Chris Winn   About

Building a Distributed Startup

Illustration by Daniella Valerio at Creative Market

Anytime I tell my story of joining Creative Market, I always stress a few details. Above all else — naturally, since it was my first experience with the company— I tell people I loved the product. I sensed, even from the outside, the care that was going into the design and customer experience. Then, as I got to know our co-founder and CEO, Aaron Epstein, and learned more about his vision, what finally sold me was the hard-working, talented, caring team behind that product. I knew I wanted to surround myself with people who would inspire and challenge me every day.

When I stop to consider the story I tell, though, I’m actually leaving out an important aspect. Creative Market was, as it is today, based in San Francisco, and at the time I lived in Charleston, South Carolina, some 3,000 miles away. If Creative Market had not been open to hiring me remote, I would have never joined. I would have missed out on an opportunity that changed my career for the better, and I like to think that Creative Market would have lost something too.

Making the choice to hire remotely can bring your startup or team an enormous competitive advantage: you’ll find the very best talent faster. But making that choice is only the first step; you have to invest to grow a distributed team successfully. I’d like share some thoughts on how we do it at Creative Market.

Make it part of your DNA.

In July, I had an opportunity to meet founders at a YCombinator event in San Francisco. I like to ask about teams and scaling challenges for young companies, and as I did a theme emerged: given that San Francisco is such a competitive market for technical talent, they chose to hire people from all over. For most startups, it’s the right choice to make. Given their constraints, they’ll find great talent faster than they would have. But over time, I think they’ll realize another hidden benefit: making the decision so early to build a distributed team will force them to solve problems and get really good at working remotely.

Creative Market started to build its distributed team even before the product launched, and this meant we were forced to find solutions to challenges before the team became too big. The important thing is to realize you are making a choice and it requires care and intention to make it a success.

Once it’s in your DNA, it should be in your budget too.

To borrow and paraphrase a quote that I love from former Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, budgets are an expression of values and aspirations. Your startup’s budget should demonstrate an investment in your distributed team. For us, it means first and foremost an investment in travel and hotels: we still believe in the value of in-person collaboration and our product squads fly in to San Francisco every eight weeks. We also offer incentives for employees who invest in fast home internet, and encourage people to have quality microphones and a well-lit background for video calls.

Help your team build meaningful, in-person relationships.

During my first weeks at Creative Market five years ago, I flew out to San Francisco and met the team in one of our earliest spaces — a tiny office in Potrero Hill. It was so valuable to me personally to see and talk to people in-person, and it made it easier to reach out to them over chat after I returned home. This has held true over the years and we still hear feedback along these lines today. In our experience, people who’ve met in person are more comfortable — and therefore more likely — to reach out on Slack or Zoom.

Invest in tools that bring people closer together.

Tools can make or break your success as a distributed team. There are the usual suspects, like Slack, but great audio and video is perhaps even more important. We use Zoom and have invested in Zoom Rooms for our San Francisco headquarters. We’re on the hunt for some digital white-boarding options, because it’s hard to see our office’s whiteboard walls over a video conference.

Screen for remote success.

Not everyone can travel as frequently as we hope to have in-person collaboration. The right time to get a sense for what’s possible is before you ever make the hire. Is the applicant near a major airport with direct flights to your home base? Are they prepared for what it means to cross multiple time zones? When they are at home, do they have a quiet space to work? Do they stick to a fairly rigid schedule, or do they tend to lose focus?

Distribute leadership and management.

If your individual contributors are remote, you are on your way to building a distributed company, but where are your leaders and managers? If they’re concentrated in the home base, will they have the empathy and understanding to make the right decisions that impact the remote team? Will remote employees have the same opportunities as people who are able to build relationships in person? At Creative Market, a third of our executive team lives outside of California. Our engineering leadership team is in Texas. Some of the managers we’ll hire in 2018 will be remote too. If you commit to building a distributed company, think about it at all levels.

Don’t forget about HQ.

Our headquarters in San Francisco is great for in-person collaboration, meetings, hosting events, and recruiting new talent. If you do have a home base, remember that the experience and challenges of the people in the home office are unique and they matter too. For us, it’s been helpful to state the obvious to the team: working in the office and working remotely are not the same thing. They have unique advantages and disadvantages, and it’s not our goal to make the experience equal — if for no other reason than we simply can’t. Remote managers need to understand this and represent the values of the office to their own in-office direct reports.

There’s effort and planning involved in building a distributed company. Invest in your team early and it all becomes muscle memory. If you pull it off, you’ll find better talent faster than the competition — and create a culture the values and supports a diverse group of people from different geographies. If you’re building a company and want to talk more, get in touch. And if you want to join us— whether in the office or somewhere else — apply to join the team!

Written on July 24, 2018