BHAVNEET CHAHAL is the Cofounder and CEO of GoSkills, an online learning platform. Bhavneet shares her experience growing a tech startup as a non-tech person and why she works with a distributed team spanning 7 time zones.
Her tips for working remotely:
- Never stop learning. Online courses are a great way to enhance your skill set.
- Focus on hiring only the best people. Don’t settle for less.
- Hire fast and fire fast.
- Be more of a leader and less of a manager.
- Give feedback regularly.
- Overcommunicate with your team to give others confidence that you are working. Be responsive.
- Define core hours for your team.
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 for remotely. I’m super excited all the way today from Hong Kong I have Bhavneet Chahal on the line and Bhavneet you are the co-founder and C.E.O of Go Skills which is a way for people to enhance their skills for the workplace online which I am super excited about but before we get into that let me ask you what does your virtual office look like? What do you need to get your work done?
Bhavneet Chahal: Hi Lisette likely to be here and lovely to meet you, our virtual office… so I’m an entrepreneur, we have a very small team of nine. Everyone that works from home from all over the world, I’m here in Hong Kong and we’ve got about five people in New Zealand, a couple in the States and we just hired a developer from Cuba.
Lisette: Wow that’s really… we are going to get into time zones at some point but okay so you’ve got nine people in seven different time zones I read.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah that’s right yeah.
Lisette: And everyone works from home.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah well most people work from home, myself and we have a marketing manager here in Hong Kong we both work here from a co-working space.
Lisette: Ah okay so what do you need to get your work done then?
Bhavneet Chahal: I suppose we need a laptop, fast Internet connection, a time zone that’s relatively close to the other team members and that’s it. Ideally a quiet work space.
Lisette: Yeah which you’re in a co-working space now for those watching the video portion of this and that is very quiet indeed. Oh yeah you’re going to show, so those who have never seen a co-working space you see. So you’re in a small office.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah.
Lisette: And off from that open space?
Bhavneet Chahal: Yes that’s right, so that a large co-working space outside and we have these small meeting rooms and it’s designed for startup. So normally if you go into a large sort of maybe cooperate space you have very large board like meeting rooms, in this co-working space we have smaller meeting rooms which fits smaller teams which is ideal because we have lots of calls and I don’t need multiple people when I’m having a call, it’s usually myself or one other person.
Lisette: So why did you choose a co-working space over working from home?
Bhavneet Chahal: That’s a great question, so I’ve moved countries since starting Go Skills, when I first started Go Skills I did work from home in Sydney and I found that fine because I had my own network in Sydney and my friends in Sydney and I enjoyed the peace and quiet of working from home. However we then moved to Hong Kong and I was new in Hong Kong and normally when you move to a new country you have an immediate network of friends or people usually or colleagues that you can get acquainted with, that you can get to know and build your network but as a remote worker moving to a new country and not having a network already there I thought it was really important to build my network and not moving into a company, a co-working space seems like the ideal place to meet people, build my network and make some friends.
Lisette: Yeah super smart idea actually because you’re right, it’s like people who are doing things that you’re obviously probably other entrepreneurs who are working remotely or people even locally so you get to meet a mix of people I assume.
Bhavneet Chahal: Absolutely yeah, all my friends in Hong Kong are people that I’ve met through my co-working spaces.
Lisette: Super smart.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah and I think people here in general a very open, it’s quite a transient sort of town, people come in they go and so everyone is sort of in the same boat and so it’s very easy to meet people, to hang out with people straight after work, go on holidays together, it’s a very friendly and open place.
Lisette: Yeah great way to meet new people when you’ve moved to a new location, a co-working space is probably the first thing that I would do is join a co-working space, yeah, yeah totally great. So let’s talk about Go skills I’m super excited to see it, it says online learning that helps anyone enhance skills for the workplace. So what is it and why did you start it?
