Working remotely has become a necessity as the new normal is redefined. Organizations worldwide have turned to remote work as a way to adapt and move forward. A silver lining in these strange times is the opportunity to leverage remote work as a tool to build a remote-first business.
This business model gives you plenty of competitive advantages such as the ability to hire from a larger pool of candidates worldwide, more flexibility in your team’s work, and saving money on physical equipment. However, there are some challenges to building a remote business. And it’s better to learn them first-hand from people who already succeeded in building their fully remote startup.
This article will draw on expertise from two founders of remote organizations: Sarah Beyahte Sandnes from SafetyWing and Hoyin Cheung from Remo. Both entrepreneurs shared their stories at Running Remote Online conference, the premier event for the founders of remote-first businesses.
Here’s what we learned and how it can help you get a head start on creating your playbook for building a remote company…
Find a well-thought-out idea in a world filled with ideas
If you’ve spent what seems like an endless amount of time daydreaming about starting your own business, you aren’t alone. This challenge usually centers around two themes:
1) Struggles coming up with an idea that you believe in
2) Having so many ideas that you feel overwhelmed
Sarah Beyahte Sandnes, CEO of SafetyWing, has a framework to help you move forward. SafetyWing has been a remote organization since being founded in 2017. They are striving to create “a global social safety net” by offering products like health insurance, disability insurance, pensions, and more.
Sandnes recommends choosing an idea that falls at the intersection of “passion and solving something hard.”
Passion will be your north star during good times and challenging times. It’s the fire that’ll ignite you every morning when you open your eyes and jump out of bed, excited to work on something that you truly believe in. Solving something hard can improve the odds that someone is willing to pay for your solution, and according to Sandnes, “we are seeing a big advantage of having chosen to solve a really, really hard problem because there are no competitors that are popping up. It takes two years to get to market with an insurance product.”
In the words of writer and computer science professor, Cal Newport: “Hardness scares off the daydreamers and the timid, leaving more opportunity for those like us who are willing to take the time to carefully work out the best path forward and then confidently take action.”
Next, we’ll talk about growing your team in the right way.
Hire people who believe in your mission
At a certain point, you’ll need some help to move faster. However, you don’t want help from anyone. Instead, you want to get help from the right people.
Hoyin Cheung, CEO of Remo, has insights on hiring for a remote business.
Cheung’s two recommendations for hiring are:
1) recruit fast, and
2) recruit the right people
This combination is a win-win because you bring in more qualified candidates while shortening the recruiting processes. Let’s step through a hypothetical story to understand how this can work in your favor.
Imagine you’re a non-technical co-founder of a SaaS (software as a service) company. You have one fantastic co-founder who does backend development. Both of you have made sacrifices to move towards a minimum viable product (MVP) or a version 1.0. However, you aren’t there yet. If you both maintain the current pace, you think you could get an MVP in under six months.
You go over different scenarios with your co-founder and collectively decide it’s time to bring on your first hire. Here is the plan that you run with:
1) Collaborate on a well-written job post. You front-load the work by writing up a job post that describes your mission, skills you are looking for, and a coding test on real code. You also ask applicants to record a short video to walk through their code and any challenges they ran into.
2) Spread the word about hiring. Both of you reach out to your networks. You also post on several remote work job boards.
3) Schedule interviews. You invite a handful of the top candidates to interview with you and your co-founder across two weeks. Within these interviews, you gather notes on how they communicate, look for alignment with your company’s values, and, of course, to see if they can fill the role as a front-end developer.
4) Make the offer. You send an offer, and you have your first hire: a front-end developer!
5) Onboard your first hire. You and your co-founder make your new front-end developer feel welcomed and introduce them to your company’s systems and processes.
The story above could unfold similarly even if your first hire isn’t a technical role like a developer or engineer.
First, you are investing in a well-written job post to maximize the quality of your candidates. You are then testing candidates against real tasks to understand how they think instead of using abstract mind-benders. Next, in your interviews, you are looking for specific indicators that make them a good fit for your company, such as your mission’s interest. Once you’ve made an offer, then invest in a memorable onboarding experience to form a strong foundation on which they can do excellent work.
Cheung from Remo also has insights on what works for them: “That process is also reflective of what actually happens at the company. So you craft it in a way that reflects the actual micro activities that you actually do within your business,” he said. “This focuses on passion and interest.”
Next, we’ll explore how to communicate well on a distributed team and why it matters.
Communication is the oxygen of a remote team
Think of communication as the oxygen that carries ideas between team members that work remotely. Communicating well is a critical skill for the success of a team. It helps you collaborate, minimize misunderstandings, and maintain relationships into the future. Like any other skill, with effort and practice, you’ll get better.
