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.”
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.
Part of the Lincoln Loop team at a 2010 company meetup in Portugal (left-right): Marco Louro (Portugal), Yann Malet (France), Nicolas Lara (Sweden), Martin Mahner (Germany)
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.
A few weeks ago, we asked you to submit your commuting sob stories and promised to share the best (worst) of them here. The entries more or less fell into the following categories:
1. My commute sucks
2. My commute used to suck
3. I work remotely, so neener-neener
4. Hey, I actually like my commute, you pro-remote work bullies!
Thanks to everyone who submitted stories. It’s wonderful to hear that some folks don’t mind (or even enjoy!) their commutes. For everyone else, here’s hoping REMOTE can help spark conversations about the freedom to work from wherever you want.
Some highlights and excerpts from the submissions:
When we redesigned Signal vs. Noise last year, we tried to make commenting a bit more of a conscious process by placing the link to the comment form at the top of the post rather than the bottom, hiding existing comments by default, and removing the URL field to cut back on spamming. We continued to require an email address, as well as warn commenters that “We’d rather not moderate, but off-topic, blatantly inflammatory, inappropriate or vapid comments may be removed. Repeat offenders will be banned. Let’s add value. Thank you.”
“We want readers to focus on the article, spend some time thinking about it, and reflect,” says 37signals designer Mig Reyes, who championed the redesign. “… the way books and magazines let you do that, because there’s no comments section that allows you to spit knee-jerk reactions publicly. If you really, really want to share something, you’ll put in the effort to dig for our comments form.”
Comments on SvN are generally more civil compared to those on other blogs in its peer group, and certainly elsewhere on the Internet. But the vitriol about the redesign itself was so extreme we very nearly pulled them — but most of it boiled down to good old-fashioned fear of change, so we waited. Eventually most of the haters moved on.
Still, it remains a problem. We’ve talked about the possibility of preemptively disabling comments for specific posts, but it’s tricky to anticipate which posts are going to incite trolling, and we don’t want to punish the readers who would otherwise add insight. Some of us have (only half-jokingly) proposed making would-be commenters click an “agree” button promising their intention to add value, or forcing them to wait five minutes before being allowed to post — you’d arrive on the page and a timer would start, and you earn the right to comment by waiting it out.
Other forums have begun addressing the breakdown in civil discourse by making it more cumbersome to join the conversation. The Huffington Post announced it would no longer allow anonymous comments, and ESPN.com requires commenters to have a Facebook account to add a comment on certain sections of the site. To combat the trolliest of the trolls, YouTube is rolling out a new system that forces commenters to use their Google+ profiles, and also moves more relevant comments (i.e., those from the original poster, people you know and “popular personalities”) to the top. And Popular Science has shut down the conversation altogether, arguing that trolls are “bad for science.”
We ultimately retained comments because there’s no denying the value of a true dialogue. There’s a lot to be said for a post serving as the starting point of a fruitful discussion, and for connecting authors and readers. Plus, you told us you want them: We polled SvN readers in 2012, and learned folks appreciate having comments in general (although some complained, understandably, about their quality).
Another possibility is moving the conversation elsewhere — tools like Branch exist for that very purpose. Mig purposefully built Twitter into SvN’s redesign to encourage offsite dialogue — if you read an article and have something to say to the author, tweet her. Mat Honan’s Wired piece highlights some of alternatives to hosting a conversation right under the post itself — a convention it’s past time we reevaluate.
When comment sections are deliberately downplayed, moved elsewhere or abolished, they’re no longer the most accurate measure of “engagement,” although that’s a popular misconception. One SvN reader recently commented:
“I find it interesting how few comments any of these blog posts get on the topic of company spotlight on remote working.
It must not interest anyone. Or at least, it doesn’t to me and frankly 37svn has jumped the shark long ago (as seen by the low engagement on all posts lately).”
(I tried to reach out to him to apologize for failing to meet his expectations and to ask what kind of posts he’d like to see more of, but he’d left a fake email address. I wrote to the next commenter, who’d agreed with him — no reply. So much for taking the conversation elsewhere.)
It’s true commenting is down since the makeover, but that’s by design — total comment volume has fallen by about 30 percent, while traffic has more or less held steady. Unique visitors to SvN have increased, as has the amount of time people spend on the site and the number of pages people visit. “Engagement” has less to do with the number of comments on a particular post, and more to do with page views, shares on Twitter and elsewhere, personal contact between authors and readers, and so on.
