EMMA JOY OBANYE and IRENE FRANCES built Mindful Team to help teams measure happiness, boost productivity, reflect, and take action. In this interview we discuss how their tool can help remote teams. Their own team works from Belarus, London, and Barcelona and their tips for remote startups: build, measure, and test.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Great. And we’re live. So welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today on the line, I have something very exciting. It’s a tool that I hope everybody will go out there and try for their team. Before I tell you what the tool is though, I’m going to try to build some suspense. I’m with Irene and Emma today. Thanks you guys for joining me on this interview.
Emma: Thanks for inviting us.
Lisette: Now I want you guys to say hello so that people on the video can see that you’re both out sitting in the sun and you’re in Barcelona today, brilliant. Let’s dive into it with the first question. What does your virtual office look like? What do you guys need to get your work done?
Emma: Our virtual office isn’t always in the sun [inaudible – 00:49]. I guess before, we kind of considered ourselves as digital nomads. But I think now, we’re kind of settling in Barcelona. So we’ve got a startup. Our virtual office is in the studio behind us. And we kind of [inaudible – 01:07] with a couple of other… I guess an agency, a branding agency. We’re sort of a bunch of creators, really.
Irene: We also have a couple of team members, [inaudible – 01:23] in this case. They are in Belarus at the moment. We’ve been in Thailand before. We’ve been traveling a little bit more before [inaudible – 01:37]. But right now, we’ve decided to come to Spain for a while and be closer to London, which is the main, where everything happens for us right now.
Emma: So we’re kind of in between London and Barcelona at the moment. [inaudible – 01:53] said, we’ve got more or less three developers in Belarus. And we’ve got one person who worked with us who’s based in Chiang Mai in Thailand, Luke. And Justin and Paul are in London.
Lisette: Okay. I’m going to dive into why London and why Belarus in a second. But first let’s talk about your product, which is mindful.team. Tell us a little bit about what you guys have created.
Emma: Mindful Team is basically a product, tool that we’ve created as a way to help people measure the happiness of their teams and also boost [inaudible – 02:32]. So the way it works is [inaudible] the sort of [inaudible – 02:37] framework as a base [inaudible]. And it’s just a way to kind of capture and get your team to reflect on how the last week, last fortnight, last month went on a particular project [inaudible – 02:50] incorporating their happiness into us. It allows team members to [inaudible – 02:55] how happy they’ve been [inaudible] project. And for us, it’s a way of trying to get people happier. We want to make people happier. And we decided that teams is a good way to start.
Lisette: Why do you want to make people happier?
Irene: The main focus of everyone in this life should be being happy. And you are eight hours minimum at your workplace. So that’s what we decided to start in the workplace. And by being happier, everything around you is going to work in a better way. So we decided to measure the happiness of people first and then try to understand where is the state of that happiness and then try to take action in order to improve that happiness. And usually, the happiness is linked directly with productivity at work because if you are happier, you’re going to work better and be more productive, bottom line. So basically, that’s the tool. It’s very simple to use. It’s about reflecting and taking action.
Lisette: And have you had jobs where you were really unhappy at work?
Emma: I wouldn’t say necessarily like really unhappy but certainly have had periods where [crosstalk – 04:27].
Irene: Less happier, yeah. That’s one of the reasons that we decided to create this tool because in the last job that we were working on, we had certain periods of being unhappy, mainly because the communication was really bad. There was no way of communicating with our superior, our direct boss. So we decided to create a tool that will facilitate that and will give more transparency in the companies. Especially, management would be able to see what’s going on in each team and take action.
Lisette: What kind of teams would use this tool? I know you can say every team, but is it built for global corporations or smaller teams? Who’s your audience for this?
Emma: I guess the first, most obvious audience is remote teams because they’re the teams that don’t have the same communication levels that you get in an everyday working environment within an office, let’s say. So that’s an obvious one. But like you said, for us, the aim is trying to make this for everyone. But we’re starting with remote teams and we’re starting with tech teams really, teams who are much more used to the process of Agile and methodology of Agile and specifically retrospectives [inaudible – 06:24].
Lisette: Indeed, a really special part of the Agile community is their feedback loops and the amount of time that they do retrospectives and reflect on their process. And there are a lot of successful methodologies out there like the Toyota Kata methodology, where they implement and reflect and then iterate and take more action, so it sounds good. How does it actually work in practice? What does the loop look like in your product?
