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Kim Gjerstad is one of the founders of the popular newsletter plugin, MailPoet. In this episode we talk about how he’s been able to build a successful product and company with a fully remote team. Kim gives great advice about on boarding, tools, and building a company culture.
Intro: Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode of 104 of How I Built It. Today, I get to talk to Kim Gjerstad of MailPoet. We cover a little bit of a different topic today. We’re not just talking about how MailPoet was built. We’re talking about Kim and his team has been able to build a really great remote company culture. Working for both non-remote and remote companies within the past six, seven, 10 years, I can tell you that building a culture among remote workers, well, your remote workers is a lot harder. You don’t see those people every day. You don’t get to go to lunch with those people. You don’t get a lot of face time. And so, Kim offers a lot of really great advice on how to build a remote team, where to find remote workers, and some of the tools that they use to make sure that the ship is running smoothly.
This is a really great episode, and it piggybacks pretty nicely off of a couple of weeks ago when I talked to Liam Martin from Time Doctor about making sure that your remote teams are tracking time and productivity in the right way. Kim has a philosophy on tracking time, as you’ll hear in this episode, but still there’s a lot of really, really great advice, especially as more and more teams move to a remote philosophy.
We’ll get into all of that in a minute, but I do want to tell you about our sponsors for today’s episode. The first is Pantheon. You’ll hear about them later in the show. The second is Creator Courses. WordPress 5.0 is an inevitability, and there’s a lot of concerns around how’s the new editor going to work, how should I talk to my clients about the new editor, what do I need to do to make sure their site doesn’t crash during this very important holiday season? Well, the courses over at creatorcourses.com will help you. There’s one just for users, so if you just want to know how the editor works, you could take that very affordably. There’s one for freelancers to communicate all of those changes to your clients, and there’s one for theme developers. If you go to creatorcourses.com/Gutenberg, you can see all of the offerings there. As an added bonus, you can use the code build it for a discount. Again, that’s creatorcourses.com/Gutenberg. Well, with that out of the way, I think there’s only one thing left to do, so on with the show.
Joe Casabona: Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks how did you build that? Today, my guest is Kim Gjerstad, co-founder of MailPoet. Kim, how are you today?
Kim Gjerstad: I’m doing pretty good, yourself?
Joe: I am fantastic. As we record this, it’s Labor Day here in The United States. It’s a beautiful day. It’s pretty relaxed because a lot of people are not working. I’m enjoying being able to catch up on some of the more clerical things of the business. Let’s see. Where you based now, just out of curiosity?
Kim: I’m based myself in Southern France, but we have a team of almost 12 people, and we’re spread around either Europe or Eastern coast US.
Joe: I asked that because the exact topic of today’s show is building a remote team and exactly what goes into that, but Kim, why don’t you first tell us about who you are and what you do?
Kim: I co-founded a plugin for newsletters for WordPress seven years ago in 2011. We’ve been running the same one plugin ever since, so that’s what we do.
Joe: Nice. That plugin is the thing that powers your business, and you being able to hire 12 employees, and things like that.
Joe: That’s incredible. Just to set the stage, MailPoet is a plugin that is essentially you build your newsletter within the WordPress dashboard. Is that right?
Kim: Yeah, that’s correct, yeah. I like to say it’s like a Mailchimp in MailPress for those who are less familiar with WordPress.
Joe: Nice. I like that a lot. So you create your content, and then you can build your newsletter directly from the same interface, which is nice if you like to send out mailings of your own posts and things like that, right?
Kim: Correct, yes.
Joe: Cool. Very cool. As you mentioned, you have a team of 12 that is completely remote. Generally, I ask how did you come up with the idea or what research did you do, but in this case, I want to ask, what made you decide to have a remote team as opposed to a team all in the same place?