We’re not concerned about having jumped the shark, in other words — but we of course want to be conscious about the kinds of content readers want to see. That commenter was sort of right, in that we don’t get as many hits on profile posts like those in the “Bootstrapped, Profitable, & Proud” series — people like those stories, but they’re not as popular as the posts that highlight how 37signals works as a company, for instance, or posts that share our ideas on design and business.
For my part, I’m resolving to take those preferences more into account, and to do a better job engaging within the comments section, if that’s where people prefer to have a dialogue. The more present writers are post-publication, the more respectful the conversation tends to be, and the more value everyone gets out of the exchange.
I will say that writing more frequently for SvN has toughened my skin, and that’s not a bad thing. Trolling is never personal, for one. Rudeness says far more about the commenter’s character than about the author’s skill as a writer. Two, it helps to recognize that people are rarely inspired to leave a comment just to agree or say thanks. My coworker Jonas likes to think of comments as “The opposite of the thing you just read.” Since people generally only comment to disagree, “articles read like ‘Here’s a point.’ Comments -> ‘The opposite point.’” If you’re braced for it and accept that counterpoint as part of the anatomy of a blog post, it doesn’t sting — it’s expected behavior.
Name: Jorge Gómez Sancha Title: Founder and Managing Director Company:BeBanjo Based in: Madrid, Spain Established: 2008
What does BeBanjo do?
We build software for the video-on-demand industry. Basically, a video-on-demand service is something like Netflix. All of the operations that need to take place — from the moment that Netflix acquires content from the Hollywood studios, for instance, until that content is available for a user to watch — all those operations can be managed and tracked with our tools.
How many people work for the company, and of those, how many work remotely?
It goes up and down, but right now, around 16 people. Pretty much everyone works remotely in some fashion or other, but only two people, including myself, go consistently to the office. Some of them have an office to go to if they want; some don’t have an office in the city they’re working from. The main offices are in Madrid and in London. There are also people in the North and South of Spain. They can come to Madrid but they don’t regularly.
Why did you make the decision to go remote?
From the beginning, we realized we didn’t want to limit ourselves to working with local people. Also, we wanted it to be an international company because most of our customers, we knew, would likely be outside of Spain, which is the case. We only have one customer in Spain; the rest are all in the UK, France, the U.S., various countries. We made a point of making sure everyone felt OK with working remotely and very soon we were hiring foreign people.
My cofounder is Dutch. He was living in Madrid as well. Our language was always English; every communication is English. So it’s been in our DNA from the beginning, working remotely and being an international company.
What tools do you use to collaborate remotely?
For our code repositories for our software we use GitHub. For communications or for chat we use Campfire — we always have a Campfire room open. We use Basecamp when we work with customers. We use an internally built tool, a digital kanban board, to have a place where anyone can look and see exactly what development stage each feature is in. That’s become the heart of our day-to-day. All our infrastructure is virtual, so we use Amazon web services. There are no physical servers or anything, just our laptops.
What challenges did you face in setting up as a remote company?
One thing we realized very quickly is that not everybody is cut out to work remotely. It became obvious that we needed to find self-motivated, responsible, professional guys who like what they do, and it’s not a problem for them to sit in front of their computers at home. There’s no easy way to micromanage someone remotely, and we didn’t want to. We wanted to work with guys who would raise the bar. We find that good, self-motivated, responsible guys are also perfectly capable and willing to work remotely as well. Maybe not everyone we worked with initially was perfectly suited for that. Soon that stopped being a problem because everybody we hired was aware that this was the case.
Working remotely also requires an extra effort in terms of communication. If someone is sitting in the office, I pretty much know what he’s doing. If we’re not in the same office, I sometimes lose track. It requires them to be proactive in providing information. The same goes for me — if I don’t communicate, then no one knows what’s going on with me, whether we’re signing new customers or things like that.
What do you think are the major benefits of being remote for your team?
They feel like grown-ups, if you know what I mean. Normally in Spain, people are used to working a specific number of hours and being watched in terms of what time you come in, what time you leave. For us, the focus has always been: what can you do? What are you giving back? That’s the agreement. You do whatever you need to do — you want to wake up at noon, and start working then? Fine with us, but why are you doing this — does it make you more productive? Basically, people get more and more responsible with their time, because they are given a vote of confidence, and they return that greatly. That’s something people appreciate a lot, being treated as a grown-up.
