Being the CEO of a startup means a lot of responsibility and a lot of work that will need to get done when developing a minimum viable product (MVP). While it would be wonderful for founders to have easy access to an in-house team to do all the work, this isn’t always a practical or affordable option for startups given all of the individuals who may be needed to fill important roles. An increasingly popular option is to work with individuals remotely. A typical “team” can consist of tech experts, mobile developers, designers, quality assurance analysts, product managers, Web developers, and backend engineers. Effectively managing this kind of talent across different locations time zones, however, does require careful planning and coordination.
Why Opt for a Remote Team?
Tom Giannattasio of Macaw, a tech-based startup that offers web design tools, says that putting together a team was his first big challenge. He stresses the need to find people who are passionate about what they do and willing to “work for peanuts until the money situation improves.” This doesn’t necessarily mean startups need to go looking for people who are going to work for practically nothing. Remote employees should go through the same interview process and the most appropriate individuals for the roles that will need to be filled should be selected.
Physical separation reduces meaningless chatter and socialization, but it can also contribute to misunderstandings. But issues like this are usually resolved with some initial training before the team gets to work.
Cultural differences among remote employees can be a valuable asset in today’s globally connected world. Startups may gain access to people who have different perspectives on common problems that may end up being a solution that would otherwise not have been considered. It can also be a less daunting task to find qualified individuals who will fit in with the rest of the team when that search has no geographic boundaries.
Opting to work with remote players can still be cost-effective for a CEO with a limited budget (and yes, there are some qualified individuals who will be willing to “work for peanuts” if they feel like they are getting in on a venture with potential) when compared to other potential sources of talent. Assembling and maintaining an in-house team can quickly stretch a new company’s budget. Agencies tend to have higher rates because they’re providing instant access to a full staff, so CEOs will likely be working with freelancers more willing to be flexible with their rates.
Making remote relationships work will take some effort, it’s an arrangement that could be a positive experience for everyone involved. Here are some of the secrets of remote team management startups will want to keep in mind to boost their odds of seeing their ideas turned into something practical, viable, and sustainable.
1. Have a Clear Product Vision and Plan
“Go as you see” isn’t going to work for startups. It’s impossible to expect anyone on the team, whether they’re working remotely or not, to be effective if the attitude of the founder is “we’ll see what happens as we move forward with things.” Developers and the other remote team members will need a detailed plan so they understand what’s expected, what their role will be, and what goals they are supposed to be working towards.
Preplanning may seem like a hassle for a founder ready to get started ASAP, but such efforts can end up saving a lot of time and money. Developers will definitely need to know very specific details before they get started, unless a founder wants the added stress of getting results that don’t match their vision, which often leads to delays and conflicts. If some of the details of a product are confidential in nature due to concerns about competitors getting wind of what’s being developed, having a non-disclosure agreement with remote freelancers can ease some of these concerns.
There’s no such thing as too much planning when it comes to launching and sustaining a business that will be primarily centered around one product. Every aspect of the product has to be identified and well-defined by founders. It’s a process that typically includes:
• Identifying who the intended consumer or user is for the product
• Knowing what kind of backend support will be needed when the product is launched
• Tentatively scheduling a product launch date so team members can pace their work accordingly (also avoids frustrations with workflow and progress)
• Understanding every feature and function that will be included with the product
2. Work Out Feedback Loops and Test Them
Communication and effective management is essential for any team. The same is true with remote teams. A feedback loop should be worked out so everyone on the team knows if they are on the right track with what they’re doing. Having an effective means of delivering feedback increases team efficiency by offering constructive criticism when necessary.
With an effective feedback loop, assumptions can also be tested and validated (or invalidated, in some instances) at a time when it’s a lot easier to make corrections. This part of the process often involves testing code and various scripts. Such processes can be optimized by doing things like setting up continuous integration server to get fast feedback, but effective team communication is equally essential.
Flexibility is also a critical part of feedback and communication. If something has been done a little differently than expected, for instance, it’s fine to let it go if it’s not going to affect the final product. Team members are more likely to be open and receptive to feedback if it’s given while work is progressing rather than when everything has been submitted or delivered. Having a feedback system that works for everyone is also likely to make it easier to request things (e.g., a product feature or two a founder wants added that he or she didn’t think of with the original design concept) that may be beyond the initial scope of work.
Many top-quality freelance developers have worked on multiple projects that have succeeded and plenty that have failed. Odds are good they can share insights that may help an entrepreneur avoid serious mistakes or missteps. Seasoned freelancers, in particular, often have a fairly good idea of what’s likely to work and what challenges a startup will likely face with their Effective two-way feedback involves:
• Asking what might be able to be done differently
• Checking in on a regular basis to ask questions and share thoughts about the progress of the project
• Determining if team members have everything needed to do their part of the work
3. Have a Standby Product Manager on the Team
Effective product management is what makes startups successful. While many startups view their development staff as the central players on their team, it’s actually the product manager who can be the most important member of a team scattered throughout the world. They serve as a bridge between CEOs and their remotely located designers and developers.
Time zone differences can usually be worked out. The only exception with time zone flexibility is with the product manager. Because of the need to have convenient access to a product manager, it’s usually best to try to find someone to fill this role who, while still working remotely, is within the same time zone.
