Mark Forrester - WooThemes

Founded in 2008, WooThemes now provides WordPress themes, plugins and extensions to hundreds of thousands of users. Their flagship product, WooCommerce, which turns WordPress sites into full-featured shopping destinations, is pushing 7 million downloads and powers a quarter of all ecommerce sites on the web.

It's fitting that one of the most successful companies founded to serve users of WordPress, which is backed by the fully distributed team at Automattic, would itself be completely remote. Here's co-founder Mark Forrester about building and managing his global team.

What does WooThemes do and what's your role there?

WooThemes is passionate about extending WordPress through powerful themes and plugins. Our flagship product is WooCommerce that adds ecommerce facilities to your WordPress powered website. It’s currently one of the most downloaded plugins on WordPress and the fastest growing ecommerce platform, powering over 24% of all ecommerce stores online.

I’m one of the proud co-founders and together with Magnus Jepson we act as co-CEOs of our company. I'm passionate about building a unique, dynamic company culture and help ensure our marketing, brand and partnership teams are equipped with all the resources they need to continue to accelerate our growth and win others over (Woo).

WooThemes started out as a traditionally structured company with an office in Cape Town, South Africa. What made you start hiring a remote team?

Since the original 3 co-founders met online -- living in 3 different countries (I was in London, UK in 2008, Magnus in Stavanger, Norway & Adii Pienaar in Cape Town, South Africa) -- I think it's safe to say our start was far from traditional. We registered a company and worked together for nearly a year and a half before getting together physically. We didn't even chat on the phone prior [to meeting].

I moved back to South Africa in 2010 -- because dollars went much further, and well... Cape Town. We’d done most our hiring in Cape Town, where the company is registered, but had no strong preference as we were exposed to the benefits of a distributed team from the start.

Hiring highly skilled and passionate WordPress people was much easier when removing the confines of a location.

How big is the team now and what's the make up of remote vs. local?

We are over 50 now, spanning around 16 countries. We’re 11 here in Cape Town which I guess can be defined as "local."

Why did you decide to maintain an office in Cape Town, even after company became mostly distributed around the globe?

We have always had an office in Cape Town, Adii’s previous design agency was re-purposed as WooThemes's first base.

Today, our team decide where they want to work - -it’s important to have one set of rules for all our team. We learned the hard way about having a set for the local vs. the distributed team.

With such a stronghold in Cape Town, it makes sense to have a base we can congregate at; WooHQ turns our digital identity into an IRL destination for friends and partners. I wrote more about our "distributed with a twist" setup on my personal blog.

Hiring highly skilled and passionate WordPress people was much easier when removing the confines of a location.

How do you keep everyone feeling connected?

Thankfully there are plenty of tools, research and resources available today. A distributed team isn't as unique as it was in 2008. The important thing is over communication and organizational memory.

We try stay clear from as much email as possible, because conversations are too easily lost with occasional staff turnover and bulging inboxes. We prefer to use tools like:

What are the biggest challenges you face working with so many remote workers and how do you overcome them?

Autonomy and trust is hugely important with a distributed team. Sometimes those traits are tested and the remedy is often challenging with more regular check-ins -- often misinterpreted as micro-management.

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

A diverse, rich and unique company culture that permeates every aspect of our business and makes our brand and product line so intriguing and attractive to potential customers.

WooThemes is well known for its annual, company-wide international trips. Why is that face-time so important to your business?

You actually covered our first WooTrip back in 2010 on Mashable. We got together on the slopes that year to celebrate our recent success and build relationships. We didn’t realise how it would serve as a really effective marketing campaign -- and subsequently had one of our best weeks of sales.

Time together is gold and a highlight of the year for all of our team. It's so difficult to measure and benefits are largely intangible, but there is a real energy and unity amongst the team over these trips and the subsequent months.

I think this video sums it up better than I can:

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

One of the areas of concern with a remote team is how easily one can hide, withdraw and just play safe.

Our "1 on 1” Hangout meetings, and the conversations that flow more freely in that dedicated time, often help us determine how our team are truly feeling about work, how ambitious they are to grow and learn, and how they are doing personally and how it might be impacting their work. Tone is often lost in bits and bytes.

What are the main things you focus on when building your company's culture?

FACTT. Fun, Action, Communication, Transparency and Trust!

Describe your personal work environment.

I spend most days at WooHQ. I like working in an open plan space with people around me, but with the sanctity of my Bose noise canceling headphones at times.

It’s nice to have the flexibility to work from home, near the family, or an office when a 3-year-old son can be distracting.

At home, it can also often be difficult to close the study door and call it a day. Too often you find yourself sneaking back to the computer late at night.

Tech wise, I love my MacBook Pro for mobility, but have a cinema display at the office and at home.

(Read more about Woo team workspaces on our blog.)

Time together is gold and a highlight of the year for all of our team. It's so difficult to measure and benefits are largely intangible, but there is a real energy and unity amongst the team over these trips and the subsequent months.

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

Bose noise cancelling headphones. :) Some guys at Woo use RescueTime to measure their personal efficiency. Maybe I’ll try that.

Reading a little deeper into the question, as a leadership team it doesn’t necessarily matter how "inefficient" we are at particular times of the day, or distracted we are by social channels or young kids. What matters is that revenues are growing, customers are happy and relationships are being built with enabling partners. If we are always positively affecting those areas of the business then we are being efficient.

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

A remote working team on the surface is an attractive and liberating setup. There's often a lot of administration behind the scenes though, managing international employees, cultural differences, international HR, payroll and tax, etc. Hire internationally only if it really benefits the company or you’ve exhausted all options locally. Spend lots of time ensuring you are hiring the right people that will thrive in such a remote environment. Be agile with the systems and procedures you introduce, and from time to time retire. All importantly: over communicate and connect whenever and wherever you can.

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.