I don’t even count vacation days or how many hours you work. I expect you to do what you need to do and be responsible, and the moment you aren’t, it’s immediately obvious to everybody. If you’re doing your work, it’s clear to everybody. If you’re not, then it’s also clear — even working remotely, just by the output. That’s one big benefit. They know they’re hired because they’re experts at what they do and they’re not treated like children.
That doesn’t mean that everybody’s left on their own and no one cares about them. We are very conscious about how people are feeling, whether they’re happy or frustrated. We make it a point to manage that. But no one cares about times, vacations, things like that. And people are super responsible in general.
Any advice for other companies who are considering going remote?
If you find the right people, it’s incredibly easy to do. Start with the people you think can manage it — who are responsible, self-motivated, enthusiastic about their work and so on. And also try with the people who request it — they will make a bigger effort to make this work than anyone else, because it’s in their interest.
Another thing is to communicate a lot — try to get in the habit of writing an email every other week or so sharing what’s going on, whether you’re the boss or whether you are just a guy working there. It’s super interesting to everybody to know what’s going on in the company, and just generate a sense of community and team. That is hugely important.
Find a place where people can go to virtually and feel they’re being seen as well. Although people are comfortable working remotely, maybe you’re hacking away at your software for hours, and you’re not talking to anybody because you’re concentrating. People start feeling anxious: “they’re going to be thinking that I’m not doing anything,” when actually they are working very hard. It’s important they have somewhere they can go to get rid of that stress factor, like a chatroom or something they can check into and say “I’m around if you need me; I’m just busy doing something else.” It’s a detail, but we’ve seen that helps.
It should be a big incentive for any company to get into working remotely: good people, good developers, good designers — they are all over the world. They are not just in your local town. Working remotely — opening the door to doing that — just opens the door to finding great people all over the place. If you’re used to working remotely and it’s easy to bring people onboard because everybody works like that, you’ll be able to hire anyone if your project is interesting and you pay good money. This kind of work is attractive to the sort of people you might be looking for: self-motivated, intelligent, and active people are attracted to this way of working.
Today we introduce a new miniseries: “Remote Works,” a collection of short interviews with folks at companies who made the switch from office to remote work. If you’d like to share your story, get in touch.
Name: Abhishek Rai Title: Founder Company:Shack Co. Based in: New Delhi, India Established: 2007 Employees: 7 (4 local; 3 remote)
What does Shack do?
We build and maintain community knowledge tools. We just launched Beanbuffs, a community of coffee lovers focussing on coffee, music and food. We also run a knowledge games platform called KnowQout.
Why did you make the transition to remote work?
We didn’t start out as a remote company — in fact, we started based out of New Delhi, in the northern part of the country. Then last year we transitioned from a web services company to a product and content company.
One of the inspirations (to transition to remote work) was Getting Real and Rework. 37signals has been a huge inspiration for us. Another was Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants: Companies That Choose To Be Great Instead of Big. A few of my favorites from the list are Clif Bar & Co., Union Square Hospitality Group, Zingerman’s and Anchor Brewing.
When we first thought of developing a tool for ourselves, we hired a consultant who worked on the tool for nearly a year. What we got in the end was a disjointed software which had all the features in the world, but it was useless. I spent time reading and soul searching and came to the conclusion that it’s only us who can develop a tool for ourselves, not a consultant. This is when remote working as a concept helped me. I managed to get the right people to work with.
Did the transition to remote work coincide with your transition from web services to products and content?
We decided we’ll build our own product, and I started looking for designers and writers for the platform, and we could not find them here. We found someone who was located in western India, and someone who was based in the southern part of the country. We met them; we liked what they were doing. But we were scared because we’d never worked like that before. We just gave it a try, and somehow it worked for us.
Why were you scared?
The kind of work I’ve been doing, I always supervised people. They used to sit in the same place. We used to hold morning scrum meetings where I would assign tasks to everyone, and they would report back to me in the evening with the end of the day report. You had to sit and show that you’re working. I also believed that if you’re not sitting there, staring at your screen, then you’re not working. If I hired someone somewhere else, I don’t know if that guy is texting throughout the day or spending time on Facebook. Most of the bigger companies in India block Facebook; they block Twitter. I’m against that; I’ve never done it, but I did have this fear that if people are not in front of my eyes that they’re not working.
