GoGo Remote Founder, Sheila Proteau, speaks with Jordi Giménez, co-founder of Mobile Jazz, about their decision to move to a completely remote workforce and how they manage that workforce.
SP: Tell me about Mobile Jazz. How and why did you start the company?
JG: My partners, Stefan, Alex, and I met while working at another company as freelancers. We thought it would be a good idea if we could try to bundle our services, merge our experiences and sell ourselves as a company rather than working solo. So that’s how we started.
In the beginning, we were just aiming towards getting work for ourselves; it was not ambitious at all! We were not looking so much for the money, we were looking more towards the happiness side of our jobs. We wanted to improve our jobs, have nice relationships with our customers, have maybe just a few customers who we could work closely and treat them very well. So because of this, I think we made something that was different from other companies.
SP: That’s very unusual already! Most people start out looking at money as the primary goal.
JG: Exactly. We thought if we offered our services as a company, maybe people would be willing to pay more. But our primary goal it was looking for stability that you know the three of us could model and others work and kind of be able to go on holidays without interrupting clients’ work these kind of things that when you’re solo it’s a little bit more complicated. So this is when we started getting more work than we could handle. We started contacting friends for help; it was very organic. We never thought we were going to hire people. It was more like, okay we have more work, I have a friend he could come in and help temporarily. And then it happened that it was not so temporary!
I don’t know exactly how many people we have, but I think we’re around twenty. So we’ve been slowly growing. It’s steady work now and we have many repeat customers.We have customers that come and go depending on projects but also we have customers that are on a retainer and we do continuous work with them.
SP: So is your main service that you provide building apps?
JG: Yes, exactly. Building mobile and web apps. That is the main thing we offer. We started mainly as an engineering company building iOS and Android apps. That’s why we are called Mobile Jazz.
Later, customers would say, “Okay, you built the app, but I would also like to have a marketing website to show our customers the app.” So we decided to add websites to our services. So, again, it was a little bit organic. We started hiring designers for these websites, and we started hiring web people and also backend side developers. Eventually, all of this crystallized and we started offering all of these services. Not only marketing websites but building web applications, models for anything you could imagine such as social networks or any kind of marketing tools.
SP: When you started out, you had an office and only some of your employees worked remotely. What was your philosophy regarding remote workers in the beginning and how has that changed over time?
JG: We’ve always been remote friendly, but we had the idea that working in an office in the same place was beneficial for things like sharing thoughts and working together and also having a space for clients to come over. My business partner, Stefan, is German, so he used to travel a lot. So we were remote friendly in the sense that we could work from home every now and then. We had an office but it was not compulsory to work there. We didn’t have a fixed schedule.
As the team grew, we started realizing that if we limited ourselves to Barcelona, we would have a limited resource pool. So we started trying to basically hire people from anywhere. We have now gone a little bit back from that decision and now require people to have some overlap in the time zones. We’re looking for people working mainly in European time zones because it is where we are and it is where our customers mainly are. So it makes sense for communication. We tend to not hire people from Asia or Australia or the US West Coast because the time difference is too big.
“I remember one day going to the office just to open the door for the cleaner because nobody was there to let her in! That’s when we realized, it’s stupid to have an office.”
When you work together as a team, you need several hours of overlap. With clients, it’s not so much of an issue because you generally need only half an hour or one hour for follow-up meetings.
So it just happened gradually that, since working from home was so great and we were not requiring people to go to the office, we just stopped going to the office. The office was empty many days. I remember one day going to the office just to open the door for the cleaner because nobody was there to let her in! That’s when we realized it’s stupid to have an office. Something’s wrong here when the cleaner comes to clean and there’s nothing to clean! So at that moment, I thought — okay it’s time.
That happened last April (2018). We’d been operating with an office for six years and even during those six years, we had people working full-time from Italy, from Seville, which is on the other side of Spain, or from Germany and Austria. So we already had a lot of people full-time out of the office.
However, now that we’ve closed the office, there is something nice happening. We used to have these two groups of people — people in the office and people not in the office — so you had to always make sure that the important conversations happened online so that everyone was involved and that the decisions were made together so the remote people didn’t feel left out. Now, not having the office, everyone’s remote and it’s not such problem anymore because there’s no choice. We have to make this effort consciously and it doesn’t always happen so that’s a nice side-effect of being full remote. [/padding]
SP: What are some of the challenges that you have faced feeling being fully remote?
JG: Well, not having a shared space is a challenge in itself. There are things like team bonding, chatting over beers or at lunchtime or coffee break. This doesn’t happen naturally now. You have to enable it in some way.
