Bootstrapped: Building A Remote Company

by admin

If you ask me, working remotely rocks. I’m currently writing from a small beach bar located on a remote island in southern Thailand. Looking up from my laptop, I see nothing but the endless ocean and its crystal clear blue waters. I’ll be enjoying this morning undisturbed and focused on my work because the rest of the team hasn’t even gotten up yet. Time zones work out really well for distributed teams.

My colleague Thomas recently talked to 11 thought leaders in project management about the impact of remote work on a company; some scrum experts argued that distributed teams could work together effectively while others came out strongly against it.

I understand the concerns; you can’t just open up the office doors and release everyone into the wild. It’s not guaranteed that you’ll end up with a thriving business. Marissa Mayer at Yahoo famously axed remote work in 2013 after feeling that some employees abused it.

So how does a tech company get this working remote thing right? Read on. The following is based on our story at Planio and how we made it work.



Enter Planio, my remote company

There are a number of things which motivated me to start my current company. Breaking away from client work while retaining all the benefits of being a location independent freelancer was one of them.

In 2009, I was sitting in the shadow of a cypress grove situated in a beautiful Mediterranean-style garden overlooking the rolling hills of Tuscany, working hard on a new side project of mine: Planio.

It’s a project management tool for people like me: developers. Planio helps make client projects more organized and transparent all while reducing the number of tools and platforms needed to do the job. Planio is based on open-source Redmine (an open source Ruby on Rails-based software project), which I’ve used remotely with my own clients since its very beginnings. So, in a way, remote work is already in Planio’s DNA.

Fast forward to today, and my small side project has grown into a real company. We’re a team of 10 now, serving more than 1,500 businesses worldwide. We have an office in Berlin, but many of us work remotely.

In this article, I’ll dig into the principles, tools and lessons that have helped us along the way. After reading it, I hope you’ll be able to architect your software company so it’s remote-friendly right from the start.

“Talk is cheap. Show me the code.” – Linus Torvalds

Every Thursday we have an all-hands conference call where we discuss what we did the previous week and what’s coming up next.

At the beginning, we spent a lot of time discussing ideas before deciding on what to do, but we found that it’s a lot harder when some team members are on a poor quality telephone line and you can’t see them.

Now, we often just “build the thing” and then discuss it – we create a working prototype with a few core ideas and then discuss that. For instance, we recently hit some performance issues with our hosted Git repositories. Instead of discussing and analyzing all the possible ways in which we could potentially save a few milliseconds here and there with every request, my colleague, Holger, just built out his suggested improvements in a proof-of-concept on a staging server to which we directed some of our traffic. It turned out well and these ideas are going into production.

This method focuses everyone’s minds on action rather than talk. The time invested in writing code is paid back by less time spent talking in circles.

Use Text Communication

Real-time communication punishes clarity. Instinctively calling a colleague when you need something is very easy, but it’s not always your best course of action. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve started writing an email or a Planio ticket for a problem only to solve it myself just while writing it down.

Zach Holman, one of the first engineering hires at GitHub, agrees: “Text is explicit. By forcing communication through a textual medium, you’re forcing people to better formulate their ideas.”

Text communication also makes you more respectful of each other’s time, especially when you’re living multiple time zones away. Immediate communication can be disruptive; the person might be in the middle of figuring out why the last deployment went wrong. With an email, s/he should be able to consider your write-up at a more convenient time.

Be as Transparent as Possible

Time spent worrying about office politics isn’t conducive to shipping working software, and transparency promotes trust. It’s no coincidence that many remote-by-design companies, such as Buffer, have radical transparency. In the case of Buffer, it shares revenue information and the salaries of all its employees.

Automattic, the company behind, also emphasizes transparency. In his book, The Year Without Pants, Scott Berkun shares his experience working remotely for Automattic, and that all decisions and discussions are internally available to employees in its P2 discussion platform as part of its emphasis on transparency.

The chat feature in Planio works in a similar way. Discussions are open for everyone to see and chat logs are linked automatically from the issues discussed so nobody is left out; even new hires can read up on what previous decisions were made and why. When I started building the chat feature, I considered adding a feature for chatting privately with others, but when we discussed it as a team, we ended up leaving it out because we wanted to keep team communication as transparent as possible.

I think transparency is critical for remote teams. For example, imagine you’ve just joined a team of remote developers. Perhaps you’ve never met your new colleagues. You don’t know the unspoken rules of behavior. You might be worried about whether you’re doing a good job. Are your teammates actually being sarcastic or do they really mean their compliments? Is everyone privately discussing how good of an engineer you are?

Digitalize Your Systems

We choose our services based on what they offer by way of online platforms, from telephone providers to banks (many of them will even offer a small financial incentive for going paperless, plus it’s great for the environment, too). I’m lucky to have a lawyer and an accountant for Planio who are comfortable sending emails or messages with Google Hangouts instead of summoning me to their offices. (I strongly recommend you ask about this at the first meeting.) Bonus points for getting them to sign up with your project management tool and become a part of your team!

We’ve even digitized our postal mail; at Planio, we use a service called Dropscan that receives our letters, scans them and forwards the important ones to the appropriate person. You don’t want to your friend to pick up and read them out over Skype. If you cannot find a mail-scanning provider for your city or country, some coworking spaces offer virtual memberships to maintain a physical mailing address while you’re away.

For those companies sending out mail, there are services available so that you never have to visit a post office again. We use a German printing company with an API that automatically sends a letter along with stickers to each new paying Planio customer. It’s something people love, and we don’t have to print and mail a thing. International alternatives include Lob and Try Paper.



Original article in Toptal: Click here