Photography is, of course, universal, and photographers are everywhere. With clients spanning the globe, it makes sense that StickyAlbums, which provides mobile albums for professional photographers, would itself be a distributed company.
Kelli Shaver, the company’s lead developer, deploys code for StickyAlbums from her home in Kentucky. We talked to her about what it’s like to work in a distributed team and have colleagues all across the country.
(Full disclosure: I co-own an LLC with Kelli and we’ve worked together on many projects over the past 15 years.)
What does StickyAlbums do and what is your role there?
We have two product offerings. Both allow photographers to build and publish mobile albums and apps for their clients. We also give our customers a lot of marketing tools and training to help them grow their business and build additional streams of revenue. I’m the lead developer. I work closely with our CTO and manage the code and development for our SaaS products.
How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you?
We have ten employees. The company’s based out of St. Paul, MN and I think we have three people there, but everyone works from home. The rest of our employees are scattered around the US.
How does everyone stay connected?
Primarily we use Slack for communication. We have a few Slack rooms for specific teams (dev, marketing, support, etc.) and a couple of general purpose rooms where everyone can gather. We have one room that’s for off-topic, non-work-related socializing and I think that’s important to have. It gives us a place where we can congregate and have fun together and support one another. We also make pretty extensive use of Basecamp.
As a team, what are some of the biggest challenges you face working remotely and how do you overcome them?
Communication is always the big one, isn’t it? When all of your interactions are virtual, you miss out on a lot of the little nuances of communication that you would get when talking to someone face-to-face; things like tone, inflection, body language.
The important thing to keep in mind is that everyone is doing their best. Everyone has the best intentions. When people get on edge, or just really confused in a chat, the best thing to do is to jump on a voice call. Just being able to hear the other person changes the dynamics of the conversation immediately.
What is the biggest benefit that being distributed has afforded to the company?
While I can’t speak to any financial benefits (though I’m sure there are some), being distributed has allowed us to build the best team we can. We’re not confined to looking for talent within a particular city. For instance, our COO was in St. Paul when he was hired, but within a couple of months, he had to move to a new city. No problem!
Do you ever miss having an office to go to and interact with people face-to-face? Is there anything you think is lost or impossible to replicate in a distributed environment vs. an in-person one?
I’ve worked from home for many years, so it’s hard for me to really compare the two at this point. However, even with all of the good communication tools we have now, with people on different schedules, it can sometimes be hard to collaborate. With developers especially, sometimes collaborating through a chat room or even screen sharing isn’t as effective or fulfilling as sitting down in person and working on something together.
What do you think is the most important thing a distributed team can do to ensure successful collaboration?
I think it really boils down to transparency, good communication, and a genuine desire to build something together.
On the practical side, be as thorough as possible. We tend to make a lot of videos explaining ideas and problems. It’s super effective and a lot easier to do than most people think. Screen sharing is also great for this, but video has the advantage of being something you can go back and reference later.
When people get on edge, or just really confused in a chat, the best thing to do is to jump on a voice call. Just being able to hear the other person changes the dynamics of the conversation immediately.
What sort of culture does your company have? Is it harder to build cohesive culture across geography?
One of the driving philosophies at StickyAlbums is “do more of what you love.” We do this in our products, whether it’s helping photographers book more clients, or helping them generate additional revenue streams so they can spend more time with their family. We also apply this philosophy to ourselves. Most of us try to stick to a rough schedule, but when we need the flexibility it’s there and prioritizing ourselves and our families always comes first. It also makes us big advocates for helping each other.
Sometimes these things are easy to lose track of when you’re working from your house, physically separate from everyone else, but our CEO is pretty adamant about reminding us whenever he feels like someone needs to hear it.
You’ve worked remotely for many years. What initially drew you to telecommuting work?
Initially, I was drawn to it for a couple of reasons. The first is that I live in an area where the type of work I do isn’t very common and where the few jobs that are available pay significantly below industry averages. The second is that I’m legally blind, so getting out and commuting to work is more difficult for me.
Do you think there any qualities that make someone more successful at working remotely? What are they?
I think so. You have to be really good at communicating with others, but also able to work by yourself. I think you need to be self-motivated, and self-disciplined. Without those qualities, it’s easy to slack off when you should be working, or procrastinate on something and rush it at the last minute.
At the same time, working from home is probably also not a good fit for a workaholic, either, because it would just enable you to keep working constantly, rather than forcing you to step away from it on occasion. This is something I struggled with for a while, myself.
Describe your personal work environment.
I work in a pretty light and open home office that’s roughly 12×14, with a large window. I have a small, well-lit desk with a 21in iMac, my favorite mechanical keyboard, and a big microphone for podcasting. Various bits of nerdery decorate the shelves and walls; Apollo program NASA memorabilia, a number of prints, my Github Octocat vinyl figure, etc. I hate the carpet. I have a laptop, but I generally always work from the iMac in the office, because it’s easier for me to see.
How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?
For me, this was definitely a learned skill that took a lot of time to master. The two biggest pieces of advice I can give are to have a dedicated work space and a schedule. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need a home office away from everyone else or that you have to always work there, but it’s important to have some place to retreat to when you need it.
One of the driving philosophies at StickyAlbums is “do more of what you love.”
Also, while one of the biggest benefits of working from home is flexibility (I slept in twice this week), I find that I’m much happier and more productive if I use it sparingly. Having set hours that I work means I get to largely ignore work outside of that time, whereas working an hour here, an hour there makes it feel like I’m always working.
How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?
I’m fortunate that my real-world distractions are fairly minimal to begin with, but if I’m trying to work and there’s too much noise going on in the house, I’ll just shut the door and/or put on headphones and turn on something like rain.simplynoise.com or Coffitivity.
As for digital distractions, I’ve turned off all notifications on my phone except for incoming calls and all notification sounds on the computer, except for the ones for our #urgent Slack channel, so I have a passive awareness of when a message comes in, but without the sound to pull me out of whatever I’m doing, I can easily ignore it if I’m deep into debugging some code, for instance.
Other distractions like social media just take self-discipline.
It’s hard to measure efficiency by how much “stuff” you get done, since sometimes small things take forever and what looks like a big deal can be done in five minutes. Instead I look at how I felt about the day overall. Did I waste time, either by not working when I should have been or by focusing too long on something? Did I have a hard time concentrating? Am I feeling overwhelmed by what’s left to do?
What are some of the tools you couldn’t live without as a remote company?
As I mentioned, Slack/Screenhero for team communication. We often use Skype if we need to do a call with someone outside of the company, like a consultant. The dev team also makes heavy use of Basecamp and of course Github. I don’t personally use it, but I know some of our marketing and management folks use Trello.
What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?
I feel like it kind of has to be an all or nothing thing. Either all of your employees work remotely or none of them do. If you’re all in the same city and you want to have an office that people can drift in and out of freely, then great, but the instant you have someone who can’t come into the office at all, you start to have problems.
Hire people who write well and are detail-oriented and then give them good tools to facilitate communication — but not too many tools. You should try to keep your remote workflow as streamlined as possible, so nothing gets lost in the shuffle. If people are using 4-5 channels for communication, you probably need to consolidate.