stages, we could probably have been more aggressive in our hiring, but that could translate into risking somebody's job because we made a wrong prediction about revenue. That's a burden that I never want to bear, so we are conservative in our hires, and extremely transparent about our financials, especially for specialized roles that we are stealing from other companies. 

So our first team members were unemployed when we hired them. We were nobody, had a short runway, and too much uncertainty. But we still had to filter them well and ensure that they would match our expectations. 

One of our biggest hacks for this was using a Myers-Briggs personality test. While not perfect (and hated by many), Myers-Briggs is a widely-accepted introspective self-report/questionnaire, that classifies people into 16 'personalities,' that predict how people perceive the world and make decisions.

I'm an ENTP if you're wondering. 

When people applied, we put them through a Google Form questionnaire that allowed us to classify them into one of these personalities. Then, we would calculate if they'd be compatible with the rest of the team, especially their direct supervisor. 

This allowed us, early on, to build a lot of cohesion with the team. We are a team of around 30 people now, and there are multiple groups of close friends that have been formed after working together. 

By close friends, I mean Slidebean team members often hang out off-work, on non-Slidebean organized activities. We even had an office couple once, which was curious. 

We brought together a group of people that share more than an office space, and a boss- and this has been absolutely key as the company grows, and in these days of isolation. 

Image contains an office

Building a team that can work remotely

Even in tech startups, not all roles can be remote. Let me re-phrase that to... not all positions should be remote. 

On one extreme, we might have our product team. They connect once or twice a week on a stand-up meeting, agree on what they are working on, and then they are on their own. 

These roles are very much compatible with working remotely. In fact, the distraction of the office environment probably breaks your concentration more often than at home. 

On the other hand, we have teams like our marketing team: continuously brainstorming, implementing, and launching new campaigns. In our most experimental phases, we are probably doing 4-5 different campaigns in a single week- and this brainstorming process is very hard on a remote call.

We are more efficient when we are sitting together. 

We can talk to each other without booking a call; we can grab 15 minutes between two meetings to coordinate a new campaign and launch it before the end of the day. With audiences our size (about 1.5 million sign-ups), launching something today vs two days later, can have a tremendous impact on our revenue at the end of the month.  

Notice that in neither of these examples, there's a need for micro-management. The value of sitting together is coordinating, brainstorming, efficiency in communication... but after that, everybody is on their own and completes the work they need to complete 'in a timely manner.' 

But what is a 'timely manner'? How long should building a set of ad designs and launching a retargeting campaign take? Three hours? 6 hours? 

I know the answer to that question because I've done it myself, and I know how long it takes me. I handled it for a couple of years while we were bootstrapping, and finally had the chance to delegate it. 

Our Head of Marketing has done it himself as well, and can then assign it to the designers knowing full well how long it should take. 

Pretty much every single task in the company, I've done myself at some point in our history, which has allowed me to understand the real-time requirements of most of what we do. 

Very rarely, we've had to let people go, and oftentimes, we, the management team, have taken the full blame for not hiring someone that couldn't adapt to our method. 

Our method is assigning a task and taking it out of our brain, considering it done. We expect it delivered promptly, knowing well what that prompt expectation might be. 

Some people need closer supervision. Some people need micro-managing, or someone pushing them to finish things on time. That doesn't work for us: we just can't afford to do our work and keep track of the work we assigned as well. 

Another essential variable is proactivity. There's a vast difference between finishing what you had assigned and proactively taking on other tasks and completing them! 

This proactivity is a combination of an initiative of the team member, and 'trust.' Confidence from our team that their action will be relevant, impact the company, and that we are allowed to make mistakes. 

It also relates to transparency: everybody in the team knows how much revenue we are making every month. Everybody in the team knows full well how they are impacting the company. 

The tech barrier 

I want to go back to this sentence: 

The value of sitting together is coordinating, brainstorming, efficiency in communication... 

I think we are pretty efficient at this. We were on Slack before it was cool. We use ClickUp for Task Management and task delegation. We use Google Meet for calls. We use Slidebean for team reports and presentations (shameless plug). I firmly believe the tools we use are the best in their field. 

But Coordinating, Brainstorming, and Communication. 

I hate to say it, but it's not the same. There's no Zoom, Skype, or Google Meet that can replace a meeting in the office in front of a whiteboard. 

No platform can replace running into someone in the hallway, and getting a question cleared out. 

There is no replacement for sitting down, having lunch together, and talking about something that is not working. 

So our office has not been completely empty. Adjusting to regulations, we have occasional meetings, with the required social distancing. Because, at least for me, there is no replacement for human interaction. 

What do you think? How remote can your team be? Starting a business?

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