Kim: Right. We didn’t invent a model. When we started out back in 2011, throughout those years there were already other people experiencing that. The first, I mean, the most known was Automatic themselves. Automatic set the stage for all other smaller companies in the WordPress community. I had previously worked in a remote setting as a consultant. When we started MailPoet, we were four people and we didn’t live in the same city. And so, we started, it was in the DNA. We started as a remote team.
Joe: Nice, nice. That’s actually a really good point, right because we’re talking 2011 here. I worked for I had just gotten a job at the university and throughout my time there, I tried to convince them to let me work remotely, at least part time, and it was a tough sell. They essentially did not let me. In 2011, the idea of a remote team was not nearly as widespread as it is today. Automatic set the stage. So it’s in your DNA. Did you feel like you were taking a risk by doing it, by bucking the trend, and saying, “I’m hiring people who are not next in the same room as me.”
Kim: Right. It was. It got a little more complicated, not in the hiring process per se because you can hire anyone. The pool of talent you can reach is suddenly a lot wider, so it wasn’t in the hiring per se and people do look for jobs in a remote environment. This said, the challenge wasn’t there. It was mostly, okay, how can we scale a team in a remote environment? I mean, we’re still only 12 people. Automatic is hundreds of people. Still at a smaller scale, it gets complicated. There is things to put in place in order to fill the gaps that are missing gin a remote environment.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. That’s definitely stuff I really want to touch on because I worked for a remote team before going full-time on my own and that was one of the things that was tough, how do we, for example, how do you onboard a new employee? But first, you started off as a team of four people. When did you make your first hire?
Kim: I guess it was within after 12 months, so it was relatively quickly or within the first year, yeah.
Joe: Nice, very nice. You mentioned that having a remote team was in your DNA because all of the four co-founders or the four people who started the company were remote, but what kind of research did you do to make sure that you do it right, right? Because I mean, I can hire say a contractor here in The United States. I just pay them, and I send them a 1099 or whatever, they send me a 1099. Or if I hire somebody in my state, easy peasy. You just fill out the employment form and the taxes are all the same, but there’s a lot of difference especially because you have a multi-national company, right, essentially?
Yeah, right. We have contracts at MailPoet today, but originally we were just hiring essentially freelancers, but on a full-time basis. I would say, “Let’s hire you as a freelance, but since you’re a full-time, and we want you to be full-time, then we’ll give you all the benefits of being a full-time employee.” Which would be vacation, not working on weekends, etc. You start building okay, you’re building a real job for someone. It’s just contractually, it’s still just a freelance. Today, we have written contracts, but I mean even before, we didn’t really need to have them, yeah.
It’s pretty like it’s not that difficult. People who are mostly afraid of the contract. People that have jobs and need to switch this environment, they’re like, “Well, what kind of contracts? When are you going to pay me? What is the legal, is it legally binding?” One way to comfort new arrivals is to say, “Well, here’s a contract that MailPoet or my remote company.” And everyone gets the same contract. You can talk to your future coworkers and confirm this.
Joe: Wow. Well, first right there, you can talk to your coworkers about the contract. That’s generally something that’s discouraged in a, well, let’s say a traditional, on-location work environment, right. You’re not really supposed to talk about salary or benefits and stuff like that because you don’t want to cause mutiny among the employees.
Kim: Right. Yeah, in a remote environment, you have to bet on transparency and full faith in being fair, right. We’ve got inspired by Buffer. Or for example, our compensation grid is public, well, internally public, so everyone knows how mu I earn, how the other colleagues earn. Buffer’s blog has been an eye-opener for many of us and I strongly recommend just to look into it. They call it the Open Blog, which is like the open company. So everything is transparent there. They’re going full-force transparent. We’ve gone pretty much that direction, except we’re not completely transparent with our customers or outer public, yeah.
