We’ve asked this question of startups that operate with many key members of the team working from different times zones. In turn we’ve been asked the same question by our earliest stage clients. When a startup has a few remote team members, there are a bunch of communications processes and planning tools that are commonly followed to integrate those two guys working remotely from Boston or that amazing coder in Berlin.
The argument for ‘going virtual’ comes down to one word: talent. You’re expanding your potential labor pool and not competing with the geographic Big Boys (Google, Facebook, etc., if you’re based in Silicon Valley). It’s a compelling argument, especially if you’re trying to land one or two key players.
But it’s a different story when the entire company is distributed. When there is no critical mass of talent or team, how does a startup stitch together a group of people to operate with a shared focus, passion and results? And when it comes to marketing and launching that virtual startup, how do outsiders (like Crowded Ocean) work efficiently with a virtual startup team?
It’s not about a bunch of startup culture hacks like gourmet lunches, free neck massages and flex hours. That’s the kind of cosmetic quirkiness that’s a reflection of the early employees and founding team. Building a successful team that’s all virtual requires much more effort.
Goals: It is about coming together with shared goals. We think that means the leaders need to make a deliberate investment to bring together the entire team regularly to articulate and communicate their goals and purpose. If that means spending money to fly everyone on the team to a single location twice a year, so be it. That’s a high ROI investment for a startup that wants to make being virtual work.
Vision: It is about having a shared vision of how your team works. What are the principles and values that underpin your product or service? Those need to be articulated and reinforced to the entire group in person and in subsequent, regular conference calls.
Plan: It is about having a plan and measuring progress against that plan. There needs to be a single plan that the entire virtual team sees, reviews regularly and can articulate.
Communication: It’s probably not possible to over-communicate across a virtual team. We recommend that there be regular, weekly, mandatory staff meetings that are organized, disciplined and respectful. Tight, well-run meetings are usually the best attended (but very often hard to make happen without commitment from the top.)
Diversity: More than ever, a virtual team needs to rely upon diverse but complementary team members to be effective. Studies show that teams are more successful when their members have higher emotional intelligence and include more women.
Discipline: It’s rare that the first-time CEO can lead a virtual team. It takes experience and discipline at the helm to make being virtual a success.
Bottom line: we’re advocates for going virtual on a selective basis (a few key players that you work hard to keep involved in the company culture/fabric). But if you’re thinking of running the entire company as a virtual entity, think again.