How we run a global startup from ‘three continents’

I run Corporate360, a SaaS company, offering innovative BigData products for B2B sales and marketing in global markets.

Corporate360 was started in Singapore where I am mostly based. We are truly a global startup. We are an international team based in US, UK, Philippines and India. We have customers from North America, Europe, Middle East and Asia. I spent 4 months of my work time in a year frequently between US, Europe and India where most of our customers are based. With our entrepreneurial experience so far, it’s proven that, with the help of technology, we can build a global start-up from day-1, even when the customers and teams aren’t geographically close. Here’s how we do it.

The Global ‘Starting-up’ Team

Corporate360 was bootstrapped and started in Singapore in 2012. Our goal was to build products that serve international markets. We looked around and learned that the traditionally, start-up teams stay close together, focus on one market and expand in phases. In today’s fast paced & highly competitive business environment, we thought not to lose time and decided to go global from day-1. This strategy required forming a multi cultural team preferably based in countries that are our key markets. We were bootstrapping hence did not have much cash on hand. We took advantage of the excellent customer support talent in Philippines and vast pool of software programmers in India to scale up while the core management team in sales, marketing, technology and finance are based in Singapore & US. The strategy was a good pay off in terms of scale, time-to-market and profitability.

The Main Encounters

Team Building: As a bootstrapped startup, our first phase of team building naturally occurred through freelance workers. We hired software developers and data analysts in US, Philippines, Singapore and India. Honestly, managing freelance workers was a nightmare. Many at times, we felt not having much control and faced frustrating situations. Soon we learned that freelancers are not a practical option to build a startup with clearly defined vision & culture. The next step was to hire our core team to build the company. By forming a well-balanced global team, we were able to leverage global economics of talent availability from emerging markets.

Office: First 3 quarters, we worked from our home offices. Then we started working from Starbucks and co-working spaces. Our focus was to build good products and that was all our customers cared about. When we made our first profits, we decided to invest in a modest office. Initially, some candidates would show up for interviews and feel embarrassed cuz we did not have a flashy office. I am glad we didn’t hire such douche bags. People joined at different timing and getting them integrated into a definite track was an eye opening people management experience. It took a year for us to build the right team that fits into our culture.

Time Zone: Being in different time zones can be quite a challenge. You wake up to 50 emails from your team and customers, and you have to schedule your time carefully. Sales calls get scheduled at 2am. You may bump into a system bug at 12pm PST and need help from your India team to fix it. You may have a new idea on your product and the sense of urgency drives you for a team call at 4am. It’s challenging yet exciting. We try and look at it as a positively. It means that if something needs to be done urgently, there’s always someone there to handle it.

Emotions: Another challenge is more emotional. If there are exciting things going on, that only one of us can be part of, you can feel a bit left out. For example, we recently had a really exciting sales meeting in New York, but because my sales VP was on Skype and she didn’t feel the same as being in the same room, speaking face to face. You want to be there for every moment, whether it’s meeting new customers or meeting someone we’d love to work with, but it’s not always possible. There are also some times when it would be useful to have another person around, such as at conferences. If your leadership team is there, you can meet more people and get more out of it. Startup life is extremely chaotic, many at times things may not fall in place as per your strategies. Soon you will make mistakes, change from plans that doesn’t work and learn to deal with situations.

Sacrifices: We are up all hours, day-night, working weekends and holidays, doing all the work by ourselves. Physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health is screwed up as unable to spend quality time on life style activities you love. Time is largely dedicated towards building the company hence building and managing friendship has turned cold. Your perceived reputation is compromised cuz you are no longer associated with a big, cool brand. You will soon miss birthdays, anniversaries and many other celebrations. Your budget & life style will switch to a new dimension that you would have never thought of.

Freedom: This is the biggest life style reward for being an entrepreneur. You will enjoy the freedom you get in a startup — the freedom to invent your work, the freedom to make a difference, freedom of speech, freedom of creativity and ideas, to be your own boss and the countless tangible and intangible benefits. We often book work trips to work in San Francisco, Kochi & Bali for a couple of weeks — with technology nowadays you really can work from anywhere, it’s refreshing and inspiring to work from somewhere more interesting at times.

