I would love to tell you that we had a grand scheme to build a distributed company back in 2009. Before remote work was trendy. Before anyone other than Basecamp was talking about it.
The truth is that our remote company was an accident.
Jeremy and I had the idea for Tortuga in 2009 while on a backpacking trip to Eastern Europe. When we returned to the States and started working on the project, we lived in separate cities. Jeremy was in film school in Los Angeles, and I worked at Google in San Francisco. We were already working remotely even though we didn’t know the terminology yet.
When we needed outside help, like an industrial designer or a web developer, we found freelancers on eLance (now Upwork). As a self-funded startup without any sales, price trumped location.
Not knowing much about manufacturing, we searched for a factory willing to give us a chance and to make our crazy idea. When we did, the supplier was in Long Beach.
When our first batch of 100 (!) backpacks went into production, I quit my job, moved to LA, and started working as a freelancer to pay the bills. Jeremy and I were then living in the same city, in the same neighborhood three blocks apart, but we still mostly worked remotely. We didn’t have an office to go to. Both of us work well in isolation where we can grind away at a given task.
After my one year lease was up, I moved back to the Bay Area, and we continued working (more) remotely.
Growing a Remote Team
Years later, Tortuga found its footing, and we began to grow the business and the team. By 2014, Jeremy and I had spent 5 years working remotely with each other and with contractors. When the time came to hire Lauren as our first teammate, location was never a factor. We were already comfortable working remotely. Her customer support work could be done from anywhere. All she needed was a laptop and access to email.
Our comfort with working remotely meant that we could focus our search on finding the right person, not a person in the right location. Rather than searching locally in San Francisco, I turned to our past customers for hiring.
Committing to Working Remotely
Lauren joined the team and was (and is) awesome. Jeremy and I already knew that we could work remotely. Hiring Lauren proved that we could add people to the team and continue working remotely.
When Lauren joined, we learned that finding the right cultural fit is more important than finding someone local. We began to value teammates who are aligned with our mission, not who live nearby.
Around this time, other remote companies began writing about their experiences. Basecamp and Buffer showed us that remote work was possible and profitable. Seeing other remote companies succeeding gave us "permission" to pursue the same path.
Sean Keener, the founder of a remote company called Airtreks, turned me on to the Rockefeller Habits which led me to Jim Collins’ work on defining a company’s values. We added "Work on Our Terms" to our core values, not to be violated even if it became a detriment.
Our commitment to remote work made the choice much easier when we began to hire for roles that are difficult to do remotely.
We make physical products, not software. Patrick’s work as an industrial designer would be easier if we had an office with a studio where we could prototype ideas and review samples together in person. We don’t, so we have to create a process that works for us and that doesn’t bankrupt us with FedEx shipments from Vietnam to the US. We are still figuring this one out.
Hiring Remote Teammates
By making remote work a public, core value, we use it to attract the right people and to filter out the wrong people. As a travel company, remote work is a great perk perfectly in line with our mission and values.
If you aren’t excited about working remotely, you probably aren’t a good fit at Tortuga. Remote work is great but does have shortcomings. You won’t tolerate the downsides of remote work if you don’t love the upsides.
Every company says they want to hire self-starters, but we have no choice.
The opportunity to work remotely attracts people who are likely to be good cultural fits at our company. In reviewing applications and interviewing, we look for signals that someone can be productive outside of an office. I take note of previous remote or freelance work or a history of entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship (within a larger company).
Our journey to becoming a distributed team was accidental. Aside from Jeremy and me, everyone else signed up knowing they were joining a distributed team. I asked them why they work remotely and what makes it work for them.
Remote Work Post-Pandemic
The pandemic drove more people and companies into remote work. Temporarily and out of necessity.
Unfortunately, those people experienced a terrible version of remote work. They were forced to work from home without any time to prepare a home office or to coordinate schedules with their family or roommates. They were experiencing working from home, often for the first time, under stressful conditions.
Companies sent everyone home and started working remotely over Zoom without any plan or future commitment to remote work. They kept all of the worst parts of the office, like constant meetings and rigid schedules, both of which are made worse by being done remotely.
Rather than teaching people how to swim (work remotely) in the shallow end, we threw them into the deep end with no training and no life jacket.
As companies return to their offices full-time or on a hybrid schedule, we all have to figure out what comes next.
As a remote work advoce and co-founder of a remote company, I worry that experiencing a bad version of remote work will turn people off to the idea. I expect that we'll have to rebuild trust in remote work and to show people how a truly remote company operates. A company that is committed to remote work and that has designed all of its systems and processes around the idea. Otherwise, remote work doesn't work.
Why Do You Work Remotely?
Finally, I'd like to let other members of the Tortuga team share why they work remotely in their own words.
The possibility of working remotely gave me the opportunity to actually have a career. Living with an autoimmune disease, there are days where I have trouble walking, days where I need to take a few hours in the middle of my day to rest from extreme physical fatigue—things that would have been difficult to manage with an office job. Tortuga is not a job for me. It’s a piece of my life—one that I want to build and nurture, and I am so lucky to be able to do that in the environments that make me comfortable. I’ve worked from home, from coffee shops, from a bar beneath my hotel in Iceland, from hospitals.
I like to be alone, but I also love my team. The only real “con” for me is having to wait several months to see everyone together. My list of “pros” could go on forever: flexible schedule, working from where I can, the ability to travel while working — not to mention awesome things like the love and support from team members as we experience changes in our lives. I get to work with some of the best people I know (from a distance).
I work remotely because I have too much to accomplish to waste time trying to seem busy in an office. I also like to eliminate all the meetings and interactions that I don’t want to have.
I’m a very social person, so sometimes I miss being around people in an office. However, it’s easy enough for me to plan to see people when I want. The benefit of added productivity is well worth it for me.
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