Fred Perrotta - Tortuga

Tortuga, makers of a popular backpack and other luggage items for serious city travel, operates as a fully distributed company spanning multiple countries. As a travel company, that's almost expected. As a company that manufactures and ships a physical product, it's a bit of a head turner.

Tortuga's customers are often digital nomads or urban backpackers, so the remote origin story makes a lot of sense. Travel companies lend themselves to remote teams (we've interviewed a few here at Pajamas over the years). But Tortuga also has to deal with the constraints of designing, manufacturing, warehousing, shipping, and supporting a line of real, tangible products. That adds a ton of extra complexity.

We talked to CEO Fred Perrotta about how the teams makes it all work.

What does Tortuga do and what do you do there?

Tortuga helps people live on their terms by making luggage for city travel. I'm the co-founder and CEO.

How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you?

We are a team of 9, based mostly in North America and China, where we manufacture.

What made you decide to start building Tortuga as a distributed company?

Becoming a distributed company happened organically. My co-founder and I were living in different cities when we started the company. He was in film school in LA, and I was working at Google in San Francisco. Our not working together in an office became part of the company's DNA. When we needed to hire part-time employees or contractors, we did it online and found the best person we could, regardless of location. By the time we were hiring full-time teammates, remote was just how we did things. Eventually, we formalized remote work into our company values and made it a part of our mission.

I wrote an entire post on why we work remotely.

How do you keep everyone in the company feeling connected?

Staying connected is a major challenge for remote teams. Like many remote companies, we host retreats to get everyone together in one place. We work together, share meals, and even split an Airbnb house or apartment because we're still small enough for that to be practical.

When we aren't together, we use Slack as our water cooler. Of course, we discuss work stuff on Slack, but we also use it as a place to talk about everything else. The retreats are important, but we try to reinforce online the relationships that we've built in person. Without the retreats, our chat would have a different, work-heavy tone.

Tortuga is unique among remote companies in that you produce a physical product. It's easy to imagine that being able to touch and feel fabric samples, test runs, being in the same place for product photography, etc. would be important. What challenges does that present for your remote team? How do you overcome them?

Making physical products remotely is tough, but we're figuring it out as we go. For starters, one of our teammates, Giulia, lives in China where we manufacture our products. Having her there in person to work with the factories is a huge help. Patrick (our industrial designer) and I visit twice per year to work on products in person. Having everyone together in one room helps us move much faster and iron out any final details on new projects.

Retreats are important, but we try to reinforce online the relationships that we've built in person.

The challenges arise during sampling. In design, everything is online, from sketches to material specs. Then we move into sampling. Without being in the same room or having the factories make multiple copies of everything, we can't all be seeing and touching the same objects. This is the hardest part. Patrick takes the lead but this has meant that I'm less hands on than when we were a two-person company.

We've figured out a process that works at our current size but will have to figure it out all over again as our product team grows. Even when you overcome one hurdle, there's another one right after it.

What is the biggest benefit that working remotely has afforded your company?

Working remotely has allowed us to hire the right people, regardless of location. We've never hired anyone in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, where Jeremy and I are based. For many companies, working remotely is a nice perk, but it is often unrelated to the company's products. For us, it's fundamental to our mission and values.

Our mission is to help people live on their terms. Part of that is being location independent and having the freedom to work remotely. Being a remote company means that we live our mission and can serve as a role model for other companies, founders, and employees. Living our mission also means that we attract teammates whose core values are aligned with ours, not just people who want to work from home in their pajamas.

Do you think anything is lost for your team by working remotely?

Definitely. There are tradeoffs to any choice you make, including whether to have an office. However, we feel we gain more than we lose for what we value as a company and as teammates. For instance, by the time each retreat rolls around, we feel the need for one to get back into sync. Despite my best efforts, we can all feel a bit disconnected with too much time apart.

We've figured out a process that works at our current size but will have to figure it out all over again as our product team grows.

What do you think is the most important thing a distributed team can do to ensure successful collaboration?

Commit to being distributed as a rule, not as an option. Then design all of your communication and project management systems around being remote. If you don't, your remote employees will always be at a disadvantage.

What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?

I have 1:1s via Slack video calls every 1-2 weeks with each member of the team, which is still possible at our size. This helps me to see how people are feeling and to get to the root of problems. Even a video call conveys a lot more information than a text chat.

Operationally, I've been choosing a company-level "theme" each quarter, rather than a numeric goal, so that everyone can set their Quarterly Priorities based on the theme. I find this helpful for setting daily or weekly priorities and to keep our focus on what's important, not just what's urgent.

What sort of culture does Tortuga have? Is it harder to build cohesive culture across geography?

I think that I should ask everyone on the team to answer this then compare our answers. The more similar they are, the better job I'm doing.

