From on-premise to fully remote startup: How we designed an amazing company culture (no office needed)

by Steli Efti

remote-team.pngThere’s no perfect way to run a remote company, but there are a few things you can do to build a vibrant and successful team.

We started Close.io as a semi-remote company. There were six of us in a little office in Palo Alto, but we never really cared about who was actually in the office. We didn't have a 9-to-5 schedule, and we all traveled a lot. There were months when nobody would be in the office. Some weeks, everyone would be there. And once a quarter, we’d all go on a team retreat.

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But three years into Close.io’s journey, we started hiring people

The first person we hired was a good friend of mine. I’d known him for fifteen years, but he was living in Thailand. So we tested the waters with him, and it worked out great. The next hire was someone we’d also known really well—one of our co-founders had grown up with her. This was another really easy remote hire for us.

And our third hire was remote, as well. We didn’t know her beforehand, so this kind of validated the process for us. By then, we knew that hiring remote people could be a huge advantage for us.

So that year, we gave up the office. The six people who lived in the Bay Area moved to different places around the world, and we became a fully remote team.

There are pros and cons to running a remote company

There's a clear shift among companies to go remote. Gallup and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate that 22% of Americans work from home while nearly 50% are involved with remote or virtual team work. But before you decide to go remote, you should know what you're signing up for.

What are the cons?

  • You have to work to create a healthy and vibrant culture
  • You need to communicate a lot more precisely and intentionally

When you share an office, it’s easy to communicate with people, even non-verbally. You walk into a room and pick up on everyone’s energy purely based on body language. But you don’t have this luxury with a remote team, so you’re basically flying blind. You don’t see any of that non-verbal communication. That’s why you need to be purposeful, explicit, and proactive with every call, email, and chat.

What are the pros?

  • You have a global talent pool
  • You can boost retention

People think remote work is all about hiring cheap talent, but that’s never really mattered to us. I guess that’s a motivation for some companies, but we’ve always paid people well.

Having a global talent pool is the greatest advantage of all. We’re able to hire amazing people, and it doesn’t matter where they live. Talent isn’t exclusive to a certain area of the country. There are great people everywhere. We love being able to hire anyone, no matter where they live.

This also helps a ton with retention. When you’re in a place like Silicon Valley, you encounter plenty of talent wars. People jump ship all the time in search of better opportunities. That’s what makes retaining people so difficult.

But if you hire people globally, you might be the best employer a person could ask for in a given city. They might be living in a place where there aren’t many exciting opportunities for them. So working for your company is a great option for them. If you treat them well, and you provide opportunities to grow, you’ll likely retain people for much longer.

You’re also able to hold onto people as they move along in their life journeys. We’ve seen this plenty of times at Close.io. We don’t have to lose anyone just because they’re moving somewhere else. We spend so much time onboarding and building relationships that we don’t want to start over for a dumb reason like relocation.

Two core principles help us create a powerful remote team culture

We care

We care about, and invest in, our people and our culture because we’re founders who also work for this company.

I want to work at a company that has a great culture, too. I want to work with happy and fulfilled people. I want to work with people who do their best work. I want all of these things because, ultimately, I want to be proud of the company that I built.

We over-communicate

When you run a remote company, communication is the key. Whenever you’re wondering if you should say something, the answer is always yes.

We developed our software for this reason. We wanted to promote radical transparency. Anybody in the company can view customer communications, pipelines, deals, revenue. That transparency is a key component in our fight for over-communication. The more context everyone has, the less they have to guess. We all have a 360-degree view of the company.

So how do we run things?

Every Monday, each team lead sends out a report that includes that week's goals and metrics. Usually, they share a Google Doc with everyone on the team. We all read each report, make comments, ask questions, and prepare for the team meeting.

On Tuesday mornings, we have a company-wide video call, where we typically have follow-up discussions based on Monday’s reports. These calls are scheduled for 30 minutes, but most only last 15–20 minutes. We also make sure to record these meetings, so that anyone can review what we discussed.

After that 30-minute call, we have cross-functional one-on-one sessions. We pair people for 15-minute chats about work and/or life. Sometimes they’ll discuss specific projects they’re working on, but many times, they talk about their weekends or their dogs. Whatever it is, they’re able to connect and learn more about each other.

Once a month, each team sends a monthly report which summarizes week-to-week results, and lays out the plans for the coming month. And we send out a financial update to everyone in the company, so they know exactly how we’re doing.

We also share one question with the team every week, like “How productive do you feel?” or “What’s the last inspiring thing you’ve read?” People send in their responses, and we send out the results every Friday. It’s a great way to engage with your team at the end of a long work week.

Any time we hire someone new, we ask them to fill out a Guide To You, which is a quick survey about their work and communication preferences. These surveys are shared company-wide, and we can reference them later, whenever we need a refresher.

If you want to create a vibrant remote culture, you need a Mary

remote-startup-team-culture-management.jpegIt’s important to have someone who’s responsible for your company’s culture, so that people feel happy and cared for. This doesn’t have to be an official title, but you need someone who’s energetic, nurturing, and dedicated. They should also have a good sense for picking up on whether people are happy, upset, or confused. Your team needs someone they can trust intrinsically, someone with whom they can share ideas, concerns, problems, and questions. It’s incredibly valuable to have a person like Mary.

She’s also our go-to leader for team retreats, which are a huge part of our remote team culture. We can’t do these quarterly anymore because the team’s too big, but twice a year, we get everybody together for a week. If you want to learn more about how we run these team retreats, check out this post.

Have some fun

We created a specific chat room, Shenanigans, just so that the team has a place to unwind for a few minutes while they work. It’s without a doubt the most active room we have. Throughout the day, people share articles, GIFs, videos, and jokes. We encourage this because, as a remote company, it’s not always easy to feel socially engaged. When you’re working from home, talking business all day can drive you nuts.

Sponsor coworking spaces

We want people to leave the house. Interact with people. Go to events and network. It’s not healthy to sit in your pajamas all day. When you’re not healthy, you won’t do your best work. That’s why we help all of our employees pay for coworking memberships if they’re interested.

Steli, don’t you worry about people not working?

I talk to plenty of founders who worry that their employees wouldn’t get anything done if the company went fully remote. But honestly, we have the opposite problem.

We spend an incredible amount of time recruiting trustworthy people. More than anything, I worry that people are overworking themselves. Are they taking enough breaks? When was the last time they took a vacation? We’ve actually set up a system so that if somebody hasn’t taken a vacation during the first four months of the year, we message them and suggest they take some time off.

If you hire the right people, you’ll never have to worry about whether they’re working.

Your company culture is just like a product. You have to iterate and improve. You have to constantly work on your culture. As the world changes, and you change, and your customers change, you need to evaluate whether the team you’ve built is happy and set up for success.

If you’re not excited about this process, a remote company might not be right for you. But if you've read this and feel up to the challenge, there's a good chance you'll build an incredible remote team, just like ours. 

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