How to Run a Tiny Multinational

Added on by Dave Lougheed.

Here at Strategyzer, we’re made up of roughly 20 people spread across 4 continents, 8 countries, and 5 time zones. Four years ago we decided that from the start building virtual teams of professionals from around the world was the best way to attract talent, limit commuting, and avoid relocation. Could it be that tiny multinationals like ours are the organizational structure of the future?

Strategyzer company-wide meeting across 5 time zones with part of the Toronto team in front of GoTo Meetings.

At Strategyzer we essentially have five teams all over the world striving to build the "SAP of strategy and innovation": the dev team, support team, content team, corporate & event team, and the founders. Distributed teams like ours face obstacles that teams at traditional companies don’t have to worry about. Essential jobs for any business such as communication, staying organized, and building culture are a lot tougher when the team doesn’t work in the same office.

We’ve carefully chosen a set of software tools and organizational routines to help bring our teams closer and make them as successful as possible to overcome these challenges. Here’s a closer look at a few of our biggest challenges and the solutions we’ve chosen:

1 - We need to work closely without being in the same room

Hipchat

Most companies rely on in-person brainstorming and collaborative sessions to solve problems. While we haven’t yet found a tool that can replicate face-to-face communication, the software we’ve chosen gets us most of the way there. We picked Hipchat   because it provides us with instant text messaging, video chat, screen sharing, a searchable history of our conversations, and it lets us exchange ideas visually using GIFs or JPEGs. Our developers rely on Hipchat for instant updates and alerts when any of our cloud-based services have problems. Synchronous and asynchronous conversations in a shared chat room also means fewer discussions are locked away in private email and more of the company can observe and play a role in decision-making.

2 - We need to stay organized across 5 times zones

Trello

Staying organized is a challenge at any company, and even more so when you have  distributed teams. Trello is the cloud-based project management software we picked to help us and it serves as the hub of all of our activity. It allows our product managers to prioritize and assign tasks, and it keeps us organized and focused on the right objectives. Designers, developers, and content creators complete tasks in small chunks, incorporate feedback, and the entire company can monitor progress at a glance. Notifications generated by Trello activity greatly reduce the amount of email sent back and forth, keeping everyone informed and reducing email “chatter”. In addition,  several of our teams rely on Evernote to store and organize knowledge to draw on during our different activities.

3 - We need to build a company culture across borders

The Toronto product development team

Company culture can be described as a common set of values and practices shared by an organization. We knew we had to employ regular company-wide virtual events with video conferencing tools such as Skype, Hipchat, and GoTo Meeting to facilitate culture-building, as a good part of our teams work remotely. Video chatting combined with screen sharing means that we can speak and work as closely as if we were looking over each other’s shoulder in the same room. Our monthly “town hall” meetings are done as one large video GoTo Meeting, enabling us to see faces, tell stories, and of course talk about all the great things we’re building. Watching a coworker actually laugh at your jokes on Skype is more engaging than reading “LOL” in a chat window.

Results?

There are several early indicators that the tools we’ve chosen put us on the right track. First of all, we've survived and thrived for four years. More concretely, Tom, our Director of Technology successfully leads our Toronto-based development team from his home in Slovenia. Our product development (Toronto) and support (Stuttgart and Hamilton, Canada) teams work collaboratively to solve user issues in near real-time. Our content team (Phoenix, Paris, Lausanne, and Zurich) has helped produce Value Proposition Design, an online course, and runs this blog.

While we’ve had early success with globally distributed teams, we still have a long way to go. We are constantly improving Strategyzer, our own tool, to help us with more strategic and less operational issues. We constantly incorporate primary research and analytics into Strategyzer as soon as we have learnings.

Also, when it comes to culture we’re still learning how to celebrate together as an entire team. How can 20 people in different cities go for a beer after a tough project? What about the cross-pollination of ideas and “happy accidents” that happen when employees run into each other in the hallways? These dynamics are harder to recreate with virtual teams. Therefore we try to get the entire company together physically in one location once a year.

One thing is clear, without the right tools, even easy tasks can become difficult. Running a small multinational is far easier with the right tools in the same way that business model design is much easier with the Business Model Canvas and Strategyzer. We wouldn’t be able to grow Strategyzer as smoothly without the tools we’ve chosen.

What tools are we missing out on that you can’t live without?  We’d love to hear from you!