Show 142 – Unicorn Interviews – Job van der Voort – Remote
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The 21st in our series of episodes that we are recording in partnership with the European PR Agency Agency Tyto and their Own Without Borders podcast, where we are interviewing leaders of unicorn companies to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that start-ups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications.
Russell Goldsmith and co-host Brendon Craigie were joined online from close to Amsterdam by Job van der Voort, CEO and Co-Founder of Remote. Founded in 2019 to simplify how companies employ global talent, Remote raised $150m Series B funding round in July 2021, and that brought its total fundraising to $196m, reaching a $1 billion valuation and making it the fifth unicorn to be founded in Portugal.
Job began by explaining that Remote solves the fundamental problem of ‘I want to hire someone that lives in a different country’. They have entities all over the world that can provide local employment, payroll benefits and anything else that comes with hiring someone locally.
Job’s background is actually in neuroscience, but found it very slow, so left to launch a start-up, which he said went nowhere because his money ran out really quickly. He ended up at GitLab as a programmer, and eventually led their product for five years. In that time, they built GitHub from a tiny team to a very large company fully remotely. They had people in sixty-seven different countries all over the world. And the one thing they faced and struggled with was the problem that Remote solves today.
Benefits of remote and hybrid models
Job said he doesn’t have to convince people about the benefits of remote and hybrid models because the weight of the decision does not lie with the employers anymore. It’s the individuals that choose to set the standard by their feet. He said that what we’re seeing is that employers that don’t embrace the ability to hire anybody from anywhere to build a team that is their best people you can find, rather than the best people that happen to be close to your office, those employers are going to miss out on talent and their talent is going to leave their company. He added that ‘the great resignation’ is happening. We see it everywhere. And so, it’s either you go remote in some capacity or you’re going to lose out on a lot of good talent. That’s where the majority of the world will go. It’s not to say that everybody will be working from home, which he doesn’t think is a good idea. He thinks many people don’t want to work from home and perhaps should not even work from home. But we will move to a place where the company for which you work for does not have to be in the same place as you are. And you can move without having to change jobs. That’s such a massive advantage by itself and that is the way the world is going forward.
In general, Job thinks it’s incredibly hard to make work independent of what way that you do this in terms of hybrid models. If one person is working remotely, everyone has to act as if they are working remotely and if they don’t do that, they are going to isolate that one person or that group of people. Because in the office, the distance and ease of communication distance is far greater. The only really good thing that you can do in a situation where you have an office, and that some people still want to go there is to treat it like a co-working space, and you say ‘everybody always works remotely, you always acted as if you’re working remotely. No one is ever expected to be in the office. Not for a meeting, not for day-to-day work, not for anything, but if you want to want to work from home or you don’t want to work from a different place, you can come in. You can use the office to your liking’. He thinks that is the only way to work. Any alternative is going to result in creating an A-Team and a B-team where people in the office have some sort of better situation than the people outside of the office. He thinks for companies that do is half-half, where they say, well, certain days we work remotely, certain days we work in the office, you’re going to create an even greater problem where the days that you’re not in the office, you’re going to behave differently, which you don’t want. You want work to always be somewhat similar day to day. You have access to the same kind of information and can take decisions just as fast.
Job gave an example where a friend of his works at a large consultancy and they’re starting to go back into the office. But the employer said, ‘Look, we are remote friendly. You can work from home whenever and how much you want’. He said that there was a meeting with a bunch of people in the office and there were two people on the invite for a meeting they had who were working from home or somewhere else, but the meeting room was booked without any AV equipment. There was no way for those outside of the office to attend the meeting in that meeting room, which was just a room with a desk and a bunch of chairs and nothing else. So, Job believes that people will start to realize this, and they will have to learn the hard way that the only real solution to this particular scenario is everybody, go back to the desk, open your laptop, and that’s how you hold the meeting, which might feel stupid in a moment, but it’s much more inclusive.
Becoming a Unicorn
The think that Job is most proud of is the fact that they managed to build an incredibly kind, talented team of people from all over the world. It’s a very diverse group of people. They are very hardworking. He really cares about what they’re doing.
He said the perception of the company changed when they reached unicorn status in some ways, as they get more press coverage and more attention, which puts a banner on your company that says, ‘this is a real deal, there’s something here, something big’. He added that it’s also a bit of a vanity thing, but there’s no direct impact on the day to day of him or any of the people that they work with.
Companies doing remote working well
Job pointed to WordPress as a company leading remote working, but he said that not that many organizations have done this successfully in the way that he would define a modern workplace to be working remotely. There have been a surprising number of organizations that supported remote work for many years, some of them for decades. But usually, it was for a particular set of workers in those companies and for a particular set of functions or particular departments.
Remote working trends
Job said that Facebook’s announcement about their metaverse, which was followed by Microsoft a few days later, is exciting. He thinks it’s a step in this direction where we’re saying we’re no longer bound by a particular physical location. Job shipped everybody in his company VR headsets since their very early days, basically because of this reason. They wanted to create some form of presence without being present in person. He said that they’re not necessarily things that are here today, but it is exciting to look at that and it’s moving really fast. They don’t use their VR headsets day to day, it’s not a part of doing their work. He doesn’t think it’s possible yet unless you make a lot of effort, and even then, you will be less productive. But they use them to hang out with each other, to play games with each other and to get a taste of the future.