Break: Today’s episode is brought to you by Pantheon. WordPress 5.0 and the new editor, Gutenberg, are coming. Are you prepared? Do you want to learn about the changes in advance? Pantheon has gather resources to help you prepare including webinars and tutorials. Pantheon also has made it ways and free to try Gutenberg with your site before the official launch. Visit pantheon.io/Gutenberg. Let them know that How I Built It sent you. Now, back to the show.
Joe: I guess another question about this, which I feel is kind of different in the WordPress community especially, but do you have a hard time being that transparent? The opensource community generally is, but other more traditional or old hat industry are like, “No, you can’t know anything that we’re doing. That’s crazy. We have to keep it all close to the chest.”
Kim: Right. I think the switch, I initial … Now, I haven’t spoken, a few entrepreneurs have called me in the past, in the networks that I’m in here in France to ask me questions about remote offices. Of course, when it comes to remote offices, horizontality comes to mind, right. I think more of the switch to more classical environments has to be these little changes within the DNA, and say, “Okay. Well, we’re vouching for transparency. We’re vouching for a complete freedom of information.” If you chat with someone, chat on a public channel. Don’t chat on a, you know.
Joe: Oh, yeah.
Kim: So these kinds of tips and tricks. We don’t have a choice in remote because information is always in silos, right. You’re fighting that silo all the time. You want to break those down, so you have to overflow. You have to make all chats public all the time, and let people pick what they want to read.
Joe: Yeah. That’s I want to touch on two really good points there, right, because even in a traditional office, you try to combat the information silos, but it’s maybe a little bit easier when your coworker can walk across the hall to you and say, “Hey, I have a question.” You see silos in maybe different areas of a department. Maybe all the programmers get together, and there’s one silo. Then the project managers get together, and there’s one silo. It’s really easy in a company of 12 to have 12 silos, right, because everybody’s by themselves.
Kim: Yeah, yeah. Slack has these weekly stats that just say how many conversations were in public channels and how many were in direct channels. For example, this week I saw that the previous week, we had 25% of our conversations were in public channels. I thought, hey, well, that’s unusual because usually it’s more like over half our conversations are public. It was something about last week that was more like in secrecy maybe or people don’t want to add noise in channels for nothing. Generally speaking, I’d say half of our conversations or more are public.
Joe: That’s great and that’s a very cool feature of Slack too. We would get, I think, monthly reports when I was at Crowd Favorite. One of C-level officers would say, “Hey, this month, this many chats were private. This many were public. Let’s try to be better about that.” The other thing you mentioned was with remote offices, you look at a more horizontal organization, right. That’s talking about the org chart, right. Again, traditionally, when I was at the university, I reported to my assistant director. My assistant director reported to the director. The director reported to the VP, who reported to the president, who then reported to the board of directors, but with more remote teams, you see, I mean, that was a five level deep chart, and I was a senior developer, right. So you see less of that, right?
Kim: Yeah, I guess. I mean, we’re still a very small organization, right. At 12, we’re not big enough to have, let’s say, two teams of engineers. When I say by two big, usually it’s kind of like the management model that Google enshrine, where all teams should be a maximum eight people, and all of these teams should have a team leader. If you look at more of holacracy theories, where each group elects its own focal points for the outside. I mean, we’re looking at those and we’re saying, yeah, okay. We’re fairly horizontal. They say we’re kind of small. We don’t yet have a second team of engineers. I mean, we do have a DevOps that’s on the outside, but we’re not that big enough yet, yeah.
Joe: Gotcha. That’s really interesting. I do want to change gears here a little bit because you did talk about how can we scale a team, and there are some inherent difficulties with scaling a remote team. A lot of people say the life’s blood of a small company is the culture, right. I want to ask you about the culture and then the onboarding and training. How do you build culture at MailPoet?
Kim: Building culture in a remote environment is really by the way you act online like the way you act in Slack, your behavior on a day-to-day basis. We’ve in the past wrote some values down of what we think are the correct values that we share at the end of the team. This set, at the end of day, we’re more into, okay, it’s nice to have them on the wall, right. But just apply them day-to-day. Be helpful, be collaborative, don’t hide information, for example. Yeah, that’s how we’ve approached it, yeah.
