Side Note: I’ve realized that my blog posts have become rather lengthy. I’ll try to include shorter articles starting with this one.
Finding co-founders and starting a business is difficult as it is, but starting a company with remote co-founders adds an order of magnitude of complexity. Jambool had 3 co-founders all living in 3 different cities. I lived in Seattle, Vikas lived in San Francisco and Nissim Harels, lived in Israel. You can imagine the difficulty in communication, coordination and overall function. Nissim worked with us several months on Business Plan #1 before he decided to return to academia. That left Vikas & I to execute on the rest of the product.
Coordinating with 2 remote co-founders is a lot easier than 3. But it was still an insurmountable task at that time. So how did we do it? Before I go into details I should stop you here and share with you my first piece of advice:
Do Not Start a Company with Remote Co-Founders
Why not? Quite simply, choosing a co-founder can be difficult to begin with and unless you know and trust your partner very well, then you will be signing up for unnecessary challenges and increasing the chances of failure. You have to make extra effort of discipline, over and above, the normal challenges of working with a co-founder. Nevertheless, working with a co-founder is still better than working alone. If you go down this route and decide to work with someone remotely, then these are my survival tips:
1. Establish a designated workspace
We literally worked from our bedrooms for over 18 months. Technically I worked mostly from my breakfast table and Vikas worked from his guest bedroom that had a desk. Working from home takes incredible discipline. There are far too many distractions, and especially if you have kids or other family members around. Allow yourself to designate a work zone in a specific, consistent location in your home. If you step away, leave your laptop behind on your makeshift desk. That way you will not be tempted to slouch away to the sofa during the work day with your laptop and be distracted by your TV or something else.
2. Set regular sync-ups
Our routine was to get onto a Skype video call at 9am every morning. That forced us to be up well before that, but not necessarily dressed for business. Often these morning calls would last 30 minutes, sometimes 2 hours. And usually we would also set an end of day sync up to check on progress. These sync ups were good checks and balances to ensure that communication and progress was being made on both sides.
3. Set daily goals
One important agenda item of the morning sync up was to set an achievable daily goal. Whether it’s a piece of coding functionality, design document, updating a pitch deck, no task was too big to set an end of day milestone. Committing to a deliverable, forces one to work towards it when you know someone else is expecting that to be completed. It’s much easier to procrastinate if the next milestone is more than a day away, or if nobody cares about it. It also forced us to breakdown a task into day size chunks.
4. Document everything
In a regular shared workspace, a whiteboard will suffice for expressing ideas and design. When your co-founder is remote, collaboration on ideas must still take place. In our case, before each major feature was implemented, a design document was written. We had pretty crude tools at that time, and would sometimes draw our UX designs on paper, scan and emailed to each other. Skype later added screen sharing and that worked really well. Use Google Docs, Gmail, Dropbox, or your favorite collaboration tool.
5. Travel often
As much as your budget allows, travel to meet your co-founder as often as possible. Spend time working on your startup, but also spend time getting to know them outside of work. In my case, I would travel at least once a month pre-funding, and Vikas would come visit every month as well. We would stay at each other’s home to save on costs, and would usually end up working way past bedtime. Once we were funded, I was travelling every 2 weeks. Employees who travel up from San Francisco were invited to stay at my house. In the 2 year period that Social Gold ran as an independent entity, I found myself heading to Seattle’s Seatac airport every single week to either pick up someone or be flying out.
6. Work around other entrepreneurs
Don’t work from your home all the time. Work from a coffee shop if you can. Especially one that is popular with other entrepreneurs. Simply being in an environment surrounded by like-minded individuals will have an amazing impact on morale. If possible, co-work with other entrepreneurs. I spent much time co-working with Ajit Banerjee, co-founder & CTO of Tracksimple, where we both worked from each other’s houses. It was not relevant that Jambool and Tracksimple had completely different business goals, but simply working with someone else was more fun than being alone.
7. Be completely transparent
This is perhaps the most important advice of all. There are a number of non-technical tasks that co-founders will work separately on when building your startup. These include a meeting with a customer, investor, potential hire, etc. Regardless of whether the meeting was successful, co-founders need to make an extra effort to over-communicate and be completely transparent. This requires a large effort to keep other in sync to replace the absence of hallway conversations. For example, always get on the phone immediately to debrief on how that meeting went and share that experience. It will keep your partner involved. Keep your IM program running all the time and let the other party know when you are stepping away for a short break. You can never be over-communicating.
Have you started a company with a remote business partner? What are some other tips can you share?