Inca is a remote company. We have offices in Washington, DC and Paris where our team is free to hang out and work for as long as they want – but nothing mandatory. They all work where they want, when they want.
I remember taking a class with Andrew Sherman at Georgetown Law called “Entrepreneurship and the Law.” One piece of advice he gave that stuck with me was that investors and partners care more about the strength of the founders’ relationship, and the strength of the team, than they do about the actual services the company provides. A year in to leading Inca, I have found this to be true. I get just as many questions about my team and the processes we use to organize remotely as I do about our data aggregation and analytics platform, NTerminal.
I should say at the outset: Inca’s co-founder, Evgeny, and I specifically chose a remote only model because the talent required to build anything beyond a good-looking prototype is much more expensive and difficult to find if confined to one city. In other words: We specifically chose to have a remote only company because we want the best. It is much more difficult to attract the best devs, while also fostering diversity, if we force everyone to live in, say, New York. All of the devs you see on our team page prefer to travel around, work strange hours, and not stand around a water cooler discussing the Super Bowl halftime show. It’s not just our dev team though, the same goes for our business team. Our business development leads include a data scientist living in Raleigh, a Johns Hopkins student from Singapore, and a USAF veteran with multiple deployments under his belt.
When Evgeny and I started Inca we thought there would be a roadmap that we could just follow for starting our own remote company. I have at least 20 books sitting on the shelf on how to run a startup. I find most of them are the same: great general principals with little practical advice. Substantively, right now, how the hell do I organize my team? How do I measure performance? What software should I use to actually implement an agile framework? How do I build a company culture that people actually buy into without forcing everyone to where company sweater vests?
I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’ve only been at this for about a year. That said, we’ve seen some success. Inca has grown to a team of 20 really extraordinary folks who are giving their all for us to succeed. Here are a few basic things we’ve implemented that have worked well:
Proof of work
We have a proof of work system at Inca. Someone joins the team to accomplish a long term goal. As we move along breaking that goal down to tasks, we come up with a mutually agreed upon timeframe accomplishing those tasks. As a lean start-up, we had to make hard decisions and let outstanding people go simply because they could not deliver on time or had trouble using the tools and infrastructure we set up to ensure work was open, trackable, and scalable.
There’s obviously a freedom that comes with this approach: aside from a few weekly semi-mandatory team calls, folks are free to work whenever and wherever they want. Incas are encouraged to join projects that they weren’t necessarily hired to do, take on additional responsibility quickly, create their own projects, or create get-a-ways with other team members.
All this might not sound revolutionary, but very few organizations actually operate in a similar way.
It’s also much easier said than done when everyone works remotely.
The value of company transparency is something that I learned while in the military. As a JAG advising commanders, there was always an audit trail for the decisions the commander made, the rules were laid out, and often the decision processes were written down. I take Inca’s status as a veteran-owned business seriously and try to instill similar values in the company. Unlike traditional organizations, we do not hide our decision making processes. Ev and I frequently debate company direction and goals openly. We always say that the sunlight is the best disinfectant for the crypto ecosystem, we find the same to be true when applied to our company as a whole.
Even remote collaboration becomes easier when there is an audit trail. Incas are required to show their math on GitLab, even if the equation isn’t yet solved. partially completed code should be submitted for all to see - no final hour code dumps are allowed. Similar to an open space office layout, most of our 100+ GitLab projects are accessible to all members of the team, creating an environment where all of one’s work is visible and available to be validated by anyone else.
Have a new idea? Write it down on GitLab. Debate with a team member the best way to push a project forward? Summarize it on GitLab. Writing a blog? Write it on GitLab, even if it isn’t complete, and save it as a ‘work in progress’. Want a foosball table so you have something to do when you come to the office? Create an issue with the top Craigslist results. This approach not only allows the larger team to see that you are actually working, but also allows folks to contribute and improve your work as you go, rather than being forced to do a long code review after a dump.
JSM argues for open debate and free speech in ‘On Liberty’: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Ev and I are believers in vigorous debate. We’ll sometimes even take up positions we don’t necessarily believe in just to test our theories – whether about life or a directional decision for Inca. More importantly, we promote the same throughout the company. Every team call I tell people to challenge assumptions, speak up, and not just accept what any one team member is saying. We’re all figuring it out together, and a diversity of opinion only gets us closer to the truth. It also creates buy-in and a sense of ownership that might not otherwise exist in a remote only company.
This is what we’ve learned so far. I hope you might be able to find some value in it.