Joe: Gotcha. As far as getting face time or your employees getting to know one and other, do you encourage video calls? Do you have team calls or anything like that to get everybody in a room or do you think that Slack does a good job of that?
Kim: No, that’s the hard part. Yeah, we need to meet face to face. We meet once a year on an annual meet up or annual trip. Now, is that sufficient? We feel it’s not. Maybe should be once every nine months. What else? Because we don’t, during the week, we don’t really have conference calls all that much. We do have some one-on-ones between let’s say one of the project managers and some of the colleagues. We do encourage those things, but then we don’t have stand-ups or we don’t have conf calls, so there is a bit of loneliness or lack of getting to know each other or space for that. I know some other teams, and we did one last week, just to try it, but I know some of the remote teams do a happy hour. Like on Friday, they’ll just like anyone comes into Zoom or a Hangout and just starts just to hang out basically.
Joe: Ah, that’s pretty interesting. I haven’t heard that before, but that sounds pretty neat. I’m sure that maybe one of the difficulties, right, is you mentioned you have employees. You’re in France, you have some folks on the East Coast of The United States. Then you said Eastern United States and Europe mostly, right? So Western Europe?
Kim: Actually, I should correct that because it’s the Midwest. We have someone in the Midwest. Yeah, we basically don’t hire people on the West Coast or in Asia, Australia etc. It’s just too far. We need to have a few hours of overlap in order to properly function. The person in the Midwest, she does really wake up early every morning, but she used to work for an Australian company, so she was used to that, right.
Joe: Gotcha. Gotcha, yeah, so that was probably a big improvement. I should say that as a born and raised New Yorker, basically anything West of New York and East of California is considered the Midwest to me. Just anything that’s not the coast is the Midwest.
Okay, so that’s cool. I guess, one of the, and this’ll be the last thing we talk about culture, but you want to make sure you have overlapping time zones with your employees, right? Because that can be really hard. When I was at Crowd Favorite, we had people in The United States and we had people in Romania. We had a couple of hours in the morning, but somebody may be in Australia was out of luck if their counterpart was on the West Coast of The US or maybe the East Coast of The US. Cool, very cool.
The other thing that you mentioned about answering the question, how can you scale a team? What came to mind was onboarding. Because I’ve seen it at both ends in a traditional company, I basically went around to everybody office and they taught me something about the job. Then in a remote environment, I had one-on-ones with certain people in the company, but I feel like there was a lot more on the job training. How do you mitigate that?
Kim: Right. Onboarding is what basically we do is we have there’s two … Okay. There’s just the actual day setup, which is just creating all the accounts, but then quickly it becomes, a new person has to set up a Skype or Hangout or Zoom talk with each of the colleagues. Then the new arrival needs to write a top 10 of things about themselves. It can be quirky or impersonal or it can be just professional. Then depending on the position, then we have just sessions, either sessions of working together or like let’s share the screen, and then let’s just work together. That’s how we do it on a remote environment. Then the project managers or whoever is taking overseeing that person, then just makes sure that it’s going well. Onboarding is pretty, I think the main aspect is that that new person really needs to Skype everyone, at least in a team of 12, it’s doable, right. At least have one physical contact other than Slack.
Joe: Gotcha. Yeah, I like that a lot because really, I mean, when I record these shows, I like to do face-to-face even though it’s an audio-only podcast because I feel like I have a stronger connection with my guest. You mentioned Skype or Zoom and Slack and Provision Accounts. Do you have a set of recommended tools that you use to help manage remote teams?