So that was one big reason, because I was used to supervising. But I had to give that up, and I’m very happy that I don’t have to supervise; it just worked. I don’t care if they’re watching movies, if they’re listening to music, if they’re going out — as long as they get my work done I’m very happy.
What do you see as the major benefits of being a remote company, and of letting employees work offsite?
Number one is less supervision — things are set out very clearly. You have to say things so clearly that others understand it and finish the job. Everyone knows what needs to be done when.
Number two is the availability of professionals. Now the world is open to me. There is a very interesting agency in London called Rule of Three, and they write very interesting copy. So I approached them; I would like to work with them. Earlier I was not willing to do that. That’s the flexibility I have now.
Number three: Things get done on time.
Any advice for other companies who are considering going remote?
They must — it’s as simple as that! They should. That’s the way forward, as long as you have connectivity, which is still an issue in smaller cities in India. For a country like us, it will take a lot more time. Nearly 60 percent of our population have mobile phones in their hands, but not even 10 percent have broadband connection in their homes. For something like this, you need broadband connectivity. Phones are very cheap, but connectivity is very costly in India right now and that’s something that needs to change.
Visit Shack Co.
Smart people in white coats have extensively studied commuting — this supposedly necessary part of our days — and the verdict is in: Long commutes make you fat, stressed, and miserable. Even short commutes will stab at your happiness.
— from REMOTE: Office Not Required, in bookstores Oct. 29
Are you commuting your life away? Email us with your sob story — we’ll publish the best (worst?) of them here on SvN. The winner (loser?) will receive a $100 gas card and a signed copy of REMOTE, to be mailed directly to your CEO!
Alexander Torrenegra is cofounder (along with his wife, Tania Zapata) of VoiceBunny and Voice123. This Q&A is part of our “Bootstrapped, Profitable, & Proud” series which profiles companies that have $1MM+ in revenues, didn’t take VC, and are profitable. It has been edited for length and clarity. Tell me a little about VoiceBunny and Voice123.
Voice123 is a marketplace and VoiceBunny is a production house.
With Voice123, when you need a voice actor, you can post a casting call or you can perform a search, and once you find the voice actor you like, you talk to the voice actor directly and you transact directly with the voice actor.
In Voicebunny, you can post a casting call, you can search voices and you can also opt to simply give us a script and we’ll pick the voice for you. You pay us, and then we pay the voice actor fees that we have agreed upon with the voice actor previously.
How did you get started — what got you interested in this particular field?
I cofounded multiple companies. Then I met my wife, and she’s a voice actress. And I learned about the voice industry and how cool it is, and how widespread it is. If you pay attention, you’ll realize that every single day you probably listen to 100 different professional voices in radio, in TV, phone systems, broadcasting, video games, hotlines, anything you can think of.
By knowing Tania, I learned that finding a professional voice used to be really cumbersome. You had to go through a casting director, and a talent agent, and auditioning studios, and recording studios, and the union, and people who were in the middle of the process just to audit the payments and royalties. We realized, you know, maybe we can do this online and make it faster and actually allow people to talk to each other directly.
Both businesses ended up taking off relatively fast early on. That’s why were able to bootstrap. We didn’t require venture capital, since we came up with business models that we could have cash flow from the get-go.
So how did you fund yourself at first?
We had saved $30,000. Back in the day, we were consultants, doing online marketing consulting full-time. The rest of the day and on weekends, we would work on Voice123. Eventually Voice123 grew and we launched VoiceBunny. We invested our savings on pay per click, and that’s how we got the initial traction.
Can you tell me a little bit about the period between launch and profitability? Who were your first customers?
It took six months for us to become profitable. Initially, the first three months, the service was free, both for buyers and sellers (the voice actors). After three months we realized it was going to be quite difficult to charge money to the buyer, because they were not used to paying for the casting service, or the search service. We realized we should charge the sellers a subscription fee instead of a transaction fee — we don’t want to be in the middle of the transaction, because of the industry requirements. Usually there is a lot of paperwork signed between the voice actor and the client.
The other benefit of going with the subscription fee for the seller is that usually when a seller pays a subscription fee to participate in the marketplace, they are paying you, the marketplace, based on the amount of money they expect to make from the marketplace in the long term. That is great for a bootstrapped company because it gives the company cash flow early on, even if you don’t have a lot of buyers in the marketplace yet. So we took that money, and then we started looking for buyers. And since we had a great product, buyers came in really fast, and the word spread quite fast.
