Adapting company values to a remote environment

If you’re the sort of software company that has a need for recurring billing you’ve probably heard of Chargify. Being completely remote since the very beginning, their team is now spread across three continents, serving customers from all over the world.

Curious to learn more, we hopped on a call with their Florida based Director of Marketing Adam Feber to get a view into what is it like to work remotely at Chargify and hear about their company culture.

Adam, what was your journey to Chargify?  

I’ve always been in the SaaS world, it’s what I’ve known and what I’ve been drawn to. As soon as I came across Chargify I thought it was an amazing concept. From my experience, I know the pain points that come along with building and maintaining your own recurring billing and subscription management systems. It’s something that if not done right can cause a lot of problems relating to development, support and other areas of the business. Chargify’s software offered a solution. I could think of every company I worked with, if they used something like Chargify, how much cleaner and easier it would have made that portion of the business. That made me want to work here.

What made the founders of Chargify decide to be completely remote?

It’s one of those things that started at day one. Chargify grew out of the company called Grasshopper, which at one point started Grasshopper Labs to create software products for entrepreneurs. One of the first projects was Chargify to solve their own need for recurring billing.

Some of those who were involved in early days were already distributed, some were working from the Grasshopper office outside of Boston. As the company grew and became a legitimate business it just continued to grow in the remote path. We’re not just in the US anymore, we have now a developer in Brazil, an operations engineer in Australia and a developer Canada.

Is there any particular reason why you don’t have people in Europe?

We definitely have favoured US/Western Hemisphere hires a little bit more mainly because of the time zone overlap. My previous company was a distributed team and we were very distributed - all over Europe, South America, Central America… We were all over the place. And while that does work fine, in a smaller team it’s nice to have the overlap of timezones where everybody is within one or three time zone difference from each other.

At the moment having developers in Brazil and Canada makes sense because it’s still in line with the same time zone. In Australia it’s a strategic hire because it works perfectly to cover the full 24 hours spectrum. It’s almost like switching 12 hours on and 12 hours off. There’s constantly someone monitoring our servers and making sure our systems are operational and healthy.

Does it mean you won’t be hiring from Europe at all?

I’m not saying it definitely won’t happen, we’re open to all hires. One of the big benefits of a distributed team is that you can find great talent to fill the needs from anywhere in the world. We don’t have to look for somebody in Austin, Texas or someone who is willing to pick up their family and relocate.

One of the articles on your blog talks about organizing a remote team meetup. Could you tell us more about your company retreats?

Even though we’re remote and have a good system of tools in place to keep us connected over the day, there’s still a big emphasis on meeting face to face sometimes. The whole team gets together once a year and we find other ways to get satellite teams together, whether it’s the development team, directors, support or marketing.

We used to do company meetups every six months but as the team grows it’s a lot more logistics to plan so we scaled back to once a year and see how it goes. We’ll never remove the retreats completely because it is very important for us to meet.

Our developer team has recently started to make an annual trip to a dev conference ElixirConf. The directors meet every quarter face to face just to knock out planning, strategize, track goals and take a look back at a previous quarter. So while we don’t do big company meetups twice a year, a lot of people will meet at least twice a year.

What do you think is the right work:fun ratio when it comes to company retreats?

My take is that company retreats are much more suited towards team building and fun. You have the majority of the year to work so when you get everybody together it doesn’t really need to be all about work.

When everyone gets together, there are a lot of opportunities to do break out sessions as well as just overall talking about progress, goal tracking, alignment and where the company is headed. All those important things you communicate with the whole team when they are together.

But personally, I think it’s probably 70% fun, 30% work. As we grow every year there are new people that haven’t met anyone so it’s a good opportunity to meet, interact with everyone and create bonds.

It’s crazy that after you leave company meetups there’s always a good sense of camaraderie and jokes that last for years to come. That’s really important. There’s plenty of time to get the work done throughout the year if you have an efficient distributed team. So when you’re together try to have fun and connect with everybody.

And how does it look like at Chargify retreats?

The current ratio of our retreats is about 50:50, probably less work. At a previous meetup in Savannah we did a scavenger hunt during the day. We hired a guy who put on these events and it took a good portion of the day.

As four, five o'clock comes, everyone takes a break, relax, get together for an hour to have dinner. Then there are different things planned every night. Our last meetup was in Austin and we bowled, hit golf balls, escaped the puzzle room, even rode mechanical bulls on Sixth Street.

Your company blog suggests that Chargify is pretty big on company values, like trying to always improve and making smart choices... How do these translate into distributed work?

That’s something we've always held important but we didn't clearly define and communicate them until recently. I think it did have a big impact as far as the overall people's attitudes goes and how they notice what people do. It's been a couple of months since we've officially introduced our values but every day people are giving out things and calling out others if they notice someone doing something nice. Like - this person is improving by always helping me, or introducing me a new technology or explaining something to the team.

Since we've released them people are just noticing it and being more attentive to our values. They live it out personally and they recognize others who are also living it out.

Given that you are completely distributed, how does communication look like in Chargify?

One of our recent blog posts recently outlined the 13 tools we use for communication with our remote team. Slack is obviously important, it truly is like glue that holds together our remote team on a daily basis. We have rooms for the whole company, breakout teams or water cooler type of random rooms.

