I have been asked surprisingly often on how I have been able to work effectively with teams based thousands of kilometres away. To me, perhaps having worked overseas, or perhaps being based in Australia I just accepted it. The fact the question comes up not infrequently suggests for many it might be a challenge.
Most startups, either bootstrapped or funded start with a local team that share a vision. The founders may or may not be friends. Take Atlassian for instance Australian most successful tech company, by as we say down under, a country mile, started by two mates out of University. At the other end of the spectrum I always reflects on WPcurve, a WordPress support business acquired by Godaddy, where the two founders had not met one another for a years after the business was operational.
At Partnify we sit between the two. Regardless of the nature of your startup here are just a few of our reflections.
- How did two people on different continents come together?
- What are the tools that make this successful?
- What are the challenges and advantages of a remote team?
- Are there cultural considerations?
- What can we do better?
- Moving forward
Meeting of the minds
I met Jamin when I needed a small project completed, which he did with such ease and aplomb that we keep in touch. Being a developer and based in Phoenix where is it hot, meant that he kept hours that fitted in with the Australian time zone (we are typically 17 hours in front) so that meant that for much of the day we can stay in constant touch.
The project evolved in a simple transparent fashion. We shared a common thought; what can we do to help SaaS companies Cross the Chasm? Customers, get customers and there are two sources; acquisition and introduction. With Partnify we decided that we should and could focus on introduction, either the company’s existing clients introducing others to the service or via a third party mechanism. We decided the logical channel for this should be a marketplace. Hence the birth of Partnify.
Tools of the trade
Regardless of where the team is located fundamental to success is communication. But there are several elements to successful comms. As more solutions come online we are constantly reviewing and improving and communications, both for development, testing, operations and marketing.
Core to our communications is now Slack. We have virtually eliminated all emails between team members. Additionally we integrate third party notification systems into Slack.
- Our development environment is Microsoft and we use Azure as the cloud platform and so from day one that took up down the Visual Studio Team Services path. (Note: VSTS is now called Microsoft Azure DevOps).
- Intercom also “feeds” Slack so we get a quick handle on all end user activity. It provides a second layer to ensure we stay on top of all support related matters.
- Some 12 different channels that provide simple categorization (see comments about cultural differences later!) of issues.
- EDM – We primarily use MailChimp and SendGrid and these also “feed Slack”
- A few other tools
13,229.79 kilometres (or should that be miles?)
So onto the advantages and disadvantages of our working environment. My initial corporately correct answer would be to say of course there are no disadvantages of working apart. However key to our success is we knew one another well beforehand and so once we decided to run the project we had a solid understanding of the nature of the engagements and our respective personalities. I suspect geographic and cultural divides are magnified for more recent partnerships.
Certainly, as founders we are sensitive to cultural differences, albeit they are very small. We can have great conversations on a wide variety of topics, that actually adds richness to the diversity of the product offering but we are both cognisant of the fact that there are cultural differences. However having many things in common also brings us together. A love of sport, gadgets, cars, technology and of course Partnify provides ample opportunity to general discourse.
Interestingly the one thing to be total transparent we have not resolved fully the the question of spelling and grammar. Should we look under the hood of the code or the bonnet? What about the enterprise (z). To be honest I do not think we have actually come to a firm policy on this one, and as an engineer, I am not sure it matters – I will leave that for others to decide.
As the business has grown a clear benefit has been our support coverage. Since we can easily cover the full 24 hour cycle we have not required and additional support staff, however this will change as the growth continues. At Partnify we live and die by customer feedback and any of the recent enhancements have come from customers, so our ability to speak directly to them has resulted in a direct link between customs and product development.
We try and an met once a year to socialise and strategize, (or should that be strategise) both in Phoenix and Melbourne. Perhaps we should compromise and try Hawaii!
The net benefit is as the team has grown we consider team member based on expertise and fit rather than geographic location. Regardless of where your team is located, frequent effective engagement with the myriad of best of breed tools works well for us and I hope wherever your team is located; the next desk or the next continent, it works well for you.