Emma: You can go to a product in our products, and within two minutes, you can create what we call a retrospective form. So we choose a date and time frequency that that form will go out. And every week or so or two weeks, that form goes to every member of the team that you specified. And that team member or those team members will be able to fill it out. Once all the forms have been received, then all the data is kind of put together. And you can even get your team to vote on the items that come out, each person’s reflection form or retrospective form. And then what you can do is then you can go through it with the teams. There’s a dashboard which kind of puts it all together and allows the team to go through, reflect, and take action. And you can create actions [inaudible – 07:45] sent to the team members that you specify.
Lisette: And how often should people do this? What’s the recommended loop time?
Irene: We used to do it every week. But I think it should be around every week, every two weeks. But it’s mainly when your projects have [inaudible – 08:06] or when you have a [inaudible], you set up a retrospective form.
Emma: So whatever the team feels is rightful then, really. So we’ve actually [inaudible – 08:16] so that if you want, you can have daily retrospectives. There are a couple of teams that at least [inaudible – 08:24] kind of test every day. But we would suggest one every week or fortnight.
Lisette: Yeah, indeed. I’m just thinking. I managed the remote team for Happy Melly, and I was just thinking. I’m very sensitive. I’m a highly sensitive person, so I can usually feel when there’s something going awry on the team. But it would be so nice to have big data to back that feeling up because sometimes I’m wrong. Probably often I’m wrong. So it would be nice to have science behind it. I really like this idea. I already made myself a note to try your tool on the Happy Melly team. So you’ll see me signing up after this interview. I should’ve thought of it earlier when we spoke before.
One thing that I want to ask is you said that you have developers in Belarus and you have lots of people in London. Why the developers in Belarus? And what’s happening in London? Why is London a hub?
Emma: I’ll start with developers first. I used to have another startup, and it’s the same team that helped with that startup because we’ve got a great working relationship [inaudible – 09:30] to kind of work with them again. London is where we used to live. It’s a market that we’re most used to. It’s market that we both worked in before. And it was a no-brainer to start there because we’ve got so many relationships and connections that enabled us to kick-start this project straightaway. So for us, London is a hub. It’s my hometown. We’re currently basing ourselves here. We’ll be there quite often. In fact, every month or so, we’ll be back in London.
Lisette: It’s a short flight, that’s for sure.
Irene: Yeah, it’s very close.
Lisette: Time zones are working out with that. So what do you guys use to communicate internally with your team?
Irene: We use Skype. We use Trello in order to distribute the tasks and to plan the week and to assign the task. So everyone knows what we’re doing, what needs to be done, any [blockers that – 10:47] anyone could have. Slack as well.
Emma: Trello is a must for us because we literally do everything in it from business planning to [inaudible – 11:01] to our planning for everything [inaudible – 11:07] Trello.
Irene: Product planning.
Emma: Product planning, everything.
Lisette: Yeah, it’s a great tool, super easy to use and really versatile, I should say. Yeah, I’m also a big fan of the tool. What’s something that’s challenging for your team? What do you guys struggle with?
Irene: It could be communication sometimes.
Emma: [crosstalk – 11:31] communication. And I think it’s something that most remote teams at some point will encounter as a challenge. But it’s just the way that you deal with. I mean just ensuring that you do reflect and have it surface so that you can take action and try different things. And that’s what we do. We know that it can be a challenge sometimes, but we’re always looking for ways that we can improve it.
Lisette: It’s funny because most co-located people would say the same thing. If you ask what they struggle with on their team, it’s always communication [crosstalk – 12:13] together.
Emma: Exactly. And I think [inaudible – 12:17] when you do choose this kind of lifestyle, you become much harder worker because [inaudible – 12:34] chosen. I think to some degree, not being together, it allows us to kind of have some period where we can kind of get on with [inaudible – 12:44] the tasks that we may have individually at hand. But I think it’s a great way to kind of live your life to see the world as well. And yet, for us, I don’t think I can go back [inaudible – 13:02]. I say that now but yeah.
Lisette: It may be the right amount of money. You never know what people will offer you to go back into the office [crosstalk – 13:12] same thing. If the offer is good enough, I guess I’m open, but [inaudible – 13:16].
Emma: Right now we’re loving it.
Lisette: And why did you go remote to begin with?
Irene: We decided at the beginning to go to Thailand because it was cost-effective, the quality of life was much better than in London, and because we were in the early stages of the startup. We didn’t have much budget. So it made sense for us to move to Thailand for three months to work really hard, to be focused. Even many people think, “Oh, yeah, you went to Thailand on holidays.” We were working. We were working ten hours a day. But whether the environment made everything easier… we were working very hard, but at the same time, we were enjoying it so much. So then after three months, we came up with a lot of ideas, a lot of things that we did. And then we just started to move those ideas around, meet people, and then move the project to the next phase.
