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May 2023

How We Built A Remote Team & Virtual Incubator

How We Built A Remote Team & Virtual Incubator

Due to COVID-19, antiquated companies, industries, academic institutions, and governments have been forced into a corner: go full virtual or shut down operations.I have been building startups and investing in tech since 1997. I have seen a lot, but I have never seen this. I'm writing because over the past three years at my firm, Shadow Ventures, we have built a digitally native incubator and VC firm basically behind-the-scenes. On the company side, we have a distributed, fully remote team with offices in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Toronto. On the incubator side, we have 70+ active pre-seed startups in the program. The program is run almost entirely on Zoom, Slack, and G-Suite. There are ways to get fancy with remote work. We have kept it simple and have focused on the bigger picture (more on that below...). The Shadow Partners community of startups, industry professionals (Architects, Engineers, Contractors, and Real Estate Professionals), and investors is now well over 400 people. During these times we have organized opportunities for Town Halls, AMAs (Ask Me Anything), and general remote collaboration. We've had many friends, LPs, and startups from our network reach out over the last week asking for tips and best practices for taking their company virtual. We've done our best to distill the most important insights from building a remote team AND a virtual community over the last three years into this article.

Building a Remote Team vs. Building a Virtual Community: this article will address both, so let's make sure we set parameters around the differences. Building a Remote Team: is about creating a thriving, productive organization that lives without the dependence on a physical location. Building a Virtual Community: is about driving engagement around a group of like-minded people and shared values through leveraging digital communication tools. Both are entirely reliant on great communication, aligned purpose, culture, and clear expectations.

Going Full Remote

Despite the boom of the internet and digital software ecosystems in the 2010s, we've all stayed mostly addicted to in-person communications, meetings, events, and workshops. Why? It's our comfort zone. It's what we know. It feels like it's what we should do. As a result, most of us (especially in the antiquated real estate and construction industries, where we operate) have ignored the leverage you get from going fully virtual. Before we get into the nuts and bolts of standing a remote operation up, let me first make the business case for remote work.

  • Reduction in operating costs (zero to low rent)
  • Better retention / employees achieve better work/life balance
  • Attract better talent (location independent)
  • Better productivity and focus (not as many distractions)
  • Higher quality creative work and more innovative idea generation (less groupthink, more space to be creative)
  • Antifragile during uncertain events (like COVID-19, Polar Vortex, etc.)

These are only a few of the business benefits. If you want to learn more about cost/benefit of remote work, I recommend reading REMOTE: Office Not Required.

Establishing A New Baseline: There is no habitual routine to fall back on when you transition from the office to full remote. Days quickly turn into nights. Distractions abound. Calls and meetings happen sporadically and can "crowd" your internal space. There's hardly a conversational "pick-me-up" after a tough morning.  It's on the individual to create this for themselves but as a leader, it's up to you to help team members define their habits and the organizational remote culture.Daily Work Structure: What are the working hours that you expect from your team? Let them know when they should be expected to be online, when it's ok to take breaks, and when they can shut down their work for the night. At Shadow, we do daily standups every afternoon and are often on the phone with each other as things come up organically throughout the day.Communication Standards: It's crucial to establish clear channels of communication standards for your company. For us, our main channel of communication is via email. We expect all emails to be answered within an appropriate time frame. Slack is for asynchronous work and quick collaboration. Zoom is for team meetings. We also pick up the phone and call each other for quick conversations. Time Zones / Boundaries: If you build a truly distributed team, you will have people working in different time zones. Which will give you leverage as you sleep -- imagine your NY office waking up to completed work from your offshore dev team on Monday morning. Navigating time zones well is understanding when members on your team will be working and when they won't, what work they will deliver on what timelines, and respecting their time offline. It's very easy to blur working hours and downtime with remote work.Remote Tools: We rely almost entirely on Slack (Asynchronous Work), Zoom (Team Meetings and Calls), G-Suite (Email, Work), and Zoho (CRM) to keep our day-to-day business affairs afloat. It's a minimal approach that we've found to provide high leverage while retaining true simplicity. It's easy to get caught up in the remote software rat race.

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Credit: @TedGoas from Stackoverflow

Other digital remote tools that we've tried and would recommended:

  • Docs/Spreadsheets (Airtable, Notion, Google Docs/Sheets)
  • Video (Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts)
  • CRM (Zoho, Hubspot, Salesforce)
  • Project Management (Trello, Asana, Basecamp)
  • Performance & Management (15Five)
  • Payroll & Accounting (Gusto, Xero)
  • Time Tracking (Harvest)

Feedback & Performance Mechanisms: One of the more challenging remote work items is out of plain sight for most: feedback on performance. Because you're not in front of your boss or colleagues daily, it's tough to know "where you stand" or if you're actually doing a good job. It's important to have transparent conversations about work performance and expectations regularly and to figure out how to put in place feedback mechanisms.

Building Robust Virtual Communities

If you are a media outlet that has been relying on in-person events OR a business rethinking how to acquire customers in a downmarket, you should consider building a virtual community. In 2018, we created a global incubator community, Shadow Labs, for pre-seed startups innovating the real estate and construction markets. It's conducted entirely via Zoom and Slack. It now boasts over 70 companies that are mostly highly engaged in weekly programming. We have a rigorous acceptance process (right now it's at 20%) and we are experiencing on average 20% MoM growth of applications. Getting the community off the ground wasn't easy. It's a lot of manual marketing -- word of mouth, email marketing, social media promotion, attending conferences. Generally, getting the word out to your target market. If marketed and executed correctly, after a while, acquisition of new members becomes a flywheel.Despite the heavy initial lift, it's created incredible value for our firm. The incubator feeds our firm's deal flow for investments, gives us another way to monetize, and gives us a chance to de-risk our investments through getting to know startups' founding teams and how they execute before we invest. For you, a virtual community might be entirely different. I spoke to a portfolio company yesterday that was interested in creating one to get feedback on products while also laying the groundwork for a future lead generation tool. Here are some other business cases for starting a virtual community as well as helpful tips to get started and accelerate growth. The Business Case For Building High Growth Virtual Communities:

  • High-leverage, low cost beta testers
  • Increase ways to monetize
  • Decrease marketing spend
  • Lead generation tool
  • Early adopters of new products
  • Employee recruiting / retention
  • Network effect growth
  • Humanized perception and increased market awareness

Getting Started Questions (using our incubator as an example):

What is this community? A virtual community for pre-seed startup founders innovating the real estate and construction markets

Who is your target audience? Startup founders with pre-seed companies looking for funding, to understand how to GTM and distribution work in our sector, and a community of other like-minded founders

What's the real purpose of the community? To help them build them into venture fundable businesses. To provide a safe place to learn and work through startup struggles.

What type of community is it? All virtual -- conducted via Zoom and Slack

What values are sacrosanct? Accountability (do the work we tell you), vulnerability (everyone should be authentic and open).

What's the VALUE that they get? Startup coaching from experienced early stage startup investors, operators, and world-class advisors. A community of like-minded founders.

How do you engage them? What tools? Zoom, Slack, annual in-person Summit event.

How consistent are you working with them? Weekly coaching via Zoom and Slack, office hours via Slack, monthly CEO calls, monthly account check-ins.

Secrets to High Growth

  • Have predictable, consistent programming
  • Feature early users (aka give them status)
  • Speak to them like you would friends (no one voluntarily spends time where they can't be themselves)
  • Give them incredible value -- overinvest your time
  • Bring in quality guests and new members who add value
  • Ask them to play a specific role (moderate or help fill up content schedules)

Any questions? Let us know.