Remote Startups — What can happen when co-founders are in different locations?

And what can be done about it?

Why I am eligible to answer this:

I worked on a product called Skola for a year, where I worked from India and my co-founder and designer worked from Mexico.

We started the product from scratch and developed an entire platform in 6 months and started selling to schools on a good word of mouth with minimal sales effort. The product is live in schools in mexico.

I knew my co founder for 3 years prior to the startup and we had worked together for a corporate before.

We worked remote for the entire duration we built and sold the product. Most of our efforts were into coding, building the product, managing the earlier customers, understanding the market better and improving the features.

Start-ups are crazy by nature. The un predictability, iterative nature of operations, ambiguity, being pulled in various directions all the time — You are adding a bucket of craziness to the mix by working remotely during the process. Most of the times you will feel like a clown juggling stuff but having not much of a clue on what is going on or what might this all will lead to.

Now that I put the official disclaimer statement, we can move on to talk about things that impact remote startups. And what you can do about them.

You do everything in a startup

At earliest stages you will be just a few people. You will have an idea, you might or might not have a customer. You will have a clue about the solution, you might or might not have the skills yet to build it. There will be a lot of gaps. Holes in your understanding of market, pain, customer, technology. Holes in your capabilities.

You need to know where you and others stand in terms of various roles that needs to be performed. Yes, every one will have their own strengths, where they will contribute majorly — coding, marketing, selling, design etc But then, with the very few resources, you cannot just restrict yourself to your core skill like you will do in a bigger corporate.

Who will copy write content for your business? Who will go door to door evangelizing your product? Who will do a competitor analysis? Who will do market research on a new feature? Who will get the new customers? Who will help forming the partnerships? Who will understand new technology to implement a particular feature? Who will get new people for the team? Who will develop product road map?

In a word every one will be doing this and have to do this. But by being in different locations you are limiting the extent to which each team member can contribute. Can your co founder contribute effectively in all the areas that is essential to survival of your start up in spite of being in different location?

Skills and Capabilities

Knowing where every one in a team can contribute in addition to their core strengths will be critical for your day to day operations. It will help to improve individual contributions and maximize one’s potential. Being in different places before you get such an understanding of each other will lead to un necessary wastage of time and resources — your co founder might be spending time learning to do something which your designer can easily do with much less time.

Language as well as cultural differences can severely limit where some one can contribute. It adds to the burden on every one else in the team.

Understanding each others strengths and weakness is key to a productive and effective team. Its a necessity for your startup to function like a cohesive unit than as a bunch of freelancers.

Decision Making

When the team is split across locations, one of the co founders could have very less or no access to team or customer(s) or both. Its too difficult to achieve balance in terms of where the team/market is located and how much each co founder can contribute to decision making. The power structure might be lopsided in favor of one of the co founders. Which means that one of you have to take majority of decisions in terms of hiring people, managing customers, sales. Many times you will have to take quick decisions, something you would have never discussed about. Good chances that some one feels left out in the whole process. Or have no clue on what is going on, in spite of trying their best to understand.

So what can be done?

This is what I learnt from my own experience that can help remote startups.

Spend more time on communication. You and your co founder should do face to face communication using tele- conferencing solutions like Skype. Every day. Do not depend too much on text communication. Text messaging can be ambiguous some times. Its easy to assume our own tones on simple, innocent text messages.

Discuss on every little detail. Don’t worry if something is relevant or not, especially to the stage at which your startup is now. Talk about everything under the sun. Talk about finances. Talk about kind of people you want to recruit. Talk about the kind of customers you want. Talk about what happens if product fails or your expectations are not met. Talk about everything good and bad. Understand what each other’s thought process is. Talk about all things that can happen in your startup. Talk about all possibilities. Its essential to know where each other stands. And find a way to achieve a middle point.

Be as straight forward as humanly possible. Do not try to brush any problems as not important or silly. Be open on what you feel about something, what your expectations from the other side is. Have as much open conversations as possible. Show that you care for pain or problem of each other.

Make sure team interactions are not isolated. Meaning every one in the team should have a decent idea of what each other is doing — not just you and your co founder. Allow any one to question any one and have conversations. Encourage every one in the team to discuss about what their dreams are, what they envision for the startup, what they think will be the future. Seek out each other’s thinking process on everything concerning your startup. Allow every one in the team to give as much feed back as possible on each other, consistently.

Gut decisions. This is one of the trickiest parts. Many of us do take decisions on gut that others might or might not relate to. Especially when one is taking many of the decisions, its important to explain on what basis the decisions are taken. Its important to put the startup and product at the center of all decisions. Every one should agree on what is important for the product and startup in the short and long run. Its key to have a common understanding on the vision of the startup. To agree on 3, 6 ,9 months plan. And then every decision has to be guided by what is good for the startup. Not based on what an individual thinks is right or wrong.

Now, many of the things you do to make sure a remote startup works efficiently might not actually feel like its contributing to the start up. Many of the issues that arise on a day to day basis might look like a personal problem of you or your co-founder, not something you want to spend time on. You would rather spend time in talking to customer or building a product rather than focus on this, as it will take a lot of your energy and thinking.

In a startup there is very less demarcation between personal and professional lives. You all will be spending most of your living hours on your start up and very less in other parts of your life. You have only each other to talk about anything that impacting your personal lives. Especially while working remote where the possibilities for a misunderstanding or conflict of goals is a very real possibility. Possibilities that can make or break your team.

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