Toptal Remote Company Q&A
Breanden Beneschott, Co-founder / COO - Interview with Remote.co
Toptal connects thousands of senior developers from around the world to over 2,000 clients, including large enterprise companies such as J.P. Morgan and Pfizer, tech companies such as Airbnb and Zendesk, and numerous startups, providing world-class software solutions that meet complex and challenging requirements.
Yes, we were remote from day 1.
It is critical. It’s at the core of our basic business offering (high-end software development services available across the globe from anywhere in the world), and it is also core to our culture. We hire the best people and empower them to choose any lifestyle they want, no matter where they are located.
For us, remote work does not mean outsourcing, which is typically an attempted arbitrage of costs. Our arbitrage is on opportunity and drive, not money, which is something that works exceptionally well when you remove location from the equation. Take someone who is used to making a San Francisco-level salary but doesn’t want to live there anymore, for example, and enable them to travel and work from anywhere. Or someone from somewhere like Argentina who has incredible skill and drive, but doesn’t have access to companies in the US. We’re able to leverage those situations to create tremendous opportunities for everyone here.
I think most companies try to arbitrage costs. We arbitrage opportunity and drive.
Being a remote company means that I can open up LinkedIn or any platform and hire just about anybody there. Think about that for a second. Very few companies can say that. If you’re limiting your hiring search by location, you almost certainly won’t be hiring the best people because you’ll only be considering a tiny subset of all potential candidates.
It began out of necessity. I was a full-time engineering student living in a dorm room at Princeton when we started. I didn’t have time to go meet anyone face to face. Instead of doing a few in-person meetings per day, we were able to schedule ten to twenty daily virtual meetings using Skype as our office. Skipping the costs and commutes associated with physical offices made so much sense that we decided to turn down the typical Silicon Valley approach and practice what we were preaching by being distributed from day one. I’ve written about this early decision to go remote in more detail here.
I look for energy. High-energy, proactive people are much more likely to succeed here. Am I excited talking to this person or am I glancing at other things trying to occupy my mind? If they can’t keep my attention during a first conversation, it’s going to be a struggle working with them.
Skype. We also take a look at every interaction leading up to the interview. How you do anything is how you do everything… Thus, candidates need to communicate well both before and during the interview and be very capable when it comes to finding quiet places and good Internet connections. We also make use of test projects for most candidates being considered for core team positions, and definitely for everyone applying as an engineer.
Stories. Toptalers spend so much time traveling together and doing amazing things both work-related and otherwise. It’s great to be able to talk about those experiences during the recruiting process, and I think it does much more to illustrate what we’re like as a company than any abstract set of culture principles or anything like that would.
Yes, sometimes, but we don’t disclose this information openly.
All of our events are optional, but yes we have a lot of in person events.
We have a very active community that organizes events all around the world on an almost daily basis. We’ve also had bigger retreats for core team members to get together every so often in places like Thailand, Africa, Argentina, Brazil, etc., which are incredible and always very fun.
Many of our team members travel a lot as well and are constantly taking trips together, visiting each other, going to conferences together, etc. For example, right now some of our team members who are based in Eastern Europe are planning a trip together to Brazil to visit another group of colleagues in their hometown there. Combined trips like that are pretty common here.
We’re very selective about what we measure. We care about goals achieved, not hours spent in a chair. We don’t micromanage, and we don’t track hours — everyone can work during whichever hours are best for them. These philosophies necessarily extend to our hiring practices as well. Everyone here is highly motivated and capable of being extremely productive with very little oversight.
That being said, accountability is very important across the company, and we hold each other to a high standard in this regard. One way we do this is by having everyone send weekly recap emails of what they did in the past week, what they thought it would achieve, and what the results were. This makes the impact of everyone’s work very clear, and it quickly becomes obvious if someone is underperforming.
It also helps to have a single KPI around which everyone in the company can rally (new clients, revenue, a launch date, etc.). This helps individuals and teams to better see the impact of their work and allows them to increase their productivity by being smarter about how they focus their efforts.
We’re a pretty flat organization, but having everyone regularly put together impact-oriented reports to whoever is above them in the hierarchy tends to be a good way to promote accountability.
If you’re a typical startup, <10 people sitting in an office, then with everything that happens, everyone always knows about it. So how do you create that cohesiveness at a remote company? If part of your workforce is remote, do you start copy pasting things that go on in the office in chats to the people who aren’t physically present? Any engineer will tell you that wasting time on repetitive things like this isn’t a good solution. Companies looking to embrace remote need to figure out good ways to address this, and there are plenty of mistakes we’ve seen people make.
We don’t really have a formal policy. Most people use their own devices, but we make sure people have what they need. Everyone is free to use what they have if that’s what they prefer.
Everyone gets an unlimited number of paid vacation days. Few people ever take them. We love our work, and we’re constantly traveling and working from beaches anyway.
