Four Kitchens' Four Keys of Success to Transition to a Distributed Business

Hello to you dearest readers,

Last time, we left off with the super interesting interview we had with Kristin in Austin, who works remotely for InVision, managing their blog. She showed us that working remotely for a 400+ employee firm is possible and actually made her more productive, remember? (if not, click here!) We still wanted to dig more, and Kristin kindly connected us with her husband Todd Nienkerk. Both set up Four Kitchens with 2 other founders, but Todd and his partner Aaron Stanush currently run the business. This way, we could see the top management side of remote work, and we found out that a successful distributed team needs rigorous communication processes and a focused, charismatic leader just like any other business. Like we promised: one stereotype at a time… Let’s show you what we’ve learned.

about four kitchens

This design and development agency started out in Austin in 2006 with 4 co-founders among which Todd, who was kind enough to dedicate some of his precious time. The business gradually scaled up from technical web implementation to design over the years: one of their big accomplishments is their migration of The Economist’s website to Drupal, an open-source content management system. But their biggest challenge probably was their successful transition from a traditional agency to a fully distributed one in 2016. Today, they’re a team of 36 people (there were 25 in 2015) generating $5m a year while being 100% distributed.

Why the transition became necessary

This is actually a very interesting story about how a company foresees the necessity of expanding hiring possibilities in other cities, but doesn’t get it right the first time. What went wrong?

The 2000s were complicated in Austin’s tech scene: despite the city being a tech center, technical recruiting became difficult because Austin wouldn’t comply with the ‘startup culture’ that emerged from the Silicon Valley (you know, the usual deal: ‘I want a big office and a big salary for my big ego and my big expertise now’). There was also a shortage in Drupal experts, most of the web developers in Austin being WordPress or Joomla oriented which didn’t fit with Four Kitchens’ needs. The Drupal experts were in other parts of the world. So, Four Kitchens decided to give remote work a try. They got 2 remote workers, but it didn’t work out for either one of them: the first one was in Australia and the time difference was just too much of a struggle. The other one in Seattle realized he he hated remote working, and even a co-working space provided by Four Kitchens didn’t work out.

2 years later, Four Kitchens was facing the same problem over and over again: the firm still couldn’t hire the right people. So they gave it a second try, looking at developing a hybrid model with half of the team working remotely from other cities while the other half would do business as usual in the Austin HQ. This time, it worked better. They gradually became good at being remote, hopping from one workshop to the other and reading as much information from remote managers as possible. In fact, they get so good at it that by 2014, people living in Austin started working from home, too.

Facing an increasing under-utilization of the offices, Four Kitchens finally decided to close them in July 2016, making them a fully distributed team.

How did they do it? How did they go from losing 2 newly hired remote workers to naturally transitioning to a fully distributed team? How could they be so surprised with this success and convert the whole company instead of only half the team as it was initially planned? When we spoke with Todd, it seemed simple. Like there’s a Four Kitchens’ Four-Ingredient recipe of some sort. Hmmmm.

ingredient n°1: determination

Wanna know what was the best advice Todd ever got ? Pretty simple: even if it’s just one employee working remotely, they have to act and think as a fully distributed company. This means no compromise whatsoever. During the transition period, they stopped using conference rooms entirely. This way, they got used to video chatting first, even though everybody participating in the conference was still physically at the office. So they really started from Day 1, even if it felt silly.

It also means taking tough decisions. Such a radical change also involves separating yourself from people unwilling or unable to change. Two people left or were let go, but the firm later on hired 20 employees. So yeah, transitioning successfully can’t go without being prepared and committed. And it entails sacrifices.

However, this does not mean moving too quickly is good, either. Todd admits that one of his mistakes was to go too far too soon. Some people simply should not have been picked, and too many people became remote leaders too soon and at the same time, some of which had never actually been managers before. They were all learning together, but they didn’t have a lot of seasoned managers to actually talk to. Eventually, frustrations arose due to the stress generated by such a situation. This could have been avoided with a better definition of each leadership role, and by giving it all a bit more time, by bringing people on board one at a time, every 6 to 12 months, for example.

ingredient n° 2: process, process, process

It’s not just for the sake of it. Processes are here for a reason: to foster communication. When working remotely, you never get enough of it. People no longer have the ability to overhear a conversation or run into someone in the hallway, they can’t share the fact that traffic in Austin is awful, for example, it just doesn’t happen anymore. Every spontaneous communication is deleted. So, you need to compensate that with online communication. Zoom and Slack are the tools they use the most: Todd personally spends 5 to 7 hours a day on Zoom (video calls), the rest of it is Slack (chat). As for emails, even though they tried, they’re impossible to eliminate completely, they remain very useful for their clients. Jira is also a good collaborative tool for project management.