Being remote makes a process and results culture important. We've tried to build this culture at Tortuga. "Ass-in-seat time" doesn't matter at a remote company because no one sees you at your desk. Instead we focus on processes (to avoid miscommunication) and results. Results doesn't mean "hit your numbers of you're fired." Results means that we evaluate everything we do, learn from it, and do better next time. When we evaluate opportunities, we focus on high upside while minimizing downside. We want to hit home runs.

Commit to being distributed as a rule, not as an option. Then design all of your communication and project management systems around being remote.

The other important part of our culture is doing epic work and knowing that we either succeed together or fail together. No one person or department is responsible for either outcome. We try to screen for teammates with the right ambition: for the team, not for themselves. If the company does well, they will do well too, as a consequence. The reverse is not always true.

Does Tortuga do anything unique to keep everyone on the same page or bring the team closers?

Retreats are the biggest thing that we do in this regard. The other important pieces are our checkins and recaps. On a remote team, you can easily get siloed into your individual or team work and never talk to your other teammates. We try to over-communicate what we're working on.

Every Friday, we have a team checkin email where everyone says what they accomplished that week, what their priorities are for next week, and where they're stuck.

Every month, we send team-level recaps to share what each team prioritized for the previous month and how it went.

You get together twice each year for retreats. What are the goals you have for that time together as a team? What are some of the things you do to make sure you get the most out of your retreats?

We don't want retreats to be like normal work weeks except we're sitting next to each other. Colocation is worthless if we spend the time with our headphones on staring at our laptops.

The most important part of a retreat is spending time together outside of work tasks. During our three-day retreats, we schedule a fun activity, a volunteering activity, and team dinners. The retreat is three days, but we book an Airbnb for a week so that teammates have more free time to hang out, explore the city, and, yes, even work.

The work parts of the retreat are meant to be inclusive sessions focused on the big picture and the future. Retreats are our time to think big and think ahead. Being together in person and in a new location make thinking this way much easier.

Being remote makes a process and results culture important. "Ass-in-seat time" doesn't matter at a remote company because no one sees you at your desk. Instead we focus on processes and results.

What do you look for in an ideal remote employee? Are there any qualities that make someone more successful at working remotely?

Every job listing is for a "self-starter," but initiative is extra important in a remote company. You have no peer pressure and no one looking over your shoulder. You're working from home. Do you still have the drive to do great work?

We also do an entire interview focused on core value alignment because if someone shares our mission, they will do the work necessary to achieve it.

Describe your personal work environment.

I work mostly from home with time at cafes and coworking spaces to mix it up and prevent my becoming a hermit.

Two years ago, I moved from San Francisco to Oakland for more space. I now have a dedicated home office with a standing desk. Previously, I lived in a studio apartment where my bedroom, living room, and office were all the same room. The extra physical space has given me more mental space and made me more productive.

How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?

Having a dedicated room and space has helped. At the end of the day, I can close my computer or even the door to my office to signal that I'm "done." If I want to do something online, I can use my phone or iPad. This is the system that I try to stick to. But, I'm still a founder. I let the lines blur and open my computer back up at night when I have an idea I can't get out of my head. I love my work so I don't mind this as long as it doesn't have an adverse effect on the rest of my life.

We don't want retreats to be like normal work weeks except we're sitting next to each other. Colocation is worthless if we spend the time with our headphones on staring at our laptops.

How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?

I go overboard with limiting distractions. I have all notifications turned off on my phone except for calls and texts. I'll even put my phone on Do Not Disturb and leave it in another room if necessary. I turn off Slack entirely, not just the notifications, when I'm doing focus work. I don't check email until around lunchtime.

Most importantly, I try to take advantage of my natural rhythms. I do a big block of focus work in the morning, then I eat lunch and go to the gym, then I do the admin work like answering emails in the afternoon when my energy is lower.

What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?

Slack, Asana + Instagantt, Dropbox and Google Drive, LastPass, and Astrill VPN.

What do you like to read?

I'm a voracious reader. A few years ago I got an email from Pocket that I was in their top 1% of users. I'm not sure if I should be proud or embarrassed. Outside of Pocket, I'm usually reading one fiction and one non-fiction book at a time. Here are a few of my favorite business books.

What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?

If it's right for you, commit to it and go all in. You can't half-ass being remote. Otherwise, good luck and let us know that you're remote too. I love reading about, talking to, and partnering with other remote companies.

Pajamas is brought to you by Teamview
Teamview keeps remote teams connected with
simple, asynchronous text and video standups.
Learn more at teamview.io.

Josh Catone
Josh has been the Content & Community Manager at feedly, the Executive Director of Editorial Projects at Mashable, the Lead Writer at ReadWrite, and the Lead Blogger at SitePoint.