Why (Almost) Every Startup Should Be Working From Home

C. Custer
9:00 am on Mar 5, 2013

Marissa Mayer may have decided that working from home doesn’t work anymore for Yahoo, but that doesn’t mean that working from home isn’t the best option out there for some tech companies. And for startups it seems like a no-brainer. Here’s why:

No rent, no utilities. This is big, obvious reason that everyone should already know: if your team works from home, you don’t have to rent office space or pay for anything like heat, internet connections, electricity, phone lines, or anything else like that. There’s a big expense that just vanished from your budget. Poof!

Good home workers are self-starters, and that’s exactly who you want on your team if you’re a startup anyway. If you’re worried about how many hours somebody on your team is working at a startup, that probably means you didn’t hire the right person in the first place. If your team is properly motivated, they’re going to be working just as hard to make the company succeed as you are whether they’re at home, in an office, or anywhere else.

Plus, counting hours is a waste of your time. You shouldn’t care how many hours anyone on your team is working — tracking that is both time-consuming and pointless. What you should be focused on is results. If your team members are completing the tasks you need them to in the time you need them to, it doesn’t matter at all whether they’re in an office or at home. Conversely, if they’re not completing the tasks they need to on time, then it should be time for them to hit the road no matter where they work from.

Home workers allow you to spread your team out. This can be a big advantage, especially in Southeast Asia where you may be working on a product that’s targeted at more than one country. If your team works from an office, everybody either has to be in one place or you need to pay for more offices in different locations. But if your team works from home, you can hire people all over the globe, which gives you access to more talent and more markets without destroying your budget.

Working from home keeps employees happier. This one is a bit subjective, but at many startups your team members are going to be putting in long hours each day to stay on top of everything. If they’re spending 12 hours a day in an office, that can pretty quickly become soul-crushing, which means you either need to spend more money to buy them food and free massages (or whatever) or allow your workers to become soulless drones (that’s never a good thing). But working long hours from home is easier, as you can still see your loved ones easily every time you take a break or stop for a meal. As I write this article, I’m sitting next to my wife on the couch, and our dog is lying on the floor in front of us. I’m not talking to my wife or playing with the dog, obviously, but I still feel a lot happier and more comfortable here than I would if I was in an office all day. That’s all subjective, of course, but studies have shown that work from home employees really are happier and we all know that happy workers are more productive than unhappy ones.

The tools for working collaboratively from home are here. Even a few years ago, it would have been much harder to have your teams work from home and still be working together, but these days there are a plethora of mature solutions for collaborative working from home. Here at Tech in Asia we tend to use Skype for conferencing and chatting and Google Docs for collaborative editing, but if those tools don’t fit your workflow, something else out there probably does.

Working from home doesn’t mean never working together in the real world. Sometimes, you really do have to be there, and it’s important to remember that working from home doesn’t preclude that. Different companies will have different needs, but I think most work-from-home companies do have meetings or events in real life from time to time. Here at Tech in Asia, most of us meet up for our Startup Asia conferences. Does it cost a decent chunk of change to fly team members around for meetings like that? Sure, but it’s still cheaper than renting an office in the long run.

At the end of the day, you can avoid most of the problems associated with working from home by just hiring a trustworthy team that’s actually motivated to help you build the company. And guess what: if you’re planning to do a startup that’s the kind of team you should be building anyway. Working from home saves you money, makes workers happier, and allows you to broaden your searches for talent and to spread more easily and cheaply into new markets. As I see it, that’s a win-win-win-win. Unless there’s some reason you absolutely need to be in an office (and yes, there are some companies that really do need that for one reason or another), why would you be?

As a tangential side note, some of you may have read that employees are better off at work because they’re less likely to be promoted from home. The study that indicates that, however, was conducted at a very large Chinese company. Chinese business culture places a lot of importance on personal relationships, so it’s little surprise that “being there” means a lot at a Chinese company, but this shouldn’t mean very much to startups one way or the other. You should be striving to build your own workplace culture, and if everybody’s working from home, then nobody gets left out of promotions because of it anyway.

(CORRECTION: Fixed “Marissa” after initially writing “Melissa”).

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  • online writer

    c’mon man, it’s marissa mayer.

    All your arguments are anecdotal and subjective. Here’s a legit study: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/pf_article_102425.html

    55% of communication is visual. And since life as well as business is about great communication, then working from home kills that. One can’t create company culture purely online. How can trust be established?

    Furthermore, in the fast-paced tech world, the speed with which a person, company gets information can impact important business decisions.

    -A person who works from home…as a freelancer. Used to work in-house.

  • http://www.techinasia.com C. Custer

    @ online writer:

    And which part of body language and eye contact is it that can’t be perceived over Skype? I’m not sure where that 55% number comes from anyway — what you’ve linked is a poorly-sourced opinion piece, not a study — but body language and eye contact is possible through skype and other video chatting programs.

    It is possible to create a company culture almost entirely online. Tech in Asia is living proof of it. We do meet up IRL from time to time, but I didn’t meet any of my coworkers in real life until months after I joined, and I think we have a pretty solid and well-established company culture. Skype was enough for us to establish trust, and I’m a pretty untrusting guy generally speaking. (Though as I said we do all meet in real life from time to time).

