⦿ INSIGHTS

The Do's & Don'ts of Running a Remote-first Startup

The pandemic has showed everyone one thing: remote work is here to stay. In this article, Tony Beltramelli, CEO & co-founder of Uizard.io, shares what he's learned from running a remote-first company for the past three years.
The Do's & Don'ts of Running a Remote-first Startup
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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.

Why Should You Trust the Way We Did It?

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.

Definition: 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.

Why Did We Start Remote-first to Begin With?

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.

The cliché Silicon Valley garage on 433 Burgoyne Street where the vision behind Uizard fully shaped — just putting this here for reference when Uizard make it to the Computer History Museum. 😉

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! 🙏🙌

Let’s Dig Down in the Do’s and Don’ts of Starting a Remote-first Company.

Rule #1: DO one mandatory daily standup.

Daily stand-ups 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.

Rule #2: DON'T gather as a group during meetings.

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.

Gathering as a group during video calls sucks for the one working remotely. Don’t do that.

Rule #3: DO provoke small talks.

Small talks at the water cooler or during coffee breaks is where a lot of great ideas emerge. For obvious reasons, fostering serendipity in a remote-first setting is hard, but there are a few things we’ve tried to do that worked well.

  • Walk and talk. The rule is simple: if you need to take a break, shoot a message on Slack (or whatever communication tool you use) in case someone else needs a break as well. Then people will jump in a call while doing their things at the same time. Some people in our team do this during their commute, when they go fetch lunch, or during coffee breaks / snack breaks / cigarette breaks. This trick was pioneered by Radoslav, our Lead Designer, and Florian, COO and Co-Founder.
  • Remote water cooler. We’ve set up sessions in the company calendar where anyone can drop by and chat. Sometimes just 2 people show up, sometimes it’s everyone in the company. Often we just chat about random things, sometimes we chat about work, sometimes we play skribbl.io. It’s all about nurturing serendipity! This initiative was first proposed by Monika from our platform team.
  • Virtual game nights. Another place for serendipity to happen is during team activities. In a remote set-up, the way we’ve done it is through virtual game nights where anyone can join and play whatever game is planned for that day. Rizwan, our CCO, and James from our machine learning have been driving this.

Rule #4: DO one weekly general meeting + story of the week.

When you’re an early stage startup, it’s pretty important to make sure everyone knows what’s going on in the company. It might be natural when everybody is in the same office and people can overhear conversations or catch up at lunch, but it’s obviously not the case in a remote-first set up.

To overcome this, we gather everyone every Friday at 3pm for a retrospective meeting where each team gives a high level overview of the big wins of their week and their focus for the week to come. This gives everybody the opportunity to stay up-to-date with everything happening in the company and also ask questions.

Last but not least, we’ve added a twist to this formula: story of the week (first proposed by Arturo from our machine learning team).

The goal here is to end a somewhat serious meeting in a fun way and get people to share something surprising / amusing / interesting with the rest of the team. The idea is simple: every week, someone is elected randomly using a very smart Javascript “AI” (written by Monika from our platform team), and the lucky winner is tasked with organizing a small fun thing for the team the subsequent Friday at the end of our weekly general meeting. We’ve also used this session as an excuse to stress test our product by trying to misuse it in creative ways.

  • Often, someone will share a surprising fact about the world (e.g. the most crazy stunts from Salesforce CEO, the story of D. B. Cooper plane heist, how black holes form (yes we have a physicist in the team 😉), etc.)
  • Sometimes, we’ll try to get everyone to design a silly app collaboratively in Uizard in less than 10 minutes
  • Sometimes, someone will create a weird Quiz and challenge the team
  • More rarely, someone will prepare and share a truly epic quest
A team of 8 trying to build a “hacker clothing web shop” in Uizard in less than 10 minutes.

Rule #5: DO make sure people see each other.

Seeing colleagues make you feel part of a team, and we’ve tried quite a few silly things to recreate the proximity feeling that the office gives.

A. Seeing each other during meetings: YES! During meetings that are explicitly video calls, try to make sure that everybody sees each other. Unless someone has a low bandwidth preventing them from using video, meetings tend to be a lot more productive and fun when people can see each other.

The only exception to this rule is our morning daily standup (Rule #1 listed above). We tend to run this meeting with voice only since it’s a super short touchpoint.

Whenever possible, make sure that everyone can see each other.

B. Seeing each other outside meetings: MAYBE… We’ve even tried something more extreme where you would always be able to see your colleagues as you would in an open office. Of course, we made it totally optional! To be more specific, we’ve tried having a constant video call where you always have a window on your computer open where you can see you fellow team members. Quite frankly, this didn’t work… It was weird and consumed a lot of CPU.

