Managing a startup across three continents

Our startup now consists of 13 people.  8 of us are in our Berlin Headquarter, 3 are in the US and 2 are in Australia.  Our customer are 70% US-based, 10% are in Australia, and 20% are”rest of the world”.

Sometimes this raises an eyebrow or two – being such a small company and yet covering 4 time zones seems very demanding. But I feel that it’s nowhere as hard as it seems, so I wanted to share what I personally feel is important to get such a distributed company going.

In my opinion there are two things that need a bit more thought than in a one-office-company:  Communication and Recruiting.  But as you can imagine, recruting and communiction are important for any company that wants to be successful. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel here, just pay a little more attention:

Communication

Once your company falls into different silos, you’ll end up with inefficiencies, us-vs-them-thinking, maybe even hostility and information-hoarding. Large companies exhibit this very often, but it can happen to anyone. The cure is simple: Hire team players and then share as much knowledge as possible. Encourage direct and group-communication. Share notes after meetings. Etc. It’s not magic, it merely needs to get prioritized.

You’ll need tools to support the different forms of communication. We use HipChat for direct messaging and group messaging and for 1:1 video and audio calls. We use Confluence as our internal knowledge base and discussion forum, Trello for day-to-day work planning, and JIRA is for bug tracking. We use Skype and the phone a lot, and of course there are a couple of specific tools like CRM, Support Desk, Invoicing etc, and most people have access to all these tools too.

The main challenge is to actually use the systems a lot, because it always takes a few extra seconds to put everything relevant into Confluence for the others to see, to not hesitate to chat to the person on the other continent, to actually call frequently and not just rely on mail.  While it’s important to avoid useless meetings and interruptions, we constantly encourage a spirit of “it’s okay to ask someone remote for help” and “it’s okay to spend 5 extra minutes to share this interesting marketing insight”.

Gentle pressure is key. When I receive a mail that contains a suggestion, I often respond “why is this not in Confluence so everyone can contribute?”. When someone has experienced something cool during a client visit and maybe snapped a photo: Share it in HipChat as if it was Instagram. So along these lines the dev team shares their weekly status meeting notes with the marketing team, the marketing team shares the revenue numbers with the dev team, all using our electronic means.

Such transparency would be a big plus for a one-office company too, but it’s a must-have in a distributed startup, or you will encounter a huge disconnect soon. Fortunately, it’s not hard.

In addition to using technology, plain old traveling and face-to-face meetings can be super helpful too. Our Sydney-based director of marketing Linda has been traveling the US twice now and dropped by the Berlin HQ as well on the way back. And two months ago we flew the entire company to New York for a week-long team event that incluced a hackathon, customer visits, brainstorming, and a lot of sightseeing. It’s expensive if you just look at the bills, but helping a distributed team gel and avoiding a disconnect between development and marketing/sales/support is priceless.

Recruiting

The recruiting process is the most important process in any company. Hire two or three caustic employees and morale of the entire company is down the drain. You have to be very careful even if you’re only hiring for one location. In our case, every promising developer needs to come in for two days of trial work. This is how we can judge their coding skills better (in a more relaxed environment than in a tech interview) and we can also tell if someone will be a good social fit.

If you hire someone abroad without ever meeting them in person, especially the first person in a new location, you’ll want to be even more careful. But it’s not exactly rocket science either. In our case, we’re looking for customer success representatives who need to be tech-savvy and able to engage with leads and customers alike. So we’re quite demanding in the second and third interview, in that we ask applicants to conduct a live demo of one feature of our product to us. Once we can tell a person is a good fit, we’ll start two weeks of intense  remote onboarding: Learning the product, listening in on 10 to 15 product demonstrations, and preparing for a full demo. Since it’s all remote, we need to force ourselves to check in with the new hire frequently (after all, they might leave us if they feel disconnected). But once those two weeks are over and the new person likes their work, there’s really no more magic to it. General communication (as described before) is then the key driver to keep remote workers engaged.

In summary: Bliss!

And that’s all there is to setting up distributed teams. In everything else we’re just like a normal company, and probably “distributed” is the “new normal” in a few years anyway. But right now I keep running into people who stare in disbelief, and so I just had to get if out of my brain. By spending slightly more effort on Recruiting and Communication, we’ve been able to build a very focussed company. We’re still small, but we’re recently suprassed our first million in annual trailing revenue, so we are serious about this. 🙂

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