Bhavneet Chahal: That’s a good story, so we do bite sized business courses and we started because I purchased an Excel course a number of years ago and I was really disappointed with what I got. It was a site that looked like it came out of the 1990’s and the course consisted of PDF downloads, there were some videos but they were very, very long and so we thought that we could do it better. We thought that online courses should be done better and so we created an Excel course at the time because it’s very popular at the time and we had a good distribution channel. I reached out to an Excel instructor to create the content for us and right from the beginning we knew we wanted bite sized videos. So three to five minutes videos as well as interactive content like quizzes, cheap sheets, exercises to go with each video and then I got in touch with my co-founder in New Zealand and showed him the opportunity. He then created the technology to put the courses onto and we really wanted to focus on user experience and design to make the learning experience as enjoyable as possible.
Lisette: How many courses do you have now?
Bhavneet Chahal: I think we have about sixty courses.
Bhavneet Chahal: Here in the pipeline.
Lisette: Yeah I saw on your website that you have over a hundred thousand users of these courses. So well done, obviously people need these online courses. I mean I think it’s a… if I were to go back to school I would not go to the brick and mortar classroom again. I would probably do it with a video and learning with other people online.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah, yeah on demand courses where you can learn at your own pace from any location, from any device I think is the way of the future.
Lisette: Yeah universities watch out for those of us in our forty’s still paying off university debt. These online courses look very attractive, so now you said something really interesting in your email to me, you said that you started and you grew this start up as a non-tech person. So I want to ask about that, what was your experience? I mean you built a highly technical site as a non-tech person. I don’t know why you describe yourself as a non-tech person but I’ll let you get into that but what was your experience with that? What have you learned?
Bhavneet Chahal: So I guess we started because I spotted an opportunity to create high quality online courses and when I say I’m a non-tech person as in I’m not a coder or a programmer. I didn’t create the technology but I’ve also been very lucky to have an amazing co-founder who is technical and who has built all of the technology. And we grew it together with myself doing everything in the business non-technical. So the business development, the sales. I really enjoy UX and design although I’m not a designer myself but working with designers and yeah basically all the non-technical challenges of growing a business was interesting for me and I could rely on a really good co-founder to manage the technology.
Lisette: Yeah indeed and I would think that would be… I mean it’s a rare person that has that both skill sets in one. The entrepreneur skill set and then the development and the coding I mean those are totally different, totally different things in my opinion. So just because you can code doesn’t mean you can run a business, we’ve seen that over and over again interesting. So how did you find the other people? The other nine people that are working for you?
Bhavneet Chahal: That’s also a fantastic question, so my co-founder I knew from previous work I went to as a consultant for his company and he had worked with some software developers previously. So that’s how we grew out software development team and the other people were mainly through referrals or sort of people that I’ve known for a very long time. Our head of marketing operations is actually one of my best friends from high school.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah, so it’s fantastic to work with such a good friend within the business. The other people on our team are referrals from people that we know and I think I mentioned at the beginning we’ve recently hired to developer from Cuba and we found him by advertising on weworkremotely.io which is a fantastic site to look for developers looking for remote jobs and yeah so he is currently the only one that we’ve hired, that hasn’t been through a referral or through someone that we’ve met before. We also have Crystal in Hong Kong who we met through a speed recruiting event.
Lisette: Okay exciting so now let’s get into the time zones, so there’s between Cuba and Hong Kong and New Zealand. I don’t even know what’s the biggest time zone difference? I don’t know if it’s between Cuba and New Zealand or Hong Kong and New Zealand.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah basically Cuba is the Eastern Time zone in the States and the difference between Hong Kong and EDT I think is twelve hours.
Bhavneet Chahal: So that’s the maximum and as those core team members, we work with a number of consultants and freelancers. So we’ve also got an illustration for example in the Ukraine and we’ve got a new UX designer in Johannesburg in South Africa.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah, so we’re really twenty four hours.
Lisette: So okay what are the tools you guys use to communicate and talk to each other how do you do it?
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah communication is so, so, so important with a remote team. So we are constantly on Slacks. So everyone communicates via Slack, it’s totally replaced email within our business, we only use email basically to communicate with external people. So slack is important, we used to use Skype for our team calls but we’ve recently moved our team calls to Slack as well. We share screens when we have our team calls and yes Slack recently introduced that feature so we’ve moved basically all our communication to Slack and then in terms of project management we use Trello as a way to track, manage, assign tasks, things like that.
