Making remote a cornerstone of a creative business

Sometimes a bold decision is all it takes to create something amazing. Web design and development team Bryant and Chris were bold enough - after meeting online they decided to set up a creative studio. Inclined towards freedom and flexibility they are now at the helm of Authentic Form & Function - a small but prolific remote business, proving that creative work is, indeed, done best from the environment of your own choosing.

How long have you been working remotely and how did you start with remote work?

Chris: I’ve been working remotely for 10 years. After college I worked at a small agency for about a year, but then decided to try my hand at freelance work: not only for other design shops and agencies around town, but also for my own clients. It was the first time I was on my own without a net, working an odd job or two in the beginning to make it happen. But that’s the time when a lot of the accountability and drive I have now developed—out of necessity—which I’m very grateful for.

Bryant: I’ve been working remotely, officially, since starting Authentic about 4 years ago. For us, it was a mixture between seeing a vision for building a company with remote ideals and also the circumstance of being in two different cities, when we launched our business.

Where is currently the Authentic Form & Function team located?

Our team is currently spread out across the United States, from the western Rocky Mountains to the eastern shores of the Atlantic. When we originally kicked off Authentic almost 4 years ago, Chris was (and still is) in Denver, and Bryant lived in Chicago with his (now) wife. We’ve both moved a time or two in those years, and Bryant most recently transitioned back to Minneapolis where he and his wife grew up.

What made you decide to make your agency fully remote?

Chris: For me and the team I envisioned, it was less about deciding “let’s go remote” at some point, and more so just realizing that this is the way we’d both lived and breathed for many years. It was built in to our own personal cultures and working styles, so it was only natural to extend that thinking to a team we wanted to build, too.

Bryant: Certain qualities required for remote work — autonomy, responsibility, clear communication, transparency, etc. — were also prerequisites for building a business and doing great work. We felt that by making remote work a cornerstone of our business, we would be able to create an organization that supported all team members, and the changes we all go through in our lives.

Before creating Authentic F&F the two of you allegedly met on Twitter. Would you recommend this way of setting up a (remote) company? Was there any moment when you wished you'd done something differently?

Chris: That’s true! For us, it worked out. We knew pretty quickly that we were both very technical, type A, responsible workaholics. In many ways, we take the same approach to the work we do even today. After tinkering on a few projects together inside our own individual freelance companies, it was clear it made sense.

In terms of others getting started, I wouldn’t suggest seeking out a partnership from a social network. Any big decision relating to a new company needs to make sense for the business and it’s vision, and of course, the person or persons founding it. Anything less is a big risk that probably won’t end well.

Bryant: Indeed we did :) I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for people to find long-term business relationships on their social feeds, but it’s at least a good place to start conversations that could lead to future collaborations, and then maybe something more beyond that.

I don’t think about doing anything differently per se, but I think it’s certainly important to be aware of the positives and negatives of remote work.

Remote work requires being able to execute and deliver results. It requires personal discipline, and it requires being open and honest with communication. They are things that, in some cases, are easy to fake when you’re working in a traditional office setting. With remote work, you can tell very quickly when results aren’t what they should be.

What challenges do you face as a distributed agency?

Chris: Undoubtedly the biggest challenges have come from managing a team that’s not under the same roof. From the time consuming interview process, to the first week of onboarding, to the day to day project todos, everyone has their own way of doing things.

The challenge is: how can we effectively build a team that not only “gets it” but that also flourishes inside their own remote work space, too. For some, it simply works and we love that feeling because we see it happening in real time. For others, we realize they simply don’t fit into the way we work, which is more difficult to provide clarity on if we see trouble ahead. On the flip side, these challenges also often produce incredible “wow” moments, where a team member goes above and beyond, impressing everyone in their path.

Can you recall such a wow moment from the past?

Oftentimes an area we’re lacking in comes down to promotional materials for an article we’ve written or a project we’ve launched. We spend so much time on content that adding pizzazz comes last. But we have a designer on the team who has, time and time again, taken limited direction and “nailed it” in terms of the best way to create visuals for the stories we’re telling. In those moments when we can let someone run with it, it’s a great feeling.

Bryant:  What Chris said :) Spot on.

What does company culture in a remote team means to you?

Chris: It comes down to capturing buy-in on similar interests and a greater outlook on work and life. From how we all spend our days, to what we tend to do in our free time, that culture builds and builds as the team shares more about themselves. At Authentic, we can kick around comments about the latest Netflix binge just the same as we support a midday lunch run for anyone needing a break in the action. We see that undercurrent in someone before they even join the team.

Bryant: I think it comes down to having everyone aligned under a shared vision. Being a small company, sometimes we’re very “heads down” in the nitty gritty of our client work, but it’s important to establish the values and vision of your company, and the purpose which is inspiring the work everyone is doing. Beyond that, and on the day to day level, it’s making sure we’re all able to connect, outside of just working on projects. Team retreats, and beer/coffee Google hangouts help with that.

What are Authentic's values that relate specifically to being remote?

Bryant: Our mission is to create a sustainable business, made possible through the long-term collaboration of our team members. By operating in a way that's flexible to the lifestyle of each team members, over time we can build a strong sense of team collaboration which produces the best work possible.

Tell me about your company retreats.

We aim to have a company retreat 2x a year to bring the “online culture” into reality. The first retreat is work focused, either in Denver or Minneapolis, and the second is more of a vacation retreat, where work is talked about, but not necessarily worked on during that time.

Our work retreats are what they sound like: we work on projects, maybe collaborating in person on ideas, and take frequent recesses to enjoy parts of the city we’re in each day. Our vacation retreats are, well, vacations! Hanging out by a beach, doing hikes, going on bike rides, or whatever else makes sense for that location. Both are meant to create space and time to get to know one another better.

What is the next step for Authentic F&F?

We’re striving to move into longer term projects with partners that are looking to rely on a strong digital partner for years to come. We’ve done the agency model for a long time (almost two decades combined) and we now have a real desire to do something bigger. Projects that last a couple months are great, but it doesn’t allow us to fully sink in with something and watch it evolve with us along for the ride.

We recently launched our ebook, Partnering for Success, that hits on the entire web project life cycle, really focusing on the important points and sharing what we’ve learned over the years. We really think CMOs, CTOs, and other web leaders will find this information extremely valuable.

Working with startups on their product cycles; blossoming foundations on their digital platforms long term; even partnering with large organizations on initiatives that span multiple years. Our team is extremely talented from the strategy to the design to the development aspects of modern digital. For us it only makes sense we trend in that longer term direction.

What are your views regarding the remote trend and the future of work?

Chris: I personally love the growing trend of remote work. There are valid arguments to be made against remote work when it comes to accountability, collaboration, and other managerial concerns that arise. There are also potential issues with stunted professional growth for those lacking motivation to learn and explore new skills. But at it’s core, I believe there will always be a place for a robust remote workforce. At the end of the day, if people can effectively do what they love, where they love doing it the most, that’s something to be supported.

Bryant:  I think the way people collaborate, as humans, is shifting to one that’s more self-organizing, and driven by purpose. People are getting tired of the traditional “work your way to the top” style organizations, and instead want something that’s collaborative and aligns with values they have as individuals, and then instil in the company they are working for.

Remote work is a big step in this direction. It’s creating the tools and collaboration to make more about the output and the ideas, rather than the most efficient way to organize people into rigid structures of bureaucracy. I wrote an article last year on the notion of “Beyond Remote” which dives further into this topic.

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