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.

Baking Purpose into Culture

Over the years, the brands that I adore the most have been built by the most determined people in the world with a vision—but something deeper drives them.

Purpose.

It is the gravity that pulls people from around the world to be a part of their story. Purpose is the north star that guides them. It reminds every employee to protect something much more precious. When they get up in the morning, they have a clear idea of what they’re fighting for.

As I work on early stage companies, I realize that product market fit and growth are critical, but those metrics represent a small fraction of the company genome. Companies go through ups and downs searching for product market fit—hell, after finding product market fit, they have to find product economic fit. It’s easy to lose footing when everything’s constantly changing. Hopefully a purpose can be the inner fire that reinvigorates a team and enriches their lives.

I’ve seen how teams can fall apart quickly—motivation can literally evaporate before your eyes–people start showing up later, and daily interactions become mercurial. I’m embarrassed to admit that one of my teams fractured from misalignment in one point in my career. I focused too much energy on building vision. In hindsight, I should have spend more time with my co-founders to un-package the most fundamental question, “why?”

Why are we building this product and why the does it matter?

Our purpose wasn’t baked into our DNA from the get-go, and the effects were clear when the chips were down. All is not to say that we wouldn’t have failed. Even if we had a crystal clear purpose, we could have inevitably perished… but at least if we were going to fall on the sword, everyone would know why it was worth it.

Aram shared this advice with me recently, “99% of the projects out there are not worth doing, but 1% is worth dying for.” As we get older, we have less time to start new things, and we have to be more deliberate about how we spend each day of our life. I think purpose can help us decide what that 1% is.

I believe there’s an opportunity to bake purpose early into a company culture and get teams to move mountains. That source of inspiration must be authentic and ultimately human. It has to be a feeling that touches their soul and reconnects everyone with the world they’re fighting for.

Hat tip to Sina and Expa for opening my eyes to this.

Farewell Flare

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Reflecting on next steps.

After working on Flare for the last 2 years, we’re shutting it down. I hold my head up high knowing that I worked with an awesome team, and I tried my best in an extremely tough space. I want to thank my comrades, my co-founders, my mentors, our investors, Expa and all the Flare users for giving me the chance to build this. I also want to thank Annie, my family, and all my friends for being so supportive of this dream.

This has been the most humbling experience of my life. I’ve learned some lessons along the way, and I wanted to pay it forward by sharing the insights. I’ll be posting a little more over the next few days, so stay tuned.

Dinner at Dumpling Kitchen

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The signature Shanghai soup dumplings, served at Dumpling Kitchen.

Annie, Julia and I went to the Dumpling Kitchen to enjoy their most consistently delicious soup dumplings.

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Shanghai style noodles with chicken.

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Veggies.

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Beef in black bean sauce.

I’ve tried a lot of things at this restaurant, and I would say that this is probably one of their better dishes. If you go there, definitely order their beef with black bean sauce.

After Dumpling Kitchen, we made our way to Super Cue to get some boba. My personal favorite is their mango with pana cotta—it’s the perfect dessert to follow any meal. Julia claimed that Super Cue has the best tapioca pearls. ^_^

Anyway, this is an excellent combo between price and value (especially in SF).

Bunch 1.1

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Bunch beta was released a month ago, and since then we’ve made a couple of tweaks based on user feedback. Thanks to all our beta users for providing us insight, and kudos to the Bunch team for making the updates. If you haven’t tried it out yet, you can download it here.

I’m incredibly proud of the app, and I love using it with Annie, Vinny and my friends. The question is whether the app is useful and appealing to other people around the world.

The biggest bit of feedback we got when interviewing users is that they didn’t know how to message. We spent time improving the first time experience, hopefully to show users how messaging can be done easily by pressing and holding. This is the #1 issue we’re hoping to address in this update.

We’ve also made it so that you can add more than 8 people. For users that initially joined and had a ton of friends message them, this was a huge pain point. I know for a fact that I was having trouble messaging people that were outside my top 8.

Anyway, I’ll share more on lessons learned soon. Until then, try the app and let me know what you think. If you don’t have anyone to message, just add me as a friend. Search for “Jeff Wong”, and we can message each other. ^_^