"Every conversation becomes deliberate, so we had to create very distinct communication channels.”

They had to create proper, step-by-step communication processes, with everything being written, documented, and posted.

There is also a well-defined hiring system, based on a 3-step interview process. The first interview is a very specific one, meant to check skills and work experience. So far, it’s pretty usual. The second interview, on the other hand, is a more culture-focused interview organized with a random group of team members: the candidate just talks with them for an hour. Finally, depending on the opinion delivered by the employees involved in the second meeting, the candidate goes through a third interview with the potential direct managers of the position. Now that Four Kitchens is fully remote, the whole hiring process really stresses the fact that the candidate must be fully prepared to working remotely. The candidate will be asked if he/she already worked remotely, if there is a dedicated work space ready to use in his/her home, and what his/her plan is to be good at it. Directly testing virtual communication skills by conducting video interviews is the best way to go, too.

One tool that’s helpful and easy to use is knowyourcompany.com, to get weekly input on work progress and team morale.

Oh yeah, and all meetings are recorded and posted for the whole team to see afterwards.

ingredient n° 3: a trustful, low-ego leadership

Question: how do you make people appeal to these changes?
Answer: leadership.

Distributed teams depend on the boss just as much as any regular business. Meaning that the attitude of a leader flows back to the team. The only difference is that you don’t see your boss everyday wearing a tie and physically breathing over your shoulder. The fact that Four Kitchens’ leadership adopted remote working habits early on made everyone adopt it early.

But that’s just not enough: people need to trust and have the trust of their managers. Todd’s management style (according to him) relies on a lot of delegation, while he also personally gets involved in sales.

So. This could all be a bit of bullshit, since we only talked to the CEO and founder Todd, right? Well actually, documenting everything prevents this. For example, there is a step-by-step, systematic approach to decision making that is fully detailed and posted for everyone to see, to ensure that it is applied as it should be.

1: the problem is identified
2: leadership brainstorms to find possible solutions
3: leadership publicly posts the problem and possible solutions
4: the team has 1-2 weeks to comment on the possible solutions
5: leadership makes a decision, documents it, and implements it
6: leadership validates success and iterates if needed

In other words, at Four Kitchens, transparency flows from the processes, and materializes consultative management. Similarly, the whole team comes up with the 5 yearly goals for the company from April 1st, right after the team retreat usually taking place in February.

"People want to be heard more than they want to be agreed with”

Yes, we agree with you: saying that communication and team consultation is important for troop’s morale and for business is no breaking news. But in more concrete terms, Todd helped us come up with the characteristics that make someone a good remote manager.

First, you have to prioritize the happiness of the team. The product most remote teams sell is the team itself (that is to say, the time and attention of really smart people), so they have to be happy. To do so, you need to actively listen to them, you have to make sure they’re working on challenging projects. Also, you must check that they’re not working too much (working remotely is pretty great in that sense: you can track the working hours of each team member based on the actual work instead of the time spent at their desk in a physical office…).

Secondly, it’s important to be a leader in your field of expertise, to write content about your projects, your management process, you need to speak at events… This gradually enforces your legitimacy.

Third, you need to be highly collaborative with all the rest of the company, and finally, quite obviously, you need to be an excellent communicator.

ingredient n° 4: know where you're going

Good leadership in change management relies on the fact that the leader knows where he/she is going. It’s as simple as that. Or is it?

When Four Kitchens was considering going remote, they went to many conferences for distributed companies : they followed 90% of the external advice they received, the other 10% did not fit the culture. Todd insists on the fact that this advice helped them set the right foundations for them to learn how to transition to a distributed model, although they still had to innovate as much to build their model.

Despite getting all that advice from other people, you notice very quickly how focused Todd is. Actually, from the very first minute you meet him, you have a very strong feeling that you are facing a clear mind, focused, goal-driven.

Knowing where they’re going still applies today, as the firm is already 100% distributed. The question today is how to make this model scalable and how to align growth prospects with the remote working constraints.

“Going remote is probably the biggest factor in our growth, because we could hire more.”

Distributed teams don’t have to be small: you can have great communication in 500-remote workers firms broken down in teams, like in InVision. If Four Kitchens were to double in size, they would add a management layer to insure practices can be followed. And no matter what, they would keep #TeamHugs, #GroupHugs, and 1-on-1s.

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