The silhouettes and imagined dystopia of work was bad. Images of real people prioritizing their Merchandise Update over their family on a Skype call is just fucking horrendous.
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Name: Christopher Johns
Title: Commercial Director
Company: Aardvark London
Number of employees: 17
Basecamp customer since: 2004
Tell us a little about Aardvark — what kind of work do you do?
We’ve got two sides of the business. One is the digital agency where we design, build and support the digital experiences for clients. (See examples here.) The other sides is our eCRM platform called Nudge. That’s the back end, effectively, for all our client websites. It manages customer inquires, email marketing, customer communications and customer database and behavioral tracking as well.
You’ve been using Basecamp for a long time, more than 9 years. Do you remember how you first found out about it?
There had been quite a lot of buzz … I think Mike Arrington of TechCrunch had written something about Basecamp. At that time, we were growing and looking for ways to manage our client expectations and their projects. It seemed like a no-brainer, an easy way for everyone to track what’s going on and get customer buy-in as well.
What kinds of problems were you having with managing client expectations?
In what we do, there’s a lot of going back and forth with clients, and various people within various positions. So you might be speaking to the digital marketing person, the head of operations, the head of marketing. Historically, you would have done things via email. You would have sent someone a concept or something, and said “What do you think of this concept?” You’d CC three people on that email, and have three people coming back with comments, some of which are conflicting. Then you start replying to those and indenting your comments on their original comments. Pretty soon, you know what it’s like; everything gets lost. The original sort of thrust, the momentum, of the project gets bogged down in trying to manage the communication between you and these disparate parties.
Clients may not be as technically proficient as you want them to be. My son is 12 and my youngest is three. The three-year-old is very, very capable of using my iPhone and my iPad and doing all of that, whereas my mother is not.
So your clients tend to be older or less technologically adept?
Some of them are, some of them aren’t. What they don’t want to do is have to learn a whole new thing just to work with us. Our job is to make their lives easier. If they have to go and learn a whole new thing in order to just communicate, you’re off to a bad start to the relationship.
Basecamp is very simple. They don’t have to go and log into anything; all they do is reply to an email, and post their comments. And being able to track all those comments coming through, from all of those disparate sources … you’ve got a nice clean audit trail so that if anybody questions it at a later date, you can say, “well, have a look at this. This is what you said on this date.”
Does that happen?
Yeah, it does. Not that frequently.
What kinds of projects have you managed with Basecamp?
We’ve just done a project for Transport for London, the authority that runs all the underground for London and the buses, Boris Bikes, and the river buses as well. We’ve just built a digital sign project for them — you’ll see signs all over London now with these maps on them that have real-time bus departure information overlaid, that’s localized to the location of the digital sign.
With digital signs for Transport for London, it’s about thousands of people all in one location, and how they’re all interacting with that information, and how that sign helps guide them to their chosen destination. So for example, you can’t use colors on a digital sign to indicate a particular stop, because people would be looking around them in the bus station looking for yellow, and that yellow doesn’t exist.
In London, there are literally millions of people who use the buses every day. Millions of people need to know where to go, and digital signs are helping them in that process. It’s a very interesting user experience development process to try to communicate to people via digital signs that are in the real-world environment that have to show complex data and make it simple for all these people to find where they’re going.
What’s your work culture like?
We’re a collaborative culture; we’re a small team. Everyone brings something to the party, and it’s about the respect for what each individual brings to the party that gets the most out of every person working on the team. We’re not a personality-led business. People don’t come to us and say “I want to work with Aardvark because Chris is there.” They work with us because they see the output that we have as a team and they want that for themselves.
I understand you just moved into some new offices?
We are moving, but it’s been delayed. It takes between 60 and 90 days to get fiber installed. We’re moving closer to Transport for London and a couple of our other clients.
