Kimono Labs cofounders Ryan Rowe and Pratap Ranade wanted to boost camaraderie and creativity at their data startup company. So they went big, moving the company’s eight employees to the other side of the world and setting up shop in Tokyo for the entire month of August.
“Working abroad puts a lot of pressure on the team to be creative, while working outside your comfort zone,” Ryan Rowe said. “It creates this intense period where you basically have no distractions other than what you’re trying to accomplish…And you’re getting to know your teammates far more than you would at an office for eight hours a day.”
It’s easier to do with fewer employees and a cloud-based product, the founders acknowledge. But larger companies can also try it, with smaller teams working on a project. And Rowe and Ranade have lots of advice on how to perfect their experiment.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy and we learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t,” Rowe said.
The idea to move abroad for a month came from the founders’ experiences working as consultants. Rowe had worked at Frog Design and Ranade at McKinsey & Company. They often found themselves working on small teams, sharing meals and space, while navigating culture shock for weeks in places like Shanghai or Nairobi.
“It creates this extreme sense of productivity, and you come out of it with an experience that’s really interesting and exciting–and it’s not just about work,” says Rowe, who had been working in Shanghai before he and Ranade started work on the new company.
Indeed, foreign travel was key to the company’s origins. Rowe and Ranade wrote Kimono’s first lines of code at a coffee shop in Vietnam called the Hanoi Social Club. The friends and former roommates had met while studying in separate Ph. D. programs at Columbia University. (Rowe was studying applied math and Ranade was studying applied physics; they both dropped out.) They shared a love of traveling.
“When just going down the street to buy water is a non-trivial activity, it puts you in this state where you’re more open to new ideas,” says Ranade, who is from India and has traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa for work. The duo moved to Silicon Valley when they were selected for Silicon Valley incubator Y Combinator, which helped launch Reddit, Airbnb, and Dropbox.
Kimono Labs launched in January 2014, offering free web-based tools that scrape data from websites and turn that data into application-programming interface, or programming instructions. The company aims to simplify data-grabbing from websites for anyone who lacks coding abilities and those looking to build mobile web applications.
The company grew to more than 20,000 users back in March (they’re bigger now, but stopped disclosing numbers). They discovered that outside of the United States, many of their top users were based in France and Japan. That’s partly how they settled on Tokyo as their first international destination. Japan fit their search for a foreign-enough culture to foster team camaraderie, while giving the company opportunities to connect with its growing audience there.
But Tokyo came with challenges. It’s one of the most expensive cities in the world and tough to find housing for a group of employees. The founders managed to find a house large enough for everyone through Airbnb, but employees had to sleep on bunk beds, without air conditioning in the summer heat. Everyone ate, slept, and worked very closely together those first two weeks.
It was not all smooth-sailing. Team members got homesick. One employee couldn’t take all the closeness and left two weeks early. One employee was eating burgers for breakfast every day. Several employees would seek comfort in any U.S. or western-based movie they could find on television.
Things leveled out in the last two weeks of the trip, when employees spread out into two houses with with air conditioning, giving everyone a little more personal space. Plus, they could walk to a separate office in Shibuya.
Overall, the founders say their month in Japan was a success. While there, the company built and launched a new search and sharing feature for their data-scraping services. They also attracted more users and built deeper connections within the Japanese developer community.
Some of the best moments came from deep, late-night conversations about the future of the company on long walks in the residential area they were staying in, the Omori district. Ranade said the team “did some great creative thinking that refined and honed our strategy and product roadmap.”
“And now, there’s this shared bond and experience, and we still have a pretty tight team as a consequence of that,” Ranade said.
Rowe and Ranade said they plan to try and move the team abroad again, but for a shorter period of time, and they plan to wait another year or for another big milestone.
In their own words, here’s their advice for entrepreneurs looking to duplicate their experiment with a temporary international office:
- Don’t underestimate the importance of comfort foods, especially hot morning beverages.
- Optimize trip duration. For most groups, two to two and a half weeks should work. Three weeks would be our upper bound.
- Divide the team across several houses to be mindful of personal space.
- Remember that extroverts and introverts need different environments to recharge.
- Separate office space and sleeping space.
- Pick a country with a different language, script, and culture to maximize creativity and team bonding.
- Pick locations with low costs of living and good Internet connectivity.
- Air conditioning matters more than you think.