The 3 best things about how we work at Intalayer, and 3 ways we can improve.
Building a startup in any environment is hard. Throw in COVID; with its worldwide lockdowns forcing us to go remote; and building a business and our culture just gets harder. Intalayer has been remote since the initial lockdowns in Australia back in March 2020. Ian flew back to New Zealand, as so much was uncertain back then, while we were in the middle of pitching for funding from the Antler program (read that story here).
In the 15 months since, we have undergone various pivots, and hired team members spread throughout Australia and New Zealand. To support our growing company, we have introduced a bunch of different rituals and processes to deliver value quickly to customers and create a great culture to work in.
To build this culture, I have been avidly reading anything I can get my hands on about how other young startups are operating in remote environments, and was inspired to share some tips from our experience at Intalayer on what has worked for us. I didn't want to bore you all with a laundry list of our daily, weekly, monthly activities, so I chose instead to highlight the top 3 activities that work and haven't come up as much in the literature. We also aren't perfect by far, so I thought I would also share the 3 areas we need to improve on. So here we go!
The 3 best processes in Intalayer for building remote teams
1) Showing appreciation
Michael insisted on this one early on, and it has really changed how I work with everybody both professionally and personally. It also requires a lot of discipline to not fall back into old habits.
At Intalayer, and this is true for any startup I imagine, we like to collaborate and share quickly to get feedback on a daily basis. This means being vulnerable every day at work. When someone asks for feedback, we have been taught that 'constructive' feedback is the only useful feedback, so naturally we jump into critiquing our colleagues work. After a hard day of hustle and unavoidable setbacks, this is really the last thing you need.
So Michael's way is to show appreciation. Take time to acknowledge the hard work done. Thank them for their effort, or highlight where you see the person had brought something unique to the table, and gone above and beyond. This approach is bound to give your colleague a boost and positive mindset to approach the constructive feedback you provide afterward.
‼️ Be warned ‼️ though this approach comes with danger. You are only one small step from the worse way to provide feedback, known as the shit sandwich. Read more about it here.
2) Daily Standup
I was amazed when talking to other startup founders that they did not have a daily standup between themselves. We are talking teams with 5 or less people including the founders.
In a remote environment, it is essential to have a daily check in to see how everyone is going. For Michael, and I, we are often talking with potential customers, but for Ian who is developing our project, if it wasn't for the daily standup, he may not talk to anyone all day ☹️ Working in isolation isn't a problem in moderation. If the team aren't connecting and talking though, gaps in knowledge, alignment and cracks in a fragile culture can become huge, fast.
For a remote team, take 5 mins out of the start of the standup to share personal stories. I have read other companies do a check in with everyone, ask them to describe how they are feeling in one word. We don't do this, it does require a lot of trust and vulnerability between team members, but I wouldn't be against trying.
3) Monthly internal update
Transparency is key to a successful business. It helps move decision making to the individual contributor when they know what the business objectives are, the product strategy, the target customers.
It does take more effort to create good content that enables transparency. I was inspired by Mathilde Collin, CEO at Front, and the ways she communicates with her stakeholders.
At Intalayer, I share a monthly internal update with all team members outlining the following: Vision/Mission, Customer Metrics, Product Strategy, Ideal Customer Profile, Go To Market Strategy, Monthly Goals and Metrics, Product Roadmap, Other Significant Decisions Made, Experiments, Hiring, Financials (Cash in bank and runway), Assumptions that we need to test.
In such a fast moving startup environment, our understanding of our market and customers is ever evolving. So are our strategies and tactics. Sharing these monthly makes sure everyone in the whole team is clear on what we've learned and where we're heading.
It seems like a lot to bring this together, but in general, the content already exists as a result of our other activities such as monthly Founders meetings, where the decisions are made.
The 3 areas of improvement Intalayer is working on
1) Celebrating the small wins
In such a hectic environment, everyday focussed on trying to prioritise which next activity could move the needle for your startup, the daily wins can be often missed. Everyday your team are learning and achieving new things that your startup has never done before. Isn't that worth celebrating? It might be that a developer says "oh i had a 200 response from the Salesforce api", or when we were onboarding to a product, and also got an introduction for them to become a customer of ours.
It really isn't hard to take a second to highlight these achievement, give a round of applause and the afternoon off. We need to celebrate these wins more.
2) Not enough one on ones
It is really important in a remote culture to spend time focussing on building and maintaining personal relationships, particularly with those you have never met in person. When you're in an office together, these relationships form naturally being in such close proximity to each other.
We try to include some time in every startup to share personal stories, and also encourage sharing on #random channel any photos of exciting adventures.
We have also implemented the Donut app on Slack. This has helped to remind us to create some catchups, but it is so easy to say "yeh, next week", and then something comes up, so you push it back to the week after.
It is uncomfortable and awkward to schedule 'social' time, and it is something we (I mean me in particular) need to improve. And when we are certain no further lockdowns will occur between Australia and New Zealand, we will be meeting up as a team in person.
3) Slack threads
In a remote environment, async comms is an essential part of your day to day. We have tried to focus mostly on async comms to create a flexible work environment. The use of collaboration tools has been fascinating as a Product Manager, observing how comments, threads and other collaboration features have been evolving rapidly over the last year.
For me it has become a key determinant of which tools I love, and which ones I don't. Loom videos and commenting have been amazing boost for effectiveness of our async comms. Notion comments, though, are horrendous. Very buggy, impossible to work with.
Our company communicates most in Slack. It might seem like a small thing, but a missed Slack message can lead to the wrong thing being built, delaying our releases by days. Each time this happens, the 'miscommunication debt' accumulates. In a startup with short runway, this is a matter of life and death.
This is why we need to improve on our communication in Slack, and utilise their Thread functionality. In any channel, multiple topics could be being discussed. Eg. A feature's functionality may be discussed, along with questions on how to access the product design software, plus a bug coming in from customers. Rather than having all these topics being mixed up and confused in a channel, you can start a Thread for each topic and continue the discussion in isolation. This means you never miss a message.
I do hope you find the above the most useful. Writing it out, it seems so simple, but in reality it requires constant vigilance on a day to day basis to form these habits. Please leave a comment, share your best and worst remote processes!
Bonus: All our other rituals
- #random Slack channel: To break up the scene, and to learn more about each other when we are so distant, we encourage people to share life events, photos on random channel. Here is a selection of what makes it up, usually weekend adventures, cooking efforts or my puppy Greg is always a fan favourite.
- Start of the week goals: In such a fast moving environment, it's important to stay ruthlessly focussed on our weekly goals. This is a simple slack message saying what tasks we will achieve in Product and Customer Acquisition, and what is the progress to our monthly goals.
- Friday founders session: We review what has been achieved for the week, then decide what will be tasks for next week, and does that align with our monthly goals (or senior execs if your company is larger than ours)
- End of week celebrations: Share our professional and personal wins for the week, any plans for the weekend, and someone is randomly chosen to pick the entertainment (always makes for a fun event).
- Weekly reflection: I used to share a weekly reflection on thoughts that came to mind around anything about the business. I need to restart these. I would suggest each founder does this to air their thoughts and make sure everyone is up to date and clear on each others thinking.
- Monthly board meeting: Any formal board activities resolved here, but usually focusses on reviewing our monthly goals, what went well, what didn't and setting the goals for next month. Also an opportunity to go deep on particular subjects if needed.
- Monthly update to investors: This is an update to both our prospective investors and actual investors. Shares top achievements for the month, metrics, what went well, what didn't, what's coming up and any asks. Actual investors get a bit more of the nuts and bolts around financials and particular challenges occurring in the business.