Learning Remote Lessons: Why saying NO to remote work can cost you the success of your startup
My thoughts on the eternal startup remote dilemma
More than every second company in the US now has remote workers (63% according to the 2018 Upwork Study). 96% of people that work remotely would recommend it to a friend.
Building our platform in the future-of-work space, I am very aware of this mega-trend.
With Bunch, however, we were always very careful about implementing remote or distributed work models. Inspired by our highly-adaptable and curious culture, we tried it very early on and failed.
How exactly? Well, we’ve had several failed attempts to include engineers that work remotely from different countries and we learned that remote work is great for people that know how to do it, but we concluded it was not for us. Everything seems to “happen” in the office anyway, so people that join our team should just simply join us in the office, we thought.
Can you relate? Many founders I know would argue it this way: when I have my team around me, I can just walk over and chat with them, when something comes up. With remote people, it’s always slowing us down to have to jump on calls and write every single thing down all the time. If you are based in Berlin (as we are), which has a good and steady inflow of new talent from Eastern and Southern Europe, you can operate with this attitude for a while, but it won’t scale.
It was not until earlier this year that the tide turned for us and I had a simple choice to make: we either figure out remote work, or we have to say no to not only 1 but 2 or more great opportunities. We had the opportunity to partner with an amazing funding partner (we’ll reveal more soon!) and build the future of Bunch, but only if I were to consider to relocate to the US and build a team there, while the rest of our current team (product & engineering) stays in Berlin.
Which of course meant: figuring out how to work remotely between 2 offices. We were hesitant at first, mainly because we did not really know how to avoid another fail (and we don’t want to make the same mistakes twice!).
This is when I was introduced to Mark Frein, the Chief People Officer at InVision, the big-ass design-collaboration unicorn that was running fully remote for almost a decade.
Before even jumping on our first call, Mark had sent me one of the most well-written emails I ever received. He was laying out where he is today, what brought him there and what is looking for in his future.
I read. I was mesmerised.
Why does he even care about Bunch?
A bunch of calls with me and our team later, I knew: Mark lives in the future.
Not only because he helps run one of the biggest remote businesses world-wide but because he was trying to build software for this remote-heavy future since the early days.
At Return Path, where he was Chief People Officer previously, he worked with a hackathon data team to develop a natural-language-processing (NLP) model to improve performance reviews! Just because he wanted to be smarter about feedback conversations and help managers be more effective when giving development feedback. He almost spun that business out, but at the time he felt it was too early and NLP-based businesses were still relatively unknown.
Well, now is the time for such businesses! With Bunch.ai, we’re building infrastructure for teams that work mostly online, distributed, have multiple offices and build culture via Slack, Zoom calls and only see each other face to face 2–3 times a year.
Like us, Mark believes much of what we know about culture and how to build strong relationships at work is obsolete.
We need new models, new frameworks, and new tools to help us build collaborative intimacy across different times zones and we need the evolution to start today.
Most companies he’s spoken to already needed it. But Mark also knew, it’s very hard to build.
Looking back at Bunch’s progress, most people would say: Wow, what a journey. We’ve pivoted and changed models not only once, twice, but three times and it took us a while to figure out what the ideal product and implementation of our NLP work look like.
We feel we’ve found it.
Our platform provides access to timely, relevant and hyper-tailored advice on how to improve the way modern, progressives teams work day-by-day to reach performance levels they’ve never reached before and build incredible relationships.
Every time we build new features or discover something new about our users, we borrow from products in other segments: quantified self, fitness apps, content recommenders.
Building a product that helps you build healthy and strong cultures when you communicate online, is a new emerging category of software (call it “CultureTech”, we love that) and it is damn complicated and requires extensive research.
We must continue to improve our data models, overcome fears around transparency and privacy, convince decision-makers to bank on culture early, and build ML algorithms that can be trusted with something as important as a team’s long-term cultural health and performance.
Mark saw that we’ve come a long way, but more importantly we were getting very close to the product-market-fit sweet spot: we had a growing user base of VPs of People, CEOs, founders, CTOs and product leaders that were connecting their Slack account to see how their team is doing, no matter how distributed it was.
And while the product is far from being perfect, we have users signing up and returning to see their team’s communication revealing signals about how the teams felt, whether their communication was effective, whether they were afraid to speak up and how well collaboration was flowing across different time zones.
Having met Mark, I knew getting him involved will be a game-changer for us.
He not only has the relevant experience to scale a business (he’s done that with great success previously with a professional services business where he was General Manager and ultimately CEO), he knows what it takes to scale a unicorn that is fully remote and more importantly he “gets it”.
I also knew to get a senior member on board that is remote (Mark is based in Austin) with the core team being mostly in Berlin, will be challenging.
Will he have enough impact? Will we be able to build trust quickly enough? Will there be a strong enough relationship between junior team members and him? Will we manage the time zones?
Fast forward 3 months: I could not be more excited to announce that Mark has joined us as a COO as of August 1st and I have managed to work with the Berlin team for 7 weeks in a row from NY.
We’ve also hired our first NY based team member Maria (she is amazing!) that does an outstanding job keeping us connected to our core market. With Eric Pinzur, we’ve hired a Sr. Engineer position that we struggled to hire for more than 6 months in Berlin.
Giving him the flexibility to work 6 months from Berlin and 6 months from Austin, where he is based during winter months, I assume has been one of the reasons why he rejected other offers and decided to join Bunch.
And we’re currently speaking with an outstanding, game-changing talent that would be based in Washington DC, and that if we were to stick to our hubs Berlin and New York we would not get on board.
The past 6 months have taught me: if you’re building the future, you will have to do it remotely.
Those that figure out how to do this better quicker, will benefit from opportunities that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Those that close themselves up, will be left behind.
The future is significantly — if not exclusively — remote, especially in tech.
Yesterday, I heard our new product & growth advisor Adeline Lee, that just had her first day in the office in Berlin, say:
“You guys are one of the most remote-friendly teams I ever worked with, that’s really cool!”.
Thanks, Mark for teaching me this before it was too late, and: