Building a Bicoastal Design Team -Lessons Learned in 2015
It’s the beginning of 2016. Like many people, I’m thinking about lessons learned in 2015 and setting goals for 2016.
I grew a lot in 2015 due to a lot of change, and a lot of firsts. Most notably, on March 31, 2015, I moved from NYC to San Francisco to expand the Percolate design team from the east to west coast.
Aside from college, this was my first time living outside of the tri-state area. It was my first time building a bi-coastal team. With the move, I got my first studio. As with all firsts, you never know how it’s going to go.
9 months in…
I’d say the bicoastal adventure has been the most exciting and most challenging experience in my life thus far. It’s led me to a lot of high highs and a number of low lows. Although it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride, I’m thankful for the opportunity, because the dramatic change has led me to a lot of growth.
Now that change has slowed, the foundations are set and life has stabilized, I’m ready to share some lessons learned. At this point, I like to think about the lessons as tactical lessons related to building the team, and more personal lessons related to managing transitions.
Whether you’re considering a bicoastal team, or just going through a big life change, I hope you find this interesting and useful.
Building the Team
When I arrived in SF last April, the Percolate SF office was just getting started. We had 5 business team members at a coworking space in SOMA. Since I was the 1st product team member at the SF office, I encountered a lot of communication challenges.
At the time, moving from in-person meetings to video chat was a rough adjustment. Although our video chat service is great, video chat felt like an unnatural, odd existence. In addition, the time difference limited communications and slowed productivity. In those early days, I sorely missed in-person meetings and synced schedules.
In response to these feelings of discomfort, we quickly developed a set of guidelines for bicoastal communications. To begin, we picked a block of time for bicoastal team meetings. Since the design team likes to reserve mornings for design thinking, we decided bicoastal communications should happen between 12–3pm PT (3–6pm ET). With this simple change, I was back to design thinking in the mornings, and that was much appreciated.
With regards to video chat, we created a list of video chat tips to help the team adjust. Although video will never be as good as in-person, tips such as “be mindful of the mic location” helped ensure successful video conversations.
Lesson Learned: Establish bicoastal communication guidelines early to help create a healthy foundation for team communications.
To Begin, Visit Regularly
When I first moved to SF, I came with strong connections to the NYC team members. We had worked closely together, and developed friendships beyond work. I valued the bonds and saw how they really brought the team together.
When I moved to SF, the friendships became harder to maintain. Communications were less frequent and more direct. As new team members joined, it was difficult to develop relationships beyond the immediate work. It’s hard to become good friends over video, Slack, Asana and email.
One of the greatest things we did to build a foundation for bicoastal relationships was travel between coasts. When I was the only design team member in SF, I flew back to the NYC office every 4–6 weeks. At the same time, NYC members visited SF every few weeks.
In November, we held a design team offsite in the Catskills. The SF team members flew to NYC and together, we drove to the offsite location. Bringing the bicoastal team together for a weekend was a tremendous bonding experience. I highly recommend it.
Thanks to travel, we’ve developed a solid foundation for bicoastal relationships. Now that our team is growing on both coasts, we’re becoming less dependent on travel. We’ll continue to visit one another, but the frequency will decrease. After all, bicoastal travel is not sustainable at scale.
Lesson Learned: In the early days, it’s important to travel between coasts to establish a solid foundation for bicoastal team relationships.
Localize then Hire
When I arrived in SF, our goal was to hire the 2nd designer in SF by the end of the my 1st month on the west coast. We quickly learned it would be much harder than expected.
As new kid on the block, our brand was below the radar in a city where everyone was hiring designers. We needed to localize and understand our new city before we could attract great talent.
A job description isn’t enough. We needed to speak to the community. Starting with events, we visited design school shows, attended design events and hosted our own DesignTalk event. Through the events (and Twitter), we worked our extroverted selves and made new design friends. We grabbed coffee with designers and learned what it means to be a designer in SF. We then reviewed our team story and created a localized version for our new city.
It took time to localize. Once we did, we began attracting wonderful product designers. 6 months in, we hired our 2nd designer. Shortly after, we hired the 3rd designer. The localized methods were working.
Lesson Learned: When you expand to a new city, start by localizing and understanding the community. Then focus on hiring.
On a more personal level, I must admit the challenges of this journey have been quite difficult. With a tremendous amount of change, ambiguity and uncertainty, I learned a few key lessons about managing big transitions.
Learn about Transitions
About 4 months into living in SF, I read the book Transitions. At the time, I was in the thick of the transition and found the book very relevant. In particular, I enjoyed how the book explains,
“Change is situational. Transition…is psychological…All transitions are composed of 1) an ending, 2) a neutral zone and 3) a new beginning.”