    With regard to information speed, that kind of communication is faster online. Where in an office you might hold a meeting to share important information, we just post it in our skype chat, and instantly every single person at the company has immediate access to it. How could office communication possibly be faster?

  • http://www.techinasia.com C. Custer

    @ online writer: I got curious and looked up the 55% number, and while it DOES come from legitimate studies, it’s actually only applicable in cases where people are communicating their feelings and attitudes (i.e. like vs. dislike), which is probably less common in business than actually communicating information. Moreover, the studies were based on subjects speaking single, emotion-relevant words like “dear” or “terrible.” In a full sentence, a less emotional context, and/or the context of a larger conversation, nonverbal language is less important. It doesn’t seem to be very relevant to business.

    For more info, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Mehrabian especially the “misinterpretation” and “criticism” sections.

  • http://dhezign.com Brian Arfi

    My approach is rather mixed. While i do agree wholeheartedly and embrace working at home. You still need to see the type of employee you have. It’s ALWAYS easier to collaborate or ask for things or suggestion from your co worker when you are only 2 meters away.

    And while we know that this type of communication is disruptive, we know that there’s always delays in non disruptive communication such as using gtalk or trello, or other comm tools.

    And it is VERY true that you cannot build company culture without everyone in one place. And this culture, is the one thing i value most. If there’s one thing you need a company to run without you in later stage, it’s the culture you build.

    So, my policy is to make working at the office mandatory for employee’s 1 year after hiring. After 1 year, i will allow employee work from home depending on his attitude in 1 year (whether he produces result or not). Anyway, chances are he won’t be in the company if he doesnt produce result.

  • Kokboon

    Custer, u say that it is possible to create a company culture almost entirely online. Tech in Asia is living proof of it.

    How exactly? i don’t quite understand how to do it

  • http://www.techinasia.com C. Custer

    @ kokboon: From wikipedia’s entry on organizational culture: “Culture includes the organization values, visions, norms, working language, systems, symbols, beliefs and habits. It is also the pattern of such collective behaviors and assumptions that are taught to new organizational members as a way of perceiving, and even thinking and feeling.”

    There’s really nothing about any of that that can’t be done online. Tech in Asia has organizational values, just like any other company, and we make sure new employees are clear on them. Obviously we have a vision that everyone is clear on and working towards. We have a lot of our own working language that just evolved naturally as we worked together, so we will new employees in on that as well so they can understand what the heck we’re saying. Of course, we have our own editorial system that involves a specific workflow through several services for articles; the biz team has different systems. Etc. etc. With new employees on the editorial side, we actually have a pretty long “employee handbook” of sorts that’s a guide to everything from our working culture to our preferred writing style. But Willis will usually have talked to them directly on skype before hiring to explain more about the working culture, our workflows, and what’s expected.

  • online writer

    First off, I’ve worked in a corporate environment and detested the idiocy of being there in person everyday.

    That being said, having worked at several start-ups, I saw how necessary it was to be there in-person. First, team-building is akin to college culture. You grow closer and build deeper relationships by “shooting the shit”, having bull sessions late into the night, and talking about philosophy. Yes, you can do that on Skype, but, first, let me schedule you in for that bull session — that’s awkward and doesn’t work. By just working from home for the majority of the time, you’d miss the good stuff.

    Working as freelance writers and at a start-up blog, that’s different. The culture of the media industry is different. In being very frank, writers – especially freelance ones – often communicate the best in writing. Not in person. Duh.

    The part of the body you can’t see in Skype is the crotch and below. If you don’t think that matters, then you haven’t been to a bar. You can tell a girl doesn’t want to talk to you if she points her foot away or crosses her feet. This translates over to touchy business conversations, but you’d never notice it if you just look at their face. Few people are trained to tell body language just by the eyes, and I doubt start-ups would want to take the time to learn. High-strategy consultancies do that, but it’s costly and it’s only for the manager-level and higher.

    It’s a poorly-sourced opinion piece, but that’s what I give back to a poorly written opinion piece with “Melissa” Mayer.

  • online writer

    And 55% communication thing is sometimes cited as 60% or 70%. Pick up a book on body language or talk to theater professors who teach speech-giving. They all say that the majority of the communication is visual.

  • http://www.techinasia.com C. Custer

    @ online writer: You don’t have to “schedule” shooting the bull sessions on Skype. We’re on skype constantly, so it happens as naturally as it does when you’re in an office.

    None of us are “freelance” writers; everyone who’s part of the team works full time on Tech in Asia and nothing else. And we tend to communicate fine in person, too — the audiences at the conferences we host haven’t had any complaints.

    At the risk of becoming too personal, I’d question how successful your pickup techniques are if you spend your time in the bar staring at women’s feet. Moreover, in my experience most business meetings are conducted either informally at restaurants or around conference tables in an office — either way, you generally can’t see much or any of the person you’re talking to below chest level because the table gets in the way. I worked for a year in a company that did all our business meetings around a large conference table from which you couldn’t see anyone’s feet, and yet somehow we managed to stay in business anyway.

    “Melissa” for “Marissa” is just a little bit of dyslexia. As for that being “what you give back,” no. What happened was you tried to cite a statistic without checking the source and you got called out on it. We corrected our mistake, you might at least be gracious enough to admit yours instead of trying to play it off by being pedantic.

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