Before VoiceBunny and Voice123, getting a professional voice of 30 seconds used to take $3,000 and three weeks. After we launched, very quickly, the price average came down to around $400 and it took less than three days to complete the entire process. Now, today, it’s $200 and takes 24 hours with Voice123. With VoiceBunny, it’s $50 and it takes around 20 minutes. It’s way faster now than before.
If you listen to the free version of Pandora, most of the ads are created with the VoiceBunny platform.
What is your culture and work environment like?
We have an office in San Francisco and we have an office in Bogotá, Colombia. Research, development and operations and ops is done in Bogotá. Project management, marketing, and sales is one out of our office in San Francisco. We are almost a family. We always have lunch together at the offices. We hang out a lot after work. We make sure that every time we hire a person, we hire people that we would like to hang out with. We hire people that we would like to be friends with.
Because we have two offices, we invest heavily in making sure that we are highly connected. We communicate pretty well — for example, we have 24-7 video conferencing between the two offices. So we can simply come to the screen and wave hello. In fact, sometimes when we need somebody in a rush, we simply go and yell the name of the person and they’ll come running to the screen.
I hire people who are smarter than I am and do things better than I do. A good way of doing that is trying to hire former entrepreneurs. They usually have good advice, and they have experience. They value a lot the fact that we have been able to build a company bootstrapping it.
Why San Francisco and Bogotá?
We have offices in Bogotá because I’m Colombian and I went to college in Colombia, and that’s where I know most of my friends and tech people, so it was natural for us to build our tech team down in Bogotá. The fact that Bogotá doesn’t have a strong startup culture yet actually makes it easy for us to attract really top-notch top talent. We are kind of the 37signals of Colombia.
How many employees do you have? Are you growing your team?
Thirty. We are hiring tech people in Colombia and marketing people and sales people in San Francisco. Over 1,000 voice actors make most of their income thanks to Voice123 and VoiceBunny.
How is the company doing financially?
One of the benefits of being private is that we don’t have to share numbers. But something we are proud of is that this year we are doubling our income.
Congrats — how’d that come about?
The success we have had — great marketing people, having a great team. I usually try to hire people who do things much better than I do. When you do that, you surround yourself with really intelligent, amazing people, and the consequence is we are doubling in size this year. We expect to do the same next year as well.
What’s your ultimate vision — do you see yourselves selling the company in the future?
There is a quote by Thomas Edison: “My main purpose in life is to make enough money to create ever more inventions.” And that’s how I see the company. Our passion is to innovate; it’s not necessarily to make money. Making money is just a consequence of being really good at innovation. And whether we have the cash flow to continue innovating or whether we sell the company, as long as we can continue innovating, in this field or other fields, we are going to be happy.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome as a company?
Learning how to be a leader. It’s very challenging. A good leader is a person who can share his or her dreams with others and have those others — the people listening to your dreams — make those dreams their own dreams, and work at trying to accomplish those dreams as hard as you do. And it’s not easy to achieve that. At least for me, it’s been difficult to learn that. Especially because I’m a tech person. And my logical intelligence is higher than my emotional intelligence, and leadership requires both. Fortunately my wife has a really high emotional intelligence, and I have learned a lot from her. I would not have been able to start this business without her as cofounder.
Is there anything you would have done differently, knowing what you know now?
I would have gotten mentors earlier on. There is a misconception that you [should seek outside capital] because angels and VCs are going to come with good advice, and I think they don’t have to be tied to each other. You don’t need to raise capital in order to get good advisors. You can and you probably should look for mentors and capital (if you ever need to raise capital) independently.
I didn’t look for mentors early on, because I thought people would only give me advice if I gave them the option of investing in the company. But later I realized that it’s not the case.
Today I have a really good board of advisors, not only for me, but for other executives of my team. The executives of my team, all of them have access to advisors, and if they want an advisor that we don’t have, I’ll try to find him or her for them. That has helped us a lot, because we ended up learning a lot of lessons the hard way just by hitting the wall. Mentors have allowed us to avoided many mistakes that we would have committed otherwise.
Has anything surprised you along the way?
How slow large enterprises are at adopting technologies. Initially I though that the success of companies like ours, and even companies like 37signals, was to get enterprise-level customers. It’s better to go after small businesses, early adopters. If you can convince them to use your service, eventually enterprises will follow, because they’ll realize that they’re going to have to adopt or they’ll lose. I was surprised to know that going after enterprise clients is not necessarily the best business approach. It’s actually smarter to go after the small clients.
