Building a Remote-First Culture
Our company, Lavender, was born during the rise of remote work. It molded our culture and processes. Being remote has shaped who we are, and who we will become. It turns out, in 2020, being remote helped to create our advantage.
When the push to move to remote work commenced, we were already hard at work. We grew our team from three to 23 within a month. We built cutting-edge natural language processing models and computer vision models. We established rapid testing protocols to learn exactly who our ideal customer is. While Lavender is useful to all, we pinpointed just how useful we are to salespeople.
Being remote from the outset has empowered us to move fast and enabled us to build better products. Yet, there are challenges to the remote working model. I’ve outlined some of our key learnings from our experiences as it relates to recruiting, culture and execution.
For startups, few things are harder or more important than successful recruiting. Making the wrong hire can stress budgets and your fledgling brand reputation.
Traditionally, recruiting has at least one in-person interaction. How can you “get to know someone” if you haven’t met them?
We didn’t have that option. So instead, we leaned into it. If geography isn’t a limitation, your talent pool can go from thousands to millions.
This shift in mindset has helped us to connect with a higher quantity of prospective candidates in a much broader talent pool.
I can’t say we did anything special when it came to attracting talent. We posted our openings on AngelList, and applications poured in. Maybe, we were in the right place at the right time. Unemployment was spiking, and we were offering a unique opportunity to build something special.
We spent over two weeks in back-to-back interviews.
Our process was simple but responsive based on our assessment of the talent and how they’d fit with our business. Sometimes it took a couple of meetings. Sometimes, less than that. Regardless, what we wanted to answer these three questions through the recruitment process:
- Can they do the work?
- Are they passionate about the work?
- Are they someone we’d want to work with?
While it seems simple enough, we hired an incredibly talented and diverse team.
While we are remote-first, we needed to consider the practicality of time zones. We wanted to have the opportunity to get together once per week. The majority of our hires ended up being US-based, although we did hire one person in Canada and one person in Nigeria.
Culture is one of the hardest aspects of your business to develop, and maintain, within a remote-first environment.
Take whatever you think you need to do about your culture and multiply it by 10x.
When you’re remote, you lose all of the subtle moments that contribute to someone’s day. While these moments don’t make culture, they provide a contextual glue for each employee.
Without culture, we’re just a collection of people who happen to be working on a group project. As founders, culture was critical to us because we want to ensure that we enjoy our time working together.
So, we worked hard to help everyone feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. We facilitated opportunities to talk about “at home” moments through our Slack and via phone calls. Because, if we’re going to be on this rocket ship together, we should enjoy the ride.
Here are a few tactical measures we put in place to help build and boost culture:
1) Daily Team Video/Slack Standups
Our teams utilize small breakout rooms on video. This allowed them to deep dive into challenges but also introduced opportunities for people to introduce their skill sets to others and collaborate.
We also would place standup tasks in public Slack channels. This was to encourage an ethos of transparency in the company, but it also helps to improve the cross-pollination of ideas.
2) Empathy of Time
We engineered opportunities to support our team members and their working schedules. We looked at meetings & adjusted them to everyone’s time zone. While our engineers in California were happy to start work at 6 am, we moved our 9 am to noon so they wouldn’t have to.
We set flexible working hours. Things are a little weird right now. We wanted to be especially accommodating because we want our employees to have the opportunity to be fully present in their work. If someone had an appointment or needed to help a family member, we were sure to let them know that those things take priority.
I’d rather catch you up on a meeting than assume you paid attention.
Project completion was prioritized over the required timing. The standup slack channels helped with this prioritization.
3) Random Coffee
We installed a Slack app, RandomCoffee, pairing two people randomly each week for a casual chat. How else would an AI engineer bond with a marketing intern? People had to present a new fact to the company right afterwards which promoted active listening.
4) Weekly All-Hands
Immediately after their coffee chat, we shared what we learned on our Weekly All-Hands.. Once a week, the entire company meets on video. We share what we learned about our coworkers (dive deeper if it’s especially interesting), show what we’ve worked on, share ideas, and just… chat.
It quickly became one of our favorite parts of the week. A couple of highlights include:
- Yankai (who has since left to build computer vision models at Apple) sang us Coldplay’s “Yellow” while playing the guitar.
- PJ, a front-end engineer, recently told us about a screenplay he’s been writing. It’s going to be a hit (think the Nutty Professor meets Braveheart). PJ’s first stand up with us left everyone’s jaw on the floor. He lives in Nigeria. While the power was out for his whole town, he cranked up the generator and joined us via flashlight.
We encouraged deep, personal conversations. The connections you’d expect within a normal office environment.
To win market share, you need to combine effective talent acquisition with a thriving culture and flawless execution. For us, we’ve designed our structural elements to enable us to move, learn, and adapt quickly.
Documenting systems & processes
First, we knew we were going to hire up quickly. We put two structural elements together to help with strategic planning and mitigate chaos: Function and Process Accountability charts.
Function accountability chart
Function accountability charts break down each function of the business (ie. product analytics, natural language processing, marketing etc.) with a list of who is accountable, responsible, and has authority.
While responsibility covers the whole team, there’s only one person who is accountable and one person with approval authority. Having a single person accountable means you know where tasks stand and what’s standing in the way. It also creates a single point for feedback.
The person with accountability doesn’t always have authority. But the person with authority can be accountable. Having a clear decision structure is key to our ability to make progress quickly and relatively smoothly across key technical or purchase decisions.
Process Accountability charts
Process Accountability charts are useful in theory.
Process Accountability charts provide a publicly visible document for processes to reduce errors and create better onboarding outcomes.
We found that growing fast meant our processes regularly changed. So the charts became outdated, quickly.
It’s important to create a process to ensure these documents have internal ownership and are regularly updated.
Focusing on the mission-critical
We set out key learning objectives for our organization over defined periods of time. Our thinking was simple: “Keep the main things, the main things”.
We set key learning objectives for tasks like “Learn who our ideal customers are” and “learn the best ways to reach them”. This creates an easy framework for deciding if a task gets priority.
Learning about our customers
While Lavender could be useful to everyone, we had to narrow down to a target audience we’d focus on. We recognized early on that we couldn’t be all things to all people. We had cohorts of users that were students, job seekers, recruiters, marketers, in customer success, entrepreneurs and salespeople.
We created a cross-functional team to tackle this task: Analytics, Engineering, Marketing, and Finance.
In the end, we learned we could provide a unique value proposition to the sales technology space. We noticed salespeople utilized our software the most. There’s an unmet need to create emails that are authentic, effective, and stand out.
RevGenius has been key in helping us find this focus.
A sub-community of sales folks saw something special in our tech and were quick to promote us. You can’t sustain growth without a core set of die-hard fans. As long as we have a remote network of salespeople behind us, we’ll keep building for them.
Don’t take remote lightly. At Lavender, and through necessity, we’ve found what works for us through trial and error.