Though their product is specifically designed to facilitate in-person interactions, Waysact chose to build a fully remote team and operate as a distributed company. Why? Because the company, which provides software to power face-to-face fundraising operations for hundreds of nonprofit organizations, works with so many large NGOs that have a worldwide scale, building an international team from the get-go has allowed them to scale quickly to support that global clientele.
Pajamas sat down with Waysact CEO James Goodridge to discuss managing a distributed team, growing an international software company, and why hiring remotely has provided them unique leverage to expand to 28 countries in just a few short years.
What does Waysact do?
Waysact is software that supports the face to face fundraising of most of the world's largest nonprofit organizations. Charities like UNICEF, Red Cross, Greenpeace, WWF, Save the Children, UNHCR, Amnesty International and World Vision use Waysact to recruit new donors out on the streets, in shopping malls, festivals, events and door to door.
How many people work at the company and how spread out are you?
Waysact is a group of 20 dedicated and talented people (and a few veritable geniuses) located globally; from the rain forests of Argentina to the heart of the Emerald Isle to the South of France and the northern Australian New South Wales hinterland; from London to Berlin to Cardiff to Toronto to Washington to San Francisco to Buenos Aires to Melbourne to Byron Bay, Bondi Beach and Manly. It sounds more like a bucket list article in a travel mag! :)
What made you decide to build a fully distributed team and eschew having any central offices?
Honestly, [Basecamp's book Remote] inspired me to give it a go. Ever since then it required very little determination. Everything about it makes sense for us as a business and whenever I'm prompted to consider it, it makes me smile to tell the story of why.
A lot of companies decide to have a central office somewhere. I deliberately avoided this as I fear having a hybrid model would create a false center. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to control power and influence, culture and association gravitating to a set of people purely on the basis of location. We haven’t tried it but I’ve spoken to many who have seen the challenges first hand.
Working across so many timezones, how do you keep everyone feeling connected?
Far better than a company in one timezone and office. I have Slack open on a screen next to me all the time and there are any number of active conversations in various rooms 24 hours a day. We’re all extremely proficient in the use of online tools that connect us.
You also work with nonprofit organizations across the globe in dozens of countries. How do you manage with those clients? Is having no office locations a help or a hindrance?
International NGOs are experts at this already. The likes of Greenpeace and UNHCR schooled me on remote collaboration in the early days. I am occasionally asked, 'where are your offices;' and I love the question, it’s a sense of enormous pride.
We do have face to face meetings where needed, but our customers are globally distributed and it makes far more sense to go to them. I’m writing this because I’m on a plane going to a meeting (and I don’t have access to the internet or I’d probably be chatting to someone in my team).
What benefits has working remotely afforded to your company?
We are able to attract amazing people. I had a Slack conversation yesterday with Lisa our Head of Customer Experience (Manly, Australia) about John, our NCSA Support Manager (San Francisco, USA). It went a bit like this:
Lisa: "James, John said he's at the airport, is he around tomorrow?"
Me: "Yep, he's just flying to Alaska for the summer. He'll be working on his thesis in his spare time."
Lisa: "Oh, as you do!"
Imagine cherry-picking the best people you've ever worked with in your career and pulling them all together in to the same company or project. It’s a bit like that. Then, allow those people -- who, by the way, also love working with amazing people -- to live their lives where and how they want. Build their houses, raise their children, live on their farms and beaches, or even work on their thesis in Alaska for the summer.
International NGOs are experts at [remote work] already. The likes of Greenpeace and UNHCR schooled me on remote collaboration in the early days.
As Software as a Service, working remotely also allows us opportunities unlimited by geography. This in turn allows us to offer niche value propositions without costing us or our customers a fortune. To have a centrally headquartered company and grow to service 28 countries in 3 years would require very different levering. I’m not certain it would be possible to have sustained our business model without substantial early investment.
How about the challenges? Are there things you think you lose out on by working remotely?
We can’t hire or carry immature or lightweight people. I guess we’re lucky we have no reason to.
What do you see as the most important thing a distributed team can do to ensure successful collaboration?
Foster openness. Share projects, passions, banter and silliness (my poor version of banter). Constantly. Asynchronous communication means people can switch out of it whenever they need focus, or in to it when they need distraction and social contact. Collaboration flows naturally from it.
What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?
To the uninitiated it might seem this is more difficult. It’s not. Everyone is communicating all the time and everyone can have visibility of the majority of this communication, all the time. It’s far easier to dip in to and out of people’s worlds and pick up on who is in a good or bad place, how things are working and where things need adjusting.
In a recent job advertisement, you described Waysact's as having a "friendly and supportive team culture." How do you foster company culture across such great distances? What are some of the unique things you do to build camaraderie among team members?
We’ve launched a global convention for the industry our software supports. In April 2016 it’ll be in Mexico and we’re flying everyone there for the week. We’ll get to meet our customers, learn about the industry from the speakers and workshops, and have a great time. Most of our staff will be meeting each other for the first time face to face.
Imagine cherry-picking the best people you've ever worked with in your career and pulling them all together in to the same company or project. It’s a bit like that.
Describe your personal work environment.
My grandfather’s old desk in a bay window next to our bedroom in our apartment in Bondi Beach. Big old busted leather chair, cat, Thunderbolt and Macbook Pro. Bliss.
How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?
Personally, I don’t very well. But I don’t have kids. And I’m still picking up the slack from us being a startup. I know others sometimes struggle as well; it’s too easy to overwork. However, for those with kids and lives, it’s the best possible thing to be able to fit work around these commitments that never neatly fit outside 9-5, nor should.
How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?
It’s an interesting question. It perhaps speaks to the fears of a company considering remote working. I can only say I could do with a few more distractions. In terms of efficiency measurement, we’re still in triple digit growth, so from an operational efficiency point of view: excellent. How do I personally measure efficiency? I don’t, but everything we do is online, highly visible, very shared. People scoff at the cliché of a paperless office, but it’d be more farcical for us to generate paper. My point is that with online systems used for everything we do, it’s easy to keep a pulse.
Asynchronous communication means people can switch out of it whenever they need focus, or in to it when they need distraction and social contact. Collaboration flows naturally from it.
As a distributed company, what are some of the tools you absolutely depend on?
Bender. He’s our Hubot. We went six months without him when we transitioned from Campfire to Slack. Yes, he’s useful but most importantly, he’s funny.
What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?
Do it wholeheartedly, it’s really quite easy if you do.