Remote working is all the rage in 2018, with both startups and enterprises increasingly embracing the flexibility that comes with a location-independent workforce. In fact, about 2.9 percent of the total U.S. workforce works from home at least half the time, according to figures from FlexJobs.
Of course, remote working hasn’t always been so popular. In fact, 15 years ago, it was practically unheard of. But that didn’t stop Emsisoft Founder and CEO Christian Mairoll from assembling a team of talent handpicked from around the planet to create the world’s first all-remote antivirus company back in 2003.
Emsisoft continues to operate as a fully remote company to this day. In celebration of Emsisoft’s 15th anniversary, we sat down with Christian to pick his brains and find out what he’s learned about running an all-remote company over the past 15 years. We’re also running a special promotion: for the next 10 days, you can get a one-year license of Emsisoft Anti-Malware Home for just $15!
Why did Emsisoft start out all-remote and why has it stayed that way?
When I founded Emsisoft in 2003, it was just me in Austria and a software development partner in Germany. We quickly realized that we couldn’t do all the work by ourselves, so we decided to expand the team in order to continue to grow as a company.
I personally never liked the idea of asking banks or investors for money as I wanted to maintain the highest level of independence. Due to our very limited income at the time, we didn’t have many options for hiring staff, and hiring in Europe or the U.S. was totally unthinkable from a financial perspective.
Then we found a website called rentacoder.com (later acquired by freelancer.com), which allowed employers to post development projects that could be bid on publicly by freelance developers. Our first hire was a software developer from the middle of Siberia, Russia. He lived in a region where the maximum he could have earned locally was about $300 a month for a full-time role. Guess how excited he was when we offered him a salary that was multitudes higher (yet still a fraction of the cost of hiring a developer in Europe)? That initial hire helped us get the business off the ground without requiring any external funding.
What was originally a financially driven necessity turned into a viable business concept that played an important part in our growth. Fast forward to today, and we are no longer limited to hiring in lower income regions (although we occasionally still do). Hiring from anywhere and everywhere allows us to access the best talent on the planet.
How do you get good people without a face-to-face interview?
I don’t think the process is much different from hiring face to face. First, we review applications to find candidates with skills that match our requirements. Next, we send the best candidates a short list of specific questions pertaining to their area of expertise. Those who provide the best answers are invited for an interview, which typically happens on Skype text chat.
You might think that a lot of people’s personality gets lost in text chats, but I actually see that as an advantage. It helps me rate candidates more objectively based on their skills. Gender, age, race, beliefs, physical handicaps, or location – they play no role at all in my hiring process.
There’s probably also some intuition at play. Whether an interview takes place over text or face to face, I think you can learn to read between the lines of what someone’s saying and get a sense of how they’ll fit into the team. I’m usually able to tell within just a few sentences if someone fits our team culture and is suitable for remote work in general. In most cases, it’s quite obvious if someone feels at home working remotely or expects old-school working environments.
Have you met your employees in person?
Of our 40 team members, I have only met seven in person so far. I haven’t met half of our top-level management team, yet I know I can trust them and see them as close friends, too. I hope we will be able to have a large team meeting at some point in the future.
How does Emsisoft communicate? What tools do you use?
We use a few different tools. Slack for one-on-one conversations and team meetings, a ticket system for project management, and email for when third parties are involved in conversations.
We generally try to avoid phones and video conferencing, as these communication methods don’t provide logs for looking up information later, making them much more difficult to review for anyone who missed the meeting. I also consider them inefficient as they require your full attention for the whole time, unlike text-based communication where it’s possible to type out a quick reply in a different chat window without losing track of the meeting.
Each of our teams (Lab, Product Development, Web Development, Testing, Support, Marketing, and Sales) has their own Slack channels where daily standups, weekly status updates and monthly strategy meetings are held. Anyone in the wider Emsisoft team can participate in the channels, and we encourage cross-department conversations to strengthen the bond between the teams. Guests from other teams are asked to not interfere while team meetings are ongoing, just like you would expect guests in an office building to be unobtrusive when entering a meeting room.
How does being all-remote impact team dynamics?
We are organized in smaller teams of 4-10 people and each team has developed their very own dynamics for different reasons. For example, our largest team is the research lab, which is a mixed bunch of folk from eight countries spanning Western Europe to South East Asia.
Despite coming from very different cultural backgrounds and living in time zones six hours apart, that team has created the strongest internal bond between its members, who sometimes “meet” out of work hours for online games. English is generally the language of choice, but some teams that are mostly made up of members who speak the same language have established internal Slack channels to increase communication speed and efficiency.
Are there disadvantages to not getting face time with your team?
The social component gets cut a bit short at times. Everyone’s focused on working efficiently and there’s not much time for unnecessary fluff, so things can get a bit impersonal if people don’t pay attention to the fact that their colleagues are real humans as well. I think it takes slightly more effort in team building to establish strong team bonds over the internet, but I don’t see it as a major blocker at all. Some of us – including myself – occasionally work from nearby coworking spaces to maintain social contacts with like-minded people.
How are conflicts/disputes resolved?
