Remote – An Island in a Sea of Startups

This article originally appeared in Critic Magazine. Illustration by Daniel Blackball.

When you hear the word “remote,” it doesn’t exactly conjure up feelings of prosperity, abundance and opportunity – feelings that we are told to look for in our chosen career paths. However, for some of us, not putting on suitable office attire (or even pants) and logging on from the comfort of our homes is a reality. There seems to be a mystique around the concept of working from home or being a “remote worker,” an illusion of pyjama-clad grandeur with an easy ride to comfortable success. But what does it really mean to throw off the shackles of a nine-to-five office job and take up residence in the sunniest corner of your home?


“Woah, back it up,” I hear you say. “What’s all this remote nonsense you’re blabbing on about?” Combining your place of work with the space that you are living isn’t a new concept, in fact, it’s one that’s been around for thousands of years. It’s pretty easy to forget that prior to the industrial revolution and the introduction of factories that necessitated a specific place of work, a lot of what we commonly referred to as “work” took place in and around the humble dwelling we now call home.

Obviously working from home isn’t a great fit for all job descriptions or industries. While the concept of a surgeon working from their garage or a lawyer Skyping a court-room from their living room is an amusing idea to behold, the truth of the matter is that, in practice, the concept is mildly horrifying and mostly unachievable. However, some jobs naturally lend themselves to being “remotified” (no that’s not a word, yes I will use it) and they’re not all just reserved for programmers or developers. You may have been tempted by the intriguing advertisements for get-rich-quick or work-from-home schemes scattered across the pages of websites if you happened to find yourself on the Internet without an ad-blocker. You may have even heard of a story of a friend of a friend’s grandmother who actually took the bait and was swindled out of a healthy inheritance. Thankfully for us, signing up for a work-from-home scheme isn’t the only way of achieving that work/life balance we’re all so desperate to attain.

For the titans of the business world, remote working appears to be a divisive concept. Some herald it as the revolution of the modern working environment whereas others hotly refute its claims to increase productivity and job satisfaction. Then, as always, there are those of us that just can’t decide which side of the fence we’re on at all. Someone who was in the “against” camp is the current CEO of the billion dollar empire Yahoo, Marissa Mayer. When Marissa was appointed in early 2012 she caused a media storm after an internal memo, which informed their hundreds of remote workers to ship in to Yahoo offices or ship out permanently, was made rather external. The reason behind her decision was that there was a collaborative aspect that was lost when workers communicated digitally, only a mildly ironic statement from a company that offers online communication and collaboration tools.

Before Marissa became Yahoo’s CEO she worked for another big name in the business – the biggest name – Google. Marissa was employee number 20 and their first female software engineer. She was instrumental in building a large part of what we now know as Google. It’s not surprising to hear that Google, alongside other tech giants Apple, try to keep their telecommuting employees to a minimum. So it begs the question, if the big names in business aren’t getting on board then is there any merit in it at all?

There are pros and cons to every situation in life and working from home is no different. In the case of Yahoo, a company that employs people across a multitude of locations and divisions, having some of its workers based at home disconnected from a large portion of its core personnel just didn’t work out. For companies of that size, with extensive infrastructures and bureaucratic policies and processes, the concept of letting some of their staff work from home is unfathomable. On the flipside, there are some notable large-scale tech enterprises that have managed to successfully navigate the challenges of having disparate team members. The volunteer creators and administrators of the film community site IMDB (Internet Movie DataBase) didn’t even meet each other until they were all in the same room signing a contract that passed IMDB into the hands of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Internet stronghold Amazon.

Technology plays a crucial part in making this all possible, even in just the last five years we’ve seen huge advances in the software and systems that support remote working, you no longer have to dial in to your company’s intranet via an ominously titled “Virtual Private Network” to collaborate with the rest of your team. Technology makes up for the most part the tools of the remote workers trade; not being equipped with the right ones can be the difference between a successful venture or a failed experiment. It’s probably no coincidence that Jeff Bezos and his Amazon peeps are now a huge part of what makes remote working possible. When Amazon isn’t selling you novelty toothpick holders, discounted iPhones and all the meaningless shit in the world that money can buy, it’s selling you “web services.” The aptly titled Amazon Web Services is just one of the names in the realm of cloud computing and it’s a pretty big one at that.

So what in the hell is cloud computing? Put simply, it provides platforms and interfaces that connect large repositories of data to “The Internet” (read in the tone of SpongeBob’s “Imagination”) where people like you and I can access it from a multitude of locations. Please note that, much like the Internet itself, descriptions of cloud computing (like the one given above) almost always don’t tell the full story, but they almost always work well enough for us laymen, so don’t panic.

The Cloud, while it enables so much of what we can do, is only part of the puzzle – the other pieces are made up of the services within the Cloud, and to the remote worker, these services or tools are what make it all possible. An increasingly popular model for distributing these tools falls under the category of SaaS or Software as a Service – subscription-based services that live in the Cloud. These include Google Drive and Gmail, Salesforce, Facebook, and local export heroes Vend and Xero.