I’m also surprised by the effect we’ve had in the lives of many people — we have many voice actors that are fulfilling dreams that before Voice123 and VoiceBunny they could have never fulfilled. Before Voice123 and VoiceBunny, the only way you could have done it was by moving to LA or New York City. Now you can live anywhere on the planet. Not only the fact that we have been able to achieve that, but how much they love us because of that — they really love what we have done. It’s a great surprise, to every now and then be hugged by somebody at a conference — they know you, but you don’t know them. It’s really nice.
Visit VoiceBunny and Voice123. Read Torrenegra’s op-ed for Wired about immigration and bootstrapping.
Name: Chris Nagele Title: Founder Company: Wildbit Established: 1999 Employees: 15 (10 local; 5 remote) 37signals user since: February 2004
Wildbit creates and supports web products that help businesses collaborate and communicate more effectively. Their main products are Beanstalk, a hosted service offering Git and SVN version control, collaboration tools and instant deployments for web apps, and Postmark, which helps businesses deliver and track transactional emails. Wildbit is among 37signals’ earliest customers, so it was an honor to speak with founder Chris Nagele about his company and how they use 37signals products. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. You’ve been a Basecamp user since the product first launched, in 2004. Do you remember how you first discovered it?
I used to follow the 37signals blog before they did products, back when Jason was doing the 37better project. They would do something like, “here’s FedEx’s home page and what it looks like now, and here’s our take on what it would be if we designed it.” It was a really good way to show off their skills and build some marketing around it. I started following the blog and when they launched Basecamp, I thought it was a cool product and signed up.
What did you use Basecamp for, at first?
Wildbit was completely different from what it is today. Back then we used to build products or applications for other people, so we were mainly just a consulting company — we were using it to manage our projects with clients. It wasn’t until late 2009 that we switched away from consulting and focused on our own products.
When you’re building products for other clients, there’s much more of a service toward communicating with the client, to make sure they always know where you are in the project, how far along you are, whether you’re getting into scope creep or the project is going to cost more. So there’s more accountability in terms of communicating with clients or customers as you’re building the project. We would have milestones and a lot of to-do lists, and a lot of the discussion was around getting approval on certain concepts or discussing roadmaps and things like that.
We don’t do consulting anymore at all. It’s very similar to what 37signals did, where they built and designed products for other people, and then as their own products grew decided to focus on them 100 percent. That’s kind of the same path that we went.
What kinds of projects have you managed with Basecamp over the years?
We have two main products. The high-level description of what our products do is they allow software developers to collaborate more effectively.
One is called Beanstalk and it’s a version control and deployment service. Software developers around the world use it to collaborate as they build software and write code, and then as they write code and builds the products, they use Beanstalk to review and discuss with their team. Once it’s something that’s ready to deploy to servers and their customers, they also use Beanstalk to ship the code out to their customers.
Postmark is more of an infrastructure product. It allows software developers to send all their application email through Postmark, to make sure that they’re delivered to the inbox. Initially it sounds like an easy thing to do, but if you’re sending things like invoices or welcome emails or password resets or comment notifications like in Basecamp, getting an email to the recipient is extremely important. There’s a lot that goes on in the background.
So you used Basecamp to build both products?
Absolutely, yeah. As we were building Beanstalk — especially in the early days before bug tracking systems and things like that — we used Basecamp primarily to discuss the new features we were working on, to schedule milestones and to-do lists, roadmap planning, all of that. It’s interesting that the new Basecamp has evolved into less of a project management tool and more of a communication tool, because that’s how we evolved into using it anyway.
Can you give me an example of how you’re using Basecamp as a communication tool these days?
One thing we did for the summer was called ‘quiet days.’ We said ‘let’s set Monday through Thursday as regular work days, and then every Friday we’ll call it a quiet day.’ It’s a day you can work on something that’s not related to our road map, whether it’s reading a book on a new programming language or a new design process, or working on an open source project. So every Friday everybody would work on something they were interested in, and on Monday they would go into Basecamp and post what they did that day, what they learned. Basecamp was huge for that because they would post something they worked on, present it to the team, and the whole team would say ‘this is awesome!’ or discuss different ways to use it. A lot of ideas and new features came out of those quiet days.
How has your use of 37signals products evolved over time?
