The Remote X: Walter of Animalz

By Keni Teh, 01 June, 2017

The Remote X is a series by the Planetary team to feature the experiences of remote teams across the world (literally!). Every week, we interview people leading or working in remote teams and share their knowledge with others in the hopes that we can all grow and benefit from their experiences.

Art by Vince Joy

Walter Chen is the founder and CEO of Animalz, an agency that creates high-quality content on the internet for B2B and SaaS clients. Previously, he founded iDoneThis, which helps remote teams across the world run their daily standups better. In this post, he shares more about his startup experience and gives us valuable tips for managing a remote team.

Where are you based in right now?

We’re remote with team members around the world including the U.S., Bulgaria and Cyprus. We have an office in New York City on the Lower East Side.

Tell me more about yourself and what your role is in Animalz! I’m the founder and CEO of Animalz. We help companies win with content marketing. My role is to build the team that creates really great blog posts for our customers.

I founded Animalz after I sold my previous business iDoneThis. Back then, I knew nothing about building a business — getting customers and growing revenue. We just started writing blog posts for the company blog, people read them, then they signed up for the product and started paying us. Other people started asking me to help them with content, and that’s how Animalz started.

Before co-founding iDoneThis, I practiced law, and before that, I worked as a software developer.

How do you structure your day while working remotely? Do you find it a challenge to keep yourself focused?

I’m the worst remote worker on earth. That’s why we have an office. I keep a regular workday with a nap in the early afternoon. Once I go home, I don’t do work.

On any given day, two to five people show up in the office. Having other people around periodically keeps me sane.

Why did you choose to grow a remote team?

We weren’t initially a remote company, but we had one of our writers leave NYC for a family obligation, and he was so critical to the team that we had to keep him on.

After that, we hired another writer who was so valuable to the company but could only work remotely, and from there we expanded our working processes to adapt to more remote people.

The company is now fully remote.

How often does your team meet face-to-face or do video conference calls?

We use Zoom for all scheduled video calls in the company, and Slack for all impromptu video and voice calls.

We used to use Google Hangouts, but we encountered a ton of audio and joining issues. When you’re remote, you video conference a lot, so that annoyance became too much for us. We switched to Zoom and we recommend it to all remote teams.

We do a weekly all-hands and we have 1-on-1 meetings throughout the week both for work and for just bonding and hanging out. We do all of it over Zoom.

How do you manage your team and keep them organized/productive?

We try to make the expectations really clear. With remote, you have to make the implicit explicit. If you don’t, you will run into misunderstanding and expectation mismatches over and over again.

We run our entire business on Airtable. It’s a relational database that lets us model out our entire business and add relationships as our business evolves.

  • We have our content pipeline inside of Airtable.
  • We built a mini-CRM inside of Airtable. All of our customer information is in there.
  • We have transparent salaries inside of Airtable.
“With remote, you have to make the implicit explicit.”

What are the top three apps or tools that your remote team just can’t do without?

  1. Documentation is incredibly important for remote teams. Everything — and I mean everything — must be documented and written down somewhere.

We do this with a twist. We are heavy users of collaborative diagramming tool Gliffy. We map out all of our workflows, frameworks and processes with Gliffy so that everyone has a visual sense of how the business works.

  1. When people aren’t sitting next to each other every day, chatting in the hallways, nipping out for coffee, one of the first things to go is alignment. People just aren’t on the same page anymore.

That’s why high-level goal alignment is so important. We do that through Andy Grove’s “objectives and key results” framework using Perdoo. That allows for a more autonomous working style that remote teams need.

  1. We love Front. We use it to share all of our email, have conversations inside of email and help each other craft the right customer response.

It’s awesome for remote teams because every bit of shared information available in the company helps people do great work.

How much of an emphasis do you put on keeping your team members emotionally connected?

Not enough.

It’s definitely something we’re working on. We have scheduled social water cooler talks once every two weeks, and everyone has a one-on-one with our internal coaching team once every two weeks. People go for “virtual coffees” pretty frequently as well.

The challenge is that one of the major benefits of remote is the ability to control your environment and work uninterrupted. The more you build in different social activities into the workday, the more that you potentially impinge on the autonomy of individual team members.

Being emotionally connected is definitely important for a happy and productive team, but we’re still working on new ways to formally build it into our workday.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced while managing your remote team, and how did you solve it (if you have)?

We hire a lot of recent college grads who not only have to learn on the job, they have to learn how to work remotely at the same time.

Remote is a big perk for recent grads, because they’re far from settled. They still have friends and significant others back at school. They want to travel. We’re able to hire our pick of top grads in part because we offer a flexible work setup.

The problem is that young people don’t know themselves and they don’t know how they’re best able to work. They also often have a lot of bad habits they’ve developed in college that they need to unlearn.

We still haven’t solved this problem! We’re still just tackling problems ad hoc, as they come up, and it’s working reasonably well up to this point.

What’s the best thing/your favorite thing about your team?

Everyone here is passionate about learning and improving. We’re building the business together and it’s hugely motivating to have people just as invested as I am in doing great content for customers.

Describe your remote working experience in 5 words or less!

Trying to do it better

Any last advice for anyone out there working remotely, or thinking of doing so?

The #1 thing about working remotely is that you have choice. You can work from home, from a co-working space, or you can drop into the office if your company has one.

Given that choice, it’s vital that you think critically about how you work best. Continually assess how you’re working and how you can do it better.

Thank you, Walter, for taking the time out to share with us your experiences! Connect with him on Twitter at @smalter and at walterchen.org!