Promoting startup culture in times of remote work: a challenge for founders

Mihai Cristea 05/01/2021 | 13:53

While some 50 percent of employees in large companies are expected to return to their offices by mid-2021, founders of startups are dealing with a myriad of challenges while trying to grow their operations. Fully remote work is proving more efficient from a cost perspective, but building a company culture and integrating new people into the team to support development is proving tricky for many startup owners.

By Ovidiu Posirca

 

Remote work is embedded in the culture of tech startups, and some are looking at creative ways to harness team spirit while keeping everyone safe. Ever since the first restrictions aimed at containing the pandemic were imposed in March, companies of all sizes have had to accelerate the digitalization of their processes, and that has resulted in working from home becoming mainstream.

Startups are more flexible and agile, so jumping on the remote work boat has been easier for them. Some have continued to attract new funding rounds during the pandemic.

“We’ve been seeing teams in our portfolio working fully remote and generating good synergies. For the time being, we are happy because the companies are growing and generating visible results, including raising more money at bigger valuations,” Sergiu Rosca, founding partner of GapMinder VC, tells BR.

Sergiu Rosca, Gapminder VC

However, the leadership test for founders will be to pass the culture of their startup to new team members. Transmitting these values solely through screens may turn out to have a limited impact in the long run.

“A strong startup has a strong team, and its members have complementary skills but share the same vision and values,” Rosca adds.

 

Lessons from local startups on going fully remote

BR spoke to several founders about their experience in managing their startups since March. They talked about the accelerated shift to remote work and some of the challenges they faced in promoting the company culture and sustaining its growth path. Working from a remote location was nothing new for IT professionals, but developing a startup with team members who are scattered across the city or country was unexpected for many founders.

“I think the beginning of the pandemic was the hardest to overcome. We started the year with lots of plans and we got to March and realised that everything we had been hoping to achieve and work on in 2020 would have to change,” says Andrei Avadanei, CEO of Bit Sentinel, a cybersecurity startup. As the health crisis hit, the startup was hiring new people and looking to move into a bigger office. The first month was the hardest because the company had to add a new layer of communication, while employees were also adjusting to their new home offices. Fast forward to November, Bit Sentinel got its new office space, beta launched a new product and founded a new division supporting small and medium-sized enterprises.

“The downside is that it gets a little complicated to connect with the team. You can use all kinds of online channels, but it doesn’t feel very ‘human’ and furthermore, when hiring a new employee, it takes more time to train and align them within the team. We’ve hired people at Bit Sentinel during this period and we saw first-hand how things changed,” he adds.

Andrei Avadanei, Bit Sentinel

In early November, the startup behind the VoxiKids virtual clinic was on track to raise EUR 290,000 in fresh funding through SeedBlink, the equity crowdfunding platform. The startup quickly adapted to coronavirus restrictions as the team was already using management tools to improve daily workflows.

“Basically, we have moved everything online: scrum meetings, brainstorming, giving and receiving feedback – everything turned into a better and more agile process,” AnaMaria Onica, CEO and co-founder of Speakquest, tells BR.

She says that one of the biggest challenges was to keep everybody focused and engaged. As CEO, Onica had to understand the needs of each team member and help them even in a digital environment.

“But the most challenging thing was to make smart business decisions and align the company’s vision to the new social context. We can say that we have managed to pivot successfully during this period and even to update our mission and vision,” says the CEO.

In the early days of the pandemic, the team behind VoxiKids worked even harder and progressed faster in certain areas. Onica says this was happening in the beginning because they feared that working online would impact deadlines. Since then, the startup has adopted a work style that doesn’t impact the quality of its product.

The co-founder says that the social aspect of the company was the first to be impacted by remote work. Then there was the challenge of recruiting the right people in line with the startup’s vision.

“We are a friendly and united team and we miss socialising and team buildings, but we do manage to have some interactive and fun moments online from time to time. The main challenge in recruiting during this period has been finding good professionals who also resonated with our project. Fortunately, we have good connections in the IT field – we’ve stayed connected to former colleagues or collaborators – and that helped us find the people we needed,” says Onica. Going forward, the CEO suggested that remote work could become challenging to manage as the team grows. She adds that new ways must be found to keep team members connected to each other without losing sight of the company’s mission and vision.

Bogdan Iordache, founder and CEO of Apiary Book, a provider of SaaS solutions for beekeepers, says that video conferencing helped him communicate more easily with the startup’s customers and partners and take part in events around the world.

Apiary Book stuck to its 2020 roadmap despite the health crisis, and the startup was able to increase its user base, launch new products, and close a new funding round.

“Remote work brings an increase in productivity and a reduction of costs, things that are very important for a startup like Apiary Book,” Iordache tells BR. The startup aims to raise EUR 150,000 through SeedBlink and expand on the European and North American markets in 2021.

For Cassa Software, the startup using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning for online accounting operations, the move to remote work was no challenge.

“The beginning of the pandemic and the quarantine measures from March until today have challenged us to work harder, develop along with our clients, introduce new functions, and improve the app to make the service more efficient. It may sound strange, but I am convinced that the pandemic has motivated many people to work harder to keep their businesses, workplaces, clients, and employees,” Cornel Fugaru, the startup’s co-founder and CEO, told BR.

Cornel Fugaru, Cassa Software

However, Fugaru suggested that remote work doesn’t bring substantial benefits for startups. He says that in-person interaction is required for startup teams that can be young and inexperienced.

“The beginning of each startup has to mean communication, exchange of ideas, quick suggestions, and active involvement in different business processes, especially when we’re talking about building a sales department, for instance,” he explains. “When people don’t know each other well, the team’s remote collaboration cannot bring tremendous results,” he adds. His startup is looking to raise EUR 100,000 through SeedBlink.

In early spring, Alex Malureanu, co-founder and CMO of Ascendia, and ed-tech company, had to talk to his team about the emerging health crisis.

“We got everyone together and told them that a lockdown was coming and that it would take a lot of time to recover. Fear took over of course, but as I said, it was early, and we bounced back. Around that time, we also started developing an e-learning course on COVID-19 and then offered it for free to all our client companies,” Malureanu told BR. The company has developed a digital platform that can help teachers create interactive lessons. He says that some 2,100 new teachers have been signing up monthly to create lessons with Ascendia’s LIVRESQ platform.

Regarding remote work, he says that even under normal market conditions this comes naturally for an e-learning firm.

“Commuting times are eliminated, expenses are lowered, and there’s also improved personnel satisfaction and retention. But we are not living in normal times; we are in a crisis. The pandemic is putting a lot of pressure on employees and social distancing measures are not supporting their mental health either. We need to address that first,” the Ascendia co-founder argues. Currently, the company is looking to attract a EUR 1 million investment to take its teaching platform global.

The startup Plant an App had digitalized its internal processes way before the pandemic hit, as most of its employees are technical people, including engineers and sales specialists with strong digital backgrounds.

“If anything, the pandemic actually pushed us to optimise our digital solution stack, gain more insight into how the business was running, and be more cohesive as a technology company, both internally and externally,” Bogdan Litescu, the CEO of Plant an App, told BR. The startup has listed on equity crowdfunding platform Republic.co, aiming to raise up to USD 1 million in funding.

“Even though we have the technology side covered, we must admit that we took quite a big hit on the human side. Sharing friendly moments together – inside and outside the office – is a big part of our company culture, and company culture is a big part of our success. Remote work did disable some important fun elements, such as being able to share a beer after work, spontaneous jokes, being able to spend a casual break together and have a nice, natural conversation,” says Litescu.

Bogdan Litescu, Plant an App

The startup CEO thinks that companies are now more aware of the fact that there are plenty of tools that can help them automate and scale processes faster. However, he suggested that the biggest challenge of remote work was not losing the sight of our humanity.

“We must admit that we are social beings and work is a big part of our social life. For every business process, whether it’s status meetings or recruiting, onboarding, training, I think HR and Management are faced with the big challenge of helping employees avoid the feeling they are alone in a room with just a computer next to them,” Litescu concluded.

For e-commerce startup Cartloop, one of the biggest challenges has been hiring staff.

“There are different time zones we need to take into account, sometimes the logistics of virtual interviews pose a challenge, or, we get a very large number of remote applicants that take a long time to go through – which slows down our hiring process,” Lisa Popovici, co-founder and COO of Cartloop, tells BR. The startup adapted quickly and handled employee onboarding efficiently in a digital environment.

“Judging from the feedback we get from the team every day, it was the right decision to go remote,” Popovici adds.

 

Returning to the office is “work in progress”

Companies occupying offices spaces in Romania expect rents to fall by the end of 2021, according to a survey by real estate consultancy Colliers International. Furthermore, a large share of companies surveyed expect over 50 percent of their employees to return to offices starting with the middle of 2021 through to the end of next year. Big companies that have leased large office spaces are looking at ways to rent the extra space to smaller firms. At least for now, it is quite certain that future demand for office spaces will be reduced, which in turn will see development pipelines shrinking and projects being sent back to the drawing board and transformed into other property assets, such as apartments.

Both startups and more established companies have discovered the benefits of remote work, but company leaders must deal with its challenges, too. For many people, remote work can lead to feelings of isolation and more pressure to balance their personal and professional lives, according to a McKinsey report. Managers must set clear objectives and KPIs, while defining new routines and rules to tackle disturbed office-based flows and rhythms.

“Hiring was difficult even in good times. The pandemic disrupted the labor market, forced some people to look for a new job while scared others, and determined them to stay put. But overall, I would say that it will be difficult to hire good people for startups, maybe more difficult than last year,” Cristian Munteanu, managing partner of Early Game Ventures (EGV), a startup investment fund, tells BR.

Cristian Munteanu, EGV

Digital communication tools must be used efficiently as well. For instance, complex topics can be discussed in video calls, while quick catchups can be carried out via chat.

Research by McKinsey shows that smaller organisations are often more successful at reskilling their workforces because they follow agile principles.

“The act of testing and iterating in itself builds resilience—and is thus preferable to waiting,” according to the report. This is something that startups do naturally, right from their founding moment.

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