Lisette: A lot of people on Slack complain about overload because it’s so easy just to type, enter and I mean it’s like there’s so much noise. All of a sudden you’re talking about books, marketing, sales everything and it’s just I mean I know I could sit in front of my Slack and just watch messages come in all day if I wanted to, so how do you manage it?
Bhavneet Chahal: That’s a fantastic question, so we used to have something like twenty Slack channels and just a couple of weeks ago we decided to consolidate that to six. So that we don’t have multiples channels and we don’t need to keep checking different channels for what’s the latest. So we consolidated our channels, that was the thing we did and we kind of also have a policy of you know mention it if it’s relevant but we expect you to sort of filter irrelevant bits of information. Last year we had someone on our team who is a massive Slack user and she would just send loads and loads of articles and lots of things and sometimes the things were a bit distracting and not one hundred percent relevant. So we sort of made a little policy of you guys be the filter, if it’s relevant add it to the relevant channel otherwise keep it to yourself.
Lisette: Right there’s always…I have somebody on the team once also that was just like I mean she was a million miles a minute and just moving faster than the other people on the team and it was really… it was an overload I’ve got to say. So we made a special channel for her so she could still post and others could opt in whether or not they wanted to see all the information. So that’s interesting, so back to times and then again what special things have you guys put in place in order to manage it because twelve hours, that’s significant and we can squeeze a world closer together, I mean I don’t know maybe during daylight savings during that two weeks you get like one hour. So your eleven hours apart instead of twelve for two weeks of the year or something but what do you guys do to manage it?
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah that’s a tough one, someone always has to sacrifice a little bit. So usually we have the calls in early morning Hong Kong time which is evening in the States, at the East Coast and it’s not ideal because there are sacrifices that need to be made and then managing it we use timeanddate.com meeting planner to see if we have a new meeting that we need to schedule for but otherwise we have just have regular meeting in our calendar. So we had one all hands on deck saying a week and that’s a standing meeting, so you don’t need to arrange a new time every time you want to have everyone on board. That’s just know that unify assets on Tuesday morning Hong Kong time, Monday evening Eastern time and it’s in your calendar for the rest of the year.
Lisette: Right you plan around it.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah.
Lisette: Yeah time zones are always tough, I’m always trying to find like is there some magic cure that we can use but no somebody is always getting up late or getting up early and that’s the consequence of working globally I think on a global team sometimes.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah it’s a bit of a myth when people say “oh you have an online business, you can work from the beach from anywhere,” and technically it is true but in reality it doesn’t really work that way because you still need to be within a relatively close time zone with your colleagues.
Lisette: Well also anybody that’s tried working from the beach knows how completely not handy it is with the sun and the sand and the… I mean it’s just like no. Looks great in the pictures but logistically it’s just not exactly the best thing it’s true. So what do you guys struggle with then?
Bhavneet Chahal: Definitely hiring, yeah I think like any start up though or any business talent is so important especially when you’re small. I used to hear things like “oh it’s a higher based on culture fit,” and I didn’t really understand what that meant until we had someone who was not a great culture fit and that really slowed us down. And so hiring you yeah with good culture fit and hiring remotely has been a challenge and I think it will be a challenge as we scale our business.
Lisette: How have you put things in place to try to find a good culture fit because I find it so hard in the beginning, everybody’s on their best behavior, you know like everybody is trying to make a good impression. So it’s so hard to tell what’s going to be good. So how do you know?
Bhavneet Chahal: It’s really hard especially since you’re not sitting down with someone, you’re basically just interviewing them you know with a video and you don’t know what they do after the video or you know how they are in their day to day lives. What have you done in place? I guess we have a culture of hiring fast than firing fast, so if we think that we like someone we do hire them and figure out pretty quickly whether they fit within the company not. Especially since we have very regular calls and a lot of communication on Slack you can sort of tell quickly if someone works or not.