For example, now we do things such as a weekly “all hands” meeting with everyone. We do a combination of news — for example announcing your projects, new clients, new team members — but we also try at least half of the time to make it more like demonstrations — for example, talk about things that I learned this week or showing something that I built this week. And then we do rounds and everyone tries to share something. It can even be something not work-related like “I learned how to cook this dish” or “I went on holidays and here are a few photos for you to see”. So it doesn’t need to be especially work-related. It is more like a bonding activity.
SP: So it’s more like a coffee break where everybody’s sitting around talking.
JG: Exactly, and it’s everyone in the company, and we kind of nudge everyone to participate and to share something. It’s a nice activity because you get to know everyone a little bit. You get to know more the human side, not just the work side. We also do random one-on-one calls. Every week we pair people randomly and we schedule a short call and we just talk about anything not work-related.
SP: That’s excellent! I like that idea
JG: Yes, I learned it from, I think it was Zapier. They do that every day. So we borrowed many ideas from other remote companies. Most of us have read the Basecamp book “Remote”, so we’re all trying to improve.
Also, we do weekly teaching lessons and roundtables where we have one person from the team or sometimes a friend of the company do courses. It could be something around development like design practices or marketing but it also could be things not work-related.
SP: Like effective communication or emotional intelligence?
JG: Right, things like that. We even do photography courses, coffee tasting, beer tasting — things not work-related at all. Yes, we’ve done crazy stuff!
SP: So what are some of the tools that you use to allow your team to collaborate and stay productive?
JG: For live communication, we use Slack. We also use the whole Google suite, so we use Google Meet for meetings and we use Gmail and Calendar to keep everyone in sync. We use Asana for project management or any management actually. So everything that needs to be done in the company is on an Asana card.
SP: Have you always used those tools or have you switched over time?
JG: We didn’t use Asana right in the beginning but started early on. Before that we used Trello, but overall we’ve not made big changes. Before Slack we used HipChat but they had some technical difficulties and we couldn’t afford to have it go down because, if your chat service is not working, it’s your business. It’s very expensive when thirty people are not working.
SP: I worked remotely for ten years, then I went to the corporate world, and now I’m back to working remotely and I would never go back. But there are challenges. Do you do you anticipate that this movement is going to continue to grow?
JG: Yes, definitely. I see the trend continuing. Even big companies are now starting to offer things like “home office for a day per week” and I think this is just going to continue. Because in big cities commute time is a problem and cities are more and more congested. The price of housing is going through the ceiling in many cities, so people have to move farther out and so commuting is a growing problem. In small cities or towns, maybe you cannot access the right kind of job so you have to relocate, and this is a problem. Maybe in the U.S. it’s not such a problem because I think there is more of a culture of relocation, but in Europe is a big issue. Relocating far from your home isn’t a thing and people just don’t want to move too much.
SP: Do you have a remote work policy or guidelines?
JG: We’re about to publish a guide hopefully in the next few weeks, but right now we don’t. What we do is talk often about this topic and we have a working system that kind of gets you in the process. But still we have nothing written down, it’s more verbal. Also we don’t know exactly what are the best practices; we’re experimenting still a lot .
SP: You’re figuring it out as you go.
JG: Yes. We’re about to publish this guide, and we’re also probably going to introduce mentorship in the company. When a new person comes to the company, we’re going to pair this person with someone who’s been in the company for longer so they can introduce him or her to the culture, to the ways of remote working.
We’re aware, for example, that remote working has some specific challenges. For example, you have to do sports. It’s a very important thing.
JG: Yes, like physical activity. Any kind of exercise. We are not obliging people but we’re making them aware, that if they don’t move from home the whole day, there are potential issues, both physical and mental because you’re not socializing, you’re not talking to people, you’re not exercising. So going out of home is something you have to think more about.
SP: Yes, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and just be in your little workspace.
JG: Exactly! You don’t even think about this when you have an office because you have to leave home every day and you have colleagues there. You talk, you have coffee, and you maybe have beers after work, so it’s a social environment. When you’re at home and you’re always behind the screen, you still need that social interaction. So this is a challenge and you have to be aware of it and you have to work on it.
Also having a good workplace is important. You can’t work on your couch all day, you need a proper chair because your back and your hands are going to hurt after a while. You have to have proper equipment.
SP: Do you feel large corporations will embrace and adopt the remote work movement more going into the future? And do you think it’s detrimental to an organization if they don’t?
JG: Yes and yes! I think offering flexibility is always good for the employees so, at some point, it will be somewhat mandatory because other companies will offer it. Of course, there are some kinds of work where you have to be there, like if you work at a hospital. But there are many things you can still do at home even if you work at a hospital.
