The concept of "eating your own dog food" is an important one business. If you don't use your own products, it's much harder to empathize with and understand the needs of your customers.
That's why it makes sense that Speak, a communication tool aimed at remote teams, is itself a distributed company. Pajamas talked to Tom Moor, one of Speak's co-founders, about building an international team and keeping everyone connected.
What does Speak do and what do you do there?
Speak is a team communication tool. We pride ourselves on being the simplest and fastest way to get an audio and video connection with your teammates. In particular we’re focused on the use case of remote teams and how we can recreate the social and collaborative benefits of the office in a digital domain!
I’m one of the co-founders, but as our team is very small we all end up doing a lot of everything. On any given day you can find any of the team doing engineering, customer support and helping make product and roadmap decisions.
You built Speak as a fully distributed team from day one. What made you choose that path?
We chose to be location agnostic from day one rather than remote. This meant that as we started hiring for positions, we did as many interviews over the phone and video chat as we did in person in San Francisco. The only restriction that we had was that there had to be at least some working hours timezone overlap with west coast -- I don’t think this is something that’s needed forever, but with a small new startup we felt that it was important to connect in real time.
How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you?
Right now the company is four people. We have two people in San Francisco, one person in Baltimore and another in England. We’ve also been working with a number of contractors, all of which have been based in Europe so far!
Aside from using Speak, what do you keep everyone feeling connected?
Speak is definitely the main tool we use for achieving this as we often have many audio and video calls a day. Beyond that we use a lot of team chat and often have long discussions within GitHub issues.
We also try and get the team together in person as often as possible with retreats or just getting everyone in the same city at the same time as we travel!
Is there anything you think you lose when working remotely versus in a traditional office environment? On the flip side, what do you gain?
Absolutely, you definitely lose things when working remotely and this is one of the main reasons that we started building these tools in the first place!
I think biggest thing you lose is the sense of bonding that comes from eating and drinking together, the things that happen between and after the work hours -- not necessarily much when you’re actually working, which for most people tends to be a largely solitary activity. It’s those spontaneous conversations and insights into the person behind the avatar that you really get from hanging together in real life.
The gain, which gets repeated a lot, is less distraction than being in an office environment, which I can definitely attest to. However, I think the biggest advantage is flexibility, in particular not being tied to a single location can be incredibly liberating! I also don’t think I’m capable of commuting, so there’s that too.
What is the most important thing you do at Speak to ensure successful collaboration?
I would say the most important thing for us is an openness in internal communication -- there is very little that is kept under wraps within the company. For example we keep private messaging to an absolute minimum, instead having conversations in open chat channels and open audio/video meetings.
For email communications we also ensure that others are always copied in on threads, and any feedback from customers is forwarded to everyone or posted in team chat. I’d like to go even further with this and I find the Stripe approach inspiring.
What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?
The main thing we do right now is bi-weekly team meetings which we try to keep under an hour each. At the beginning of the week we set up everyone’s targets for the week ahead and have general chit chat.
At the end of the week we’ll review our progress we’ve tried several different formats for this meeting but my favorite suggested by our engineer, Will, was in the format: “Liked, Learned, Lacked, Longed.” This bit of structure makes it easier to raise issues and frustrations in safety, which is great.
I think biggest thing you lose is the sense of bonding that comes from eating and drinking together, the things that happen between and after the work hours. It’s those spontaneous conversations and insights into the person behind the avatar that you really get from hanging together in real life.
What sort of culture does your company have? Is it harder to build cohesive culture across geography?
I don’t feel as though it’s hard to build culture, it’s just different. Because of the kind of apps we’ve been building, our team is very centered around video and audio chats -- we’ll often have many of these through a day -- we might even speak more than people in the same room some days!
Like any office we share a lot of links and funnies, also books that we’re reading and industry news, as well as a lot of talk about travel and wanderlust. But really the culture is one of flexibility, we don’t care at all when or how folks work as long as they communicate well and get things done and this lets each person on the team live exactly how they want.
What do you look for in an ideal remote employee? Are there any qualities that make someone more successful at working remotely?
The main thing we look for is being self motivated. Working in different timezones and in a small team means you typically have to pick the most important issues that we have and just get on with them.
Describe your personal work environment.
Typically I tend to split my day in half, usually spending the morning working from home in San Francisco, either on the couch (in terrible posture) or plugged into a Thunderbolt monitor for those times when I have to run three or four versions of our app open for testing!
In the afternoon I’ll generally head to one of many local coffee places for change of scenery and a break away from the screen on the journey. I find this rhythm works well with our team's timezones and helps to make me as productive as possible.
How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?
It’s a good question -- I’m actually not too easily distracted when working on something enjoyable, so the best thing is to try and keep the work fun, of course that isn’t always possible but it’s nice to try!
But really the culture is one of flexibility, we don’t care at all when or how folks work as long as they communicate well and get things done and this lets each person on the team live exactly how they want.
Unfortunately my flat here in the city is too small to offer a dedicated space for an office, however most potential distractions are contained within the computer anyway.
What advice would you give to a company transitioning to remote work or building a distributed team from scratch?
I’d have to agree with Adii on this one; if you decide to have even one person remote, then the company needs to change the same as if everyone is remote -- it’s the only way to ensure that people don’t become isolated.
Unfortunately this often doesn’t happen, particularly in companies that make the transition from a co-located team to a remote one, so teams that start distributed have a distinct advantage in my opinion!