Lisette: So I like that hiring fast and firing fast I think that’s where a lot of companies drop the ball is in the onboarding phase to keep people on far longer than they need to be kept on and it sounds so harsh but at the end of the day we have a business to run. So I mean we need the right people and the right people makes and breaks a business, so yeah I like that, it sounds harsh but I like it. So I want to talk a little bit… yeah it has to be done its business we’re not a party we’re running and we’re running a business. In terms of managing though what makes a good virtual manager and how is it different do you think from in person?
Bhavneet Chahal: So I think with virtual teams you have to have a lot of trust in your people that they are putting in the hours and that they are meeting tasks to the best of their ability and for us because you know it’s not like we’re factory workers, we don’t clock in and clock out. A lot of our roles are based on tasks, so we use [inaudible 19:22] for example to assign tasks to people and it’s either done or it’s not done. So managing the people becomes less about sort of watching over their shoulders or micromanaging someone and more around assigning tasks and making sure that when the tasks are done that they’re taught to a high standard, meet our standards and if not you know having conversation about that. Yeah but it’s tough especially for sort of if you’re hiring recent graduates, people that are new to the workforce that don’t understand perhaps what a full day’s work load is like or sort of issues like that is where I think having sort of a more mature or people that have experience with folding a workloads is an easier transition to them working remotely because you understand what your meant to be doing and yet you also have probably sort of better reporting ability and you understand that because you’re working remotely you have to over communicate with your managers or your team to give other people confidence that you are working and that you are doing what you’re meant to be doing.
Lisette: Right if you’re posting those articles on Slack you’re probably working, so it’s kind of, I mean not necessarily you could just be you know an article… excited about articles of course but it’s true that working out loud, that being present and showing your team mates that you’re also there. Do you have any sort of core hours for your team? I can’t imagine that you would given the time zone differences, but is there something like that?
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah we do ask people to sort of be on during their normal working hours so usually around nine to five with some exceptions around evening calls or morning call but we don’t expect… and it’s mainly around, mainly to allow people to communicate with each other knowing that they’ll get a response relatively soon, so we do ask for sort of normal way for products.
Lisette: And do you have any other sort of team agreement that you start with? Like you have as a team you’ve agreed to work in these ways, did you put any sort of policies in place with your team or how do you manage that?
Bhavneet Chahal: Not officially no, I suppose we don’t really have, it’s something that we should have but we don’t have a great on boarding policy at the moment. It’s sort of you kind of just get thrown into the middle of everything.
Lisette: Also a good way to learn.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah but probably not so scalable, so we don’t have anything like a team agreement but in our contracts we do sort of state relative time zones and be available for calls and things like that.
Lisette: And for yourself how do you stay productive? I mean it’s your company so that is very motivating, I can relate it’s very much more motivating when it’s your company but you know how do you make sure that you keep yourself on track? That you’re putting in the workload that you’ve committed to on a regular basis, what are your productivity hacks?
Bhavneet Chahal: That’s a great question and even though I am the founder I think it’s natural to go through productivity dips and to not be motivated on some days. I found this to be especially true at the beginning where you know you are relying so much on other people and sometimes this is not enough to do or you’re waiting to replies and you know you have days where you just feel demotivated. A couple of hacks that I have, if you’re having a day where you’re feeling demotivated just do that one critical thing you need to do that day because that’s usually that one thing where you know you have to do and if you do that and you don’t do anything else for the rest of the day you at least feel satisfied.
Bhavneet Chahal: And in terms of my day to day I have a to do list, it’s very, very basic but it’s sort of like all the things I need to do and as soon as I’m assigned a task or as soon as I have a conversation with someone and I realize I have something to do I immediately add it to my to do list and then I prioritize that to do list. I color code it basically to prioritize it. So red is absolutely need to do ASAP, Amber is middle and then I’ve got a green do if you have sometime or think about it right now.
Lisette: Right, right it needs to be done at some point or it’ll fall off the list eventually.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah it’s funny how that happens, sometimes when you ignore a problem long enough it does just disappear.
