Should A Founding Team Work Remotely?

This is a big question right now starting at makkajai, and here is my personal take on things.

The advantages of remote working are well-known – more options for a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle, better recruiting options, generally more productivity, freedom to travel without compromising on work, and so on. However, is this option to be limited only to employees, or can a founding team start working remotely, essentially building this into the company’s DNA?

Remote Working is Scary – it’s a huge departure from how things are traditionally done. Some of the points that could be seen as valid concerns –

  • Productivity – will productivity remain the same? Will it get affected? Will availability (or in-availability) of other co-founders outside of strictly scheduled times affect us?
  • Interactions between the founding team – This is a big one – what about all the informal and unplanned discussions founders need to have so ideas culminate, that did not just originate from one person’s head – how can that happen if we are not all co-located?
  • Investor dilemma – Would a potential investor see this negatively? Can questions arise, such as "if the founders are not even willing to move to be co-located, how committed are they to the startup?"

Let me try and address above issues one-by-one

  • Productivity – I think this is generally a non-issue. Having worked remotely as a consultant for couple of years, especially in teams that have never had a remote-worker before, I think clear communication and discipline can ensure that you are just as much, if not more, productive when working remotely. There are several reasons for this –

    • Lesser distractions – meetings and other important discussions need to be planned up-front, which is a good idea anyways, but doesn’t normally happen when working in-person; it’s very easy to just start a discussion with "hey, tell me something.."
    • Tools such as Skype or Hangouts make video calls quite cheap, as long as you have a reliable internet connection (Abhishek, I’m looking at you!)
    • Being remote, you can now be judged solely on what you contribute, compared to how many hours you spend on the venture. Personally, I think this is very, very important – it forces us to go beyond mere "sacrifices" and focus on "contributions" which is a more fair way to judge what a founder brings to the table. If, sometimes, uncomfortable questions need to be asked, they need to be asked and will not be pushed away with thoughts such as "at least he/she is working hard".
  • Interactions between the founding team –  I agree this is important – however I think the main point to focus on is Interactions. There are ways to enable this even remotely – for e.g. we can just enable a live camera 24*7 and let people just *pop-in* virtually on any team member, if that’s what it takes to get us comfortable. Skype, Slack, basecamp, and several other tools can relatively cheaply make virtual interactions not only a lot more feasible, but also leave a trail of discussions (something that doesn’t necessarily happen in-person) – which can be quite useful for later reflection or for new-joinees.

    The key here should be focussing on enabling the right infrastructure to making this work.

  • Investor Dilemma – this is I think, simultaneously, a real issue as well as the least important one; I agree that investors will probably give us some grief over this, till we show results. However that’s the key I believe – investors will always give us grief till we show results. I wouldn’t personally want to work with an investor who just forces us to work in an office, even if we have shown results working remotely; such level of operational interference can be painful.

    In fact, in some ways, this can also help us attract the right investors. Startups need to do something different from other startups, because 90% of them fail – the more different we are, the better chances of us standing out and actually succeeding. And investors do know that, so this can be an excellent PR strategy. Plus, if we quantify the cost-savings in terms of reduced salary and other expenses, I think it will help sway investors even more.

There are several key advantages too –

  • Ability to hire great people to work remotely – this single-handedly enables us to hire the best people in the world, without worrying about location; and not just for transactional roles, but important product, development and sales roles. Putting the infrastructure in place right at the start of the company will give us the necessary experience and processes that will help in putting such a hiring plan into action
  • Better Sustainability – there is no question that there is a better work-life balance for founders working remotely; given that most startups are able to drag-on for more than a year and have increasing chances of success, the longer it can sustain, I think paying attention to softer aspects such as being close to family can be a big deal to sustainability.
  • Lesser Costs – several personal costs are reduced for different founders in different cities – and this leads to lesser cash salaries and lesser burden on the company. Even with all the additional costs of supporting infrastructure, there will be a lot of savings on rent, commuting and travel.

As a summary, I personally think remote working is not just a viable option, but the best option available to even a founding team, especially one that is experienced, good at communication, knows each other well and is mature. The key would be identifying issues and taking concrete actions to resolving those issues rather than blaming remote working for them.

There are some really good posts on how to do this effectively, tools to use, and more –

What do you think? Can a Remote Founding Team work? Or are there pitfalls that are just impossible to avoid?

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