The book then goes on to describe the stages and offers tactics for managing the transition.
Looking back, I’d say I experienced an “ending” the day I left NYC and boarded the plane to SF. The first month in SF was a fun-filled adventure, but then the “neutral zone” hit. It was a long, fuzzy time, filled with a lot of uncertainty and emotional confusion. I wasn’t myself and I was admittedly a bit lost. I was very eager for the “new beginning” to hit.
In my 7th month in SF, I reached a “new beginning” when the 2nd designer started at Percolate SF. I remember it distinctly because it felt like a light switch turning on. It was one of the happiest days of 2015.
Lesson Learned: It’s helpful to learn about transitions when you’re experiencing a big one.
Talk to an External Mentor
Moving to build a bicoastal team comes with a lot of unique challenges. As with many things in life, it’s helpful to talk about the challenges with others, rather than keep them bottled up.
If it’s a personal challenge, it’s natural to chat with friends or family. If it’s a work related challenge, we often turn to colleagues and managers. Although my family, friends, and coworkers have provided me with amazing support throughout the transition, I also found it was very helpful to gain outside perspectives.
In particular, I was lucky to work with an external management coach for 6 months during the transition. My coach helped me with challenges related to building a team and developing as a manager. As part of my development, my coach suggested that I write a weekly diary entry to measure my progress. I liked the idea, so we created a list of questions and I answered them on a weekly basis. Some questions were related to work, others were about my physical and emotional wellbeing. These are some of my favorite questions I answer each week;
- On a scale from 1–10, how do I feel emotionally? Why?
- On a scale from 1–10, how do I feel physically? Why?
- What opportunities do I have next week to do better?
Thanks to my coach, and the weekly exercise, I’ve become more aware of patterns, then taken steps to improve. At this point, I’m happy to report wellbeing numbers have largely gone up over the last 9 months.
Lesson Learned: When you’re in a big transition, it can be helpful to seek an external mentor. Their unbiased perspective and in some cases, professional expertise, can help you through a tough transition.
Adopt a Mentality
As part of management training, I also learned it’s helpful to adopt a mentality when you’re trying to work through a stressful situation such as a big transition.
When I first arrived in SF, I lived in a sublet with 3 other roommates. At the time, it seemed like the easiest way to get situated in SF, explore the city and find a place to live. I brought 3 suitcases worth of things with me to the sublet and sent some of my belongings to my parents house in NJ. 1 month into the sublet, I started looking for my own place. The SF real estate market was particularly rough, and the endless hours browsing Craigslist and visiting open houses were stressful. I was so drained and worried. I missed my things so much. It was a particularly difficult phase.
At the time, when my thoughts ran loose, I calmed myself by saying, “Everything will be OK.” Adopting a mentality was a healthy way to calm stress, fear and negativity, and move on. In the end, things did work out. I found a great apartment. Everything will be OK. Sometimes we need a reminder.
Lesson Learned: Adopt a mentality when life is transitioning quickly and changing a lot.
As a reminder, one of the healthiest things you can do in times of transition is exercise on a regular basis. In addition to the endorphins, regular exercise can provide some much needed stability when a lot of things are changing.
To ensure a consistent swim schedule, I created an event on my cal that reoccurs weekly. At the moment, I have 3 times a week set aside for swimming. If I make it more times, it’s a bonus. If I can’t make one of the designated times for some reason, I move the event to ensure it happens at another point in the week.
Lesson Learned: Regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy during a transition. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind.
All in all, I learned a lot of lessons last year from the bicoastal move…
Building the Team
- Bicoastal Communications — Establish bicoastal communication guidelines early to help create a healthy foundation for team communications.
- To Begin, Visit Regularly — It’s important to travel often in the early days to establish a solid foundation for bicoastal team relationships.
- Localize then Hire — When you expand to a new city, start by localizing and understanding the community.
- Learn about Transitions — It’s helpful to learn about transitions when you’re experiencing a big one.
- Talk to an External Mentor — When you’re in a big transition, it can be helpful to seek an external mentor. Their unbiased perspective and in some cases, professional expertise, can help you through a tough transition.
- Exercise Regularly — Regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy during a transition. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind.
Looking back, I’m proud of my bicoastal accomplishments in 2015. It’s been a challenging year, but I’m a stronger person today than I was when I boarded the plane to SF.
Now that it’s 2016, I’m excited for the next phase of this bicoastal journey. Cheers to new challenges, new growth opportunities, and new learnings. Happy new year!
Thanks for reading!