We’ve been a remote-first startup from day one at Uizard — since the moment my co-founders and I started building our first prototype at the end of 2017, to today in 2021, with a team distributed in 5 different countries.
If you are starting a company now in the midst of the COVID-19 chaos, being remote-first is probably the only viable option. Yet you might wonder how to make sure you build the right environment and set up the right processes for your team to work efficiently.
In this blog post, I’ll share what we learned setting up our remote-first startup.
Reason 1: People.
We’ve started hiring our first employees in June 2018. Now we are 14 people full-time in May 2021. Guess how many full-time employees decided to leave our team since we started? The number of full-time employees leaving Uizard since we started is literally: ZERO. We had to fire 2 people; we’ve worked with interns and short-term contracts; but no full-time hire ever left Uizard so far. No one. (I am so grateful! Thank y’all dream team for sticking around and creating so much value! ❤️)
Reason 2: Resiliency.
Since we are operating in a remote-first paradigm from day one, we’ve experienced zero productivity downtime when COVID hit. Being in lockdown and being required to work from home was just business as usual as far as processes go. I will emphasize again on this: absolutely ZERO productivity downtime when COVID hit.
Reason 3: Product.
We are an engineering company at heart so the easiest way to validate that our remote-first tricks can drive results is simply to look at the product we’ve delivered. I have no shame in saying that we’ve built and shipped a pretty amazing, yet complex product! Uizard is a tool for designing mobile apps and websites that runs entirely on your web browser. It has a proprietary AI baked-in that can do crazy magic things like this, this, or that. And it has built-in real-time collaboration that can literally allow more than 50 people to work at the same time. Building a product like this obviously requires a lot of coordination, and we’ve done it while operating completely remote-first.
Let’s not get distracted by definitions here. What do we mean by remote-first? You might have heard the terms “remote-first”, “remote-friendly”, “fully distributed”, “partially distributed”.
What I mean by “remote-first” here is simply: a company where at least 50% of the staff is working remotely at least 50% of the time.
At Uizard, we’ve had phases where we were fully remote with no office and phases where we had a physical office that people could optionally go to. We found that the tricks we learned and that are listed in this blog post are applicable in both of these contexts.
Now in 2021, everybody has been forced to become familiar with the concept of working from home and working remotely because of that stupid virus. Why on Earth did we decide to do that when we started Uizard a few years ago?
Put simply: because we are 4 co-founders, and each of us has a different nationality. Being a multicultural founding team forced us to consider building a remote-first company from day one because we knew that each of us would want to spend a few weeks a year with our family in our respective home countries while still being able to work.
Furthermore, although we started working on what became Uizard in Copenhagen, Denmark — where my co-founders and I were based at the time — the vision behind the company only fully took shape after a trip to San Francisco. Uizard is an easy-to-use AI-powered design tool for non-designers. We help startup founders, product managers, business analysts, and UX professionals demonstrate their product ideas easily. Naturally, a lot of our customers are tech companies in the Bay Area but it’s a lot cheaper to hire talents in Europe. In other words, we understood that we needed to set up our company with processes that would foster remote collaboration between Europe and San Francisco.
When we started, we had absolutely no clue how to run a business, let alone a remote-first business. So we asked people smarter than us that were running remote-first teams at the time. Huge kudos to the following amazing humans for taking the time to help us back then! 🙏🙌
Now that you have the context, let’s dig down in the Do’s and Don’ts of starting a remote-first company.
Daily standups are probably the simplest trick you can use to foster a team spirit in a remote-first company.
Although they are very natural for engineering teams, they can be awkward for sales people or other teams not used to working in a sprint fashion. It doesn’t matter: still do it every single day, same time.
For us it’s 9am sharp and it usually doesn’t take more than 15 minutes. It’s not just to talk about current tasks or challenges but also to have small talks and hear what your fellow colleagues have been up to in their personal lives.
Because you are setting up a remote-first company, all your meetings are going to take place in a video conferencing tool; for better or for worse.
For this to work, you want to make sure that everyone is on equal footing during meetings. That means that even if you have an office, no one should attend a video call meeting as a group. If 5 folks are in the office when a meeting is scheduled, they shouldn’t just gather in a room and take the call as a group. Otherwise, meetings often start transitioning from a global conversation to a local discussion in the meeting room where face-to-face chatters flow more naturally. The rest of the team which is remote will quickly feel completely left out.
It might sometimes feel silly to get everyone to join a meeting remotely if 5 out of 6 of the meeting participants are in the office but this will have a very positive impact on the quality of all your meetings.
For employees that prefer to come to the office, getting used to doing this has another advantage: it trains them to work remotely. This means that whenever one of them decides to work from home or from another country for a few weeks, she’s already used to sitting alone behind the laptop for meetings. It won’t be a shock, and the collaboration principles will be the same.