A remote physical product company? Meet Tortuga Backpacks

How do you manage a physical product while remote? That's what we get into here on this week’s episode of More Beach Meetings.

Our guest this week is Fred Perrotta, co-founder and CEO of Tortuga, a remote company specializing in travel products like their award-winning Setout Backpack.

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Managing a physical product with a remote team is a unique challenge – one that Tortuga embraces. We’re also diving into questions like, "does hiring your customers gives you an advantage?" and the importance of founding a human-focused company.            

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Check out Tortuga's traveler-friendly backpacks and use discount code SURFOFFICE to receive a special deal just for our listeners at tortugabackpacks.com. Now, on to the interview.

Human-centered remote work

Too often, remote work looks a lot like traditional work. Fred’s vision for Tortuga was to build a company that was both remote and more “human.” Tortuga’s remote-first model gives him a way to treat his employees like people. His goal is to avoid micromanaging.

“We try to leverage remote to make the workplace more humane. Remote work lets us do things like flexible hours. We have unlimited vacation. We try to work as asynchronously as possible to let people make their own schedule,” says Fred.

Some remote workers are still forced to sit at their desks from 9-to-5. To Fred, that’s not the point of remote work.

“We want to hire great people, give them freedom, and trust that they’re going to do great work,” he says. The team at Tortuga lets people design workdays that suit them. Employees take the time they need to recharge.

Fred’s learned how valuable this approach can be by watching friends and other remote workers. “They work remotely, but maybe not in the way that you or I would think of it,” he says.

On the other hand, too much freedom has its challenges. Going from a structured environment to totally unstructured can throw a lot of people. So, how do they hire employees who are ready to work remotely? Fred says it starts with the hiring process.

Tortuga looks for people who can thrive in this type of environment. Many people don’t have remote work experience. So, Tortuga looks for things like side projects. They want to see something that shows a person is a self-starter. Podcasts, independent work, and passion projects are all good signs that a person can work remotely.

Fred says Tortuga’s interview process includes a separate interview for value alignment. Qualifications are important, but so is culture fit. An interest in travel is important, but so is a passion about working better.

“We’ve had a lot of people come to Tortuga after being burnt out or having a horrible workplace experience,” says Fred. “Seeing that light and realizing there’s a better way to work makes them excited to join Tortuga.”

The culture and style of work at Tortuga is a huge draw for its employees. But it’s challenging for a remote team to maintain that culture. Tortuga uses retreats and team offsites, like many other remote companies. “Anything in-person helps, regardless if you’re doing any work.

We go to trade shows, for example,” explains Fred. “What matters is spending time together. It creates a cool opportunity for us.” Colleagues at Tortuga are excited to see each other. It’s a novelty, whereas in a traditional office, seeing your coworkers gets old, fast.

Making remote work part of the mission

Today, remote work and Tortuga are practically synonymous. Living and working on your own terms is part of the core vision of Tortuga. The founders created the company while working remotely.

On their first team retreat, Fred says they were thinking about what they wanted to build. That the team would be dispersed was a given. Since then, remote work has helped them attract employees.

“Remote work is a great perk for a travel company,” notes Fred. “We recruit our customers, starting with Lauren, our first customer service concierge. We wanted someone who will know and understand our product and our ethos.

Someone who owns the product and is an evangelist. That’s exactly who we want helping other customers.” Tortuga has continued this approach to hiring across new roles.

Tortuga customers care about travel and remote work. So, Tortuga has hired its customers – and allowed them to work remotely. Tortuga’s brand identity is practically inseparable from the mission of their customers.

Product design for remote teams

Spoiler alert: Tortuga is making it up as they go. “I don’t know of any companies making physical products remotely,” says Fred.

A lot of the process takes place virtually. They do have weekly calls and work in between those check-ins. Calls are used to generate ideas, review sketches, or go over customer insight data.

The challenging part is once Tortuga gets into sampling. Materials and hardware need to be handled in-person. Soft goods, like bags, need to be physically handled. What does the material feel like? What will the shape be? What size is the bag? These are all questions that can’t be answered remotely.

Tortuga has a couple of ways to get around this process. “One thing we do is to get a sample from the factory, and the production manager makes her notes on the sample. She writes what’s working and what’s not. Then, we mail it to each member of the team. We have samples going from China to California and then to the East Coast,” describes Fred. “It slows down the process, but it’s one of the better ways to make it work.”

When they aren’t mailing products from coast to coast, the team meets at trade shows to evaluate a sample. The process ends with a designer working out details with the factory. Tortuga has found that despite the mailing costs and time investment, it’s more efficient than paying for an office.

Regardless of the inefficiencies, Fred says the core values come first. The ability to work remotely – and consequently travel – is worth the tradeoff. The team can step into the shoes of their customers and use the products every day.

It gives Tortuga much deeper insight into the needs of a traveler than other backpack companies. Fred says he would rather grow slower than compromise on the core values. “We’ll be 10% worse at one thing, but 30% better at other things that legacy luggage companies can’t achieve.”

Fred says along the way, Tortuga has made every mistake possible. Everything they’ve learned is through trial and error. His advice for remote product companies?

There are some great posts on Tortuga’s blog that speak to Tortuga’s product design process. Check them out and catch more stories on remote work, retreats, and company culture on the next episode of "More Beach Meetings." Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.

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