Phil Libin, CEO of All Turtles and Mmhmm
In December, internet entrepreneur Phil Libin charged his car and drove nearly 2,000 miles from his home in San Francisco to Bentonville, Arkansas with his girlfriend. They have since moved a few miles east to the neighboring town of Rogers.
Known as the creator of the Evernote note-taking app, Libin ran his start-up studio All Turtles for three years as he escaped the stresses of the Bay Area.
He’s not sure where to go next or when, but he has definitely decided one thing: it’s not about going back to an office. All Turtles has closed its three physical locations – in San Francisco, Tokyo, and Paris – and now has a fully dispersed workforce around the world. This is how the Libin team launched a new video product called Mmhmm in May and spun it off into a separate company a few months later.
“Nobody in the company wastes two hours a day in traffic,” said Libin, CEO of both companies. “Imagine this has always been the case.”
Libin said that by closing offices, not only will he end the commute, but it will also recruit talent and employees around the world to buy a home in a market where prices aren’t as insane as New York or San Francisco. The house he rents in Arkansas would cost a tenth as much as a comparable place in the Bay Area, he said.
Libin works in an industry that has adapted smoothly to the coronavirus pandemic. Tech stocks only traded at all-time highs last month, and 2020 was a boom year for IPOs, even as unemployment skyrocketed.
It all happened while companies were closing their offices and some were permanently out of the way. Twitter, Square, and Atlassian told their employees they can work from anywhere they want forever. Coinbase, the cryptocurrency exchange that could be valued at $ 100 billion when it goes public in the coming weeks, has “Incorrect Address” on the front page of its prospectus instead of a headquarters address.
“In May 2020 we became a remote-first company,” the file says. “Accordingly, we do not have a headquarters.” Coinbase has over 1,200 employees, up from 200 at the end of 2017.
Phil Libin, CEO of All Turtles and Mmhmm
Other tech companies like enterprise software providers GitLab and HashiCorp have long worked with a distributed workforce.
All of the Turtles and Mmhmm together employ about 70 people, a tiny fraction of these more established companies. More than half was added last year, fueled by a $ 31 million round of funding that Mmhmm raised in October.
It’s not like Libin ever imagined building a business. Evernote, which he founded in 2004, banned video meetings.
“I hated it,” he said. “I’ve made so many decisions on random coffee walks. I was completely personal. The first time we were fully dispersed, I was concerned about whether or not we would be productive.”
Libin said the most important change he made immediately is to eliminate scheduling meetings that require everyone, regardless of time zone, to attend live. Rather, they switched to recorded video so reps could view meetings in their own time and rewind or pause if necessary.
The success of these changes inspired Mmhmm who takes your typical Zoom or Microsoft Teams call and adds new graphics and dynamic slideshows for live or recorded presentations. This is how Libin is now holding his all-hand meetings.
Other tools that kept All Turtles and Mmhmm running smoothly are Slack and Figma, who sell software for collaboration on design, Libin said.
“If we get together now in sync, it’s just for discussion,” he said.
Figure out what people should pay for
While productivity has improved significantly, Libin still has a lot to find out when it comes to running a distributed business that is growing rapidly. He wants to pay people by performance and contribution rather than location – but does that mean salaries are competitive based on the cost of living in the Bay Area? Or is the baseline somewhere like Arkansas?
“It needs to put more emphasis on expensive cities,” he said.
Libin also realizes that he needs to make sure people actually go on vacation. An indefinite vacation time policy doesn’t work if people don’t take advantage of it, and he knows employees really need longer breaks. So Libin updated and formalized the rules.
“Part of the job of managers is not just giving team members time off,” said Libin. “It’s your job to make sure everyone does it.”
Ultimately, the cost savings associated with getting rid of real estate and office-related perks are offset by increased costs to keep everyone comfortable, happy, and healthy in their chosen environment.
“We’re not doing this because it’s cheaper,” said Libin. “Whatever we save money on rent or anything else, we’ll spend it on other things.”
There’s one other thing that Libin wants to avoid forever during the work day: April Fool’s Day jokes. Due to the global crisis caused by the pandemic, companies largely abstained from pranks on April 1 last year.
Mmmm declares April 1st, 2021, the first annual April Truth Day. On Thursday, the company opens the practice with the launch of an important new product.
“We’re programming against,” he said. Every April 1st we will be announcing serious things. “
SEE: Slack CEO on the future of remote working in various sectors