These days, since we’re focusing our own products, I would say the biggest difference is that we have different systems for managing tasks and bugs and things like that, and we primarily use Basecamp for communication and ideas. So as new ideas come up, or as we’re planning things internally in the company, we’ll use Basecamp to discuss them or plan around the calendar. It’s much more discussion-based than it is milestone or project planning.
We’re not using Basecamp Classic anymore because we never really did time tracking. We got completely away from milestones. These days it’s more for internal communication: vacation days in the calendar, any internal policies we have, project ideas and stuff like that.
We’re starting to use Highrise, because we started doing more customer development. Beanstalk is almost six years old; it’s grown very organically. We don’t do much advertising, we don’t really do any marketing, and we’re just now starting to say, ‘what else can we do?’ And that’s where Highrise came in — all these customers use us, and the only time we talk to them is when they have a problem. I want to reach out to customers more when they’re not having a problem. I just want to hear from them. So we’ve started to use Highrise a lot more to kind of keep a log as we reach out to customers — who they are, what they do, are they launching a product soon? And if they are, maybe we can congratulate them on that and send them stuff on their first anniversary.
What’s your work environment like, and how do 37signals products contribute to your culture?
Back when we started using Basecamp we were a 100 percent remote company. It was just myself and my wife here in Philadelphia, and the rest of our team was in Bulgaria, in Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, Germany — really, our entire team was spread out. Since we’re all not sitting in the same office, we use Campfire as that way to feel like we’re all together in the same room. We used Basecamp to communicate, and with a remote team that was extremely important. If somebody had an idea or wanted to discuss something they could do that while we were sleeping and then we could wake up and continue the discussion.
These days we actually have most of our employees in Philadelphia, but our use of tools like Basecamp and Campfire hasn’t changed. Even though we are all in the same office, we still carry the remote team mentality of respecting each other’s quiet time. By using Basecamp, we can post messages and request feedback that people can respond to when they have time, instead of yelling across the room or walking up to their desk. The funny side effect is that our office can be eerily quiet during the work day. A remote team has been a big part of our culture and tools like Basecamp make that process possible, even when some of us might be sitting right next to each other. But that’s been an interesting transition for us. You’re used to remote work all the time and being on your own, and now you have to actually interact with people!
It’s been such a crazy experience for us to have people in the same room, but also maintain the benefits of a remote culture. We used to really enjoy quiet time all day long, and now with everybody in the office, it’s productive but at the same time you kind of find it hard to escape sometimes.
That’s kind of the opposite path a lot of companies are taking now, going from remote to an office versus the other way around.
Totally, yeah. I think there’s tons of value in remote work, and I think it’s really important that people understand the value in it. But there’s also tons of challenges in it as well, but you can’t figure them out until you try it.
What kinds of challenges did Wildbit face?
The biggest challenge for us has always been hiring the right people to fit into our culture, especially being remote. When you’re hiring remote people you have to hire someone who is really a self starter — kind of a mix between an entrepreneur and somebody who wants to work for a company. Finding that type of person is really difficult. Over the years, we’ve definitely learned how to build and grow a remote a remote company better, but with a lot of trial and error as well.
What discoveries have you made about that process?
Being able to know when somebody either doesn’t fit in with the culture or isn’t working out — a lot of times that process is a lot more delayed than when you’re sitting next to somebody in the office, or working with them day to day. Trying to pick up on those cues through things like IM and Campfire and tools like Basecamp is a little more difficult, but over time you start to understand personality through more digital communication.
In Latvia, Draugiem is as much a household name as Facebook is everywhere else.
The majority of the world’s Latvian-speaking population — more than 1.2 million people — uses Draugiem.lv, a social networking site that launched back in April 2004, right when Facebook did.
“We are the last country in Europe standing against Facebook,” says Draugiem Group founder, Lauris Liberts. “We’re still larger than Facebook in Latvia.” He posits that’s because Latvians prefer homegrown brands: “Facebook is very international, Draugiem is very local. Latvia is a very small country. It’s unique. We don’t have room left to grow. All the people who might have joined are already using it.”
In 1999, Liberts was bussing tables in New York. The Internet bubble was at its peak. Intrigued by the abundance of startup fairytales, he wanted a piece — but he didn’t have a clue about the industry. He’d worked at a bank back home in Latvia, so figured he’d stick with finance and copycat a Latvian version of the Lending Tree model.
It didn’t go so hot. Liberts managed to scrape by and make enough for food and rent, until he met some small investors. They took out some small loans themselves; they started brokering their loans. But not everyone paid them back.