4. Treat Teams with Respect and Friendship
Just because deadlines need to be met and things have to get done, this shouldn’t be an excuse not to be respectful and show appreciation for everyone’s efforts. Remote workers tend to be less social than their counterparts who normally do in-person work, but they’re still human. CEOs could even see more productivity if time is taken to build mutually beneficial relationships.
Toptal has remote employees in nearly 100 countries, and they’ve embraced the benefits of such relationships while also nurturing them. The tech company an effort to provide support to all of their remote workers, which has resulted in a productive global team. It’s worked out so well that their internal team is also largely remote.
Media company Upworthy actually encourages its remote employees to disconnect and take vacations. Relationships like this, however, aren’t likely to be possible until after a product has been developed and launched; or possibly if long-term arrangements are made with some team members who work remotely.
What most new businesses can do, though, is occasionally reach out to anyone doing work for them remotely just to see how they’re doing. Something as simple as sending a “thank you” email or text when a task is done really well or completed before a deadline can mean a lot to someone working remotely.
5. Develop Multiple Communication Pipelines
A team’s performance depends on effectively everyone communicates. Email may be convenient, but it’s not always going to be the preferred method of communication for everyone on a team, especially remote workers with different habits and preferred communication methods. The key to effective communication it today’s world is offer people different ways to stay connected. For instance, some team members may prefer texts and emails while others might prefer virtual one-on-ones with Facetime or Skype, and other players may prefer good old-fashioned phone calls.
Any information systems used to share data should be as easy to use as possible. A set-up that’s too complicated could result in a failure to share important info. Creative solutions like using Wiki pages to create and share documents or using a system issue tracker can make it more convenient for all involved parties to share and view essential information. A tutorial sent to all workers can further ensure everyone knows how to share information.
Time zone differences with team members that may affect communication can usually be worked out with reasonable compromises. Social media management company Buffer has workers spread out across seven different time zones, but they use it to their advantage by focusing on improving customer service — most of their emails are responded to within in an hour.
Once it’s been determined what methods will be used to distribute information, that communication pipeline can then become embedded into the feedback loop. Doing so keeps everyone organized and minimizes the risk of having team members who don’t communicate effectively because they’re being forced to use a method they don’t particularly care for, or they may simply not get some messages. Any lingering issues with communication can lead to delays and distracting frustrations among team members.
6. Refer Team Members to Others In Need of Services
-appreciated way the founder of a startup can reward team members is by referring them to others who may be in need of their services. This can be accomplished in several ways, including:
• Leaving positive reviews on team members’ website or on online review sited
• Providing direct referrals (e.g., another business owner asks for a recommendation because they need similar services)
• Promoting a third party’s services on a startup’s website or social media pages
7. Turn Conflicts Into Opportunities
Conflicts are going to happen now and then with any time. A CEO often gets thrown in the middle of some conflicts, or they may find themselves having a direct conflict with someone on their remote team. Startup owners may be “the boss,” but they’re not always right, so there has to be a willingness to admit this.
More than 60 percent of startups fail because of co-founder conflicts, which can definitely make it difficult for the team that’s in place to have clear direction. Co-founder issues may also create conflict among team members who take sides with one founder over the other one. The solution here is for partners to take the time to know what each one has in mind for the business and the product that will be produced before any serious investments or commitments have been made.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon says he knows when to avoid meddling so that his team leaders can “find their own path.” The same concept applies to a startup’s team members. With developers, in particular, conflicts can be minimized if startup founders avoid the temptation to offer too much input during the development process. This also applies to team members who perform other functions. Clear direction is fine, but there needs to be a balance to allow team players to demonstrate and apply their skills.
Starbucks’ founder Howard Schultz encourages team members to push back against ideas when they don’t agree. Doing so can minimize conflict by allowing members of a team the freedom to offer input without fear of losing a job. In fact, with the right perspective, conflicts can be turned into opportunities by:
• Identifying problems a startup founder may not have been aware of it
• Bringing issues with team morale out into the open so they can be dealt with
• Creating a springboard for dialog by providing a starting point for meaningful conversions that may not have otherwise taken place
• Providing opportunities for negotiations and allowing everyone involved to get the facts and clear up any misunderstandings
• Serving as an catalyst for positive changes, including changes with how team’s behave with one another or with CEOs
Having Access to the Right Tools
None of these tips are going to be all that effective for a new business without the right tools to communicate and maintain productivity. With remote players, such tools are essential to keep everyone on the same page. These are some of the tools that might be helpful for startups and their freelancers or other remote workers:
• Slack: A virtual office tool with features that include group chat, real-time messaging, and archiving.
• Trello: A web-based project management app with features like editorial calendars and access to support documentation.
• GitHub: An Internet hosting service and development platform that makes code review faster and easier.
• GoToMeeting: Virtual meetings are a necessity when there are team members in different locations who need to be kept up to date with how a project is advancing.
Effective product management goes beyond having that one great idea. Whether a new company is being helmed by a single CEO or it’s a partnership, clear direction and communication with the team that’s in place is essential. When that team is literally scattered across the globe, it can take some serious juggling to keep everyone effortlessly working together. The good news is that such efforts should get easier for startups once the team gets used to sharing information and insights among themselves and with the powers that be running the business. Ultimately, founders need to give clear direction to team members, establish mutually beneficial relationships, maintain ongoing communications, and be willing to make adjustments as necessary to ensure goals are being met.