The Power of Standing Out: Things CEOs of Remote Companies Do Differently

Even the richest and most powerful CEOs make mistakes because they are also humans.

Back in 1997, Bill Gates invested in Apple, Microsoft’s main competitor. Steve Jobs launched a range of products that eventually failed, such as Macintosh TV, the Apple III, or the Powermac G4 Cube. Mark Zuckerberg has been recently involved in the data protection scandal.

However, even after these failures, these people still managed to remain powerful CEOs during their time. This is because they saw the world differently and thus did things differently.

@mitenera — Unsplash

Today, the world is slowly going remote. Companies like Trello and Gitlab embrace the work from home culture. More and more businesses consider switching to the virtual office.

At the same time, many organizations start off as completely remote – according to the Hallway blog, there are 67 such companies in the world, but there are also companies that are not yet included in this list.

Running a 100 % virtual company requires certain superpowers, and some of them are specific to remote work culture only.

So maybe Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg would not embrace these powers today, despite each of them was – or is – a great founder and CEO of a co-located company.

In this article, we are going to talk about how the CEOs of remote-first companies manage their business and what makes them stand out.

Difference # 1: Communicate & overcommunicate

CEOs of virtual companies must communicate differently than those of the co-located ones. Yes, “must” is the right word – otherwise, the employees will see no signs of your existence and power.

In a co-located setting, you as a founder of a company see people every day. You can talk to them at any time during the day, read the non-verbal signals, and understand the context of your communication. All of this happens naturally, just going with the flow.

@saltnstreets — Unsplash

However, in a virtual setting, you must apply extra effort in order to mimic this flow. You must organize more meetings than you would do in a co-located company, and not all of them must be work-related.

Here’s how the CEOs of remote-first companies tackle this challenging task:

  • “Virtual water cooler” – a practice of Slack channels or internal social networks where people chat about the random, non-work related stuff. Practiced by: Zapier, Buffer, Lullabot.
  • Encouraging intentional interaction – getting people to know each other even if they do not work in the same team. It happens in the form of either regular virtual coffee breaks between random employees or personality tests and quizzes about the teammates. Practiced by: Zapier, Buffer, Help Scout.
  • Company retreats – a practice of getting the teams together in real life. It is commonly used by Joel Gascoigne, CEO and founder of Buffer,

“As CEO of a 75-person remote team, I see the retreats as an essential part of the work we do together. I firmly believe that if we would operate the company without these regular face-to-face gatherings, we would be less effective and feel less connected.”

Practiced by: Zapier, Buffer, Balsamiq, Sqwiggle.

Difference # 2: Hire self-directed, autonomous people

While being self-directed is a nice-to-have trait of a candidate in a co-located company, it is a must-have for those applying for a job in a remote company.

A co-located company can afford someone who cannot work autonomously at the very beginning but has a strong potential to learn how to do that and thus needs some guidance.

It is easier to guide a new employee in a co-located setting than in a distributed one because both of you – or the entire team – are in the same building most of the time.

@austindistel — Unsplash

However, it’s quite a challenge in a distributed setting, with employees scattered across different time zones.

Therefore, a perfect virtual team member is someone who:

  • knows how to manage their own time,
  • is a quick learner,
  • has experience working remotely or freelancing,
  • is a great written communicator, and
  • can work autonomously.

Here’s what the remote-first CEOs have to say about hiring the remote staff:

“When looking for remote staff, we look for expert talent who are capable of self-directing and people who are great communicators. Micromanagement is impossible in a distributed work environment so we need people who capable of thinking about the big picture and self-managing to some extent.”

— Jeff Robins, founder & CEO of Lullabot

“Most communication in a remote team happens via text—email, team chat, or one-on-one private messages. If someone struggles to write clearly and concisely, they’ll struggle in a remote team.”

— Wade Foster, founder and CEO of Zapier

“We hire people that are passionate about what we’re building and autonomous, a key trait for our distributed team.”


— Ryan Hoover, CEO and founder of ProductHunt

“Not everyone is cut out for working remotely though, so you have to be careful here. Ideally, they’d have some experience working on a remote team. This gives them a better perspective and appreciation for the problem we are solving.” 

— Eric Bellier, co-founder of Sqwiggle

Difference # 3: Always trust your team

This difference originates from the previous ones. In other words, if you hire remote employees who are self-directed and autonomous, you probably will not have any trust issues with them.

Moreover, if you organize open communication within your virtual team, you will have fewer trust issues as well.

@miquelena — Unsplash

In Gartner’s “Virtual Teaming: 10 Principles for Success” report, the researchers introduced the following “four pillars of trust” when working in a virtual company:

  • Dependability: Companies can expect certain behavior and performance from the employees.
  • Consistency: Each employee is treated with respect and all processes are consistently applied.
  • Congruency: Perception matches reality. Things are what they seem, and team members match words to actions.
  • Mutuality: Teams have the “all for one and one for all” attitude. The success of each team member is stipulated by the success of the entire team.

Though introduced in 2002, these rules are still topical and applicable. As for the present time, here’s what the remote company CEOs and founders say about trust in a distributed team:

“If you can’t trust the person, then not being able to see them every day is going to cause you to lose sleep. Make sure you trust who you hire.”

— Wade Foster, founder & CEO of Zapier

“It doesn’t matter how many hours are being put into the work or when the work is being put in. All that matters are the results — and I trust our employees find a way to make the results happen.”

— Claire Lew, founder and CEO of Know Your Team

“Better understanding builds better trust. And better trust builds a better culture.”

— Jeff Robins, CEO and founder of Lullabot

The bottom line

As a powerful leader, you must make sure that your actions stand out from the competition.

However, the CEOs of remote companies have a different set of superpowers than the co-located team leaders.

Here’s what makes them stand out:

  • A different approach to communication, with the practices of “virtual water cooler”, informal one on one meetings between the random team members, and regular company retreats “in real life.”
  • A different way of finding and hiring tech talent. Virtual team leaders look for autonomy, good writing skills (as remote communication is mostly written), and previous experience working in a virtual or distributed company.
  • Ability to trust the team, no matter what. If you hire remote employees who can work independently and have already demonstrated great results, then why would you have any trust issues with them? Micromanagement is not something that is typical of a distributed team setting.

Being a remote-first CEO is a challenge. However, you can achieve great results and stay afloat even if you fail – because you think differently.

Want to become a remote CEO but don’t know what to start with?

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Written by
Mary Atamaniuk

Mary Atamaniuk is a digital content strategist, her areas of interest include digital marketing, tech entrepreneurship, and influencer blogging.

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