Challenges in Operating International Offices in the Early Days and How We Are Solving Them at Passbase
In May 2019, sitting in the shared offices of Seedcamp in East London, we came to an understanding → we have grown out of our office space. We had started receiving polite nudges to move to our own space and in all honesty, we were squeezing the maximum out of the 4 tables that formed our company, with up to 8 people working there at times.
However, to us this was not just a matter of finding a room around the corner, but rather a question of where do we want to put our roots down. The team had moved to London to be close to our first investors and leverage their support system as much as possible, but other than that, there was nothing really holding us there. And with the uncertainty of Brexit, our minds were already prepositioned to look for alternatives.
Fast-forward 10 months and we are now an organisation of 22 people, split between Berlin (Product & Engineering) and New York (Sales & Operations). With a relatively small, but growing organisation like ours, the latter fact often raises questions like “Do you spend all of your time on the phone?”, “How does this impact your company culture?” and “Why did you choose these two cities?”. With this article, I want to shed some light into the reasoning behind this choice, the challenges it creates and why we believe it has absolutely been the right decision.
Reasoning behind the Berlin / New York split
In the beginning we received a lot of feedback from investors and partners that we should just build the company on the West Coast. And most likely if we had not gone to Seedcamp, we would have done that. But after spending 6 months in London, our rationale was following:
Mathias and Felix are graduates of the Technical University of Munich, which gives them unique access to some of the top industry and talent networks in the country. Berlin is not only at the forefront of the German tech ecosystem, but in a great position for attracting skilled colleagues from all over the world, with a high % of the population speaking English, affordable accommodation and rich culture.
Berlin is home to some of the leading investors in Europe. During our time in London we were lucky to get to know many of them and were excited to continue the relationship further. Our later partnership with Lakestar is a clear testament to the benefits of that. And at the same time, our awesome friends at Eniac are helping us on the other side of the pond.
Passbase was inspired by and built with GDPR in mind. The framework epitomizes our mission to give data ownership back to individuals. In order to understand the nooks and crannies of the policy, it is beneficial to have a permanent presence in the epicenter of it.
It is no secret, that compared to Silicon Valley, it is also much more cost-effective to maintain an engineering team in Germany. Over the past couple of years we have seen a wave of companies starting to build teams outside of the Bay Area while maintaining a presence on the ground through investors, partners or small sales units. Indeed, we still go there quite often, but the hassle of an occasional cross-country flight does not outweigh the benefits such a structure creates both for the team and the company.
Even though GDPR is a European initiative, we believe it will become a global standard. This can already be seen with the development of the California Privacy Act. As an organisation, we want to be considered experts on the matter and introduce European privacy standards to the United States and beyond.
But why New York and not San Francisco? Easy, it’s the three extra hours. A 6-h time difference enables us to have half a work day of overlap between the two offices compared to a mere couple of hours if we were based on the West Coast. Plus in the early phases we still fly back and forth quite a lot, so it makes that part easier as well.
Challenges and what we are doing about it
In the early days, we would do everything together. Facing a problem, we brainstormed and agreed on a solution with the entire team. The office move was really the first time we had to establish process and create a clear responsibility structure.
In general, I’d split the challenges that emerged into three categories:
Let’s address these one by one.
Moving away from the same room and not being able to just tap on someone’s shoulder to ask a question is difficult. Not only does it become a burden to discuss problems & brainstorm, people need to take responsibility for areas where they are not necessarily in charge. On our end, Dave (COO) is looking after the US office, Felix (CPO) runs Europe and Mathias (CEO) splits his time between the two. Hence, there is a central individual through whom the bigger plan items get shared. This is key to making a cross-continent office structure work.
For daily information sharing, we use written standups in Slack, consisting of bullet points of yesterday’s activities, today’s to-do’s and any blockers. Moreover, there is a 15-minute standup with the non-engineering team-members with a strict 2-minute time limit per person. This has proved difficult as we scale and we are now looking to move to geographical stand-ups followed by a 15–30 minute executive meeting. On Fridays, we also run a 1h all-hands meeting where we reflect on everything that happened in the week.
Then there are departmental level meetings, which in the case of our engineering team involves a biweekly sprint planning and a retrospective. Sales and product departments stay in touch with a weekly customer feedback session & both sales and operations have a weekly sync on their own. Rest of the meetings are ad-hoc.
There is a fine balance between too many meetings and not enough. In order to ensure that productivity is not lost, tools like written standups, individual time-limits and focus time (a block of time during the day reserved solely for deep work) have proven extremely useful. Clearly, we are still in the process of tuning our system, but the current structure seems to work for us.
Perhaps the most important, but complicated information to share is customer feedback. This is especially true in teams like ours, where there is a geographical split between engineering and sales. Business development representatives would hear a problem and push engineers individually to solve the problem quickly without realising how this affects the rest of the priorities.
This is why we have tried to remove that barrier by hosting a support Slack channel for prospective and existing customers, as well as both our sales & engineering representatives. The communication channel has received amazing feedback and is one of our most successful steps towards creating a community, as we have seen first instances of customers helping each other.
Moreover, Notion has become our best friend. It is an awesome and playful tool to record any training materials, bug reports, and feature requests. We use it as sort of a combination of an internal wiki, Trello and Dropbox. This means that we are always aware of progress and responsibility across divisions. Furthermore, it has pushed us to an easy-to-use PRD (Product Requirements Document) structure and ensures that details are always recorded and accessible for those who need them.
How do you maintain a united team front if you split them up in such an early phase? Well, first of all, you need to have clear and well-defined values. Going through value association and combining these into actionable practices was one of my first moves in this organisation. This later evolved into V1 of our culture guide, used both for interviewing and decision making. We recently hosted our first company off-site, where we went over the document with the entire team and checked whether it was still applicable to what our day-to-day looks like and what we stand for. The good news is that the first try, created by our early team of 5, needed just a bit of tweaking while the core remained in place. The updated version will be launched shortly and will set the tone for the next 100+ hires.
One of our core values represents that everyone has a voice, no matter position and rank. This is why we highlight, challenge and celebrate all of our completed projects in weekly all-hands. Such behaviour brings the team together and aligns everyone on a common mission. This value holds also beyond just our core-team. Individuals are encouraged to build open-source projects and to dedicate time from their routine to contribute moonshot ideas supporting the evolution of Passbase.
In the era of remote work, running a dual office might seem like a piece of cake, but a starting organisation cannot allow any challenges to be left unaddressed. As our move happened so early in the journey, perhaps it’s gone so well exactly because of that. It has taught us to operate independently with a fallback of the team being at the end of your fingertips. It has become a part of our culture.
What have you seen to be effective tools for running an early-stage venture with international offices?
If you are interested in joining our team, you can find out more about open opportunities here.