So many entrepreneurs start their businesses as side projects, with help great or small from far-flung friends and colleagues. But when a promising idea hits and an actual business is born, the next most pressing question is: who will help me nurture this and make it grow? Nowadays, the location of those ideal colleagues is often a secondary consideration–but team-building is key, even if it happens over great physical distance.
How can your startup tap the right talent, no matter where they–or you–live? How do you make the most of remote workers? For answers we turned to Darius A. Monsef IV, a guy who knows from remote work. The native Hawaiian co-runs COLOURLovers.com, a creative community for sharing color palettes, from his perch in Waimea, while the site’s other founders, Chris Williams and Aaron Epstein, work in Portland, Oregon and New York City respectively. Monsef has to fire up his laptop by 6 a.m. to catch Epstein before lunch.
That has not prevented the startup from flourishing. Two years ago, COLOURLovers.com merged with ColorSchemer, a palette-creation software, and today boasts two million members thanks to partnerships with Twitter, Martha Stewart, Hewlett-Packard, and Hearst. Its most recent project is CreativeMarket.com, an Etsy-like marketplace where designers can sell the digital assets they create.
We spoke to Monsef about building a business that thrives whether employees are spread across one time zone, or six.
Travel. A lot.
“I don’t have any peers here,” Monsef says. “I don’t talk much about what I do because most people wouldn’t understand it. Whereas when I lived in San Francisco, my friends all ran their own startups. Our conversations were highly useful for sharing lessons learned, ideas and opportunities. I’m lucky I had two years in SF to cultivate relationships before moving home to Hawaii. I still go back to SF or NYC almost every month for a week to maintain those relationships and continue building new ones. It’s a cost of living in Hawaii, but that peer aspect is key to my success.”
Feeling lonely? Cultivate your own startup community.
“I’m one of the few venture-backed web startups in Hawaii, so there aren’t many opportunities to partner up with other tech companies,” Monsef says. “But, hopefully I can lead the way and we can have some successful startups pop up here and grow together.” Monsef has participated in a handful of Startup Weekend events and is on the steering committee for Startup Hawaii. He also devotes a good chunk of his time to Nalukai.org, a new organization he formed with an IP / technology lawyer from one of the top Bay Area firms and the former CTO of Lycos (both of whom now live in Hawaii). Through Nalukai, they’re developing the entrepreneurial environment in Hawaii and educating local youth about technology and innovation. “We’ll provide a live/work space to bring successful entrepreneurs from the SF / NYC area to Hawaii to work-away, and while they’re here, we’ll have them interact and mentor our local folks,” Monsef says. “Not only is this great for Hawaii, but it helps me solve one of my issues of not having peers to interact with by bringing them to me, instead of me flying regularly across the Pacific.”
Don’t be afraid to pick up the telephone.
“When you’re all in the same office, you can peek over and see where somebody is at with something,” Monsef says. “When you’re across the world, you either need to bug them with messages or ask them to update you every step along the way. Trust becomes very important.”
So does investing in the right communication tools and platforms. “We use HipChat for group messaging, along with IM and Skype,” Monsef says. “We phone-call each other often. I think I spend a few hours a day on the phone with my cofounder Aaron, sometimes neither of us talking, just working like we’re in the same office.”
Invest in face-time.
“Getting your team together all in the same place for several days at least a couple times a year is key,” Monsef says. “Personalities and humor styles don’t transfer so well over the web, so getting a flavor of things in-person helps the translations online.
“Whenever possible we bring the team together at events or conferences. We also try and do two full company retreats twice per year. It can get a little expensive flying and putting up 12 people for a week, but [rent on] San Francisco office spaces is ridiculously high right now, so we think we balance out more than well compared to renting a big space somewhere.”
Buy a good alarm clock.
“Since we span six timezones it means some of us work odd hours,” Monsef says. “I try to be in full work mode by 6am Hawaii time, so I can catch the majority of the East Coast work day. On the flip side, some of our people in NYC end up working late hours with our West Coast team. I’ve never been much of a morning person, but you adjust.”
Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #WhyHere.
[Image: Flickr user Laszlo Ilyes]