We’re changing how we work as well. We just instituted an opportunity for the staff, where they can go and work 25 days per annum from wherever they want to. We have one guy who spent two months earlier this year working out of Peru. If you want to work from home for one day, that’s fine. Basecamp is one of the systems we use that will enable that process to be more effective. At the moment I live in the city with my wife and children and dog, and we’re hoping to move out of London a bit to get a little more greenery. So it’s actually going to help me as well.
Why 25 days in particular?
It’s pretty much an experiment to start with; the 25 days is a pretty arbitrary figure at the moment. If everything goes well, if people like it and they’re motivated and they feel good about the whole thing, productivity is shown to be positive, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t do more.
We took the liberty of rewriting Microsoft’s dystopian vision of remote work ads. See more at #WorkCanWait and contribute your own revisions.
Microsoft is launching a new marketing campaign for Office 365 that celebrates working during your kid’s recitals, on vacation, and while enjoying the appetizer at a restaurant. All this under the guise of “balance” between work and life. Yes, it’s horrible.
Remote work is still stifled by managers who think that it’ll lead to employees goofing off, but we’re not making any progress if they switch to Microsoft’s pitch for getting to all those TPS reports from the bathroom. In fact, we’ll be worse off. Much worse.
Remote work is not about working more hours in more places. It’s not about invading every crevasse of your life and stuffing it full of work, work, work. Au contraire, mon ami. It’s about spending the hours of work more productively, and then having more time free from its tentacles.
Good ideas are co-opted and perverted all the time. Remote work is not just a good idea, but a great one. For shame on Microsoft for cheerleading its most dystopian corruption. (And no, I don’t fucking want to edit that Excel spreadsheet during happy hour.)
The Nexus 5 is a fascinating phone. In an era where Apple has set the luxury tone, and everyone is trying to follow suit in colors and chamfered edges, Google just said no. No, it won’t be luxury. In fact, it’ll be unapologetically cheap.
That’s a refreshing breath of honesty, and a clever way to sidestep one of Apple’s core strengths. If Google doesn’t have to compete on bringing luxury to the masses, they can compete on other things.
What’s scary for Apple is just how well that strategy appears to work when the main interface of the device is just all glass. Because while the Nexus 5 comes in a cheap plastic wrapping, the screen itself is gorgeous. Big, bright, and appealing. It’s very clear that this is where the bulk of the $349 purchase price went. Well that and the fast processor.
What it comes down to is that Google has made an appliance. A boring, no-thrills appliance. This is not a work of art. But it doesn’t pretend to be a work of art. That’s what has made all the Apple imitations so pathetic for so long. Remember the HP Envy (and can you believe that HP has left that embarrassment of a video online)? If you stand in the shadow of Apple’s luxury and design prowess, you will shiver.
It takes real vision to reject the prevalent frame of the market. Google has done just that with the Nexus 5. An appliance so good for what it is, that you realize that luxury is optional.
In addition to Jason’s regular “Get Real” column in Inc., the magazine reprinted several chapters from REMOTE: Office Not Required. If you haven’t already read it or ordered your copy, they’re a great sneak preview!
Hey, Marissa Mayer, You’ve Got it Wrong: Telecommuting Isn’t A Bad Thing. It’s The Future
If you ask people where they go when they really need to get work done, very few will respond “the office.” If they do say the office, they’ll include a qualifier such as “super-early in the morning before anyone gets in,” or “I stay late at night after everyone’s left,” or “I sneak in on the weekend.”
Why Face-To-Face Meetings Are Overrated
How many breakthrough ideas can a company actually digest? Far fewer than you imagine. Most work is not coming up with The Next Big Thing. Rather, it’s improving the thing you already thought of six months — or six years — ago. It’s the work of work.
Working From Home Boosts The Quality Of The Work
When you can’t see someone all day long, the only thing you have to evaluate is the work. A lot of the petty evaluation stats just melt away. Criteria like “Was she here at 9?” or “Did she take too many breaks today?” or “Man, every time I walk by his desk he’s got Facebook up” aren’t even possible to tally.