Emma: I was just going to add to that point. Having [inaudible – 14:38] close to home and being in your hometown will make things easier. But a city like London is quite expensive, especially if you are building a startup and you’re doing it on a budget. So [inaudible – 14:52] be creative in a way that you [inaudible – 14:55], even if it’s just three months, six months [inaudible – 14:58] another part of the world that you might be able to kind of have that work-life balance and then kind of keep things cost-effective. And that’s what we did and it worked really well for us.
Lisette: Interesting. Something that I hear from a lot of startups – and I’m very curious to get your perspective since you’ve done a few startups now – is that in the beginning, it really is helpful to be co-located as a startup because you want to bounce ideas quickly and talk quickly. And after you’re established, then it’s better to go remote. So I always hear like, “Remote startup? That’s really hard. But a remote business is a little bit better once it’s established.” What do you think of that?
Emma: I think the opposite. To be honest, it was something that I wanted us to come and test out, which is like can we build a product with a very fine budget. And can we work really effectively in this way? And we managed to do it. It’s not for everybody. And I think it really depends on people, depends on many, many factors. And for us, given the way that we work with our developers, it worked perfectly well. It was amazing.
Irene: But it’s also true that you and I were always in same location. That helps because at least two of the people in the company were in the same place. So I agree with what you said. A lot of things need to be discussed. A lot of decisions need to be made. And it’s quicker if you’re in the same place.
Emma: Yeah. And it’s quicker if you’ve got a small team as well. I think as your team grows, that’s when you can have way more issues. It is a linear thing. You add another person to a team, and you’re always going to have x times more issues to deal with. It’s all about personalities and having that balance really. So I think just the fact at the time we were building this startup, it was just the three of us, Irene and I and one developer. And it worked really, really well [inaudible – 17:09].
Lisette: Yeah, indeed. The smaller the team, the easier. It is exponential. I remember building the Happy Melly team. And as soon as we added more members, it was not linear. The effects that happened, it was definitely exponential.
Any hiring tips for remote employees? Have you guys learned anything about how to hire? Because I find it so hard hiring anybody. I mean I watched my husband hire. He’s got an in-person business. He allows them to work remote. Otherwise, I would have to divorce him, of course. But I see how hard it is to hire people. I’m wondering what are your tips.
Emma: I think it’s all about giving them autonomy and setting very, very measurable, specific goals if possible. It is about trust and it’s about ensuring the communications well and that everybody is committed to what they are doing and ensuring that you have enough time to reflect. I think if you’ve got that feedback loop, then no matter what challenge you are faced with, you can ensure that it goes as smoothly as possible. But it’s all about reflecting and making sure that at each point, you’re constantly asking both the team and yourself how well this is going and what can I do to improve it.
Irene: I think the mindset, you need to make sure the other person has the same mindset of working remote because it’s not the same as working in an office. You need to be very inner-driven person. You need to be independent. You need to have autonomy. And that will be the first thing.
And the second thing, I would say, make sure that the time difference is not more than six hours or so. More than six hours, it becomes quite complicated.
Lisette: Yeah, people always ask about time zones, and I always say there’s nothing you can do to squeeze the world closer together. It’s like physics.
You’ve said that virtual is different than working in person. That’s true. A lot of people try to take the same techniques of working in person and then use it to work virtual. Do you guys have any stories about having tried that or any examples off the top of your head?
Irene: You need to be super efficient in terms of communicating what you need to because otherwise, you’re going to end up sending like 20 emails to say one thing. So the emails need to have a structure. You really need to think, “Okay, what am I going to [inaudible – 20:20] trying to say.” It needs to be super clear. So I think you learn to communicate better because you have that chance which is that email because sometimes it’s like okay, this person is not going to send the email to you tomorrow. And when this person is going to send the email, I’m going to be sleeping. So I need that person to understand it right now as soon as that person opens the email. So the workflow doesn’t need to stop till I wake up. And then I explain what I meant. So we become a bit more efficient in terms of emails and communicating what we need from the other people. And squeezing meetings, we’re going to have this meeting [crosstalk – 21:11] efficient because in the office, at some point, it can be a meeting that is supposed to be one hour and it ends up being two hours because you’re chatting around. So I think you become more efficient in terms of communication for sure.
