Distributed Companies Are Real

When we first set out to build Silverpine, we didn’t really have much of a plan. All we knew was that the fates had aligned, and that it was our time to set out on our own. From our very first day, we have managed to bootstrap the business which was ultimately very beneficial, however, bootstrapping is hard. Very hard. While we grappled with unknown cashflows and even more unknown project pipelines, we knew we had to scrimp and save and keep our costs as low as we possibly could. One major way we were able to do that was by making Silverpine a “virtual” business in that we had no physical office space. It also didn’t hurt that neither my partner Ryan nor I wanted a commute, so it definitely felt like a win/win situation.

For the first few years of our existence, our staff consisted of only Ryan and myself and an occasional subcontractor or two. Working remote became an unstated, simple to implement company policy that we grew to appreciate implicitly, and the freedom that it lent to us quickly became a de facto benefit. As we grew as a company, however, the true value began to emerge.

When we finally hired our first full time employee, working remotely was still an implied benefit. At the same time, we started noticing a trend that many of the best engineers and developers that we knew were explicitly looking for new positions with significant remote work opportunities. However, when our first employee notified us that she was going to move to a rural area, it truly started to dawn on us what it meant for recruiting and retainment. Suddenly, this quirky company policy, that had just organically happened, had become an important pillar of our company culture.

At that point, Ryan and I decided that we were going to commit to Silverpine being a fully distributed organization. We abandoned any intention of developing a physical footprint and started viewing our evolving company through that lens. As we continued to grow and hire, I had to unlearn some of the things that had been ingrained in me from my time in the corporate world and from my MBA classes. I had to really dig in to understanding the tradeoffs of being distributed, partially because we needed to adopt tools and policies that would work well for remote employees, but also because we needed to be able to speak to our clients about how we were different from similar agencies and ultimately, why our distributed nature would benefit them.

For a long time, whenever a prospective client would ask us where we were located, I would make some sort of joke that we were following the “IBM model” even though it wasn’t really an accurate comparison. I would then do some general hand waving about what that meant, but more often than not, I was left with the distinct feeling that we were sometimes viewed as not being a legitimate company. Because of my approach to communicating our structure, I’m certain that we lost more than a couple bids on projects because of this.

Fortunately, as time progressed, many other companies started to legitimize remote work. Companies like Automattic, Basecamp, InVision and Zapier have literally written the book on how to have a remote team, and they have shown that it can work at scale. People have started to notice how these companies operate and thrive, and maybe most importantly, many of the best engineers and developers have started to view remote opportunities as a non-negotiable job requirement. I have run into people time and again at conferences and other work-related events where they explain that having a remote position is often times more important than a salary bump. That means that there is an actual, tangible economic value to a company that embraces remote work.

For Silverpine, we have become better at articulating the legitimacy of our remote nature in a way that better portrays it as a competitive advantage. We talk about the engagement and happiness levels of our employees. We talk about the quality of communication that our team practices on a daily basis. And, we talk about lower base costs which translates to lower project costs. We also occasionally talk about the tools and the processes and the intentionality of it that helps craft our company culture. All of this is important in explaining our story and our organization because there are still plenty of people with an incorrect understanding of remote companies.

I am convinced that the model we stumbled upon (but ultimately embraced) is a blueprint for long term success. It allows us a flexibility and nimbleness that other corporations simply can’t match, and in the ever-changing world that we live in, flexibility is a survival trait. As the Japanese proverb states: “The Bamboo that bends is stronger than the Oak that resists.”

We are definitely still learning and adapting how we function and operate, but I no longer act sheepish or apologize for being a remote company. I am proud of what we are building and what Silverpine has become. (It also doesn’t hurt that our track record is pretty great!) So, if you are thinking about working at a remote company or thinking about adopting remote-friendly policies, don’t approach it as some odd-ball thing. Take some time and read about what/how other companies that are doing it, and recognize that distributed companies are real.

Tools for a Distributed Software Agency

One of the things that I am most proud of is that Silverpine is a 100% distributed company. Often when people find out that we are fully remote, they will ask curiously about what tools we use to work together. This is completely understandable because the importance of having the right tool set is magnified for remote companies. We understand this innately and as such we are constantly evaluating our software stack. The following list represents the software that powers our business. (I have intentionally omitted some of the lower level development tools like Xcode and Android Studio.) The list is broken into four primary classifications: communication, development, project execution, and finance.

Communication

Slack 

Before Slack, we used a hodge lodge of messaging tools like AIM, Google Chat and even old school SMS. It was horrible. Slack is the single most important tool that we use to communicate with each other and with our clients. All of our employees and contractors use it extensively every day, and even though I think that there should be some middle ground in their pricing between the paid and the pro plans, I can’t imagine trying to work remotely without it.

Webex

Let me just preface this by clarifying that I think that every single conference calling platform is terrible. I have used them all. From Zoom.io to Google Hangouts to AT&T Connect, they are just barely workable. Besides the all too common call drops they also all seem to suffer from ridiculous installation processes and byzantine user interfaces (Does this yellow button state mean my microphone is on mute or can they hear me?)