His first foray into online entrepreneurship may have been a dud, but Liberts is a hustler at heart. “I think my inner being is experimenting,” he says. “I just love to explore things, and I have to actually back myself off in order not to pursue every idea that comes into my mind.”
On the side, he’d come upon sites offering customized shirts — so he built one of his own. Customers could enter text, preview it on the shirt, and place their order. It was a one-man operation; production was outsourced. The shirt business was small, but more successful than the Lending Tree lookalike.
“I needed to advertise but I didn’t have any money,” Liberts recalls. “So I thought, ‘OK, let’s build something myself that is popular, so I can advertise my shirts.’” He explored different dating sites and social networks, and found Friendster (aw, remember?). “That’s when I got the bug,” he says.
Undeterred by his first inauspicious copycatting attempt, Liberts and his partner, Agris Tamanis, built a simple, invite-only site based on the Friendster format. “Initially, I thought if I get 10,000 people, I could advertise my shirts, he says. “That’s how it all started.”
“We obviously invited our friends,” Liberts says. “Those friends invited their friends, and we saw these little communities springing up all across the country. ... I think on the first day we registered a couple hundred. On day two we registered 1,000. From then on it just snowballed. For the first three years, we were struggling enormously keeping up with traffic. Our servers crashed; we didn’t have any knowledge of how to scale.”
For instance, the script triggered by a new friendship request had to run through all the relationships in the database, and the site was so slow it could take up to three days to accept it. Draugiem hired some hotshot programmers and decided to rewrite the entire site from PHP to C++, but not before the original site completely broke down. “We had not finished the new version,” Liberts remembers. “I just made this leap of faith that for three days we would be offline.” He sat up on Christmas night, fretting about competitors and wondering whether the venture was doomed. “It was lonely, yet a very interesting time.”
That vulnerability — the threat that despite its early popularity, there were no guarantees it would last — galvanized the company’s first efforts toward diversification. Their first startup, the GPS system Mapon, was established in 2006 and laid the foundation for the Draugiem Group. In 2008, they launched the SMS service that became Text2Reach.
Liberts and Tamanis were approached by VCs, but never really took the bait — “VC funding is not that popular back in Europe,” Liberts says. Of all the startups in Draugiem Group’s incubator, only Vendon, a remote vending machine service, benefited from outside investment. The group also partnered with Lattelecom, Latvia’s largest internet and telecom service provider, for a short while: back when Draugiem was having trouble scaling their servers, they agreed to hand 30 percent of their income over to Lattelecom in exchange for hosting on their service. The barter didn’t work out, and Draugiem bought itself out of the agreement. They’re currently running on about 200 servers of their own.
Today, Draugiem Group is an umbrella organization that along with Draugiem.lv, houses 16 startups including a daily deal site, a time tracking app, even a custom bracelet company, among others. Last year’s revenues totaled more than €14 million (Latvian law requires public financial disclosure even for privately held companies), and profits of nearly €800,000. Most of the group’s 100+ employees work out of the company’s swanky office in Riga, Latvia, although a couple work in the satellite office located in Burbank, Calif.
Draugiem invests substantially in employee wellbeing and morale, with shorter hours in the summer, office catering, and company parties and retreats. Liberts and Tamanis are both late sleepers, so it’s not unusual for them to roll in around 11 a.m. “That’s an acceptable hour,” Liberts says. “You can get burned out. It’s not sustainable in the long term if you are putting in 10- to 12-hour days.” He describes the culture as open and flat, so “anyone can stand up to anyone” and no one is more important than anybody else. “We want people to make stuff they’re interested in,” says Liberts. “If you’re not fond of doing this particular job but you … want to switch to phones, learn a new language, we encourage that.”
Such liberality comes easily when you’re basically building companies for fun. “Work is not all about maximizing profit,” Liberts says. “Work is a lifestyle.” He encourages anyone who wants to start a business to go ahead and do it, “if they think that there’s a chance of them succeeding — but avoid all the buzzwords that are out there on there on the Internet: cloud, big data, social monitoring. When you have these new technologies springing up, like Twitter, there are hundreds of wannabe services. In the end it’s not the best service that wins, it’s the most well-connected, deep-pocketed business.”
What’s worked for Draugiem is a sustained effort to find under-the-radar, unique niches that can still flourish as a business, Liberts says. “We kind of have a key to the Latvian soul, and that might be what’s working.”
Visit Draugiem Group.