November 28, 2016
Earlier this month we did something we’ve never done before at Saent: we met in person. Saent is a fully remote team, operating from half a dozen countries and even more time zones. Until walking into our shared AirBnB apartment in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago, cofounder Tim Metz was the only team member who had previously met everyone else at Saent face-to-face. So it was a pretty momentous decision for our young startup to fly the entire full-time core team over 18,207 miles from three different continents to meet in New York City for a week. Here’s what happened.
The underlying reason for getting together was to finally meet in-person and build trust as a team, but the context was a conference we’d been invited to attend. Occasional face-to-face meetings are something we believe hold a ton of value for a remote team like ours, but bringing together people from so many far flung corners of the globe -- and to one of the most expensive cities on the planet -- doesn’t come cheap. Getting everyone together was something we definitely wanted to do, but was now the right time? Could we justify the cost at this moment? An invitation to present Saent to attendees in the demo pit at The Next Web: Momentum conference provided the justification we needed. Our retreat would always have been a “working vacation,” but now our visit to New York could pull “double duty” -- we’d all get to meet and work together in person, and we’d be able to network and sell at one of the world’s premier tech conferences. We wanted to make sure our week was productive, so before we even booked our trains and flights, we started a shared Google Doc to discuss what we wanted to get out of the week. Three common goals emerged:
We scheduled our days around those themes -- work time and play time. Functionally, working together, in the same room in New York would be very different from a normal week at Saent, but on a philosophical level, we made sure to stay true to our core beliefs. We built plenty of time for breaks into the schedule, and we tried to balance productivity and rest, work and socializing.
For our first full day together (Tuesday), Tim had asked us each to prepare a short presentation around the following questions:
The goal wasn’t so much to get to know each other better -- we’d do that over the course of the week -- but to set the tenor for the rest of the week. What are we good at? What do we need to improve? What can we work on now while we’re here in the same room together? What those presentations revealed was something that we hadn’t counted on during our prep in the Google Doc a couple of weeks ago. Before we could talk about the specifics of product and marketing, we needed to step back and have a conversation about what Saent is at its core. What vision drives Saent? Our expectations for the week were simply that we’d make the most of our time and emerge at the end with more clarity on what we’re building and a stronger team committed to making that happen. In this moment, that meant being flexible and scrapping our plans for something else. That’s what we did. We spent Tuesday afternoon talking about Saent’s vision. The conversation was wide ranging and sometimes difficult. We didn’t always agree and at times it felt like we were going in circles. Indeed, in the end we landed pretty close to where we started. But the journey to get back there gave us all a better understanding of what Saent is and why we’re doing what we’re doing. Of course, we’d had discussions about our vision before at Saent. But this was our first chance to include everyone (including a new team member who hadn’t been part of the previous discussions), in the same room. Conversations like this one are full of emotion and nuance that is simply lost when you mediate everything through a screen. Being in the same physical space allowed the dialogue to have a level of depth that we likely could not have achieved otherwise. Communication became a theme of the week. It was something we relished in being able to do face-to-face for the first time, opening up new ways for us to communicate with each other, and it was something we realized we need to get better at when we’re physically apart. Good communication is essential for the success of any remote team, and while we’ve gotten pretty good at it, we realized there are definitely areas for improvement. This was something that revealed itself to us because were were able to come together and contrast our day-to-day virtual communication with the week’s in person communication.
Tuesday was exhausting -- in a good way! -- and we needed to do something to mentally and creatively recharge. So we left our Brooklyn pad, piled onto the A train, and headed into Manhattan for dinner. Team bonding activities are how we ended almost every day of our week in New York. Dinner on Tuesday, a night time bike tour through lower Manhattan on Thursday, the One World Trade Center observatory on Friday. We didn’t get any “work” done during these moments, but they might be the most valuable things we did all week.
These are the informal moments that remote teams lack. Our team doesn’t usually get to have random conversations in the office kitchen, we don’t get to grab lunch together, and weekly team happy hours aren’t something we can really do. For all the benefits of working remotely -- the focus, the flexibility, the autonomy, the balance -- we miss some of the real life connection that an office structure provides. The random collisions and candid conversations where friendships are forged and ideas bloom. The times we spent together in New York outside of work allowed our team to have some of those moments. We got to learn about each other as people, to break bread together and shoot the breeze in ways that were personal and authentic. These were moments that brought the Saent team closer together and I have no doubt that we’ll work better together in the future because we were able to have that time.
We spent a lot of time on the philosophy of Saent and getting to know each other, but we also did real work on Saent the product and the business. It can be tempting to treat a remote team retreat like a vacation. After all, the most valuable thing you accomplish might be the personal team bonding that happens. But bringing everyone together provides opportunities to do work in ways that aren’t always possible for remote teams.
Wednesday was the conference. This was our first experience formally pitching Saent to large groups of customers in person. Ultimately, it was a very productive day for us. We were able to refine and hone our product pitch, make some valuable connections, do some price research (“How much would you pay for this product” was a favorite question we’d ask people at our table), and we even sold some Saent buttons. That wasn’t something we were planning on doing, but when people started asking if they could buy our demo units, we figured out a way for them to pay us on the spot. Thursday and Friday we treated like regular work days. We turned the AirBnB apartment into an office on Thursday, breaking up into teams to discuss marketing and sales strategy, hardware and firmware updates, and shipping logistics for our second button production run. On Friday, we devoted the entire day to product, talking about our 2017 roadmap and our vision for the future of Saent. The unplanned company vision discussion we’d had a couple of days earlier was immensely valuable as we dug into specifics around product and marketing. It gave us a needed baseline to make sure we were always on track. We could constantly ask: “Are we being true to the vision?” and make sure we always were.
So was it worth it? From my perspective, the answer is a resounding yes. Even if we hadn’t gotten any value out of the conference, and even if we’d left our strategy meetings without any clear picture of what Saent’s next year will look like, it would still have been worth our time. In just a week together, we were able to:
Getting the team together in person allowed us to treat each other as complete people. It’s not that we treated each other poorly before -- far from it. But the time together has brought our views of each other into sharper focus. We learned that Tim was a skateboarder in his rebellious youth, that Maggie once spent a summer making cheese, and that Kyle used to sell elevators for a living. These may seem like small things, but we now know a little bit better the people behind the screens, and I think our work together will be stronger for that.