10up Inc. Remote Company Q&A
Jake Goldman, President & Founder - Interview with Remote.co
We make websites and content management simple and fun with premiere web design & development consulting services, by contributing to open platforms like WordPress, and by providing tools and products (like pushupnotifications.com) that make web publishing a cinch.
We’ve had the privilege of working on big web projects for clients as diverse as TechCrunch, ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight and Grantland, SurveyMonkey, Junior Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), and Google.
Yes – we started that way.
That depends on how broadly you define our business model.
Clearly, there are plenty of consultancies and web agencies that are co-located, or located in a few scattered offices, so the core business model – agency work – doesn’t mandate distribution, although I think there are very few examples of successful technology centric agencies that achieve this scale with colocation.
I would say the nuances of 10up’s business model has been entirely built around a distributed workforce. At least in some measure, our success is built on a couple of core principles that I can’t see succeeding in a co-located model (having helped build colocated shops, as well):
- Differentiating ourselves from thousands of generic web agencies by striving to be the absolute, stand-out-from-the-crowd best within a specific industry segment: WordPress implementation. If we’re going to hire the best talent within a niche skillset, at any kind of scale, we need to get outside the 50 mile radius around an office building. And while we might be able to achieve that scale in a major population center, the sheer cost of comparable talent would make us utterly uncompetitive.
- A loosely “just in time” talent acquisition strategy, that lets us scale to the market and customer needs with relative fluidity. While we can take 4-6 weeks to onboard and train new talent, we can’t just bring in any software engineer and wait 6 months to a year for them to become productive, especially when we were much smaller and, having always bootstrapped the business, on a lean budget.
Bar none, a massive talent pool to explore for great culture and skill fit.
A big secondary benefit is that, with the right team, you have a grassroots marketing campaign in cities and towns all around the country, and world. Many of our employees are active in their local meetup groups and communities, which spreads organic awareness of our brand outside of a single city.
We didn’t integrate remote work – we intended to be remote from the start!
I’ve mostly explained the rationale in answering the previous question: I wanted to build a higher scale team, while remaining cost competitive, and bringing in the best talent within a niche skillset (which was distributed).
I’d add that:
- The timing was right in 2011. Tools for remote collaboration were “good enough”.
- We had good role models: 37signals (now Basecamp), and closer to home for our business, Automattic.
- When I started the company, I didn’t know where *I* wanted to live in a year or three years, and didn’t want my own freedom to live and work where I preferred at different times to be constrained by my company. I imagined other prospective employees would feel the same.
Same way we would conduct them for co-located jobs, with the only differences being (1) video chat instead of an office visit, (2) careful vetting for communication and English skills, especially with non-US employees for whom English might not be their first language, and (3) a candid discussion about remote work.
We have a full time Recruitment Manager, and a weekly recruiting meeting with the Executive team and relevant Directors to discuss current hiring needs. Our Manager vets resumes based on direction from our discipline leaders (seeking a second opinion where necessary), and performs a short 15-30 minute video chat culture interview with those who make the first cut. If that goes well, and the relevant Director is still onboard, we vet samples and / or conduct a couple of practice exercises (depending in part on the role, in part on the availability and quality of samples). Once more objective vetting is complete, the relevant Directors / Managers / Executives conduct more thorough interviews, and make a decision.
How do businesses measure productivity of co-located workers? By how busy they appear to be when you walk by? By whether they enter the office at 9 am and leave around 5 pm? Any business that effectively measures employee productivity surely isn’t relying on anything having to do with physical location.
In truth, well managed distributed teams are often far more productive than co-located teams, because, indeed, you’re forced to measure productivity by far more objective metrics than things like “time in the building.”
10up is an agency, so most staff track their time (for us to bill hourly or measure against fixed fee estimates); and our team leaders review and authorize those entries weekly while also maintaining project budgets; it’s pretty apparent pretty quickly if a budget is being blown by an employee who is not pulling their weight, and it’s in a manager’s’ interests. We also adhere to many agile project management principals, with granular tasks (weekly milestones at most, sometimes daily) – we know pretty quickly when staff are off the reservation – faster than most co-located shops I’ve worked at.