Flexibility in schedules is also another component, so maybe you still have to go to an office but you can go at different times and it’s not hurting anyone.
For big companies, I think it can be detrimental definitely. If you don’t offer remote work options, your competitors will get the good talent.
SP: I recently read an article from a company which said if you’re only relying on talent within a 50 kilometer radius or 100 kilometer radius, what about all the talent that’s out there in the rest of the world? You’re losing out on all that talent.
SP: So what advice would you give to a company or an organization that is considering a remote work policy?
JG: I would say make sure you’re not a control freak. You have to trust your employees, that they’re going to work even if they’re at home, and work at their own pace. If someone doesn’t work, you will notice, so there’s no need to control.
So you can just try it with some of the employees or you can try it a few days a week. It doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing’ but you can somehow make a pact with the employees and try it out and then gradually grow it if you feel comfortable with it. Also, very important, the processes of the company have to be adapted. You may have written processes but there are also many unspoken processes that need to be documented. They need to be online.
You also need to offer the right tools for your employees. You need to offer a chat room for people to communicate. You may need to offer things like a VPN if you have an intranet. So all of this has to be in place.
But it’s not only about the tools; it’s also about the company culture and the company processes.
For example, you have to understand that, when you’re at the office, some of your colleagues may not be there and that’s fine. And you have to understand that maybe they work in a different time zone or on a different schedule and that’s fine too. Or they might have kids and maybe they are with their kids at the moment and that’s fine. So some things need to be more asynchronous and some things need to be more online. So it’s not an easy process for established companies that have very traditional processes. But it is feasible and there are often benefits.
SP: Are your staff ‘employees’ or are they contract?
JG: They’re contract mostly.
SP: So do you measure their performance based on results, where you just say “here’s a project and it needs to be done by this date” and as long as they get it done it’s all good?
JG: I mean in the end, we’re a team and we work very closely. So it’s not so much that we just give them a contract and after a few weeks they come back with the result. It is more like we work every day together and you see who’s working and who’s not. You know who’s unusually slow. So the lack of trust comes when a person fails repeatedly for no apparent reason.
But very often, you know what the person can achieve in a certain amount of time, and if a person eventually doesn’t produce as much work that he or she used to, then there might be something that you want to be aware of and you want to do something about it. Because we’re not machines. We might have personal problems. The thing is, this can also happen in an office, but people have this idea that if you’re sitting at a computer for eight hours a day, then you’re fine. Yet this has nothing to do with productivity.
So productivity, of course, you have the monitor somehow, but not very closely. I believe more in giving people autonomy and if you realize something’s odd then you look into it. And it might not be that the person is trying to trick you, it’s very often that there’s another problem.
SP: I loved reading about your company on your website. It’s wonderful to hear how organically your company grew, that you really didn’t set out for it to be what it has become.
JG: Actually we’ve tried not to grow too much. In the beginning. It was our decision to have just a few customers and treat them well and have this strong relationship with them. We felt that when you grow too much you have to let go and you cannot be on top of everything. You cannot maintain these close relationships. So we decided twenty people was the right size and we’re trying not to grow too much more than that.
It doesn’t mean we cannot grow more but we’re trying to maintain the current structure of the company. We’re trying to maintain the current relationships we have with our customers and we feel that, if we keep growing, this would dilute things a little bit. We would have to change the company structure, have middle management, and it gets more bureaucratic. So then you don’t have such close relationships and there are a lot more problems and headaches. So, yes, we decided this is the right size. It works for us. We’re all happy.
SP: So what happens if you start getting more demand?
JG: Well obviously the first instinct is to hire more people and grow like hell. What happens actually when you do that is you hire the wrong people because you’re hiring in a rush and then the results are not so great. So what we try to do is grow very slowly. We hire one person every month or two and only when we find the right people. Of course, you can limit demand as well by selecting the customers that you feel better working with. Sometimes it’s chemistry — you see that it is going to work and sometimes you see it’s not. So we’re trying to choose our customers carefully because we also want our employees to have the best and most interesting work. If you get work and people don’t like it, they don’t want to work for you. So projects have to be kept interesting.
SP: So that leads me to another question. The people that you hire, how do you find them?
JG: Of course, we have a jobs page, and people hear about us in blogs like yours, for example. But we also hire a lot by referrals. We get referrals from customers or referrals from our current contractors. We also get our clients this way, so we don’t do a lot of active sales. People come to us because they’ve heard through word of mouth.
SP: Jordi I really appreciate your time today, that was excellent. It was refreshing talking to you. I’m sure we’ll be in touch again.
Watch a video of the interview: