Building and managing remote-first teams – Holly Cardew, founder and CEO of Carted

Microsoft for Startups
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Today’s guest post features an interview between Colin Kinner, founder and CEO of Startup Onramp in Brisbane, Australia and Holly Cardew, founder and CEO of Carted in Sydney, Australia.

Colin: Holly, you’ve been building businesses for more than a decade now. We’ve spoken before about your approach to building remote-first or distributed teams, and it’s great to have this chance to sit down and pick your brains about why this has worked so well for you.

I’d like to start by asking you why you’ve gravitated to this way of thinking about teams.

Holly: I’ve been a remote-first evangelist ever since I first started building businesses.

When I started out it was rare that companies would be thinking about fully distributed teams from day one. For me, it was an incredible opportunity—and competitive advantage—to hire exceptional talent from anywhere in the world. I wasn’t constrained by location.

Right now, we have 19 people in the Carted team, located in nine different cities spanning Europe, UK, North America, India, and Australia. By the end of this year, we’re expecting the team will have grown well beyond this size.

Carted logo

Also, remote work has allowed us to hire a more diverse workforce and allows our team to have better work/life balance. For Carted this has translated to better retention.

Of course, the world has changed a lot over the last decade. Now the focus is less on whether distributed teams can be as successful; we know the answer is yes. We’re more concerned with how to manage those teams, both in the context of work output and culture.

Colin: We’re seeing more companies embracing remote-first. But there isn’t much discussion about the practicalities of making this work, especially as the team grows. Can you share some of the strategies you’ve used at Carted?

Holly: The first priority has to be communication. You have to embed clear communication into all workflows. You also have to work hard to build culture. There are inherently fewer organic moments of connection in a remote team.

At Carted we’ve put people and culture first. One of my first hires at Carted was a Head of People. This was non-negotiable for me in helping to set up best-practice for our team building and culture.

I also think you need to err on the side of over-communicating. We’re often working asynchronously, so we communicate regularly and try to build deeper connection points wherever possible.

Internal communication doesn’t have to be just about work, so we make sure to have some fun and laughs along the way.

Of course, there are some downsides to building a remote team. It’s much harder to create social opportunities with the team, and tougher to build connections that aren't focused solely on the work.

It hasn’t been easy to schedule real-time interactions due to the lack of crossover time between all the continents, especially as the team has grown. But it’s important and we schedule a few regular meetings for the team to be able to overlap in real-time, such as our companywide stand-up every Monday.

Colin: What about hiring? Are there certain types of people who work better in a remote-first environment?

Holly: We’ve learned that it helps to hire people who have worked remotely before, or who are happy to work from home without being in an office.

Holly Cardew, founder and CEO of Carted

My advice to other founders is to try to hire functional teams who will work in a similar time zone, or at least in locations where there is overlap. For example, we have a lot of our engineers in Europe and that works well for them.

Colin: What about culture? Is it harder to build a healthy company culture in remote teams? How have you gone about this?

Holly: We’ve built our culture around the idea of looking out for our Carters at each stage of their employee journey. As a distributed team it’s fundamental that we have practices in place to fill the gaps in what would normally be done via in-person experiences.

For example, we routinely record team meetings so anyone who can’t attend can watch later. This avoids anyone feeling excluded because of their location or personal commitments.

We also like to build and communicate openly and avoid private messaging or small group chats.

Colin: Is there any part of building a team that has to be done in-person?

Holly: What’s worked well for us is to create opportunities to connect in real life. We’ve committed to doing this on a regular basis.

We flew the entire team to Sydney, Australia for an awesome offsite in January. It was so nice to work together in person and be able to brainstorm on a whiteboard with each other. Not to mention the value in eating lunch together, Friday team events and a social outing. These in-person interactions bring so much long-term value and are definitely worth the investment.

Colin: I know you’ve always believed in setting company values. Can you talk about why this has been so important?

Holly: Values are the foundation on which everything else in a company is built: hiring, development, internal and external relationship building, marketing, sales, and, importantly, leadership.

It was crucial for the early team members at Carted that our values were created bottom-up by all of us, rather than top down. It’s also important to us that as the team grows, we reaffirm these values, or if something doesn’t feel right anymore, we commit to making changes.

We first wrote down the beliefs and mantras that were important to us as individuals, those things we uphold in our personal and working lives. Then we laid these values out together and grouped them by overarching themes. Together we voted on the themes that resonated most across the team and our vision for the company. This process of co-creation has resulted in meaningful values that team members are excited to live every day.

For more tips on building a remote-first team and establishing a healthy company culture, sign up now for Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub.