Interview: Annika Helendi

Annika HelendiAnnika Helendi is the CEO of Teamweek, a bootstrapped and profitable remote-based ten people startup in the SaaS business that grew out of another company – Toggl. You can find Teamweek through its own official siteTwitter and Instagram.

1. What do you do, how many are you, from where do you work?

According to our users, Teamweek is the most visually pleasing project management tool out there. We get a lot of praise for how easy to use it is and how good it looks.

We have ten people on the team right now, and we are planning on adding another seven people to the mix next year. As a legacy from Toggl days, we still have an HQ in Estonia, but hardly anyone works from there since we are an entirely remote company. At the moment, we have people from Estonia, Poland, Czechia, Kenya, Serbia, Brazil, India, and Romania.

2. How, when and why did you become a remote team or distributed company with employees working remotely?

As I mentioned before, Teamweek grew out of Toggl, and we inherited the Toggl remote culture. I was working as Toggl’s marketing manager for years and experienced the switch from an office based company to a remote one, first hand.

Both companies originate from Estonia and since it’s population is so small, hiring the right people got increasingly harder every year (fun fact, Estonia is famous for having most startups per capita). We decided to look into hiring the first remote employee about three years ago, and after that, we have not looked back.

3. Which have been the advantages to become a remote company or having a distributed team?

The most profound advantage is people being happier with their work and life in general. Having the freedom of working remotely is having a positive impact on everyone’s lives, and it is a privilege to lead a team of happy people.

As for business-oriented advantages, the productivity of the team is much higher compared to an office based setup. This productivity increase is the result of people having the option to figure out their own most productive hours and work routines. Remote work also requires people to make lots of decisions on their own, and as a result, they feel more engaged with the work they are doing.

Another significant advantage is the option to hire the best people out there, because usually, the best specialists in the field find the remote work option and strong company culture very appealing.

4. Have there been any disadvantages and obstacles? How have you overcome these challenges?

The most significant challenge was the initial switch to remote mindset. With only one remote worker and everybody else in the Tallinn office, it did not really work at first. All the decisions were still made in the office, even though we wanted to be entirely remote.

Actually, Teamweek team was the first one out of the two companies to ban coming to the office for a few weeks. It was hard at first, but it pushed everyone to figure out new systems for everything that we were used to doing in the office – brainstorming, decision making, weekly meetings, water cooler chats, etc. We have come a long way since then, and we still keep figuring out new solutions to make the company even stronger.

5. How do you do to operate effectively as a remote or distributed team? Have you modified the processes, tools, organization and internal activities?

Over the years, we have realized that some things are critical to get right in a remote company:

  1. making sure the team has all the tools that are needed to get work done (computer, home office, coworking space access, all possible web tools and so on).
  2. building a strong company culture (encouraging coworkers to bond outside of work with a minimum of 3 company-wide trips a year, weekly chats over video, watercooler chat in Slack)
  3. overcommunicating everything
  4. results-driven work structure (setting KPIs for every team and following up on those every week)
  5. minimal micromanagement from managers and making sure you hire the right people you can trust

6. How do you hire remotely? What’s the process that you follow?

We use skill-tests based hiring. We do not look at CVs at all. The first step is always the test that is limited in time and very focused on a particular skill set we are looking for in a hire. The most skilled candidates will proceed to a short test drive, which usually is an hour long and a more creative one. That part eliminates the chance that the person doing the skill test earlier didn’t try to trick the system. The final part is doing a paid test week and seeing how the person handles goal setting and communication with the team. We use a tool named Hundred5 for all of our hiring.

7. What would you say to companies that don’t believe to hire employees who work remotely?

I think they are missing out on enormous business opportunities and productivity gain and it seems that the resistance is usually connected to the leaders not being comfortable letting go of the control.

8. Which are the tools that you use or help you to work remotely?

As a team, we mostly use Slack for communication, Teamweek for transparent project planning, Hangouts or Zoom for video conferences, Github for development and issue tracking, HelpScout for customer support, Trello for gathering ideas, Google Drive for documents and a few other specific tools for each team.

Personally, I use a social media app blocker on my phone for specific hours to stay focused, and my to-dos are on a Kanban board in Trello.

9. How do you manage the business, salaries and things like taxes as a remote company?

We are sharing HR Manager and CFO with Toggl and have the similar systems in place. Since the teams used to be very connected, we aim to keep salaries at the same level among the two companies. We are evaluating everyone’s salaries two times a year and raise them based on business results.

Taxing is trickier in a remote company, especially when people are from different countries with different local laws. Most of our remote people have set up a company in their country of residence and are paying taxes locally. So basically they are acting as contractors but we make sure everyone gets similar perks that Estonian employees would get by law – 28 days of paid vacation per year, 2 conferences per year and a few other things. Also, everybody celebrates their local holidays and let’s the team know about these dates.

10. What advice would you give to companies that are starting to work remotely or establishing a distributed team?

The easiest strategy is to go “all in” from day one! If that is not possible, be very conscious about figuring out remote alternatives for everything that happens organically in a regular office environment.

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