The Survival Guide to Co-Founders Living Far Apart
How can co-founders overcome the challenges of starting a company when they live in different cities? Some entrepreneurs find synergy in working together and agree to start a company even without living in the same town. Despite what peers and investors might say, this type of setup isn't very difficult and if handled correctly will not impair the chance of success.
When we began our company, Tuft & Needle, we each lived in different cities -- in Palo Alto, Calif., and Tempe, Ariz. -- because our families had already put down our roots. Although the company had a bumpy start and we spent a couple weeks together in the beginning, we were confident things would work out.
Here are three pointers we can share from our experience:
1. Use nondisruptive forms of communication. The immediate challenge for remote co-founders is to maintain communication between the founders and other members of the team. When people work in the same location, talking can be the most natural way to communicate. Someone might just walk over to a peer's desk to make a comment or ask a question.
So a co-founder might at first be tempted to call his or her peer by phone or via Skype. This is can be mistake since it's impossible know when the other partner is in the middle of intense concentration and if the call will interrupt that.
So what's the best time or way to communicate with a partner working at a distance? The primary mode of communication should shift toward writing-based channels like email that don't block another's person's productivity. We prefer chat software like Campfire or HipChat. This enables us to speak to each another concisely and minimize interruptions since we can check our messages during downtime. A person who's working can stay in the flow.
2. Regularly meet in person to ideate. The next critical challenge for the co-founders is allowing for creative collaboration. There's something about using a whiteboard and brainstorming ideas in person that's difficult to replicate over calls and emails. The easiest way to solve this is to regularly meet in person.
We schedule monthly or bimonthly meet-ups that last for about three days. We like to choose a midway point between our respective cities, such as Las Vegas, since we can work from the hotel without having to leave. During this time together, we can have creative sessions and build checklists of action items for the next 30 to 60 days.
By scheduling monthly in-person meet-ups, we don't lose out on the creativity that would be on tap if we always worked in the same location. Our time together is of higher quality because it is scarce -- a classic quality-over-quantity scenario. The creativity occurs in concentrated bursts rather than being spread thinly over longer periods of time.
3. Nurture company culture with remote activities. It's important to focus on the company's culture as the team grows. The culture emerges from employees doing activities together regularly and establishing bonds. When founders and team members work together in person, they can easily get to know one other through happy hours, outings and lunches.
Such team-building activities can also be organized when people work in different locales. They'll just have to be a little different. Outside of working hours, employees can explore common interests through a book club, video games or other activities. Last week our employees held a paper-airplane-making competition: Everyone sent in photos and then voted on the best planes.
A weekly team video conference is also effective for bringing everyone together, providing status updates on projects and sharing personal life events.
All team members can also gather together for a few days face-to-face a couple of times a year. This is commonly referred to as "workcations."
Many companies such as Automattic, Basecamp and Github that have proved that it's possible to build remote teams and scale them up to encompass hundreds of employees.
With the right processes in place, distance should not prevent a startup from coming together.