Then our CTO and Co-Founder Henrik built app.workspace.to during a weekend, and we used it a lot! The web app captures a photo or a 2 seconds video clip every 5 minutes. You can have this open in a window and get the feeling of being part of an active remote-first team. It’s completely optional and no one has ever been required to run this during their work day. The engineering team used it quite a lot, and the app would sometimes capture very funny clips:

Rule #6: DO minimize meetings.

Meetings are exhausting, and video calls are probably the type of meetings that drains the most energy. Meetings are not where work happens. They are only useful for syncing, aligning, and planning. We use Slack for all synchronous and asynchronous communication and we only jump in video calls when absolutely necessary. We always try to make sure that meetings do not last more than 30 minutes. The only exception being our weekly retrospective general meeting on Fridays.

Rule #7: DO onboard everyone face to face.

Now with COVID, this is probably not going to be possible but I’ll share this anyway for the post-COVID era.

We would fly every new hire to wherever location most of the team would happen to be at that time (which is often Copenhagen) and onboard them face-to-face for an entire week.

We’ve seen it over and over again: the longer a new employee is able to spend time face-to-face with their new colleagues, the more integrated in the team they will feel, and the better their experience being fully remote will be afterwards.

For junior hires, having them for a few weeks or months onsite has always been a really efficient way to get them up to speed with our process, tooling, and workflow.

Rule #8: DO a yearly retreat.

This rule is also pretty hard to follow during COVID, yet it’s extremely important! Once a year, get the entire team together for a one week retreat in a nice sunny place. It’s that simple! 😊

Uizard team relaxing in a yearly retreat.

Rule #9: DON'T hire further than six time zones away.

We’ve really tried. The sad truth is: it’s super hard to maintain team cohesion and culture when some people are more than 6 time zones away. It makes it hard for them to attend meetings, let alone all the things listed above.

One thing that can help though is what we call the 3% per timezone rule.

For example, if most of the team is in CET (GMT+1) timezone and you hire someone based in EST (GMT-5), there’s a 6-hour time difference. For an optimal collaboration — following the 3% per timezone rule — this new hire should aim at spending 6 times 3% of a year where the rest of the team is based; which is roughly equivalent to 2 full months or 10 days every 2 months.

Following the same 3% per timezone rule, someone working from the Bay Area in PT (GMT-8) should aim at spending roughly 3 months per year in the time zone where most of the team is based as illustrated in the figure below. It might sound like a lot, and this is of course just a guideline that can be adjusted based on the level of experience of each new hire and their role.

Following this rule, we’ve had an amazing experience working fully remotely with a brilliant machine learning engineer based in North Carolina after he had spent a 2 months summer internship with our team in Copenhagen. We’ve also tried to break our own 3% per timezone rule by hiring someone based in New Zealand that could only spend a few weeks in Copenhagen in his first year. We broke our own rule, and unfortunately, our collaboration didn’t work out in the end.

Parting Words

Setting up a remote-first company is a win-win for everyone. The company gets access to an international pool of talents instead of being restricted to a small geographical area. The team gets the freedom to work from wherever they want, whenever they want.

Now that COVID has forced the entire world to experience remote-first work, I personally hope that we’ll never go back to a time where companies required their staff to be 100% of the time in an office. It simply doesn’t make sense. Forcing people to commute everyday is terrible for their mental health and for the environment, and is eventually detrimental to both the employees and the company.

This being said, we are still an early-stage company, and we’ve so far never been more than 20 people in the team at any given time. We have yet to see if our techniques can scale to a larger team as we grow the company.

Thanks for reading! I really hope this helps you set up a successful remote-first startup. Make sure to try Uizard for free to design and brainstorm product ideas remotely with your team. 😊

Bonus: The Remote-friendly Tools We Use The Most

These are the tools we use everyday to help us run our remote-first operations.

Slack. Obvious right?! Yes we love Slack, and so far we haven’t found the need to use anything else for synchronous and asynchronous communication. It’s simple, yet powerfully valuable.

Zoom. We hate Zoom as much as we love it. We’ve used now-defunct Appear.in in the past, we’ve tried Google Meet, we’ve tried Slack video calls. At the end of the day, we found Zoom to be better than these alternatives.

Google Workspace. Best place for having a centralized storage for all company documents while being able to edit them all collaboratively in real-time. Yes, we use Google Sheets for way more things that we dare to admit… “Excel” what?

Asana. We use Asana for everything project-management-related. Pretty neat tool!

Uizard. We eat our own dog food, and use Uizard anytime we need to quickly design ideas. We use it for everything from product updates to landing page optimizations, or even for testing newsletter layouts. Here is an interactive mockup our commercial team put together to quickly align on what we needed for our website’s template pages.

Workspace.to. As discussed earlier under Rule #5.

Excalidraw. We really love this tool in the engineering team! It’s our de facto virtual whiteboard, we haven’t yet found a reason to use Mural or Miro.

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 five different countries.

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