Lisette: Yeah, I can imagine because it’s so easy to just in person say like, “Hey, Bob, how’s that report?” and then just quickly check in. You’re right. Over online, you tend to send 20 emails to explain exactly what you meant.
Irene: Yes. I think that’s the challenge in bits as well. The communication that we said before, you need to be super efficient. Otherwise, you will waste a lot of time and back-and-forth emails.
Lisette: Yeah, that’s true. My husband is a phone person. He’s always [inaudible – 22:04] a lot of times people will just not show up to meetings that I’ve said. I always think like is it in your calendar or not. You show up but so many people don’t show up. And he always says like, “Do you have their phone number? Just pick up the phone and call them.” And I always think like, “Oh yeah, I have this phone. I only use it as for camera and Internet.” [crosstalk – 22:23].
I want to go back to your time in Thailand. You’re talking about ten-hour days. I want to ask you guys about your productivity tips because ten-hour day is a lengthy day. So how do you stay productive? What are the tips and tricks that you use for yourself?
Irene: Planning, yeah.
Emma: Planning every week. Taking a leaf out of the Agile methodology, Agile framework and just make sure that every week we plan exactly what we’re going to do. Obviously, things change. Sometimes it can be difficult to kind of [inaudible – 23:02] became really, really [inaudible] regiment, I guess. We’re really, really focused. We’re laser-focused. It helped because we were in a great environment with other, like-minded people. And I know ten hours seems like a lot, but we gave ourselves quite a big tunnel goal to achieve. And we were really, really determined and focused to do it. But just planning, planning, planning, planning, reflecting, reflecting, reflecting.
Irene: Being [straight – 23:33] with the time [inaudible] working ten hours, but the 11th hour, I’m not going to be talking about work. And this was a big thing for us as well because we were living together. So it can become a 24/7 job. And being super straight, I’m not going to talk switching off because for me, it’s essential to switch off. If I’m working, I’m working. If I’m not working I am not working. And that gives me the space to come fresh next day.
Emma: It also helps if every morning I go to the gym or I meditate. That really helps as well. So we made sure that weekends [inaudible – 24:18] weekends. [inaudible] weekends.
Irene: [inaudible – 24:23].
Emma: And we were probably the most productive [inaudible – 24:27] very, very, very [inaudible].
Irene: Also, when you have a clear determination and goal, the working hours are not going to be like, “Oh, I need to work,” because we were not counting. We need to work ten hours. It ends up.
Lisette: Right. The goal is not work ten hours a day. The goal is [inaudible – 24:49].
Irene: The goal was whatever goal we have that week and then just make it possible.
Lisette: That takes some serious discipline, I expect, for being able to do that. I know in the Sprint planning and also in the Agile, there’s some serious discipline about how much work a team can take on every week. And the marketing people and the salespeople always try to push it in my experience. They go like, “Can’t you just put that extra feature in today?” And you really have to push up against all those things like [crosstalk – 25:20].
Irene: Exactly, yeah. We also set up goals sometimes [inaudible – 25:24] achievable. But that’s why in our reflection [inaudible – 25:27] setting up the goals in the wrong way. So we were all the time taking action, refining our planning.
Emma: [crosstalk – 25:42] doing [inaudible] got ourselves to the point where everything is very smooth at the moment because we’ve [inaudible – 25:52] we work together [inaudible] with our team in Belarus, all of those fine points.
Lisette: Yeah, that’s sort of the whole reflection planning process loop.
Irene: [inaudible – 26:05]. And also having mastermind meetings. We used to have conversations [inaudible – 26:16] startup. And just being more accountable because at some point, when you’re working on your own, you may not be as accountable than if you were working for someone as you need to report to someone else. So this was super helpful to have someone that we consult because sometimes [inaudible – 26:43] we could make a decision [inaudible – 26:46].
Emma: [inaudible] when you’re in something, when it’s ten hours a day, you may not be able to see the bigger picture. So being able to kind of like [inaudible – 26:56] someone else, the amount of times [inaudible] something, somebody else might’ve been like, “That’s obvious.” But for us, because we’re so [inaudible – 27:07] in it [inaudible] we have the [inaudible] every week, every two weeks [inaudible – 27:15] essential. That was brilliant for us [crosstalk – 27:18] that we have. We’re accountable to ourselves but also to Luke because [inaudible – 27:26].
