Thanks to Jason Fried’s and David Heinemeier Hansson’s latest book, the idea of having a remote workforce has become a topic of increased discussion. This is something we have talked about and experimented with frequently over the past ten years here at ProTrainings and at the other companies I have been involved in building. But that’s not quite what I’m writing about in this blog post. Rather, I would like to discuss the flexibility that can come from being the co-founder of a location-independent Internet business.
Now, I’m not advocating that a founder whose company is still in startup phase abandon his/her team and work remotely for long blocks of time. During the early stages of building a company, it’s very important to build a good company culture along with building an excellent product, and this takes a lot of interaction with the team. It might be possible to do this remotely over a Google Hangout, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing this at such a critical stage in the company. However, once the business has found a successful business model, the team is in place, and systems have been established to allow the business to execute without founder intervention, I would suggest that some time away from the office may be exactly what is best for the founder and for the business.
At a certain stage in the lifecycle of a company, it’s important that the founders are able to pull themselves out of the day-to-day operations of the business and ensure that the business is able to function (and hopefully even grow) without them around. It’s healthy for your employees to feel empowered to make decisions on their own without constant approvals. This is a great test to see if the appropriate systems and procedures are in place to allow the business to function without you, which will also drastically improve its resale value in the eyes of a potential buyer some day.
So, you might be curious about my own experiences with remote working. My first extended time away from the office was a 3-week trip to Florida followed by a brief trip to Colorado for training with another programmer at our company. This was in late 2007, about a year after moving into our first office. I was amazed by the amount of work we were able to accomplish when I was able to leave the distractions of the office behind. And guess what? The business didn’t come to a halt while I was away. We were hooked, so our next trip was a little more ambitious. In January 2008, the same programmer co-worker and I spent a month working remotely in Mexico. January 2011 was spent in Florida with one programmer and our head of marketing, building a new corporate site for our UK branch and redesigning our US site layout. January 2012 was spent in San Francisco and January 2013 in Spain, working with our business partners for the UK side of the company.
And the results have been very positive. In addition to virtually eliminating distractions, these month-long work vacations do two other important things. First, they serve as a change of pace and change of environment from the normal daily routine, which is an excellent opportunity for the kick-off of a new project. Second, they impose a natural deadline on the project — the day of the flight back home. And unlike a typical vacation, spending a month somewhere allows you to really experience the culture of the area and live more like a local.
On the more practical side, I have a few tips to share regarding the logistics of a prolonged work vacation. For housing, we usually rent a house or sublet an apartment through a website like Airbnb, VRBO, or Home Away. Hosts are normally very willing to decrease their rate for a month-long stay, and traveling during January/February tends to be a slower time with even further decreased rates. I would always recommend negotiating with the host when you will be staying longer than a week. Since you will be staying somewhere with a kitchen, you can greatly lower your expenses by getting food from a nearby grocery store and eating most meals at the house. You will be working from the house, so make sure there is a fast Internet connection before you book anything. Most hosts have wifi, but you don’t want to take any risks and be stuck somewhere for a month without it. If you’re going to be traveling abroad, be sure to bring an unlocked GSM phone with you and purchase a local SIM card. US carrier roaming rates tend to be excessive. For calling back home, use Skype, Google Hangouts, or something similar. And finally, make sure you plan outings on nights and weekends so you get to enjoy living in a new and different place.
Spending a month working remotely from an exotic island is appealing. It might not make sense for every Internet business, but this is a winter tradition that my family plans to continue while we can. If anyone else has experience working remotely, positive or negative, I would love to hear about it in the comments. And let me know where you would choose to spend a month working if you could.