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Culture

What We Mean When We Say: We are a Distributed-First Team

We’re big fans of things like productivity (i.e. “getting shit done”) and we believe that our best work is only possible in environments that are custom-designed for each and every individual.

In other words, when it comes to work, one-size (and one building) does not fit all!

You see, from the very beginning, we were a distributed team, by philosophy first and geography second.

Meaning, we saw the art and science of business building through a distinctly distributed lens – the implications are deep as they are wide, from our go-to-market strategy to how (and from whom) we raise venture capital to support our team; to the tool choices that power our business and, of course, who we hire and add to our amazing team.

And we’re doing our very best to be as intentional as we possibly can be as we think through our organizational culture and the systems and processes that undergird the foundation – even the words we choose to use are important!

For instance, we’ve decided to use the word distributed instead of the word remote (or “satellite”) because the latter implies that there is a “home” (or “homebase” or even physical office) signifying one place as being more important than another; the former more uniformly suggests equality and opportunity for network-wide impact.

In addition, the word “distributed” is also much closer to the heart of decentralization, but, we won’t go down that rabbit hole right now!

To press this point even further, there have even been a few studies that suggest that referring to one part of a team as “remote” and the other as “local” can create a cognitive bias against the team members who are remote!

No bueno.

via klinger.io – great post here on managing teams as well!

We’re proud to say that we are a distributed-first business and organization, which practically means the following:

  1. We do not have a “central office” or “home office” or HQ (“headquarters”). No place or geography has priority, physically or culturally within the organization.
  2. We intentionally look to attract and hire folks who especially enjoy the freedom and agency to choose where they want to work! Whether that’s from the comfort of a home office, their favorite coffee shop or local coworking spot – the choice is up to you.
  3. We’ll hook you up with whatever you need to be as comfortable as possible! Gear like a new Apple MacBook or a new set of headphones (for those tunes!) go without saying – coverage for monthly coworking costs and role-specific tools we’ll cover too.
  4. We make every attempt to physically meet, as a team, on one of the coasts every quarter (we’ve met in Atlanta, GA & San Francisco, CA so far) and as we grow we will try to meet in different places that make the most sense for all team members (and we’ll cover all travel costs).
  5. We believe that defining our organizational structure and culture as distributed-first is a competitive advantage: It allows us to hire the best people anywhere, optimizes quality of life for our team members, and maximizes long-term staff retention as a result.

It’s especially important that we call these things out because it helps folks know and understand who we are as an organization and culture, especially if they think working with us might be a great idea!

We can now refer back to this canonical blog post with any potential candidate in our hiring process and make sure that folks have as much information as possible to make an informed decision about the team.

This gif is insane – I love it.

It’s Not All Rainbows and Butterflies…

Stay woke: Being a fully-distributed company can come with just as many downsides as upsides, depending on your team makeup and the way you ultimately design your organization.

For starters, here are a few challenges that distributed teams will definitely encounter and will uniquely struggle with:

  1. Communication: Distributed teams need to be masters at communication, full stop. This is an all-skate type of cultural skill that needs to permeate through the entire network. Meaning, everyone on the team needs to be excellent (and/or growing towards excellence) as one “lone wolf” or isolationist can ruin and frustrate the entire system.
  2. Systems, All The Things: Distributed teams typically need to be excellent at codifying systems, processes, and workflows. Although I’m hesitant to state an exact number, but, I’d say distributed teams will need 2-3 times as much documentation as a team that’s more geographically-centric. If the lack of documentation in your organization isn’t giving you hives already, then, it’s just around the corner!
  3. Loneliness: A fully-distributed team means that you won’t be physically hanging out much and distance and time can more easily develop feelings of loneliness or isolation. Culturally, the team and organization needs to be able to talk about mental health without fear, shame, or guilt.
  4. Decisive Tooling: A distributed team literally lives and dies by their individual and collective tool choice(s); either everyone is using them effectively (and agrees on the tool’s specific utility) or they simply become administrative overhead and organizational drag. Intentionality is key here.
  5. Managing Expectations: Distributed teams must work even harder than localized teams on defining, clearly, what is expected of team members and what metrics or data is relevant and useful. This is because local teams have the luxury of being able to course correct in real-time (by literally walking over and talking to someone) whereas that particular dynamic is not available to folks in different time zones. Consequently, the time between course correction is often times longer and the negative consequences of that delay can compound more quickly than you realize.
  6. Iterate to Win: Distributed teams that have a built-in culture of iteration is going to succeed more easily than those who do not. Essentially, a team that is open to experimentation (and being wrong) and taking the time to intentionally review any process or implementation for the sake of optimization will grow faster together than a team that is much more dogmatic about their systems and is unmotivated to change.
  7. Know Thyself: Being a distributed-first team means that you have, by design, disqualified a ton of capable folks to join your team simply because working in a fully-distributed culture will make them unhappy and their work will suffer accordingly. Massaging your job descriptions and your interview process to quickly help folks self-select themselves out of the candidate pool will help you isolate the best future team members for your company. You must know who you are as an organization (and what you stand for) before you advertise all of those amazing open positions.

It’s worth noting that all teams of all sizes struggle with the above, aforementioned challenges! They are definitely not unique just to distributed teams! It’s just that geographically-distant team members are going to struggle more (and more often) in these areas than local teams.

But for all of the potential downsides, we still believe the upsides are worth the struggle and we’ve decided that this is the type of business and culture that we want to build – if that sounds exciting, we’d love to hear from you!