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Top tips for growing a fully remote startup

by jcp

Lydia Kothmeier, VP of Operations at enterprise CMS Storyblok, discusses how startups can manage growing their business with an entirely remote working team

The world of work has profoundly changed over the past 18 months. Remote working, which was previously seen as the province of contractors or hip startups offering perks to their developers, is now very much in the mainstream. Its benefits have become so apparent that it has opened the door to something many businesses would have considered unthinkable – creating an entirely remote team.

While greater flexibility in the way we work is very welcome, developing a remote only team – especially if you’re a fast growing startup – does come with some challenges. However, with good planning, procedures and recruiting the right people, every hurdle can be quickly overcome.

Before we get stuck in, let’s think about the benefits of a remote only team. For reference, Storyblok, which was founded towards the end of 2017, has always been a fully remote business. The rationale was quite straightforward. By deciding this at the outset, Storyblok’s founders were able to recruit people from anywhere in the world. Resulting, at the time of writing, in a very diverse 46 member team – representing 19 nationalities from 13 countries. Leveraging a global talent pool has enabled Storyblok to double in size in the last eight months. As everybody was remote from day one, there was a level playing field with no chance of ‘in office’ groups getting favourable treatment or forming cliques.

Of course, back in 2017 very few businesses had adopted this model. As a result, there was no handbook to determine the best way to develop operational or talent procedures. One of the biggest fears businesses have is that without getting people physically in the same office, company culture, collaboration and productivity all suffer. These fears can be magnified for startups where there is a particular premium on collaboration led innovation and rapid hiring is the norm.

Keeping the benefits I’ve outlined, while avoiding the pitfalls, is a balancing act. Storyblok’s experience provides a number of key takeaways that can apply to nearly any startup.

Start with your recruitment process

Whether you’re just getting going with scaling or you already have a core team assembled, the first step is reviewing your recruitment process. The characteristics that make an individual able to thrive in a fully remote environment can be very different to an in office worker. Particular value needs to be applied to candidates who show an ability to work independently and are self-motivated. This may sound obvious, but to actually identify these attributes can require modifying how you recruit. For example, increasing the number of rounds of interviews to include more chats with different team members or managers, creating new tasks that can showcase independent problem solving and closer scrutiny of their personality type versus their existing work experience. The onboarding process can also provide an additional layer of protection to ensure you’ve selected the right person for the job.

In Storyblok’s case, we have a rigorous one month long onboarding that includes a ‘buddy system’, peer meetings, a library of company content to read and learn and a few written tasks. New team members aren’t pushed to perform from day one, instead they are encouraged to ask as many questions as possible as they familiarise themselves with their job and the organization.  At the end of it we can be certain that a new team member has learnt the basics, has the skills for their position, met the entire team and also has the temperament that means they will be happy in their remote role.

Build the right technological and operational structure

Getting the right people will count for nothing if you don’t have the right structure in place to support them. Technology can do a lot of the heavy lifting. Task and project management software, as well as communication platforms like Slack and Teams are the minimum you should have. Collaboration platforms that mimic the creative process of ‘blue sky thinking’ meetings are also essential. Group messaging platforms such as Donut that can enable more informal chats and games should also be considered. The important thing to remember is that you need to plan your tech infrastructure for where you want your startup to be in the future. It is much easier to have all the systems in place you will need with a small team – even if it seems like overkill – then quickly trying to adopt them as you’re rapidly hiring. Putting the tech in place from day one also has the virtue of creating the culture of using it in a certain way. Many of us have experienced the pain of being at a mature company which adopts a new tech platform – training is like pulling teeth and many people grumble that there was ‘nothing wrong with the old way’.

Care for your team with a hands on approach

The next step is the procedures that will underpin how your company functions and your team is cared for. There isn’t a one size fits all approach, however, there are some basic principles that should apply across the board. At Storyblok we have instituted a mixture of touch points both formal and informal to ensure nobody feels isolated. There are regular all-hands catch ups, department team catch ups, regular inter-team informal chats, social events, collaboration sessions and much more. Of course, you don’t want people stuck in Zoom calls all day, so careful monitoring of how many meetings people have is important. If they would like to get away from their home office to create more of a divide between work and their private life, we also offer coworking spaces.

The most critical factor is ensuring these meetings take place on a consistent basis. It is easy to start letting things slide with cancellations or rearrangements. Not only does this disrupt people’s days it also can be a slippery slope where individuals can fall through the cracks and become isolated.

Documentation and clear communication are key

Hand-in-hand with this steady rhythm of team touch points is the nurturing of your team on an individual basis. In office environments have the advantage of creating more informal chance chats between individuals at different levels. Not only can this more easily help decision makers spot talent, it also serves as a way for work-related problems to be solved. Recreating this in a virtual environment requires a more rigorous and systematic approach from managers. We have found that diligent documentation and clear expectation and goal setting during reviews are essential. Managers have to log everything and action it as a priority.

Documenting everything ensures that vital information isn’t trapped in one manager’s head and potential problems aren’t siloed. Indeed it is important that all team members are able to hear and learn about what is going on across the business. This means committing to consistent and transparent communication.

Because popping by a desk to discuss a decision further isn’t possible – it’s essential to ensure that as much context and information is given as possible. Leaders and managers should openly explain their decisions and be open to challenges.

We also encourage all team leaders to have a virtual open door policy. This is a critical factor in creating an open environment where everyone feels heard and can share their feelings. Providing perks such as language classes, additional training, health benefits or job secondment can also help to make staff feel valued.

In short, whatever operational structure you adopt, the key is to stick to it diligently. This will be the testbed from which your company culture develops and it will be the framework that will enable smooth scaling. However, remember, it’s unlikely you’ll get everything right on the first go. That’s why actually listening to your team, especially new members, and taking onboard their feedback is vitally important. Adhering to your structure does not mean being inflexible. If the systems you’ve created stifle productivity or make people unhappy – you need to adapt. Creating a supportive structure does not mean micromanaging people. If you prioritise creating a team you can trust, you will not need to monitor their every action. When it comes to remote working we’re all essentially at the beginning of this new trend – there is still plenty to learn.

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