You’re always going to get different opinions when working in a larger team. We generally try to consider all arguments and then decide on what’s objectively most likely to be the best decision based on the facts we have available to us. Documenting big strategic decisions helps the whole team understand why the decision was made and ensures everyone pulls in the same direction moving forward.
What are the pros of being an all-remote company?
From the company’s side of things, one of the biggest benefits is that we’re not dependent on available skills in a specific region. We can select from a much larger worldwide pool of candidates to find the people that best match our requirements. It’s also much easier for us to hire locals for roles that require native speakers, such as positions in Sales, Marketing and Customer Support. In addition, having staff around the world means we can better serve our customers across different time zones. We’re pretty much available 24/7. Emsisoft never sleeps.
From an employee perspective, the benefits mostly revolve around the flexibility. People don’t need to relocate for their careers, and it’s amazing being able to eliminate the daily commute, which saves a lot of time and money. With the exception of attending team meetings, Emsisoft employees are mostly free to schedule their own working hours, which provides a very high level of personal freedom and work-life balance.
Remote working also allows employees to travel and explore the world without sacrificing their careers. I myself grew up in Austria and moved to New Zealand four years ago. I couldn’t have done that with a locally bound company. Almost half of our team members live in a different country to the one in which they grew up. Digital nomads, so to speak.
What are the cons of being an all-remote company?
The biggest con is obvious: it’s almost impossible to get the whole team physically together in one place since we are literally spread across the entire globe. In fact, one team member recently moved to Antarctica!
Regional cultural differences can also pose a challenge, but I think it would be unfair to put all people of a specific region in the same box. My own experience shows that you can find talent in any part of the world.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
The language barrier can be a problem at times. It’s easy to have a day of work go to waste due to miscommunication, but the fact that we almost exclusively use text chats and tickets has helped us overcome most language issues. For most people, spoken English is much more difficult to learn than written English. A missed word in a phone conversation could mean losing a piece of a vital information, while a written word can be quickly clarified or translated online.
Establishing a high-trust relationship with new team members can be challenging during times of fast growth, as we can’t spend as much time nurturing each individual as much as we would like. Our hires are ultimately based on trust; we don’t monitor each and every move our team members make (although we do use online time-tracking tools to record work hours for payroll purposes).
What makes a good remote worker?
I think the most important skill is self-management. You need to be able to get things done, even if there is no immediate supervision or pressure from your team. There’s definitely the potential to lose focus and motivation when working from home. I think the best way to avoid drifting off mentally is to establish a routine and make sure your work never gets boring.
Time management isn’t just about being able to get your work done on time – it includes establishing a healthy work-life balance. The line between workplace and living room is often as thin as the edge of the work desk, which sometimes makes it difficult to leave the work stuff behind, especially on weekends. Many of our team members identify very strongly with their work. It’s not just what they do for a living – it’s their passion and a big part of their identity – which can make it difficult for them to put their work down.
What are the pros and cons of being organizationally flat?
I think in today’s online era, there’s no more space for steep organizational hierarchies. I have never seen my team members as subordinates or people who are lower in any way. We couldn’t do what we do without those who manage, develop, test, sell, market and support the product. I myself still enjoy being on the frontlines at times, answering customer questions or responding to constructive feedback, especially if it challenges me or the business to get better.
At the end of the day, I just happen to be the one who pays the cheques, but I’m no more or less important than anyone else. Mutual respect is the foundation of the team, and those who have the strongest knowledge and experience in a specific field are typically those who are trusted to make the right calls when it comes to strategic decisions.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who might be thinking about taking their business remote?
Do it fully or don’t do it at all. I don’t think a team can successfully emerge as a remote business if they only implement remote work partially or perceive it as an add-on to an existing local office, as it would create too much friction between worlds. Remote work requires a bit of a different approach, which ideally comes from the leaders and not from outsourcing the cheapest labor jobs.
In fact, I think entrepreneurs should avoid seeing remote work as “outsourcing” in general. “Outsourcing” implies that remote workers exist outside the core of the business. At Emsisoft, we have never even considered outsourcing to low-cost agencies in developing nations because it would collide with our business principles and our aim of providing the best possible customer support in the antivirus industry.
Any predictions about the future of remote working?
I think the era of hearing a lot of oohs and aahs when talking about running a remote business will soon end. Remote working is becoming a normal thing, and I assume that almost all newly founded startups will operate that way. We’ve already seen the success of much larger remote-only organizations such as Automattic (the makers of WordPress), which is made of up about 800 employees. Companies like this are clear proof that a remote-only structure is sustainable and not limited to small teams.
Remote working opens up all sorts of possibilities for achieving a better work-life balance. Increasingly, people are asking themselves: Why do I waste hours on my daily commute? Why do I have to be separated from my family for 80 percent of the time I’m awake? And the answer to both questions is: you don’t have to.
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Remote working is a win-win situation. Remote workers aren’t forced to make the impossible trade-off of sacrificing their personal lives for their careers, while companies can source the best talent from around the world without geographical restrictions. As we celebrate our 15th anniversary, I’m proud to say that Emsisoft is living proof that all-remote is a viable, effective and sustainable business model.