That being said, we have been using Webex for a very long time; not because it is good, but because it is better than the alternatives. And for our enterprise clients, it is somewhat of a known entity so we seem to spend less time per call doing the “can you hear me” dance. I wouldn’t say that I recommend Webex. It’s just what we use.

Dropbox Pro

We have been using Dropbox on personal plans for quite a while, but we recently decided to standardize on Dropbox Pro for file sharing. All of our projects have quite a bit of documentation, graphical assets and other large files that aren’t well suited for source control tools. Dropbox allows us to create per project file drops that we can easily access as well as share with other people when appropriate. We almost switched to Box.com because their pro plans have unlimited storage but ultimately decided it would be less transitional headache to just upgrade our existing Dropbox plans.

G Suite

We have been using Google for our email and calendar services for so long that our silverpinesoftware.com domain is still functioning under the original beta operating agreement. If G Suite disappeared I honestly wouldn’t even know where to start looking for a replacement. File this one under “it just works.”

Development

InVision

One of Silverpine’s guiding design principles is that every user interface needs to have a beautiful “feel” to it, and that you simply can’t judge the feel of an app until you can hold it in your hand and interact with it. Because of this philosophy,  we have refined our development process over time to rely heavily on InVision to prototype the UI and UX of our apps before we ever even start writing code. The amount of time and pain it saves both us and our clients cannot be overstated. If you design for mobile, you really should be using InVision or something like it.

GitHub

If you write software, you should be using a source control platform. If you need a source control platform you should be using GitHub. If you’re using something else, I’m sure you have a reason for it, but it’s probably not a very good reason. (All of our projects use GitHub repositories so when they changed their pricing model to be per user rather than per repository, it made our lives a lot easer.)

Azure DevOps

This one might surprise some people, but a couple years ago we transitioned to what is now known as Microsoft Azure DevOps for our automated build system and have been using it ever since. Prior to Azure DevOps we had used a variety of tools including TestFlight (bought by Apple), Fabric (bought by Twitter, then bought by Google), and BuddyBuild (ran out of money). Due to intense consolidation in that particular sector, we were frequently having to retroactively change our toolset which was both time consuming and costly. A friend of mine who works on the Microsoft tools team encouraged us to give Azure DevOps a try, and we have been extremely happy with that decision. Azure DevOps supports both iOS and Android, is massively configurable, has 24/7 support and most importantly, is backed by one of the largest companies in the world so it won’t be disappearing any time soon. If you need an automated build system and haven’t taken a look at Azure, I highly recommend at least kicking its tires.

Project Execution

Basecamp

For many years, we wandered in the desert of project management, largely piggybacking on whatever project management tools our clients happened to be using at the time. As such, we have used everything from Jira to Asana to Microsoft Excel to track projects and tasks. However, in the past year we have implemented Basecamp as our standard internal project tracking tool. One of the things I like best about Basecamp is that it has clearly been thoughtfully designed. Not only is it powerful, but its design somehow works to ensure that it doesn’t become overly burdensome in the same way that other similarly complex tools do.

Lighthouse

If there was one piece of web software that I would invest internal Silverpine resources on, it would be a lightweight bug tracking tool. There just aren’t many platforms out there that can strike a balance of utility and ease of use that errs on the side of ease of use. For now, Lighthouse foots the bill for us in that regard, however, I’m not sure how much longer it will be around. There hasn’t been any significant development done on it in the 6+ years that we’ve been using it, so I’m not sure I would necessarily recommend it. That being said, it does what we need bug tracking software to do, and it does it well, and I haven’t found a replacement. If you have any personal favorites, please let me know.

Finance

Blinksale

Silverpine is a services business and sending invoices to our customers is literally how we are able to make money. Blinksale is the tool we use to send those invoices and look like we are professionals in the process. While it isn’t a complex tool, it expertly does what we need it to do: send and track professional looking invoices. If you send invoices to clients, you really should be using a tool like Blinksale because people can tell when you don’t.

Quickbooks

Nobody really loves Intuit. They have created not one, but two near monopolies with TurboTax and Quickbooks. However, if you run a business, you need to track your finances in a way that your CPA can help you with your taxes at the end of the year, and if you tell your CPA that you use anything other than Quickbooks, they will not be happy with you and they will very likely take longer to do your taxes which means you will end up with a higher bill from them. That is the reality of Quickbooks and that is why we use it.

Gusto

If you have employees or sub-contractors that you need to pay, you really should be using Gusto. The folks at Gusto are wizards when it comes to dealing with payroll taxes and W-9’s and a great deal more things that I simply don’t have to worry about because we use their service. Not only is the Gusto platform super easy to use, but their customer service team is actually pro-active in notifying us of upcoming tax law changes that might affect us. I am continually in awe of how great Gusto is and cannot say enough good things about them.