SaaS companies are the volatile life-blood of the delicate eco-sanctuary that is the startup world, they come and go as quickly as discerning consumers dictate. As soon as one fails to create an audience for itself, another five will step up to take its place. It’s an exciting, dynamic and rapidly mutating environment and it’s the first port of call for anyone with plans of world domination. Everyday life in a startup is tough; resources are tight and things are constantly changing. This isn’t a place for someone who isn’t comfortable with change and lots of it, most of which you can only hope is for the better

When I left high school I didn’t go the same route as most of my classmates. I decided against the glossy pamphlets and framed accolades of academia and instead headed into the workforce, or what every parent affectionately calls “The Real World.” It didn’t take me long to figure out what jobs I didn’t like doing. Year after year was a process of elimination while looking for a job that held the delicate balance of being something I was interested in as well as being something I was capable of doing. For someone who didn’t go to University this was proving to be a challenge that was all too insurmountable.

Then, almost happenstance, I attended a startup weekend that I had ummed and ahhed about going to, only deciding to at the last minute. Boy, am I glad I went. If you’ve never been to a startup weekend and the opportunity arises, take it. You will learn so much about yourself in one weekend that you won’t even care that you sacrificed two extended sleep-ins (the usual leisurely 2pm wake up calls) for the experience. After the 48 hours was over, I was fizzing. I had pushed myself to the limit, tested boundaries and flexed “muscles” that I didn’t even know I had. I was totally hooked. I left the weekend with a renewed sense of urgency and purpose, the prospect of becoming an entrepreneur lit a fire within me that I didn’t think was possible.

When I had left school five years previously, being an entrepreneur wasn’t something that seemed probable or attainable. Legends like Zuckerberg were an anomaly. But now it’s not a totally foreign concept to hear of another young hotshot making their first million before they’ve even hit their legal drinking age. I had always wanted to work for myself – the ability to control the hours I worked, the environment I was in and have the freedom to decide what I wanted to do every day – and being an entrepreneur seemed like the answer.

A couple of months nurturing the seedlings of a startup, a million unexplored ideas and one too many interactions with total ass-hat “entrepreneurs” later, it’s fair to say that I became disillusioned with the concept. They tell you that all it takes is an idea, passion and shit tonne of hard-work. They’re right about one thing, it’s a metric shit tonne of hard work and, unlike some jobs where you can relax for a bit or rest on your laurels, you only get out what you put in – and what comes out is significantly lower percentage that what you started with and a side of burnout.

With unrealistic dreams of creating the next Facebook firmly rationalised and only the embers of my original fire remaining, I started to lose faith in the entrepreneurial dream and the world of startups. My job at the time was coming to a close and I had to make some big decisions about what direction I wanted to head next. Then I saw a post from a local startup whose own product I used every day. They were looking for staff. My heart soared at the thought of it and I threw together the world’s most informal cover letter that exploded with an embarrassing amount of enthusiasm.

Fast forward one month and I was working remotely from a spare room in our flat at an unused dining table, part of a small (but effective) 100 per cent distributed team in a rapidly evolving and growing tech startup. My role is one on the front line, helping users navigate the no-man’s land between confusion and clarity. It’s arguably (depending on who you talk to) one of the most important roles in a startup – in fact, in any business, as your interactions with them will colour their decision about whether or not to stick around.

Those of us who have ever worked in a customer-facing role know that there is no end to the service or support that you can provide. The power of the Internet means that you can have customers located in any part of the world that might need your help at any point in time. In my first few weeks as a remote worker I effectively worked for 40-something hours a week (when I was only contracted for 30). It even became a running joke and a source of amusement for my co-workers at my horror of realising it was 3pm and I hadn’t taken a break for lunch yet.

In startup life you’re measured on your output. As a remote worker you’re the one that has to manage your time. I was always aware of my perfectionist tendencies and I knew I had difficulty letting things go but with my transition to life as a remote worker I quickly realised the true level of my workaholism. Any lingering doubts I had about the “high work ethic” statement on some god awful iteration of an old CV were now long gone. Unlike most jobs where there are honeymoon periods before the excitement wears off and you settle into tedious patterns of mind-numbing rhythms, you don’t have that opportunity. Everything is moving just a fraction of a second faster than you can keep up. All you can do to keep your head above water is to stay one step ahead of the customer and forget the rest.

You can have as many virtual tools at your disposal (I think our current running rate is about 14) but there are times that these aren’t enough and you long to hear a voice or see a face and experience physical contact in something as simple as a handshake. While the technology that facilitates and makes remote working possible is advanced, we’re still a long way off teleportation. That being said I will say one thing of isolation, it does force you to make the most of the interactions that you do have.

Long gone are the days of cleaning toilets, night shifts that end in the early hours of the morning and standing on concrete floors in $10 shoes that make your feet ache for hours afterwards. As I sit in my “home office,” which resembles more of a rummage room filled with unloved items lying in wait for a garage sale than a place of work, I look back over my close to 10 years in the workforce and reflect on where I’ve come from and what I’ve achieved. There is nowhere I’d rather be than here, on an island in a sea of startups. Because while there’s sand in my pyjama pants, the reception’s not always great and at times the beach is empty, as far as the eye can see the view on the horizon is an amazing thing to behold.

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