Startups—get a room!

Pass the remote

By stef

Time together as a small team at the start of a new company is crucial. 

Those early days, when there is a great deal that’s undecided, and the “medium term” is measured in weeks, not months, are the days when you set the tone for who you are, who you aren’t, and what you’re trying to achieve. 

This first year of Makeshift we’ve all been co-located, with hardly any remote working going on. That was a decision we took right at the beginning. It’s hard to see how you can successfully create a company unless you’re physically in the same space together. But now we’re growing, we’ve got a longer view of what needs to be done. We’re investing in the products that we’ve made (the ones that people are using, anyway!) Is it time for us to reconsider our “you’ve got to be in the room” decision?

Synchronicity

No matter how much people tell me that remote working is brilliant, I’ve never managed to have a Skype call that wasn’t just weird or had some kind of technical problem during it. I’ve also never really managed to work out what’s really going on at the studio unless I’m actually there. And I always end up feeling pretty stressed out if I work from home. Like I have to prove that I’m doing something. 

Because we’ve all been in the same room together we’ve got the opportunity to have good face-to-face conversations, to draw pictures, to discuss things at a much wider bandwidth than you can manage remotely.

We’ve made it so the working day hasn’t been a weird collection of failed Skype chats and emails. We get NTLK’s famous laugh, Dan’s wry observations, and a peppering of my dad jokes for a start! Face-to-face conversations and time together in a space are important to me, and I feel like I’m enjoying my work a lot more if I have other people around me to share the experience. 

Being in the same room means we’ve got the opportunity to discuss things at a much wider bandwidth.

I’m going to the studio

I think of the room that houses Makeshift as a studio, not an office. When I go to work I tell my kids “I’m going to the studio”. A studio is a little like a salon—we’re open, we have a psychic location, people drop by, we host events and I’m hoping this year to increase all of that.

The reason we’ve chosen to go down a “studio” route, is that early on in your company, what you’re trying to prototype is an idea about what your company will be in the future. It may be unconscious, but every decision you make defines the kind of company you will become.


The initial conditions

I often talk about paying attention to “initial conditions”. If something is bugging you at the beginning, it’ll probably turn into a huge issue later. And conversely, if you find a strong idea that you can rally around, it will set you off on a good course. For us, it’s “give a leg up to the little guy”.

We’ve chosen “studio” as our working model because it says a lot about what we want to build, and it’s the appropriate way (we think) for us to succeed. Nick talks about trying to create “The Eames Studio of the 21st Century” and I tend to agree.

A studio has people in a room together as a big component. You think that you have wide bandwidth via broadband Internet or Ethernet? We go for really wide bandwidth by being face-to-face. 

A studio is an important part of what we’re trying to build.

The initial conditions here, and the tone we are setting are that we are not so techno-utopian that we think that human tasks and passion can be Trello-boarded and Gantt-charted to the point where we can happily sit at our desk at home and code and code and code without seeing another soul for days on end. A studio is an important part of what we’re trying to build.


The developing conditions

The initial conditions are just one thing to think about, however. We’re a year in now, and as we’ve grown, our “mid-term” has started moving from weeks to months. We can see some distance ahead. It’s not just quick hacks now, it’s building features, listening to people and how they use our products, and having a rhythm. We’re just at the point where it might be time to change up. 

We’re not going to go the Github / Wordpress route and only have remote people, but there’s room for remote working in a studio model.

Perhaps not everyone needs to be in the studio every day. Perhaps we can be more effective as a team by clarifying the things we’re working on, documenting them in Trello and having Hipchat conversations so everything is open. Perhaps it’s time to get a copy of the 37 Signals book “Remote” that people have been talking about. We’re not going to go the Github / Wordpress route and only have remote people, but there’s room for remote working in a studio model. I guess now’s when we find out how it works.

If you’ve been through a similar transition, I’d be interested in hearing how you managed to keep the culture of the studio as well as gained the benefits of people being productive and also not in the room with you. That’s what scares me about remote working—that you can accidentally trash the culture that you’ve so carefully tried to construct.