What it’s like to work at an early-stage startup

March 25, 2015

Read time 5 min

It’s been an exciting year for Sharetribe. In Slush 2014 we opened up our “create your own online marketplace” platform globally, and also introduced a tool that anyone can use to create such a site online in 60 seconds.

We also released our latest funding round. Reaktor Polte doubled down on their initial seed round and were joined by Lifeline Ventures and Tekes for this new bigger, round.

Our big launch was featured in big tech publications including TechCrunch and The Next Web. The results were staggering: after the launch, more than 4000 people in 150+ countries have created their own marketplace site with our platform and started their free 30-day trial. We now have paying customers in all six continents, from Australia to Tunisia and from Canada to Japan.

Things have changed fast. When Reaktor Polte invested the first time, we had just pivoted and only had a few pilot customers testing our new model. We only had two people in the team: the founders. Last year we grew to nine people. Reaktor’s help in coaching us to work together as an effective software team has been really valuable in getting us where we are now. In this post, we’re sharing how we’re working together as a team in an ever-changing startup environment.

Global from day one – a team that works like an open source project

Despite our relatively small size, we already have team members in three countries – and some of our Finnish team members are pretty frequent travellers. Our founders are no strangers to remote work either: me and my co-founder Antti spent the entire first year of our company without seeing each other face to face!

While remote work can bring challenges, it can also be really rewarding to be able to work from wherever you want. Sharetribe is an open source project, so we thought that maybe our team should also work like one.

We’ve given everyone in our team the opportunity to design their ideal working conditions. For some, it means sometimes working from home while watching their kids. For others, it means extending their trips by spending their nights with a laptop and hostel wifi and their days skiing down the slopes of Japanese mountains.

All our work is done using online tools and since much of it is asynchronous, most of the time remote work is not a problem. There are occasional hiccups. Once a snowstorm broke down the hostel wifi, forcing our designer to work from the parking lot of a local 7-eleven instead, which randomly had the only public wifi in town. He was sitting in his rental car and it was freezing cold outside, so he had to turn the engine on every now and then to keep himself warm.

However, in most cases remote work works surprisingly well, as long as we gather the whole team in the same room when we’re doing long term strategic planning. We try to do that at least two times a year. Sometimes you just can’t beat facetime and the good old whiteboard.

All this talk about remote doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t have fun at our office though. For those who prefer to work from our Helsinki headquarters, we offer gorgeous views over the rooftops of downtown Helsinki, sofas that are just made for an afternoon nap, occasional FIFA tournaments and shared lunch breaks in good company.

Initiatives – everyone is in charge

We feel that everyone in our team is responsible for our success, and they should have as much power, freedom and responsibility inside the company as possible. That’s how best people like to work. That’s why we don’t have managers. Instead, we have initiatives. They are clearly formulated suggestions of something we could do next – whether it’s a new feature, a refactoring project or a marketing email campaign.

The description of an initiative should contain the following things: what changes are going to be made, why we are doing it, what success looks like (and how it is measured) and what kind of team is needed to make it happen. This framework is loosely based on the awesome work by guys from Treehouse.

Anyone can suggest a new initiative. It doesn’t matter what your role is in the company, you can make a suggestion about anything. When you present the idea to others, they can choose to join. When you have the required team assembled, the work on the initiative can start.

Every Wednesday we have an all-hands meeting (with some folks attending via skype), where ongoing initiatives and new suggestions are discussed. Those sessions are good for pitching your idea to the others. So far prioritization has been rather easy. If most people agree on that the initiative is important and fits our high-level roadmap (which we worked on together the last time we had a strategic planning session), then it probably gets done soon. Naturally, we’re also using data from our analytics and feedback from our customers to support the decisions.

To help us stay in the same page, we also took the time to define our vision, mission and values together as a group. That has helped us to create a shared way of working together. We know what we’re doing (the mission), why we’re doing it (the vision) and how we’re doing it (the values).

All this is an iterative process, and we’re changing something every month, if not every week. We’re constantly learning how to work better as a team, and what it really takes to move forward and grow. It’s safe to say that this has already been the most transformative learning experience of our lives. Or, to put in another way, one hell of a rollercoaster ride.

– Juho Makkonen

CEO of Sharetribe 

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