Well, we only have remote workers, including me. For a 100% distributed team, I’d point to a few key resources:
- A flexible, instant “virtual office space”, in the form of something like HipChat or Slack (or even a private IRC). We use HipChat, and I think is the 10up office: there are social rooms, team rooms, private rooms (“locked doors”), project rooms… you can seamlessly go in and out and it integrates with many of our production tools (like Beanstalk and Basecamp). And I can get there from any of my devices (computer, phone, tablet, etc).
- Lots and lots of video chat! Virtually every meeting inside the company is held over video chat (we use Zoom, which we’ve found to have excellent fidelity even at lower bandwidths), and we encourage our clients to join us for video chat as well. Seeing some face to face, even if it’s over a screen, still builds empathy and camaraderie in ways “voice and text” conversation does not.
- Meetups – at least one a year. Our annual all hands summit and team social meetups (set about 6 months apart from the summit) are a highlight for many on our team, a real (sometimes needed) boost of inspiration and energy. They’ve become an anchor for our team.
We offer employees a notable equipment stipend to be used for purchasing company assets when they start ($2,000 for technical production like designers and engineers, $1,500 for “business” staff like project and account managers). It refreshes every 2 years ($1,500 for technical, $1,200 for business), and the budget can rollover. Employees who prefer to own their own gear are offered 50% of the unused stipend as bonus pay at the end of the period (every 2 years).
They can use the stipend to buy whatever equipment they choose, so long as it meets a basic, reasonable set of criteria for a distributed company: not highly personally (say, a hello kitty laptop sleeve) and relatively easily transferable upon any exit (not an elaborate desk or bookshelf).
Generally, we strongly encourage employees to use the stipend to buy a company machine (employees are required to own a portable computer), but ultimately, let them make that decision. There are some clients for whom it is a requirement, and our employment agreement is very clear that employees must remove any proprietary / confidential company and client information from their devices upon any exit.
It was our policy from the beginning!
Go all in, if you’re going to make the leap. In order to select and build the tools, systems, habits, and culture that really enable remote working, everyone has to feel both the pain and benefits – especially the company’s leadership.
- Empathy occurs much less naturally, even with lots of video chat and long phone conversations. This is a double edged sword; decisions are less charged by emotion, but it can also be easier to become unreasonably angry and frustrated at someone who you don’t grab a meal with very often, and you can become a bit too distant.
- It’s difficult to spend truly undistracted, focused time with anyone. In fact, I’ve taken to doing most of my one on one meetings on the phone, while going for a walk (and encouraging the other party to do the same), because it can be hard to focus on a conversation when you see email notifications, chat notifications, “all the things” blinking on your desktop – and seeing your own video on the screen doesn’t help, either. You know how it’s annoying when someone “subtly” takes out their phone and starts checking email during a meeting? Take that and multiply by 5 – heck, sometimes you can hear the other party typing, or seeing their eyes reading an email.
- Employees can often feel like they’re working siloes, even when they’re collaborating with 5-10 other employees. You have to make an effort to get the kind of “organic visibility” into company activities that occur when you eat lunch with random colleagues, or meet them at the watercooler.
- Retention can be trickier, since changing jobs does little to disrupt personal routines. You’re not losing your “after work beer crew”, you’re not changing your commute… if you stay remote, you’re not even changing your physical office.
- For some, healthy separation between personal home life and work life can blur; it risks faster burn out and lowered retention.
I’m not sure I do. 😉 But that’s not a characteristic of remote work, necessarily; I blurred those lines at my last job, which was co-located. The most I can offer is that there are “zones” in my house where I don’t bring … much … work, like the bedroom. I say “much,” because the mobile phone still comes with me.
I’m not sure I have a favorite, unless you count old standbys like the 7 Habits; I’ve semi-recently read “Decisive” and “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There”, and enjoyed both of them, more so Decisive. To be honest, I don’t think there are many great books about remote / distributed work; there are some great books about distributed companies, including Scott Berkun’s Year Without Pants (full disclosure: Scott is a client of 10up), but they’re more interesting journalistic treatises on the particular remote company being studied (in that case, Automattic) than thorough analyses of remote work, in general.