Can you build a startup with a remote team?

The short answer is probably not… but it’s possible under specific conditions.

There is a huge allure of building a remote team… you hear about companies like Invision, Zoom, WordPress, etc. More and more companies are moving towards remote work, but the question is–can your founding team be entirely remote?

After working on a project that has employed remote workers for the last 3 years, I have very mixed feelings about it. As much as I like the idea and want it to work, I believe that remote team dynamics slow down communication, distances people, and adds additional challenges on top of trying to find product market fit. When trying to get a product from 0 to 1, it takes insanely fast cycles, iterating with users, and innovation.

And innovation is not efficient. By definition, innovation is actually trying to find anti-patterns and approaching things differently. There is a lot of wasted energy in being innovative, discarding idea after idea, prototype after prototype. If your product is focusing on innovating in a space, you’ll need to allocate more time for it.

If you’re thinking of building a remote team, you’re probably allured by cost reduction, which buys you more time. Yes, a remote team can reduce cost in the short run, but it really slows down the creative cycles, and adds more process/meetings/alignment.

Imagine scheduling meetings to be “creative”. Let that sink in for a second.

And if you’re an early stage company, it’s an impossible contradiction to manage. Your remote team will be frustrated that you have more meetings in a so-called “fast paced startup”, and you will be frustrated that your team can’t keep up with the changes.

So, what conditions need to be true in order to make a successful remote team?

I strongly believe that remote workers can potentially thrive under two scenarios (when starting with an early stage company):

a) IF the founding team has worked together before and have tight chemistry. I’m talking about a team that knows the ins and out with each other and can read between the lines. This can help reduce people management, and they can work through any communication issues together with less friction. This doesn’t guarantee success, but communication is paramount at this stage.

b) IF the product has found traction, and the remote workers can load balance. When a product has traction, it’s easier to create a predictable roadmap and plan for a larger body of work. Predictability and a controlled schedule is typically a desired quality that remote workers are attracted to. This is a good feedback loop for both employer and employee. The challenge is that you have to somehow find market fit before you build your remote team.

And this leads me to why I think remote teams probably won’t work for early stage companies…

The challenge I’ve uncovered is that it remote roles attracts a certain kind of personality and lifestyle–people who work remote put their own lives first. And rightfully so. They are at the stage of their life where they’ve drawn the line between church and state. However, when building an early stage company, it takes a disproportional amount of time to get things off the ground, to compete against emerging competitors, changing market trends, etc. It is honestly an obsession that your team has to share.

For the employees who are searching for remote roles, I recommend that you avoid seed companies unless they’ve found traction. Ask them how much revenue they generate and how many users they have. If they have neither, you will have to have an uncanny appetite for change and rapid iteration. Be prepared for a roller coaster, going up, down, left, right, forwards and inevitably backwards.

For founders, I caution you to build a founding team with remote people. There’s a good chance that their definition of “work-life balance” is very different from yours. Nothing replaces looking someone eye to eye in person. If someone is willing to show up in person and bet on your company, make a fair deal with them based on the market and the value they can bring to your team. Once you’ve found product market fit, then you can bring on remote workers to help load balance and scale. You can also use remote workers to help “hack” prototypes, but seeding a culture around remote workers is risky business.

Just be honest with yourself as you consider a remote team and the skill set that is required to build an early stage company. Communication and people skills are paramount, especially as the first few hires will be the upcoming leaders of your organization.

Yes, the future of the work force will be remote, but this applies mostly to companies that have already found product market fit.

I’m still yet to be convinced that highly creative work can be done remotely. Innovative and early stage companies (pre-market fit) that are in the most hyper-competitive spaces will most likely always be in person, in the same room. Period.