Countries that are going to do really well out of remote working
Job thinks South America and Africa are both booming immensely because of remote working. He said that traditionally, it’s been very hard to have access to great opportunities there. He also added South America and said that if you live in an economy that is suffering from hyperinflation, if you live under a government that is very restrictive in what you can do and now you suddenly have access to very great opportunities while not necessarily having to move, you might still love the place where you live, even though there’s not a lot of opportunities, that’s very powerful, and he thinks that’s going to change a lot in the world.
Job said that Remote tries to be authentic about what they care about, about who they are and what they do. They built a company in a very particular way, which is they say they want to do things right. And he thinks that it’s like the image that they try to share with the rest of the world. They care about what they are doing, they care about the opportunity, but also about the impact that they are having. They care about doing things right. They are not trying to make a quick buck, although he admitted that getting to a billion dollars within two and a half years is a lot of money. But they are not trying to just jump on something and grab the tailwinds, but are trying to do things right, and that is what they have been focused on.
Job said that culture starts with the values in the organisation. They wrote their values very early on, which are kindness, ownership, excellence, transparency, and ambition. They then built their team on top of that, and so everybody that was hired knew about these values and they knew that this is how they run their company according to these values. Performance, the way they think about what is good and what isn’t good, is all aligned with those values and that’s where everything starts and ends. He added that it on that a first value, if you’re kind to each other, that’s a pretty solid foundation to do other things on top of.
Job said that he does almost everything out in the public or at least internally public. So even if it’s communicating with a particular team, anybody could read that if they would want to do so. He sticks to a couple of simple things:
- Try to make it accessible to everybody, whatever it is that he shares, and it means that it’s very rarely like synchronous. It’s usually asynchronous.
- Make sure that it’s very short. It’s very digestible. Whereas if you work with very particular teams, it’s almost the other way around where sometimes you really want to get in deep. It’s a very different way of communicating with each other.
Job tries to shy away from too many communication tools. They use Notion for documentation and use Slack very intensively as well as Zoom but try not to use too much else and instead, keep it really simple. He also thinks that one of the best ways to make people productive is to teach them how to avoid meetings, which has nothing to do with tools. But by avoiding meetings and just communicating well, you can keep your calendar clear.
Read Job’s blog: How to run a successful meeting
Job said tonever have a meeting to share information. That’s useless! There’s no point if you’re not having a back-and-forth conversation, you’re just wasting everybody’s time with the overhead of communication. You should never avoid direct communication. You should not say to each other over Sack like, “Oh, we should have a meeting about this”. Why don’t you just have the conversation right there? It also adds to the overhead of the scheduling and coordination. And then there’s a place in your calendar and everything that comes with that. And then if you are having meetings, you have to have an agenda that is prepared and done in advance, and everybody should be able to contribute to it. If there’s no points on the agenda, nothing to discuss, you should not have that meeting. Job said just figure things out by writing to each other. If you have something to discuss, create a shared document and comment on it and work it out there. The only real good reason to have a single big meeting is to see each other, to enjoy seeing each other and to talk to each other and to enjoy doing that or to enjoy collaborating. Not necessarily because it’s more efficient, but sometimes it’s nice.
Job thinks his role as an external spokesperson and representative of the company is about setting a certain tone for the company as a brand, as what they care about is what they are thinking about is how they are – both to customers and to employees as well as to future people that want to work directly for them. He also tries to stay true to who he is. He said that he doesn’t really have two personas or more than two, he is just him – the same person when he walks out of the room and talks with his wife – he doesn’t become this magical CEO person, which he doesn’t really enjoy. Besides, people enjoy just listening to someone who is talking normally and, as Job described, is not too far up their own ass!
Job’s never really had a plan to get better at communications. He’s been reasonably good from enjoying doing presentations in high school. He thinks that if you’re not able to present, if you’re uncomfortable with presenting, that is something to work on. And actually, it’s one of those awful things that the best way to do it is to just do more of it. He added that everybody gets nervous be he get much less nervous now, because he’s presented a lot. It helps to be confident about what you’re talking about but confidence can come not just from being self-absorbed, but also from the fact that you’re just true to what you want to say if you’re just honest and open.
What initial decision is most vital to building a successful business?
Job said committing to it – you need to make a commitment that you’re really going to do it. You can’t half ass building your business.
Job said that in hisfirst business, they didn’t know what they were doing. Same co-founders, including Marcelo Lebre, but he didn’t have any personal runway, no money. Money ran out every five months and it was not sufficient time for them to build to start making money as a business. But it wasn’t really a mistake, it was a good move – he tried something, it was really difficult, and he the hard way that there are situations where you have to think of some fallback or try to make money in a different way. At the time, he simply didn’t have the money or the connections. But he doesn’t regret it. It was a good experience and it set him off this path on which he is now with the Remote. However, he added that the biggest mistake that you can make is not following up, not fixing things. If you feel like you did something wrong, it can be anything, made the wrong decision, took the wrong turn, hired the wrong person, bought the wrong thing, the worst thing you can do is just sit with that and let it be. In that situation, you should always deal with it as fast as you can. Job’s final words of advice were to be confident and be yourself.