We Started a Company 3 Months Before a Global Pandemic – Here’s What Happened Next

Like many companies globally, the pandemic was an unexpected shock to the system. We launched Ula in January 2020 and by March, our growing team suddenly needed to transition to fully remote work. Up until then, few tech companies embraced remote working (like Basecamp), but most other companies questioned its efficacy. How could we work remotely given our customers were physical stores? How could we operate remotely at such an early stage? (we were barely 3 months old!) How could we build culture and communicate our vision to remote teammates who had never been to Indonesia? These questions lingered on.

A year into remote work now, I’m proud to say that we’ve not only successfully incorporated remote working in our day to day, but also captured its added advantages. It has been a period of trial-and-error, but we’ve adapted and refined our approach.

Here are some of the things we’ve implemented over the past months which have enabled this success.

Align on Best Communication Practices

With distributed teams, over-communication is our default mode of operation. We find that a blend of synchronous and asynchronous communication works best – from short questions and answers over Slack, to collaborative problem solving and brainstorming over Zoom, to presenting novel ideas and strategies through long-form documentation. Each organization adapts to whatever works for them, but the key is to keep things where they can be found. What works for us is to keep most things in Confluence. Anything from ideas, to company priorities, to research summaries, to PRDs, to engineering HLDs and LLDs — all are indexed in Confluence.

We have also instilled a culture of open communication. If there’s a pending question or blocker, we encourage all teammates to reach out to quickly to resolve the issue. In the world of distributed teams, for us, “picking up the phone” is the replacement for walking up to someone’s desk with a question. Likewise, Slack is the new email… and email is now rarely used.

Of course, we also recognized that Zoom fatigue is real. Zoom meetings lined up throughout the day can be exhausting. To address this, I led by example to set up concise 30 mins meetings or even no-meeting-mornings to sequester off quiet focus time. Productivity doesn’t come from back-to-back Zoom meetings, but from the precious 1-2 hours spent uninterrupted.

Design a Comprehensive Onboarding Experience

As the team grows, so has the importance of onboarding. For remote teams, we have been especially deliberate when welcoming new teammates and inducting them to the team. For our new engineers, we conduct a dedicated onboarding session on how our tech organization is laid out; the apps and systems in each and the common buzzwords and terminology at Ula. We also conduct in-depth tooling walk through (e.g. Mixpanel for user tracking) and the engineering scrum process and the resulting flow of each sprint. These sessions are deliberately designed to ensure that everyone hits the ground running.

The Added Advantages of Remote Work

With fully remote teams, talent has now been democratized. We’ve expanded our search for the best tech talent across Asia and likewise, we realized these top talents have similarly expanded their scope. As a result, we have managed to accelerate our hiring pace and grow the team even faster.

We now have a 200+ strong team of 7 different nationalities across Indonesia, India, Singapore and Spain. This diverse talent quality brings with it diversity of thought- yet another benefit of remote work we have leveraged.

Rising to the Challenge

Covid as a catalyst for fully remote work was a fundamental shift for all companies. No one could have predicted the change and unique challenges it brought. For us at Ula, we’ve adapted and have come out stronger. While we still value and miss in-person collaboration, we have managed to leverage the best of both worlds now.

Turning adversity into strength is the hallmark of all enduring companies and we are immensely proud that our team has risen up to the challenge.

This is the first of a two-part series where I share our challenges and experiences in building a fast-growing startup during the pandemic. This first part focuses on building remote teams. The second part will be focused on building culture during the pandemic and will be out next week. Stay tuned!