Kim: Well, we used, we really used the unusual suspects, right. It’ll be Google Docs, Trello. At MailPoet, we use Jira to manage the software development aspects with GitHub for just to for versioning. What else we use is specific or no, that’s pretty much it. There’s no specific tool per se. We use, there’s a new tool we stuff using called Velocity, but that’s more for seeing the performance and productivity of the depths. It plugs into GitHub and gives you a dashboard where you can see how your colleagues are doing, if there’s being slowed down etc. Apart from that, there isn’t more than that, no.
Joe: Gotcha. Actually, you touch on a really good point too there, right. Because it’s hard to measure productivity for a remote team, especially if you’re in different time zones or you’re not there. I had a boss, who wanted me to be in the office, so he or she could check up on me essentially to make sure I was doing my work, which is crazy because it’s easy to fake doing work in front of a computer. But I guess the point of that is do you do things like time tracking or do you feel like that’s burdensome for your team? Is Velocity sufficient?
Kim: Oh, yeah, we don’t. No, we don’t track any hours per se. It really goes against the philosophy. People who show up at work and if they’re motivated just by their presence, then it’s the wrong place to work. What are people motivated by, right? They’re not motivated by being there or being watched over etc. They’re being motivated by what they’re learning, their responsibilities they’re getting, the collaboration they have with their colleagues, how that current job fits in their career or at least what the perspective of their career might be at that moment, the salary the conditions. When we look at MailPoet, we look at these different aspects, when we discuss with someone their happiness at work.
Joe: Nice. What do you think is the best way to gage motivation? Is it the one-on-ones that you mentioned earlier?
Kim: One-on-one is a critical, in a remote environment, one-on-ones are critical. I don’t do them myself as often, but there’s another person, my colleagues does them as well. But they are the critical lifeline, at least to know what’s going on and also maybe fight loneliness. Loneliness and lack of communication or lack of feeling a part of something are the problems in a remote office.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we mentioned information silos before, but working remotely can make you feel like you’re in almost a literal silo because it could be lonely.
Break: Today’s episode is brought to you by Pantheon. WordPress 5.0 and the new editor, Gutenberg are coming. Are you prepared? Do you want to learn about the changes in advance? Pantheon has gathered resources to help you prepare including webinars and tutorials. Pantheon also has made it easy and free to try Gutenberg with your site before the official launch. Visit pantheon.io/Gutenberg. Let them know that How I Built It sent you. Now, back to the show. Well, we covered a lot of ground, but I know that in the pre-show, we were talking about several other topics. Is there advice about remote teams that we didn’t cover here?
Kim: Well, there is one topic that I have in mind, which is hiring. If you want to hire or you want to be hired for a remote team, weworkremotely.com is the main job board for jobs for remote businesses. There is plenty there. Also, if you get a profile on, oh, the name escapes me now. This startup hub. I will remember it. Then there is we found out that if you, of course the best way to hire developers is word to mouth or personal recommendations, but if you want a great place to hire is Stack Overflow. When people that are not actually searching for jobs, but developers that are looking for answers, they go and find answers on Stack Overflow. And there on the right column, you can have your job position there. Now, being in that spot is quite expensive. Last time I checked–
Joe: I bet.
Kim: Last time I checked, I think it was 5,000 grand, but–
Kim: But it does save you quite a bit of time. You basically, it’s kind of like hiring a head hunter, where somebody is not looking for a job, and then suddenly, oh, there he is. He’s poking at your job description. And remote jobs are remote is a keyword that’s very attractive for anyone in the workforce. So that’s definitely one place to … Actually, the only sort of two places where we post jobs in the past have been those two, We Work Remotely, and Stack Overflow.
Joe: Nice, very nice. We Work Remotely, that’s the job board from the guys over at Basecamp, right? Formerly 37signals.
Kim: Yeah, actually the job board was sold to another group recently, so they don’t take care. I think it was last year it was sold. So it doesn’t belong to them anymore, but that is originally theirs, yes.
Joe: I’m going to link to that in the show notes and also the book by the same guys called Remote, which is all about working remotely.