How To Work With Clients You’ve Never Met Face To Face
It may be irrational but, if you’re local, the client often feels that, if worse comes to worst, they can knock on your door. They “know where you live.” But when you’re remote, they’re going to be more suspicious when phone calls go unreturned or emails keep getting “lost.”
The True Challenge of Managing Remote Workers: People Who Work Too Hard
A manager’s natural instinct is to worry that her workers aren’t getting enough work done. But the real threat is that they will wind up working too hard. And because the manager isn’t sitting across from her worker anymore, she can’t look in the person’s eyes and see burnout.
The Two Biggest Drags On Productivity: Meetings And Managers (Or, As We Call Them, M&Ms
These two staples of work life — meetings and managers — are actually the greatest causes of work not getting done at the office. In fact, the further away you are from both meetings and managers, the more work gets done. This is one of the key reasons we’re so enthusiastic about remote work.
Name: Peter Baumgartner
Company: Lincoln Loop
Employees: 12, all remote
What does Lincoln Loop do?
Primarily web development, design, and consulting using the Django Web Framework. We’re also working on a couple of our own products. Ginger is actually geared towards improving communication for remote teams.
Did you start out as a remote company?
Yes. I started the company in Steamboat Springs, a small mountain town in Colorado. I was a ski bum/freelance developer who happened to stumble upon a good thing (Django). Pretty soon, business was booming and I needed help. The whole operation was bootstrapped so I didn’t have the budget to relocate people. Even if I could, I’m not sure I could entice them to be in the mountains and neck-deep in snow half the year. I wasn’t interested in moving to a “tech hub” and wanted to pull from a bigger talent pool than I had locally. Already being plugged into the open source world, working remote didn’t seem like a strange choice.
What challenges did you face in setting up as a remote company?
Like many others, I was enticed by cheap outsourcing arrangements. That was a nightmare and I quickly learned the value of having people you can trust implicitly on your side. After that, I was much more interested in cultivating a team of “managers of one” than attempting to micromanage a team of cheap outsourcers. Communication was rough at first, but we’ve got it pretty well dialed in now. It’s a combination of chat (IRC), voice/video (usually Hangouts), and asynchronous discussion (our own tool, Ginger).
What do you see as the major benefit of letting employees work offsite?
It puts them in control of their own lives. Autonomy is the number one indicator of happiness, and we can give them a lot of it. Interestingly, commuting has the exact opposite effect (lack of control and persistent source of unhappiness). We don’t lose people because they want to move, even if it’s to a different country.
Which would you rather have, a ping-pong table and a fridge full of sodas or the freedom to live anywhere in the world?
I’m living near the beach in Mexico now. Another one of our developers has lived in the Caribbean, France, and the Netherlands over the last few years. As far as job perks go, it’s huge in attracting new talent.
Which would you rather have, a ping-pong table and a fridge full of sodas or the freedom to live anywhere in the world?
Any advice for other companies who are considering going remote?
Trust and communication are the key components. If you don’t trust your employees, you need to fix that first (and perhaps ask yourself why you are working with people you can’t trust). Communication can be tough for somebody who is used to having lots of verbal communication and meetings in a co-located environment. Sticking to those patterns is setting your remote workers up to fail. They’ll always be out of loop.
Nat Friedman has a great post titled Everyone Dials In, where he describes how even co-located workers in his office called into meetings to ensure everyone was on equal footing. I think that’s the frame of mind you need to be in. Push all your communications to platforms where remote workers have equal opportunity to participate and soak up information.
Visit Lincoln Loop.
Harvard Business Review has another rah-rah piece for Silicon Valley. While on the surface it looks like a well-researched article, its error lies not in methodology but in definition. In the minds of the author, the definition for startup success is confined to this:
If you judge entrepreneurial success as surviving or selling (including raising follow-on funding, being bought, or successfully IPO’ing) as no doubt your investors do, then your odds of success are lower outside of the superhubs.
