Do you remember those outrageous job titles from the last dot-com boom in the late nineties? You might have scratched your head after receiving a newly minted business card at a startup party: "What exactly does a Guru of Interstellar Thought & Projection do?". Thankfully, those silly times are behind us as that same job title is now simply known as Head of Marketing and Public Relations.
One thing that we can thank for the dot-com boom, however, is the carryover of fun and sociable workplaces and flexible working arrangements. For a time you were expected to live, breathe and sleep in your startup's cramped office until an exit strategy was found. This gradually gave way to telecommuting where you could log in from home for a few days each week. Now, digital nomads are embracing the wholly remote work lifestyle that allows them to do freelance gigs or hold permanent jobs outside of the office.
Along with the rise of digital nomads, new functional job roles have been created when none existed a decade ago. Just think of Social Media Manager and UX/UI Designer. The old stalwarts like Copywriter, Web Designer, Graphic Illustrator, and Programmer are still alive and well. People working with software and technology can now work anywhere from Austin to the Andaman Sea so long as there is a reliable Internet connection.
To get an insider's view of social innovation at work inside a technology startup, we spoke to Benjamin Yee, CEO, and Founder of EMERGE App, a cloud application for order, purchase and inventory management. This software startup boasts of 1,000 users in 40 countries spread across 5 continents. And Ben has achieved this with a headcount of under two dozen employees around the world. If we could roll back to 1999 his title might have been Top Gun.
Ben, did you set out to launch a hip startup with a distributed workforce around the world?
To tell the truth, I did this out of necessity and to contain costs. I didn't want to burn my money and investors' money in setting up an uber-cool office with sky-high rent and salaried employees. Where I live, office rents and salaries are very expensive. And it can be hard to attract solid talent when much of what I have to offer is a stake in the business and a chance to participate in a high-growth startup. I had to look beyond my shores so to speak.
Thankfully, I'm in the business of developing business software and my customers are spread all around the world. My software application runs 24/7 and even my customer support has yet to catch up with this pace. So I used the economic theory of comparative advantage and some arbitrage to pick and choose my staff around the world.
For example, Vietnam has a large and young population of computer science graduates. They are hungry for success and their salaries are very competitive. I was also able to rent an entire floor of a building in Saigon. Also, the cost of living is low and English is widely spoken. So I based my software development center in Vietnam. This would not have been possible if I just stayed inside my home market.
What about teamwork? Don't you need a Chief of Staff to bring everyone together?
That's a good question. The more distributed your workforce is, the less control and influence you have over them. There's no Human Resource trickery here as everyone just works well together despite not meeting over a water cooler. Also, we make it a point not to micro-manage anyone.
Well, let's see this from a few angles for a start.
Firstly, we carefully vet the kind of people that join EMERGE App. I sometimes meet my candidates in person or I conduct Skype interviews in other cases. Once they pass the functional and technical requirements expected of them, they are then thrown into the team on a trial basis. They work just like everyone else. We measure their performance by the quantity and quality of output. They're accepted once they have demonstrated responsibility and maturity in working remotely. My staff is effectively self-managed.
Secondly, we use readily available tools to keep things humming. Slack is our communication medium of choice. It's the glue that holds everyone together. So this is the secret sauce if this is what you're looking for. Otherwise, real-time meetings are held in Skype and all other work goes through Google Docs and Sheets. We check things off using Asana. It's really no different from messaging Sam in the IT Department or Susan in Marketing if you're working in a large company spread over several floors or across several buildings.
Thirdly, we have a big staff bash once a year. Here everyone comes together for a week to unwind and do some work. Past places have included Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore. We usually get a large AirBnB to accommodate everyone and thrown in nice meals paid for by the company, of course. There are also side trips for shopping and sightseeing to thank everyone for their hard work and dedication. Ironically, these annual meetups are possible thanks to the money saved by not renting an expensive office.
You're traveling three weeks out of a month. How then do you motivate your staff?
This brings me back to the first time I meet with a successful candidate and finalize their remuneration package. As I mentioned, we're not about sky-high salaries or poaching talent from other companies. I need to practice and show fiscal responsibility for now. EMERGE App is not the place for you if it is just money that you're after.
So taking big money out of the equation, I then ask candidates what makes them happy in life? More specifically, what will make them happy if they worked for us? This is the part where I try to accommodate their dreams and make it happen. For one employee, she said that she wanted to earn enough to afford a downpayment on a house back in her hometown. She did just that.
Another employee was a pioneer who joined me early in the startup. Along the way he got a job offer to work in the United Kingdom. He eventually made the decision to migrate there for his child's education. I managed to accommodate him by allowing him to work part-time with us because I valued his insights and technical experience.
Finally, we have an unlimited vacation policy. There's no cap on the number of days you can take off as we trust you to show restraint and responsibility. Anyone can take urgent leave or a week-long holiday so long as their work is done or someone is covering them in their absence. Best of all, there's no cumbersome leave form to fill in. Just drop us a note in Slack. So far no one has abused this policy yet!
Ben, you're well-traveled and you've seen things and visited many countries that most cubicle workers can only think of during their retirement. What do you think is the greater good that you're trying to achieve with EMERGE App?
To me, there are two sides to this. On one hand, I'm helping small and medium-sized businesses around the world to achieve order and inventory management efficiency with a wallet-friendly, subscription-based software. But because I need to be working in whatever time zone that my customers are in, I need to have employees in those regions.
This brings me to the flip side. I need capable brains and talent working in different time zones around the world. Unlike a conventional full-time, permanent job I can't offer job security nor competitive wages. But what I can offer is happiness and the freedom to do your best work whenever you wish without office politics, a long commute or micro-management. For a lot of my staff with young kids and other commitments, they greatly appreciate this.
So you see, EMERGE is simply following and adapting to social change brought on by technology in the areas of employment, job satisfaction and life in general. The gig economy is real and here to stay. Digital nomads are questioning the permanency of full-time, permanent jobs when they can work anywhere they want. They’re not following in their parents’ footsteps. Burnt-out mid-career types are skipping the daily commute and stress by relocating to cheaper cities or countries -- and working remotely.
In the end, it's a win-win situation for a technology startup like EMERGE App. With our software, we resolve pain points that small businesses feel when dealing with orders, purchases, and inventory. My staff is happy, motivated and glad to log in every day. This translates into better customer service, higher quality work, and more productivity. I don't have hard statistics to back these claims but I know to develop and growing EMERGE App would not have been possible any other way.
Raviraj is the VP for Growth at EMERGEApp.net. His passion is on sharing his management expertise to small and medium-size business who are struggling with their product inventory and logistics.