Culture Me This: Taking Your Startup Remote and Global

Remember when remote work was a perk? Think about it for just a moment. That was seven months ago. There were all kinds of excuses we put forth: developing company culture was harder, onboarding could be tricky, managers didn’t trust homebound employees to be productive, and more. 

Enter a global pandemic, and what newly emerging media outlets and others had been preaching for a long time became an innovation that had to happen and happen now. But let’s take a step back and look at taking your startup remote and global. What are the real challenges, and how do you overcome them? 

Quick Definitions

First, let’s define a couple of things before the water gets to murky. You might already understand these terms but making sure we’re speaking the same language will clear up any confusion.

  • Business Model: This determines how your business delivers value, and underlines how it operates, financial activities and how they work, and what personnel are needed to perform what functions. 
  • Business Plan: The written instructions on how the business will operate, competitor analysis, goals, sales potential, and the industry overall. 
  • Revenue Model: Where the money comes from and ideally where it will be spent as well. 

Company culture is about what kind of people populate the business model. What do they have in common? What is different about them? What do we do to blend those personalities and make sure they can work well together? 

Startup culture has gone through phases, from the “Nerf gun war in the office” to “there’s beer in the employee fridge for any time after four” stages. From video game rooms to nap centers, ping pong tables to onsite gyms and daycare centers, startups have tried to redefine the workspace. 

Largely these companies have opposed remote workforces. How would you build rapport if not over a cold one resting on a ping pong table while Brad naps on a bean bag chair in a corner? But a pandemic ended bro-style chest bumps, high fives, and open offices with shared ventilation. So what do we do now?

Revamping Your Business Model to Match a New Culture

Are you tired of hearing things like “unprecedented” and “new normal”? Since it’s not 2021 and there is no global vaccine available, get ready for a few more mentions. When it comes to startups and company culture, both terms apply in nearly equal doses. Even when we emerge from COVID, things will never go back to “old normal.”

Fortunately we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Rather, we can look at companies who have done this before. Buffer has a 100% remote workforce. Automatic, the company behind WordPress, is also remote, as is Zapier. But they are hardly the only ones. 

Media companies have been poised on the verge of this for years, and as traditional media companies shrink and consolidate, unconventional media companies are thriving through innovation. 

This means rethinking your business model. The idea is to develop a strategic model for answering a particular need. This involves some common things that have changed significantly: 

  • Location: Not only did you need to be close to the resources your startup needed, you want to be in a location where your employees want to live. Your location set the tone for both your business model and culture.
  • Real Estate: Your business plan contained allowances for needed office space and plans for expansion in the case of the inevitable growth. Startups often signed leases on spaces much larger than what they needed to “be ready.”
  • Atmosphere: From décor to the snack bar to the actual bar, the atmosphere you created had to “get the juices flowing” for your team. 

There are others we could name, but even before the pandemic a “new normal” was emerging around some of these things. 

Location, Location, Location?

“Silicon Valley will never be the same,” one investor said recently. A survey of Amazon employees showed that many of them wanted to leave the overpriced Seattle area. And it seems like Amazon is responding, relocating parts of its headquarters to a number of U.S. cities. 

Perhaps New York and San Francisco are perhaps the hardest hit. Rents are declining, and many startups are taking a small town or more suburban approach. A look at the startup ecosystems around the world as compiled by Startup Genome illustrates this dramatically. This is more than just a blip—it’s a full on trend gaining momentum. 

With the advances in remote communication and its acceptance, more people not only want a work from anywhere option, they’ll demand it. 

Dangers of Startup Confirmation Bias

The thing about founders and startups? They tend to hire people who “think like them.” This can be dangerous. The homogenous team can miss innovation opportunities because they confirm each other’s ideas, even when they’re bad ones. The advantage of a remote and therefore more global workforce is the accessibility of diversity and ideas. 

The key is that founders must tap into this. Trendy questions like “Star Wars vs. Star Trek?” are less relevant globally, and they don’t really tell you if the prospect will be a fit for you. Instead ask: 

  • Ask how the applicant handles and prefers to handle conflict. Present them with a scenario so there is not an answer that appears to be right or wrong. That way you get a genuine answer rather than a “studied” one.
  • Try to determine their preferred communication style, and even try to determine their emotional I.Q. Does it match the philosophy and maturity of your company?
  • Give the interviewee feedback on their resume and the interview. See how they respond to negative and positive comments. Does the way they take feedback match with how your company gives it? 
  • Feel out how open and honest the candidate is being, and how open and honest they expect you to be. Does this mesh with your company culture and philosophy? Does your management style compliment the potential employee’s response?

Have others who are not like you, even someone from outside the company, in on your interview process, especially when it is virtual. You’ll get their vibe off the candidate, but it can also keep you away from hiring someone just because they click with you rather than the company overall. 

Cultural Myths

Stepping on to the business version of Mythbusters, let’s clear some things up before we wrap things up. First of all, understand as the founder and often the CEO of your startup, you are where the culture flows from. If you hire with the confirmation bias mentioned above, if you are chaotic, your culture will be too. If you are OCD or a workaholic, your company culture will be the same. 

This is why employees at startups last an average of 18 months or less. They come for the coffee and the pool table: they leave because after a year, those things matter less than cultural fit, respect, and autonomy. 

If a pool table saves your company, it wasn’t the pool table that did it. It was simply that the pool table or game console simply fit a culture that was already there, and the people you hired fit that culture. This is a bit more difficult to determine remotely.

The advantage is that when you get it right, remote culture is based on things that really matter, not the flavor of Snapple most popular in your employee circles. 

The World is Your Stage

The final word? The world is your stage. In an age where diversity matters more than ever before, inclusiveness has become the rule rather than a buzzword, and industries are morphing in months rather than years, you need global talent and global input for your startup to be the most successful it can be. 

You can access it. You can beat confirmation bias, defy the niche location where you used to “have to be.” You can dispel cultural myths and be better. 

You just need to be willing to revamp your business model, rethink your business plan, and change your culture. Don’t think of this as something you have to do, but something you get to do. This is your opportunity to change the world, and not just through the innovative product or idea you have. But through the way your company operates at its core.