Learning From Distributed Companies

Lullabot's lessons from the Yonder conference

Once upon a time, back in 2005, Lullabot was just two guys collaborating across several time zones. In those days, Lullabot was predominantly a Drupal consultancy and Drupal was much, much smaller. The talent, like the open source project, was spread out around the globe. We’ve stayed that way ever since, even as we’ve grown to become a nearly 60-person full-service digital agency. All of our employees at Lullabot work from home, or from a coffee shop, or a co-working space, or a library… We work from Copenhagen, Denmark; or Normal, Illinois; or Portland, Oregon. We work on the Internet, and the Internet doesn’t care where you live.

Turns out a lot of people work from home these days. According to Forrester Research over 34 million Americans work from home at some point during the week. By 2016, that number is expected to reach 63 million. That’s 43% of the U.S. workforce… in two years. As the numbers grow, it’s clear more companies are embracing this work style. The data also shows that a lot of people are happier and more productive when they aren’t required to go into an office.

But, despite all of that talk, all of the numbers and information, there’s a gap. Where do business leaders who are running fully distributed companies go to find information and share advice? Much has been written of late, like the books Remote and The Year Without Pants which both debuted in 2013. But sometimes there’s just no substitute for getting together face-to-face with your peers on a secluded island paradise off the coast of San Diego to talk it out, so we created Yonder — a two-day invite-only event for leaders of distributed companies to come together and meet their peers. In January, we gathered at the Loews Coronado Bay hotel (think lunch and meetings outside in January) for an unconference. We kept the event small so as to include everyone in discussions and benefit from everyone’s knowledge.

We had a good variety of companies: large and small, product-oriented and services-oriented, b2b and b2c, and tech and non-tech companies – all focused on distributed staffing.

The group shared many of the difficulties and triumphs we had building our companies, managing our teams, communicating with staff and clients, and even things like scheduling meetings across time zones. Some of the primary topics:

  • Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication, and the unique purposes of each.
  • Modes of communication, including audio meetings, video meetings, in-person meetings, and when each are appropriate.
  • How to run company retreats and build distributed company culture.
  • The challenges of building legitimacy and dealing with legal and tax issues when there isn’t a central office where the majority of the company works.
  • How to use the wisdom of Open Source communities in building a company.

We also found ourselves often coming back to discussing the software tools that make our geographical distribution possible. Carl Smith, founder of nGen Works and an all-around cool guy, sees these new tools as a way to close any physical gap that we might feel. “I think in the future the tools are going to get to a place where we don’t feel like we’re not right next to each other. We may be across the country or around the world from each other, but it’s going to feel like sitting at the same table. That’s my hope — that we can get to a point where everybody’s distributed, but we’re all together.”

From the tools to the tactics, all of the different aspects of distributed work can be viewed as different or challenging, so we let the group decide what mattered most. With pages of ideas, we scored which discussions were top-of-mind and got to work. We walked away as better leaders, and we’re excited to share some of the ideas with you too. Here are some of the topic areas we’ll cover over the next few months here on the blog:

  • What is a distributed company?
  • Finding & hiring managers of one
  • Onboarding new employees in-person or not
  • How to build culture in a distributed company
  • What motivates the office-optional employee?
  • Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
  • Org Structures: hierarchical, flat, or Starfish
  • Communication tools & methods

Yonder was a great success, and everyone found the information to be extremely valuable. While we’re not exactly sure what the next Yonder looks like yet, we’ve seen the power of gathering distributed team leaders. If you’re running a distributed team and are interested in staying in the loop with our plans for the next Yonder, you can sign up for email updates.

Liz has been experimenting with various ways of work for over five years. From building startups and freelance gigs to climbing the corporate ladder, she’s worked with different types of people in vastly different environments—from home offices and co-working spaces to cubicles, and most recently, a corner office. It’s all for her relentless mission to find how work… well, works best. This mission has lead her to start WorkingRemote.ly, a resource for business leaders and new era workers.

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