Communication

As we don’t have the opportunity of working side by side in an office, we message constantly through email and whatssap to keep up to date with the others, and then we Skype every night to catch up with what’s happened during the day, and make plans for the next day. As each one of us also have other primary responsibilities, we do bits throughout the day in between our core work. We’ve just started to use slack a real-time instant messaging tool as well.

Culture Shock

We have customers in London, Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Tokyo, Bangalore, New York, Shanghai & Singapore. Business cultures aren’t too dissimilar anywhere. There is all kind of people out there you need to deal with when trying to make a sale. Some may be appreciative & collaborative, some may be neutral and some may be totally surprising no matter how good your products are. Business engagements are very situational and many at times you will ride on a thin line. Likeability is a key factor and you don’t want to bring emotions in business dealings at individual level.

Work Delegation

Our leadership team did not work together for long prior to Corporate360. But luckily we found each other during same stage in our career and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses very well. Often it is obvious who should be doing what; other time it depends on our respective workloads, or even just on who’s awake. Having that familiarity with each other’s working style really helps. Regular brain storming sessions on business goals, performance, progress tracking, knowledge sharing, new ideas, improvement plans can help. Transparent communications on feelings & insecurities helps to build trust, improve confidence and solve problems together.

The right tools for the Job

The tools we use every day are Join.me, Business Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs, Yammer, Skype, Slack & Xp-dev for communications and collaboration. AWS and Digital Ocean serves our cloud needs. We use Xero, & Zoho for our operations. Excel and Power point comes handy for basic needs. There are free and low cost options available, and incredibly useful for sharing and editing work and communications from anywhere, anytime. It’s essential for any collaborative work and it means we’re never caught out. There are tons of new cool tools popping up, the key is to decide on what is needed for your business and select the ones that are best fit for your needs and stick to it.

The Benefits

There’s no denying that having presence in 5 countries is really useful. You get insights into different markets; travel and you meet more people. We are constantly building useful networking contacts in several countries. Our team members can go to startup conferences and relevant industry events in their respective cities we are based out of rather than just attending the same ones together. We can meet with our customers, prospects and partners from time to time to manage relationships meaning we can get twice the benefit in the same time — it’s very efficient.

A global startup team can build the foundation of a cross-cultural environment in the work place, which is essential for long-term success. Our team shares a common meaning, values and codes of behavior to operate in a global multinational context. The cross cultural team building is helping us in raising confidence, bridging gaps, building trust, motivating our progress, developing interpersonal skills, encouraging common ground and developing our careers in international markets.

Golden rules

Running a business is hard enough regardless of where your teams are — if you’re doing it from different places, you have to undoubtedly know that you can work very well together as a team. A strong willed, like-minded, committed leadership team with cohesive focus is must-have.

Communication is vital. You need uninterrupted access to Skype & Emails because otherwise phone calls will get too expensive, and you need to communicate all the time.

Being available for each other anytime regardless of time zone difference is the most important factor for me personally.

If you are in a relationship, it also helps to have a supportive partner as well, as running the business takes up so much of our time. If you’re a startup founder you’re pretty much always on your computer or phone and will be travelling. The undivided attention and unconditional love will be certainly split. Having a partner who understands that, complements your work and be helpful is invaluable.

Learning

Most of us think a great idea is 90% of the work and keep telling people, here is this great idea and of course we can make it happen. The problem with that is, there is this tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and great products. And as we evolve that great idea, it changes and grows, it never comes out as it starts because we learn a lot more as you get into the subtle of it and you also find out there is tremendous trade offs. Designing a product is keeping 5000 things in your brain, the concepts and fitting them all together. Every day you discover something new, a new problem or a new opportunity to put these things together differently. And it is that process, that is the magic of product development, working together and it’s the arguments, fights, working together, bumping up against each other, making some noise helps to polish the ideas — in the end its certainly not the result of one person. It really is a team effort.

Let’s discuss @VarunC360