Request for Startups 1: Remote tools for remote teams

Request for Startups is a series of posts outlining a few specific theses that we feel are likely to hold good business opportunities for founders that are aligned with our goals. It’s a list of ideas, some less polished than others, and isn’t prescriptive on what problems should be solved or what products should be built. It is just a few topics we are particularly interested in and we are “tapping a tuning fork and seeing who resonates.”

A lot of smart people seem to agree that “the future of work is remote” but most investors and accelerators are very focused on their local markets, most require or strongly encourage their portfolio companies to move to Silicon Valley, NYC, London, Berlin, or whatever city they have their open plan offices in.

Earnest is a remote-first operation run by folks who have built and worked at remote teams. The Earnest Advisors have built at least a dozen successful remote businesses between them. We’re very comfortable backing and working with remote-first teams. We would love to compound those strengths by investing in remote teams building products for other remote teams.

Synergy 🙌

So we agree, the future of work is remote. Running remote organizations has tremendous advantages, but it also brings its own unique set of challenges that are often under-served by existing products. We think there’s a huge opportunity that’s only going to get bigger over time. 

Besides Github and WordPress, most truly remote-first businesses are bootstrapped small-to-medium-sized-businesses (SMBs). Bootstrapped profitable businesses have been the vanguard of remote work and are exactly the kind of customers we want to serve at Earnest. Here is a laundry list of ideas in the areas of productivity, management, culture, and happiness that seem like promising veins to mine for new product ideas. We can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Asynchronous Productivity

Ever since todo apps became the canonical ‘learn to code’ project, the number of task/project management apps has exploded. While products like Basecamp and Doist are building core products in a remote-first way, there are still many aspects of team productivity that don’t have a default remote-friendly option. 

Here’s a theory on why. A lot of these products end up raising too much money from investors and need to start tracking a path toward $100m in revenue. This pulls them inexorably towards the two biggest centers of revenue gravity: sales teams and enterprise. Almost every product seems to inevitably get more deeply integrating into “closing” customers than collaboration, and building more and more features for massive enterprise customers rather than iterating on the core product and making it great for SMBs. If you’d like to solve one of these problems and also feel zero pressure to make it the right option for 200-person sales teams, let’s talk.

Scheduling: You are in one timezone, but you’ll be in a different one in three weeks when you want to schedule a video call with two colleagues that are both in different timezones and don’t work 9-to-5 schedules. This is still a nightmare and could be several products, or one amazing product.

Universal asynchronous inbox: A huge part of being successful as a remote team is getting great at asynchronous communication. Most remote workers develop their own asynchronous workflow and not all productivity and communication tools have the necessary settings around “do not disturb”, batching messages, and notifications that you need to enforce the structure that works best for you. A Zapier for messages, that collect emails, @-messages, and notifications into a central inbox, with a very detailed set of remote-friendly rules would be awesome.

Bandwidth: Being able to work while traveling is one of the biggest benefits of remote work, but bandwidth—finding it, optimizing it, not paying a fortune for it—can be a constant challenge.

Higher resolution communication: I’ve become obsessed with screencasts both for internal team and customer communication. There are some pretty great options out there for creating screencasts, but may be opportunities around organizing, sharing, searching and collaborating on them. Maybe there’s something better than screencasts for this purpose?

Internal documentation and processes: Good internal wikis, workflows, and decision trees are critical for productive asynchronous teams and most founders I know are using some tool that really isn’t dedicated for these purposes. A pet theory is that internal wikis and customer-facing help desk articles should be searchable from the same query so employees can see both internal rules and public-facing FAQs. 

Remote Management

There is a strong consensus that individual productivity skyrockets for remote workers, but managing a remote team has a broad set of unique challenges. Many of the successful strategies for remote management can be codified into opinionated remote-first tools for remote managers. For these to succeed, it’s important that they are opinionated. If you don’t really bake in remote, you’ll find folks defaulting to patterns that work in co-located offices.

Andreas Klinger’s tour de force on managing remote teams
is required reading for this section

Automated check-ins: Replicating the cues and nudges you get from working in a co-located office is a big opportunity for technology to help remote teams. This isn’t anything new, there are enough products in this space already to fill a lengthy blog post on its own, but there do still seem to be considerable gaps in the market and no clear best product here. 

Meeting management and follow-up: Meetings are more challenging with remote teams, they need to be more structured and more efficient than just throwing everybody in a conference room and making sure they put their phones down. Here’s how the team at Wildbit combines automated daily check-ins and weekly meetings.

Employee onboarding: Even in co-located companies, onboarding new employees is often a multi-day scramble to get their work station setup, new accounts created, getting up to speed on the people and processes they’ll need to know to be productive. This is exacerbated in a remote asynchronous team. How can products help make this massive more efficient?

Keeping it human: Just because you can’t look over and check that your employees are working doesn’t mean you should build a digital panopticon, monitoring their every move. 

Culture & Happiness in Remote Teams

Between the lack of expensive office space and the fact that you can attract talent with compensation well below the lofty levels of SF, building your company as a remote team can save a lot of money. Remote-first companies are rightfully quite willing to plow some of those savings back into building their culture, investing in long-term employee retention, and employee happiness.

Here is a great list of how many remote teams build their culture every day, any one of which could be the kernel of a great product.

Businesses spend money on fun stuff for their co-located teams for a reason. Happy hours, pizza parties, VR laser tag outings. Fun stuff makes people happy and happy employees work more efficiently and stick around. You don’t need to be directly improving productivity in some cold calculating way to build a product that remote teams will pay for.

I love the idea of donut calls

Remote retreats: Nearly every remote team has embraced the idea that you should invest in getting remote teams physically co-located for a team retreat at least once a year. Despite the fact that planning and executing these are a big administrative burden for small teams, many people have tried to build the Airbnb for remote retreats without seeming to crack it. Perhaps it was a good idea but bad timing. Or maybe there is something adjacent to the annual retreat that is a better fit for a product.

Stripe Home is an awesome example of tools every remote team could use

Fun and games: Annual retreats are good but not sufficient for building culture in a large remote organization. I really like the way SureSwift runs a Photo Friday in Slack. What other fun internal habits or games can be built to bring remote teams closer together, learn more about their coworkers and build empathy and camaraderie?

Mental Health & Wellness: Productivity isn’t just about GTD. Can mental health, coaching and personal training solutions be deployed effectively for a remote team? While there are a million time-trackers dedicated to keeping workers on task, a big problem for remote workers is remembering to stop work, go outside, and create non-work time and space. Maybe there is an opportunity to invert the time-tracking paradigm.

Employee benefits: Basecamp offers an amazing list of benefits and I’m sure they have a great system now to get those set up in whatever city their newest employee happens to live in. But if I was a 5-person remote-first startup, I would definitely be interested in using a service/product that helped find and set up those benefits in any country or city in the world.

The future of work is remote

Let’s make it better together.