Our remote work experts, Sarah Beyahte Sandnes and Hoyin Cheung have two ideas on overcoming communication challenges on a remote team:
1) Overlapping hours between time zones
2) Transparency through one-on-ones
When time zones on your team vary, this is where asynchronous communication can shine through when you use a remote project management tool like ClickUp. Communicating asynchronously encourages team members to collaborate when they are at their best. Overlapping hours builds on this to keep the flow of communication going, and according to Sandnes, “It has worked for us to create cohesiveness in our culture.”
One-on-ones are about encouraging team members to become the best version of themselves. This is done through ongoing feedback, which helps a team member feel engaged.
Brené Brown, a vulnerability researcher and the author of the book Daring Greatly, highlights why one-on-ones can be impactful: “Without feedback, there can be no transformative change. When we don’t talk to people we’re leading about their strengths and their opportunities for growth, they begin to question their contributions and our commitment. Disengagement follows,” she said.
Let’s now talk about getting early traction from ongoing conversations with early adopters.
Talk to paying customers regularly for early growth
Your first handful of paying customers is a huge opportunity. First, you’ve validated your ambitious idea by exchanging value for money. Next, your customers are a goldmine of insights to help you improve your product or service offering. Plus, they can refer or recommend your business to other potential customers.
With limited time and resources, you can’t do everything. And if you try to do too much, your team will become overwhelmed from being spread too thin. So what is the answer to this conundrum?
Embrace the Principle of Priority. The author Steven Pressfield describes the Principle of Priority as:
1) knowing the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and
2) doing what’s important first
Sarah Beyahte Sandnes shares an example of how they approach prioritization at SafetyWing. Prioritization is accomplished through innovate meetings, which are hosted often in this format:
1) Split up the team. Break the core team of employees into smaller groups.
2) Brainstorm ideas. Gather all ideas on a specific topic.
3) Rate each idea. Give each idea a score on complexity and another score on impact.
4) Sort the ideas. Tally up the scores and order them.
5) Add the best ideas to the goal list. The goal list helps the team stay focused.
The team at SafetyWing hosts these meetings regularly to top off their goal list with new priorities.
Now we’ll explore how embracing systems and procedures can help your company grow.
Put processes in place to help your organization scale
Mark Divine, a former Navy SEAL commander, discusses how standard operating procedures can help a team save time in his book Unbeatable Mind. Divine says, “Great teams strive to standardize routine tasks…so that time is not wasted reinventing the push up every time someone new comes on the team. New ideas and improvements to SOPs are encouraged, but not on the fly. The post-training debrief is the place to discuss changes, which can be implemented in future training.”
In other words, Divine is suggesting that you can set expectations for your team through systems and processes while allowing improvements later on. In this way, your team is clear on how to get things done, yet you are still open to improving as a team through changes in the future. This is how you instill a culture of growth on a remote team.
What areas of your company will you build processes for next?
Here’s a handful to inspire you:
- Communication: “How will we communicate day to day as a team? How should our meetings be structured?”
- Hiring: “What are our specific processes to grow our team?”
- Development: “What project methodologies are we adopting? Which tools are we using to stay on track?”
- Sales: “What are the specific questions that we are asking each customer to understand their needs?”
- Customer support: “What kind of expectations do we set for our customers when they ask for help?”
In this article, we highlighted the opportunity around launching a remote-first company and how to do it, including:
- Exploring a framework to find an ambitious idea
- Growing your team
- Communication (which is vital for the success of a remote organization)
- The importance of talking to paying customers
- Having the right processes to help you scale your company
The reality is that building a company takes hard work, a lot of persistence, and a little bit of luck. Dr. Atul Gawande, a public health researcher and the author of the book The Checklist Manifesto, shares candid feedback about what it means to do the hard work:
“Finding an entrepreneur who can execute a good idea is a different matter entirely. One needs a person who can take an idea from proposal to reality, work the long hours, build a team, handle pressures and setbacks, manage technical and people problems alike, and stick with the effort for years on without getting distracted or going insane,” he said. “Such people are rare and extremely hard to spot.”
Did you find these expert recommendations valuable for helping you plan out how you’ll build your remote company? Sarah Beyahte Sandnes and Hoyin Cheung were speakers at Running Remote Online — an exclusive event for founders and leaders of remote organizations.
Sign up now for the next Running Remote Online. In this free online conference on Wednesday, November 18, you’ll learn from more than 25 experts on distributed teams. This will be a jam-packed virtual conference where you can partake in virtual booths, giveaways, and create lasting connections through networking with fellow remote workers.
Here is a preview of the incredible speakers:
– Jodi Rabinowitz, Head of Talent at Zoom
– John Eckman, CEO at 10up
– Kuppulakshmi Krishnamoorthy, Product Evangelist at Zoho
– Hassan Osman, Director of Program Management Office at Cisco
– Milena Berry, Co-founder at PowerToFly
Registration is completely free until October 18. After that, an event pass can be purchased for $49. Don’t miss out on these expert talks. Invest in your future and register now to reserve your spot.