Lisette: Oh, wow, I love it. It reminds me. I think it was two weekends ago. I went to Wiesbaden to meet up with some of the facilitators that do my workshop around the world. We had an in-person meeting, long story why. We were there. And I had been struggling with a problem for three months. Really, the last three months, it’s on. I had been thinking about it. Within ten minutes, they had solved it in the meeting. I just thought, “Wow, what was I waiting for? I will never wait that long in a problem again. I’ll totally reach out from now on.” Totally amazing.
We’re nearing the end of our time, but man, I have a lot of questions. I’m going to stick to the last two questions. One is what advice would you give for people who are just starting out on a remote startup or with the remote aspect of it? What have you guys learned along the way that you would pass on to your younger selves.
Emma: [inaudible – 28:21] sure [inaudible] good one, I think. Especially if you’re on your own or you’re away from people generally in the day-to-day, I think having some form of mastermind group, just to give you that accountability and to allow you to kind of touch base with other people, other like-minded people, that’s a definite. And what else?
Irene: Lean, cost-effective, especially while in this case if you are a startup because if you’re coming up with a new idea, you don’t want to spend a lot of money before you prove that that idea has a market. So that was definitely our mindset when we were building mindful team, just being super cost-effective, [inaudible – 29:17] yeah, test it and then see if there is a market there because then [crosstalk].
Emma: [crosstalk – 29:25] possible. Don’t let it drag out because so many people can spend so much time on that build that they don’t actually ever get to validate their [inaudible – 29:33]. Just validate as early and as quickly as possible. And then just [inaudible – 29:39] make sure that you reflect and you find the right tools that compliment on your team and make sure that you work isn’t just about the end product that you’re building. It’s also about the team, the dynamics, and the way that you work together. So really working on how you can build the right process for you because every team is different. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Every team is different. And make sure that you’ve found the right tool, the right processes, the [inaudible – 30:06] for your specific team.
Irene: Yeah. I think if you get to work in the most productive way with your team, you can solve any problems. At the beginning of calls, when Emma and I started, we had a lot of ideas that were not working. We didn’t know what to do. At some point we got stuck because we reflected. We are problem solving type of person. At some point you can solve anything because you’re going to have of course obstacles and challenges, but if you find that way that team works well, you may have challenges but you will overcome them.
Emma: And a lot of the time, the obstacle might even be yourself. So you need to be able to admit to that and think, “Okay, what can I do to change that aspect of the way that I’m working?” So many people like to blame other people, but it’s good to [inaudible – 31:08] and see what can we do to change that particular situation.
Lisette: Sure is easier to blame somebody else [laughs].
Emma: [crosstalk – 31:18].
Lisette: I was really relating to that [inaudible – 31:23] like, “Oh, yeah, I totally relate to that.” [laughs] It’s funny.
The last question is an easy one. What is the best way for people to try Mindful Team and to get in touch with you guys? What is the best way to do that?
Emma: If you go to mindful.team, we’ve currently actually closed the platform off recently and made it invite-only. But if you leave your details there, [inaudible – 31:52] contacted with you to allow you to sign up and try it out.
Lisette: Okay. Now I have to ask why. Why did you close the product off? Too many signups?
Emma: It’s a compliment people are signing up. It’s still early days for us. We want to make sure that we get it right and we’re able to manage and communicate with all the people that are using the platform. In a few months, we’ll open up again. But right now we thought it was best to close it off and just refine and communicate with those people and get it to a point where it’s awesome. I mean it is awesome but yeah [crosstalk – 32:37] can get that feedback [inaudible] because we’re a small team, and as loads of people sign up, it’s going to be very difficult for us to manage that feedback and communicate with everybody.
Lisette: Love it. Again, part of the lean mindset of building product.
Lisette: Yeah. I think there’s a lot to be learned here. I hope that you get a lot of people contacting you when they hear this interview. So people, tell them that you heard it on Collaboration Superpowers. That would be fun. Then at least we’ll know where it came from. Thank you guys so much. It was really a pleasure to talk with you again. I am enjoying the sunshine at the same time by watching you guys. We don’t [crosstalk – 33:23] I’m enjoying the sunshine that you guys have today. [inaudible] the word is. I’m forgetting my English now that I’ve lived in the Netherlands. I’m not speaking Dutch well enough to really speak. But then I’m forgetting my English at the same time.
Irene: That happens to me. Now I don’t speak the Spanish, [inaudible – 33:38] English.
Lisette: My husband keeps saying, “You’re going to turn [inaudible – 33:41] into a mute at the end of this instead of grunting along. It could happen.” Anyway, thank you again for joining me today. And until next time, everybody, be powerful.