Software as a Service (SaaS) startups are increasingly betting on ‘remote management’, an approach which allows team members to work from anywhere in the world with a view to improving response times for their support services.
Working in ‘remote’ mode is part of a recent trend that is very much linked to one of the basic tenets of Silicon Valley philosophy: that working conditions ought to be so attractive that work feels like pursuing your hobby. In the early 2000s, Google talked a lot about its break with traditional management models. Now Joel Gascoigne, CEO of San Francisco-based startup Buffer, which helps companies and people to share social media content by scheduling online posts at various times throughout the day, has recently been blogging in great detail on the values and company culture he is trying to establish at his company. One of the basic ideas he intends to pursue is to allow his workforce to choose where they work from on a day-to-day basis and manage them ‘remotely’. At this company however the concept of ‘remote’ goes far beyond merely ‘working from home’, which by definition substitutes one base for another. Buffer has no single focal point for decision-making. Buffer is legally registered at premises in San Francisco but only a few people actually work there and they are not necessarily in close physical contact.
Managing internal growth
Along the same lines as Buffer, quite a lot of startups – mainly Internet service companies – offer their staff the option of working remotely. Buffer’s main business is managing the publication of information on social networks by time zone and so it needs to have staff in place covering all times zones around the world where its customers are located. In fact young tech startups in the SaaS field often succeed in rapidly extending their operations abroad, staffing the ‘support’ function – i.e. after-sales service – by people based all over the world so as to optimise the service. They then face the challenge of ensuring consistent quality in their after-sales service on each continent. Startups that have been able to grow by applying remote management techniques seem to have no hesitation in telling everyone about it. For example, Mountain View-based startup Zapier, which connects web apps to enable users to move data easily and automate tedious tasks, and TreeHouse, a company numbering forty people who work on several continents, led by a CEO and his assistant who work in the UK, both explain on their websites the advantages and challenges of working as a distributed team.
Size matters: appropriate management approach needed
As an SaaS startup selling paid-for software services to customers – unlike publishers of free apps, who seek to monetise their product without recourse to any customer support structure – Buffer must ensure that its after-sales service is beyond reproach if it wants to attract and keep its clients. Buffer’s continued success depends to a large extent on its customer relations and the firm is keen on transparency. The SaaS specialist has published on its site a great deal of information regarding the vast number of emails is has to deal with on a daily basis and discusses best practice quite openly. Its toolkit contains a set of software programmes designed to improve both internal and external corporate communication. Lists of automated emails (using the Mail Chimp tool) and internal chatrooms (Sqwiggle, Slack and HipChat) enable the company to manage a community of users which is growing exponentially, with a team pared down to the bare minimum. Meanwhile, in the ‘remote’ world, criteria for recruiting staff are subtly changing and it is now seen as vital to be able to write well. “In a co-located office, a lot of information is shared in person. In a remote situation, everything is shared via written communication. Communication is one of the most important parts of remote team. Therefore good writers are valuable,” underlines Zapier CEO Wade Foster.
The classic problem for the boss of any promising startup is of course to grow the business while still maintaining the kind of working atmosphere and nimble management approach for which startups are renowned. Those startups that have built a team without creating any specific company culture will have to deal with this sort of obstacle. And for Buffer, as for many ambitious startups, the issue of how far growth can be pushed before it becomes absolutely necessary to have a central focal point will appear sooner or later. No major corporation has ever succeeded in managing to grow its business and its workforce without a fixed point from which to build a company culture, whether we are talking about staff training or dress codes.