The biggest fear is definitely running into a situation where you need something from someone, but that person isn’t available or is unresponsive. This obviously applies to cases in which something has happened and we need to put together a response very rapidly, but it’s relevant to all of our ongoing initiatives as well. Our teams are very cross-functional and collaborative, and we try to move very fast on projects. A key person going unresponsive when their expertise is needed can slow things down considerably.
Cases like this happen very rarely here, largely because we invest in figuring out how to hire people where this isn’t an issue. That’s actually part of the reason we started Toptal — to build a global network of extremely capable people in which location, drive, and responsiveness aren’t issues. We’ve had great success here hiring and working with people who are extremely proactive.
Organically. At first we had no choice because I was still in school. Once we realized how much more effective it was, we made the formal decision to continue this way.
Yes, definitely. At Toptal, we do a mixture of onsite and virtual events.
Online, the company is like a MMORPG. We always get a lot done, but it’s informal at the same time. There are constantly emoticons and even memes flying around in any chat. We’ll also do things like have a virtual company Christmas party with everyone on a massive Google Hangout (some dressed up in Santa costumes) in many dozens of places all over the world.
Onsite, we have lots of meetups going on around the world all the time, and we periodically have large core team events in exotic locations. We’ve done things like rent a villa in Thailand and a house in Africa for team members to come together for extended periods of time. We’ve organized a Toptal house for a big music festival in Hungary. Everything is optional, but many of us always go. There are also plenty of Toptal dinners and other events going on every week around the globe.
Being remote has allowed us to build our culture in these extremely unique, fun ways that would not have been possible under a different company model.
Kathy Sierra has a great video called “Building the Minimum Badass User”, and I think it describes a lot of how we nurture our culture. In short, we try to do things that help the people at Toptal be badass. For example, we encourage, support, and celebrate travel and adventure. A lot of times on team calls, we’ll start by asking people from where they are working today. The answers are often incredible and include exotic countries, exotic locations, and exotic atmospheres.
Since we’re remote, it’s also important that the many things we’re doing are as visible as possible to people at the company. I write about our culture as much as I can, and many of us are constantly traveling and meeting up with each other in cool places. At this point, we have a Toptal event going on somewhere around the world almost every day of the year.
When you see all these other people around you at the company and they’re doing awesome things, I think your culture builds itself.
Think carefully about your company infrastructure/policies and fully commit to remote-friendly practices. Don’t just dip your toes in without setting up the right infrastructure.
I frequently come across companies that are great in many regards but are trying a partially remote model and doing a very poor job of it. They’ll have conference calls where half the people have terrible connections and people are dropping in and out of the call. A remote model won’t work like that.
Our infrastructure and policies are designed around remote work, and it works well. If you don’t set these up and commit to them, you won’t gain a proper understanding of how well a remote model can function.
One challenge we’ve had is that some people seem to still think that an office is completely necessary — for their social life, productivity, etc. There have been a few great people that we were really excited to hire, but they felt like they needed an office in order to be happy and successful. Remote isn’t for everyone, and we recognize that.
Practicing effective communication is an extremely big point of emphasis for us as a remote company, and I’ve recently written a post on remote collaboration that discusses some things we’ve learned. In general, the goal with all of our communication habits is to tighten feedback loops while making sure that no details get lost along the way. Here are a few ways we do this:
- We avoid long email chains, particularly if they start including conversations that go on in parallel or have input from multiple sources. These are a pain to read and things often get lost in the details.
- We strongly prefer Skype (especially Skype calls) to email. Pinging or just calling a person on Skype is much faster and usually yields better results.
- We use remote-friendly collaborative tools like Google Docs that enable detailed feedback and reduce hassle.
- We avoid scheduling volleys. Going back and forth via email on something as simple as planning a meeting is extremely inefficient. If you ping/call the person on Skype and they aren’t available, they just won’t respond. No harm done.
I use a MacBook Pro, external monitor, iPhone, iPad, lab notebook, whiteboard, and good office chair. I usually work somewhere with a view (even though I am not today, as you can see in the picture below), and when I’m on calls, I usually stand up.
When you’re traveling all the time and planning these really exciting things all over the world that are often work-related, the work/life lines tend to blur, and you never really get burned out. Aside from that, I’ve found it’s important to specifically carve out time where I’m away from work. I play a lot of polo, so I rely on that to achieve this. Also, simple things like deliberately putting your phone down and making time to focus on the people around you is important.
“If you’re going to go fast enough to succeed, you’re going to make mistakes. How you deal with those mistakes…that’s the key.” – Dan Levin, COO at Box
Anywhere that has unreliable Internet, although I really haven’t had much of a problem with that in the last few years. New Zealand and Australia were maybe the worst. Prepaid 3G was very expensive, but the time zone was the real problem. It’s 19 hours ahead of San Francisco, so collaborating with people in California means waking up at 3AM, and your Saturdays/Mondays are complicated because your colleagues expect you to be working.
The best place to work remotely? Probably Budapest. Budapest is amazing. It’s very inexpensive, and it’s an incredibly fun city. We actually moved there for a year to work on Toptal after I finished university, and I’ve been going back regularly ever since.