Interview: Emsisoft

Christian Mairoll, founder and CEO of Emsisoft (an international remote-only security software business) has shared with Remoters.net advice about how to manage a remote team of 40 members across 18 countries in four continents and collectively speak about 20 different languages, while he is celebrating the 15th’s anniversary of the Company. You can follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin or read their blog.

1. Could you please introduce you? What’s the name of your company, what do you do, how many are you, from where do you work?

Christian Mairoll, EmsisoftHi! I’m Christian Mairoll, founder and CEO of Emsisoft, an international remote-only security software business. We create malware protection solutions for home and business users. We’ve also released about 40 free decrypters, which have helped thousands of individuals and businesses recover from ransomware attacks and kept a significant amount of cash out of the hands of cybercriminals.

Emsisoft currently employs 40 team members. We’re spread across 18 countries in four continents and collectively speak about 20 different languages. Everyone works from home as we’ve never had an office, but some of us like to occasionally use coworking spaces for the social aspect. I’m originally from Austria but now live at the sunny top of the South Island of New Zealand.

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

I’m answering these interview questions while we’re celebrating our 15th anniversary. I’ve been doing 100% remote work since 2003 – so long that I can’t even imagine going back to old school office-based work today.

I think we were one of the first (if not the first) remote-only businesses in the antivirus industry, but since then I’ve seen a number of organizations like us popping up all around the world. I knew right from the start that remote working was the future of IT work, as there are simply too many advantages to ignore.

For me, the journey to remote working started with a problem. When my business partner and I started creating protection software, we quickly realized that in order to get somewhere useful we would have to grow much faster than our two 60+ hours work weeks would allow for. I never liked the idea of asking third parties for money, so we had to grow organically by continuously reinvesting all our income.

Back then we were based in Austria and Germany – regions that required paying prohibitively high wages for truly talented software developers. So we looked for alternatives and found them on a site called rentacoder.com (today freelancer.com). We posted a small development project and decided to give it a try with a Russian software developer who was based in the middle of Siberia, a region in which software developers could hope to earn, at the time, a maximum of about $300 a month. We were able to offer him a multiple of that while still saving big compared to hiring in Central Europe.

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

What was initially a hotfix for a cash flow problem turned out to work to our advantage. After our early startup years, we grew into a position where we could hire people from anywhere on Earth, regardless of whether they were from a low- or high-income region. This allowed, and continues to allow, us to access the best talent from across the planet, regardless of their geographical location or the state of their local job market.

Operating remotely also means a lot of flexibility for Emsisoft as a company as well as our team members. We tend to attract people who like to travel a lot, or have no strong ties to the places where they live. I myself moved with my wife and our two children from Austria to New Zealand in 2014. The great thing about this was that, apart from a change of business address on our website, there were literally no changes for our customers or employees.

Many of our team members live in different countries to the ones in which they grew up. Our lead research manager is a German living in the UK, our sales director is an Uzbek living in Germany, one of our malware researchers is Dutch but lives in Romania, our product team coordinator is a Dutch living in Portugal, one of our software developers from Belarus recently moved to New Zealand, and many more have plans to move in the future.

The other beneficial aspect of remote work is that we can offer great jobs for people who have to stay at home for various reasons. Several of our team members have babies and small children that make it difficult to enter into a full-time position. For us, it doesn’t matter if work gets occasionally interrupted by private matters, as long as the results at the end of the day are satisfactory.

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

Team communication and organization are key. When we reached about 20 team members we hit the limitations of a chaotic organization approach. It was just no longer possible for me as a central figure to hold everything together alone. We had to create teams with their own managers who took care of goals and their teams. While this is probably not surprising for any business, I think the fact that we’re doing remote work tends to amplify any potential organizational issues that may arise.

We also have to be cautious about trust. Employees need to have very strong self-management skills to enjoy remote work. Some people can’t deal with working on their own and need a team around them to thrive. Careful candidate selection during the hiring phase helps us avoid recruiting people who are prone to mentally drifting off or getting easily distracted.

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

We are internally organized in teams of no more than 10 people each. They run their own Slack channels and Redmine projects, and have their own monthly goals and targets. We make use of several Scrum and Kanban features, but have developed our own methods to meet our remote team and high-speed requirements. We generally do monthly software releases, which define all the processes across all teams.

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

I think over the years I’ve developed a sixth sense for reading between the lines during hiring interviews, which allows me to quickly determine whether a candidate fits our team or not.

We mostly hire via Upwork when it comes to technical roles, and via more specialized or regional platforms for jobs in Marketing and Sales, depending on the individual requirements. Hiring interviews are done exclusively via text chat to filter out all the emotional components that could distract from the facts.

I can say with all honesty that things like race, culture, gender, age, visual appearance or any kind of disabilities are not relevant whatsoever in my hiring process. I don’t even request a photo or any personal data for making a choice. We always pick the candidate that best meets the defined requirements of the role.

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

That’s awesome! That leaves more great candidates for my business. Thank you!

On a serious note, if you don’t believe in running a remote business, you should probably not do it just for the sake of it. To operate successfully as a remote company, you need everyone in your team to incorporate the entire remote work lifestyle. I can almost guarantee that remote working won’t work as an afterthought or an addition to an existing local business. The two worlds are just too different, and sooner or later they would collide.

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

Almost all of our team communications run via Slack text chats. Occasionally we do phone and video chats on Skype, but they are not really significant. We prefer text chat meetings over voice meetings because they allow us to reconstruct decisions later if needed and also enable team members who missed a meeting to read up on all the information later.

To organize our internal workflow we run a Redmine ticket system. A VPN helps us to keep our secret stuff as secret as possible. Almost all of our working tools are web-based, naturally. Nothing spectacular really, just the typical efficiency tools.

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

Of our 40 team members, only two reside in the same country as the business itself, so direct hiring is not an option for most. The different legal systems make it almost impossible to hire across country borders, so we run everything via contractor agreements and hourly time-tracked billing. Employees are freelancers who have to manage their own tax and insurance matters in their home countries. However, from a teamwork perspective, we consider everyone an employee. Emsisoft is a big family and we do our best to look after each other.

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

Starting a remote business has never been easier. Today, it’s easy to find hundreds of thousands of talented people of all trades on one of the big freelance work portals like Upwork or Freelancer. Do yourself a favor and don’t fall for the cheapest bid. You usually get what you pay for. A full stack developer with 15 years of experience who requests only $6.50 per hour might sound like a bargain, but chances are they’ll just waste your time in the long run. Try to be as specific as possible in your job descriptions and make sure you have methods at hand that allow you to verify if a candidate is as skilled as they claim. A good start is a Google search for phrases like ‘Hiring questions for ’.

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