Building a distributed team - My Trip to the Philippines
Fixr.com is what some people call a micro-multi-national, a small company with a foothold on multiple countries: we cater to the US market, have development in Europe (Spain) and a big part of our workforce is in Asia (Philippines).
As a start-up we've pivoted a few times, the last of which is to sharply focus on building a solid community of local services around the core mission of helping consumers find and book local pros in the safest and easiest way. It's an inspiring mission and complex problem.
In December 2011 we saw a tremendous growth in the number of service professionals joining Fixr. Most of the pros who join Fixr (plumbers, magicians, hair stylists, etc.) are not professional writers (nor they need to!). As a part of our service we strive to make their profiles shine in the best possible light, and for that we need to proofread and edit service provider's uploaded content.
An excursionary trip to our local university quickly proved a no-go as a source for an scalable team of high-quality English writers. We have had no problem recruiting top-notch engineering talent, but English skills are very scarce in Spain. With no local resources at hand, we resorted to online marketplaces to build out our team.
We tried most of the crowd-sourcing services out there: Amazon's mechanical turk, eLance, Guru, Freelancer, vWorker and infolancer. We decided to look at +oDesk
because it had a strong community of contractors and in my opinion the best technology for managing remote teams working on recurrent, hourly-paid jobs.
We took a look at http://research.odesk.com/visualizations/country-dashboard/#/compare/false/Philippines/India/United%20Kingdom///Ukraine/United%20States/
and found a surprising discovery: Philippines. Unknown to us at the time, there was a country with 100+ million people, strong work ethos, solid English skills (both written AND spoken) and already entrenched in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry.
In January 2012 we started building our customer service, writing and research teams at oDesk. In about 8 months, with hiring procedures in place, constant skype chat sessions, team-building via virtual hang-outs, company mugs :-) , tons of written documentation and some 30+ team members later it was time to bring the team together to meet in person.
We set out three goals for the trip (in no particular order):
1. Increase engagement of team members. Fixr offers 100% flexible work-time (except for customer service, where we do have shifts), but we found that the more engaged team members are, the more productive they become. Not surprising.
2. Increase productivity: by creating bonus quotas and defining career paths so that team members can grow inside Fixr.
3. Improve our hiring/HR procedures to hire, train and retain the best talent.
The (tight) schedule looked like this:
WED 6:00 - With everything in my backpack, I leave Alicante, Spain for Madrid by train. At 14:00 I take the Madrid-Dubai flight and then Dubai-Manila. The plane from Dubai was almost full of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), and I must have been one of the few non-Filipinos on that plane.
THU 16:00 - I arrive in Manila and
a micro-SIM card with my Filipino 3G phone # and internet coverage are waiting for me at the airport. Filipino/a's are great virtual assistants, and I can attest to that after arriving in Manila! Kudos Trish!
FRI - All-day meetings with team leaders.
SAT - All team members have arrived (Philippines have 7000+ islands, and some of the team members do not live in Metro Manila). On Saturday night, we have a very nice dinner and chill out later.
SUN - More meetings and a virtual hangout with the team in Spain. I wish we could have had the whole team in the same room! Meetings end at SUN evening.
MON - Plane leaves on MON midnight so instead wandering around Manila I decided to go countryside and spend MON doing two things: 1) Running 12 Km on the countryside to get a feel of how life is outside Manila and 2) Hike an active volcano... I made it to the airport in one piece just in time! :-)
While on my way back to Europe, I did a mental recollection of the trip:
* While nothing beats in-person interactions; you can still create a very cohesive team and company culture around online interactions. With tools like skype, join.me
, odesk, etc. you can go a long way. MySQL did it, and I hear Github has 2/3rd of its workforce in a distributed environment.
* Man, what a great team we have! Super hard-workers, disciplined and aligned with the company. While those attributes are a must-have for any start-up my experience there has be very positive and full of positive anecdotes.
At a personal level; I left Philippines imprinted with the thought that as a country they have a bright future; as long as a) they don't suffer recurrent major disasters and b) their politicians do the right thing (easier said than done). It may be a long way, but an English-speaking population with increasingly better education is a big asset. Very exciting!