As we've got bigger we like to do a lot of our calls on video. For example first Thursday every month at 4pm eastern time is our monthly all hands company meeting. We do them via video so everyone can actually see and interact with each other. Zoom works really well video and audio quality wise, and it allows everybody on the team, which is now 25+, to be together. As you scale you run into limitations, like Google Hangouts and Skype not allowing that many people to do a video and Zoom tackles this.

We do a daily stand up with a lot of teams via Jell and then follow up with a quick Zoom call. Since everybody filled the stand ups in advance, the calls are fairly quick. They allow everybody to connect and talk to each other, review what everyone have worked on, what are they working on currently and if there are any roadblocks or pain points.

Google docs and apps are great because they allow you to collaborate on documents when you're not in the same office together. Especially on the marketing side we use them all the time, collaborating on any type of content like emails or blog posts. Right now I’m looking at our meeting agenda for today's monthly all hands call, for example.

Slack is great because of how integrated it is with all the different apps out there. Even if you're not a distributed team it's still great to be able to see activity on projects and workflows directly in the specific team channel. In our marketing team we use Trello for project management so whenever someone creates a new card or moves an existing card from the backlog into work in progress or review, it automatically updates Slack and lets me know there is movement on tasks.

Jell is also automatically integrated with Slack. Whenever someone fills out a stand up report for the day it's posted in the appropriate Slack channel. Everyone can see what that person is working on and if they have any roadblocks or questions.

As far as Slack goes, for remote teams it's important to have that camaraderie and that water cooler type of channel. We have a random channel which is a lot of food pictures and animal pictures, jokes, article sharing. That's important since everyone is not interacting personally on the face to face basis.

Gifs are another thing that our team happens to love. One of our developers actually built a gif bot that you can call with a specific word. So I can say “/gifme awesome,” and it will pull up a gif for something that's about “awesome.” It's a fun way to keep things “fresh and fun,” which is one of our core values, and just to make days a little bit more exciting.

When it comes to productivity, where do you personally prefer to work?

I personally prefer working at a coworking space. I’ve worked for distributed teams for about 8 years and most of them I worked from home office and it worked fine. After a certain point it's good to get out. There would be days when I didn't leave the house that much but I need to get out to feel like I'm part of something. I started to work at coworking spaces about a year ago and I love it. In our team there are some people who work from a coworking space, some people work from home, many people take breaks and go to a coffee shop and kind of bounce around.

And what do you need in your physical workspace to be productive?

The only thing I really need to be productive is a large external monitor. I find that a good set of headphones, a large external monitor, my laptop and a notepad and I’m fine no matter where I am. When I travel, I have to forgo the monitor, which is OK for a day or two.

How does company culture and benefits look like in Chargify?

In a software space everyone immediately thinks of things like catered lunches, ping pong tables, foosball, bean bags and all that stuff. That's not the case with remote teams because it's just not possible. So you have to provide different benefits to keep team members and employees.

As far as the culture goes, it's a great culture. Everybody loves working at Chargify. Everyone is always trying to improve and help each other. There's a lot of article sharing and video sharing. We also do something called “Friday lunch & learn” with the development team where they pick a topic and somebody teaches a new technology or process to the team. Sometimes they just all get together on a Zoom chat to watch a video from a conference to learn something new.

The team meetups have a big part in our company culture. It's about building relationships with people you work with, boosting that culture and just making sure that everybody feels connected and a part of the team.

What do you think makes the difference between remote companies that work well and those that don’t?

Transparency and communication! People need to communicate. A common threat in distributed teams is that people have some issues, maybe they question something or they are not fully understanding their requirements. But instead of being totally open and communicate, they kind of hold back like ‘I’ll figure it out.’ And when people hold back you are not running as efficiently as you could be. It’s very important to have open communication policies and total transparency. So when there’s a problem, people are not intimidated by addressing it or asking questions.

When someone says something you don’t understand in a co-located environment, you would be like “Well, I’m not sure I understand that part, could you go over that a little with me?” When you’re doing that through email or Trello cards, someone might not take the initiative to ping someone on Skype or Slack and ask questions or jump on a quick call to make sure it’s crystal clear.

Lastly, what are your views on the remote work trend?

I’m biased because I’ve never worked in an office and I have worked remotely for 8 years. I think it’s a great thing and I know that it can work because I’ve been part of teams that worked well. I also know it can cause a lot of turbulence because of issues in communication, prioritization, transparency etc. I’ve seen both sides. The key is in education, open communication, and utilizing the communication tools that are out there to facilitate it. Then it can definitely work.

I love working remotely and will probably continue doing it in a long period of time. I think it takes a certain type of person, remote work is not for everybody. You need to keep that in mind when it comes to hiring for remote work and what type of traits you’re looking for.

With that said, there are many benefits with collocated teams, there’s pros and cons in anything. It’s really nice when you get together and just knock out something in person. Sometimes the communication barriers are lifted to make it a little bit more efficient. Which is why it’s important to create policies and have tools in places. Don’t be scared to push a button and video chat with someone on the fly. You may feel like you’re bugging them, but I promise the end results will better.

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