Running a startup and remote, the 3 Ws: why, who and when going remote?

Agorapulse Tech mini retreat, near Nantes

Remote, future of work?

Remote work is clearly a hot topic and a revolution in progress. Co-working spaces are opening everywhere. Millennials in increasing numbers are pushing to both work and travel for a better quality of life.

But not everyone has jumped aboard the “work from anywhere” train. Yes, Automattic, the company behind WordPress, closed its gorgeous San Francisco office because its employees never show up, but remote work pioneer IBM, called thousands of employees back to the office.

And while some very vocal medium-sized startups (Zapier, Buffer and Basecamp) talk a lot about the benefit of remote, household names Netflix and Spotify want all their team on-site to optimize collaboration and reactivity.

Remote work has opened the door to a new era of freedom and luxury. A brave new world beyond the industrial-age belief in The Office — Jason Fried, Founder of Basecamp

Even in the pro-remote camp, there are two possible approaches : semi-remote (Basecamp, Github, Trello, etc) or remote-first ( Zapier, Buffer, Doist, etc).

2 approaches to remote

What approach to work is best? What are the pros and cons of each? When to implement remote in a growing startup ?

These are questions I answered during a talk I gave few weeks ago at Web2Day (video in french is here). The goal was to provide feedback from the ground based on our personal experience at Agorapulse: the European leader in social media management, a bootstrapped startup with 42 people working remotely in 12 countries in 4 continents, handling 3500+ customers in 145 countries.

It was also a good time for me to reflect on my first year as a remote CTO / remote-co-founder in Nantes, with most of my tech team located at our HQ in Paris.

WHY — The pros and cons of remote work

The Agorapulse team, almost complete, during our 2018 retreat

Last week, we had our annual retreat in a typical French château near Paris. It was a blast: meeting people face-to-face, having live agile workshops, running a competition during the week (including laser tag and bowling!). Team retreats are the best to create real life connections.

One morning, we ran an amazing agile workshop: everyone wrote on Post-Its the pros and the cons of working remotely. Two big word clouds emerged on the wall with three main topics on both sides.

The pros of remote

The pros

  1. Geographic Freedom: « work from anywhere », « work & travel », « home office » (man cave, no pants, no shoes!), « no commute »
  2. Temporal Flexibility: « organize your schedule », « having my own routine », « spending more time with family », « time to learn »
  3. Focus & Deep work: « quiet for deep work », « no distractions », « focused »

The overall feeling is that remote helps you have a better quality of life and better personal productivity.

It has also many advantages for the company:

  1. Cost reduction without offices,
  2. Hiring flexbility without being limited to a local city,
  3. Reduced employee turnover.
The cons of remote

The cons

  1. Communication friction: « less effective communication », « missing informal conversation », « out of the loop », « misunderstanding », « time zone differences »
  2. Loneliness: « solitary », « feeling lonely », « missing watercooler & office life », « do we really build relationship on Slack? »
  3. Blurry work/life boundaries: « hard to stop », « vampire days », « feeling accountable », « work too many hours »

The reality is that working with people in distant time zones can be slow and frustrating. Communication friction and less agile collaboration leads to a reduced overall team and company productivity.

I was able to summarize those pros & cons in the following schema. On one side, we value personal productivity (flexibility & focus). On the other side, we optimize for team productivity (collaboration & reactivity).

Remote vs On-site
The office is becoming a place for collaboration, while home is a place for concentration — Kate Lister, President @ Global Workplace Analytics

WHEN — Going international post product market fit

Because of those pros & cons, I would never recommend a remote-first approach to an early stage startup where collaboration and reactivity is a must-have to survive. Remote is not optimal when you are in lean search mode: building, measuring, learning and iterating as fast as possible, trying to reach your product market fit.

Once you’ve validated your product and you’re ready to grow and scale, it can make a lot of sense.

On paper, one of the big pros of SaaS model is the ability to go international and access a worldwide market. However, international customers want responsive sales, support and customer success — and very often a product in their native language (e.g. LATAM). You’ll have to cover multiple time zones and provide sales and support 7d/7d, 24h/24h with an optimal response time.

All of this is very difficult, even impossible, to achieve with a centralized on-site structure in a single country.

The standard approach to go international is to open offices in other countries or continents, which can be complex, time-consuming and very costly. Most startups raised Series A or Series B from VCs to implement it.

But there is another agile and less costly way, especially if you’re bootstrapped: hire remote regional / country managers, in charge of sales, support & translation (i18n).

So here are 3 good reasons for going remote:

  1. International deployment
    E.g.: to get sales and support for APAC or LATAM regions
  2. Hiring of key/strategic role that you could not found locally
    E.g.: to hire a CMO for the US market
  3. Better quality of life for your team
    E.g.: to leave Paris hell (when you have 3 kids) and move to the more chill Nantes 🤩

WHO — Job profiles adapted to remote

Once you’ve decided to go remote, you’ll have to choose which jobs to start with. All jobs are not equal in requiring synchronous vs asynchronous communication, team productivity vs personal productivity.

Best jobs for remote

Sales & Support

Based on our experience at Agorapulse, we could validate that sales and support jobs work very well remotely. People can be autonomous and do not require realtime collaboration.

Hiring remote workers here has allowed us to hire the best people for the job, namely native speakers in local customers’ time zones who provide best-in-class customer support to 145 countries.

Product & Tech

On the other hand, we found out that product and tech related jobs are not optimal when done 100% remotely.

Agile “pizza teams” work so much better when collaborating in face-to-face. It’s not that remote does not work in that case, it’s just that it’s less efficient. That’s also the conclusion of Netflix, Facebook and Spotify mentioned earlier.

Spotify is not 37Signals — we work in small units called squads, and each squad fits into a medium-sized room. It’s extremely efficient, but totally suboptimal environment for remote workers — Mattias Petter Johansson, Software Engineer @ Spotify

Conclusion

Implementing a semi-remote structure has worked very well for us. It has allowed us to combine the best of both worlds and optimize our organization based on job profiles:

  • tech and product in a central HQ based in Paris, where face-to-face agile collaboration is a must
  • marketing with a remote team mainly based in US, where a good mix of sync/async communication works pretty well,
  • sales and support all over the world with autonomous remote local workers, for optimal reactivity for all our customers
Agorapulse semi-remote organization

Here is another article written by Emeric Ernoult, Agorapulse CEO and co-founder, about this topic: Building a remote business: Should you go all-in or should you keep an office?

There are many challenges and pitfalls when going remote. Here is some quick advice:

  • get the culture of remote from day one (with 1 day per week with everyone full remote/no meeting for deep work),
  • trust and transparency must be part of company culture (micro-management doesn’t work with remote),
  • over-communicate and document everything,
  • organize a full company retreat once a year and mini team retreats in between,
  • hire carefully people with a “Doer mindset”, adapted to remote (autonomous, curious, organized, result-oriented, with good written communication skills)

What’s your take on this? Do you think that the remote-first approach is better than semi-remote?

As a remote worker, I found out that the ideal is when you combine the best of everything. Here is my perfect week: a mix of days at our Paris office, at the best co-working space in Nantes and at home!

The best of all worlds!
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