What a shitty definition of success! The world outside of Silicon Valley is rightfully not succeeding by the narrow definition of success espoused by proponents of the Valley VC model. DUH.
But there are many other definitions of success to measure yourself against. We’ve long been campaigning for the success of bootstrapped, proud, and profitable. Businesses, who like 37signals didn’t get off the ground by a Series A round of funding, and who do not see IPO, acquihire, or any other form of acquisition as a successful outcome.
This is how most of the world’s businesses work! And not only work, but prosper, and sustain themselves in the long run. But that’s the boring path of turning great products and services into profitable outfits in less than the average 10+ years it seems to take most Silicon Valley startups.
Do not let the VC merchants and their stooges tell you what success looks like. Do not accept that this path has to go through their 10:1, or 100:1, lottery funnel. You do not have to pick up their shovel and dig gold only where they have marked the X.
The best ideas and the best talent in the world is not confined to these tiny geographical areas, except in the minds of those who live there. Start your business wherever you want to live with pride. Recruit the best remote workers where they want to live with vigor. Success on your terms will come soon enough.
One of the biggest challenges when hiring someone is trying to envision their potential.
Sometimes someone’s a sure bet. They’re the perfect person for the perfect project at the perfect time. Their pedigree is exceptional, their portfolio is stocked with amazing work, their experience is vast, they’re a confident interview, and everything just feels right.
It happens, but that’s not how it usually works. There are very few perfect people.
Instead there’s a lot of future perfect people. People who have the potential to become the perfect person in the perfect role if just given the right opportunity.
When I hire designers, I look for future perfect people. Some people have the potential, but they haven’t had the opportunities. Their portfolios are full of mediocre work, but it’s not because they’re mediocre designers. It’s because they’ve been given mediocre opportunities.
A lot of future perfect people are stuck in current mediocre positions. They just haven’t had the chance to do their best work.
While it’s a bonus to find that perfect person today, I find more it more rewarding (for me and them) to pluck the future perfect person out of their mediocre job today. I love betting on people with potential. When they finally get that chance to do their best work, they blossom in such a special way.
And as the owner of a company, few things make me prouder than seeing someone excelling in a way that their resume/portfolio/references wouldn’t have suggested they could.
Hell might be other people, but isolation sure ain’t heaven. Even the most introverted are still part of Homeous Socialitus Erectus, which is why prisoners fear The Hole more than living with other inmates. We’re simply not designed for a life of total solitude.
The occasional drawback of working remotely is that it can feel like you’re surrounded by plenty of people. You have your coworkers on instant messenger or in Campfire, you receive a constant deluge of emails, and you enjoy letting the trolls rile you up on Reddit. But as good as all that is, it’s not a complete substitute for real, live human interaction.
Fortunately, one of the key insights we’ve gained through many years of remote work is that human interaction does not have to come from either coworkers or others in your industry. Sometimes, even more satisfying interaction comes from spending time with your spouse, your children, your family, your friends, your neighbors: people who can all be thousands of miles away from your office, but right next to you.
But even if you don’t have friends or family nearby, you can still make it work; you’ll just have to exert a little more effort. For example, find a co-working facility and share desks with others in your situation. Such facilities can now be found in most larger cities, and even some smaller ones.
Another idea is to occasionally wander out into the real world. Every city, no matter how small, offers social activities to keep you sane and human, whether it’s playing chess in the park, finding a pickup basketball game, or volunteering at a school or library on your lunch break.
Cabin fever is real, and remote workers are more susceptible to it than those forced into an office. Fortunately, it’s an easy problem to address. Remote work doesn’t mean being chained to your home-office desk.
This essay comes from the Beware The Dragons chapter in our new book REMOTE: Office Not Required. The book is being released October 29, 2013.