Kim: Yeah, correct. Matt Mullenweg has spoken recently about remote environments as well. I think either on his blog or elsewhere in podcast, he mentions the challenges of remote. Being such a large company, they’re a bit at the forefront of it, so he’s definitely got some interesting perspectives on it, yeah.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I will try to track down that link and put that in the show notes as well. Generally, at this point, I like to ask two questions. One is about what are your plans for the future, but I think in lieu of that one, I want to ask if there’s a job, particularly in our field, you think is not suitable for remote work, right? I was going to say any job, but a construction job clearly is not suitable for remote work. Do you think there’s a job in maybe the computer-based field that’s not suitable for remote work?
Kim: For me, I think the hardest one in our team is, at least in my eyes, but it’s product management. Product management requires talking to people all the time, right. If you have an idea for the product, you want to validate it with the support team. You want to check it out with the devs. If you have somebody in marketing or in growth hacking, you have to talk to them as well. It’s like bringing all the different groups or the different parts of the team together, and having a conversation, but you can’t. You’re in this remote environment, so you need to interview people. It’s that part is a little difficult. It’s a pain. To tell you, we’re changing. At MailPoet, we’re just changing a bit and we’re saying, “Okay. Well, since it’s so …” Me and another person that does product, we decided just to slot, okay, one hour every day. We just discuss. We pick up the phone and we just discuss all the items. So based–
Joe: Nice. That’s yeah.
Joe: That’s a really good answer.
Kim: More phone conversations for the product managers. Yeah.
Joe: The project managers, I guess, the equivalent in client services. At my remote job, their calendars were just constantly full of meeting. I used to think, how do they get anything done? I’m like, this is where they’re getting their entire job done. I think that’s a fantastic answer. The last question I like to ask is do you have any trade secrets for us?
Kim: Well, we don’t really have any. We’ve been meaning to match MailPoet to work with WooCommerce for a while. We just never really got around to it so much, but it looks like we might be finally getting out of our busy period because we were working hard on onboarding. And now we’re looking into WooCommerce right now. This will be the next step for us. I’ve been talking about this for a while, but maybe I’m jinxing it again, but anyway, hopefully we’re going to get there.
Joe: Nice, nice, a little secret what’s coming down the pipe for MailPoet. I like that. Kim, thanks so much for joining me today. Where can people find you?
Kim:It’s pretty easy, email@example.com.
Joe: Nice, cool. I will link that in the show notes as well. This was fantastic. Really good advice if you are thinking about starting your remote team or if you’re thinking about taking the leap and becoming a remote worker. I think there’s a lot of good advice there for both folks. Kim, thanks again for joining me. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Kim: Pleasure’s all mine.
Outro: Thanks so much to Kim for joining me today. I really appreciate his time and his insight on building a good remote team, building a good company culture. I really love what he said about needing to meet face-to-face and how they try to meet every nine months or so, maybe every year, every nine months to make sure that you get that face time with your coworkers, right. Because that’s important in building a bond, and building trust, and things like that. I just loves this conversation.
Thanks again to our sponsors, Pantheon and Creative Courses. Both are providing fantastic resources for Gutenberg and WordPress 5.0. My question of the week for you is if you run a company, do you do it fully remote or do you have people that are basically in the same city or town that you are? Or is you are employed or looking for employment, how important is a remote position to you? Either way, let me know by emailing me, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jcasabona. If you want to discuss this stuff with other listeners of the podcast, you can join the Facebook group over at howibuilt.it/facebook. For these things and all of the show notes, you can go to howibuilt.it/104. If you liked this episode, you can head over to Apple Podcasts, and leave a rating and review. It truly helps people discover us.
As we start to wrap up season five here, this is the second to last episode, interview episode at least, I am just ecstatic with growth that this show has seen over the past six months. I’ve hit a few really important milestones, and if all goes well, better the end of this year, I will hit another one. So thanks so much for your support and for listening. Until next time, get out there and build something.