Lisette: It’s true not the best strategy but it does work in some cases. I mean I think the secret ingredient for running a successful business is prioritizing right? I mean you can do a million things, there’s always something you can do to grow your business but there’s only a certain amount of time and energy in the day.
Bhavneet Chahal: Absolutely yeah and it’s not just prioritizing you own task but prioritizing features, prioritizing, yeah I think that’s the one thing I’ve learned the most is saying no because we have so many ideas all the time and at the beginning of a start up your product is so amorphous and it can grow in so many different directions. So really focusing on what your core product is and then really prioritizing your features has been one of the great experiences for me.
Lisette: Oh yeah I can imagine for any entrepreneur that’s like the hardest thing is like what do you do next? What’s the most important feature because you don’t want to build them all, that’s also a nightmare for the product, yeah oh but what do people need the most. Okay but back to our motive, I’m starting to get in like “oh yeah when I grew my business…” We’re starting to run out of time too but I do want to ask you oh I just lost my train of thought but oh I wanted to ask you about co-working spaces because in your e-mail you had said you have some insights into good and bad co-working spaces. So let’s loop back to that and tell me what makes a good co-working space?
Bhavneet Chahal: Yes definitely the community and I don’t really know what the secret sauce is for a good community but I had it in my first co-working space in Hong Kong and it’s going to sound weird but you kind of just feel it as you walk into the co-working space whether there’s a good atmosphere or not and with that space everyone just felt it and yeah the atmosphere was great, I think there are physical things that lead to a great co-working space and I think one of them is having open space. So I really like large open spaces with lots of small meeting rooms for personal calls or meeting but having that large open space means you’re physically looking at people all the time and if you’re looking at people you can’t really walk by and not say hi or not introduce yourself. So I think that that helps having a central kitchen or pantry or coffee machine, in the old days a water cooler. Certainly how we can go out to the coffee machine, make your coffee and bump into people and you end up having conversations that way. What I think doesn’t make a good co-working space is different silos, so there are a couple of co-working spaces here in Hong Kong where you walk in and it’s like a labyrinth of small offices and you rent a desk in an office that you’re then just sort of in a room with a limited number of people. You never talk to other people, you don’t really have the space for collision. I suppose fair.
Lisette: That makes sense right because it really is all about the random interactions in that kind of a place.
Bhavneet Chahal: Absolutely yeah and it’s awkward to go to someone and like knock on a door and say hi I’m Bahav.
Lisette: It’s hard enough to walk up to somebody without a door to introduce yourself, like having a door and having to knock first would be and yeah total barrier for me to.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah so that’s my thing its open spaces are fantastic.
Lisette: Yeah because people want to meet but you don’t want to like knock on the office door and interrupt somebody.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah you don’t want to be that awkward person either that just randomly goes out to people.
Bhavneet Chahal: Catch someone’s eye and then look.
Lisette: Right, so they’ll more natural. Okay so I actually remember the question that I wanted to ask before we talked about the co-working spaces. So it’s going to seem like we’re jumping around a little bit on the interview but bear with me people, this is just how it goes on these interviews. I want to talk about feedback loops and how you give each other feedback on your team. So do you have regular retrospectives? Are there one on ones? Is there like an annual feedback process? How do you guys do it on your team?
Bhavneet Chahal: That is a good question. We like to get feedback as early as possible, so we don’t really have a structure for like an annual review or a monthly review, we find that maybe a bit too restrictive and things might bubble up in the meantime while waiting for these structured meetings. So in general if something is not going to plan or someone is not forming we like to give that he back immediately because it’s highly relevant, you can give the example of what didn’t work and it’s fresh in everyone’s minds and it doesn’t make the person that’s receiving that feedback feel like ‘oh they’ve been thinking about this week’s like why don’t you just say it earlier?’ Because it might not be a big deal at all but if it’s been festering in someone’s mind for ages it kind of becomes a big deal. So yeah we try to get feedback as early on as possible and regularly as possible and the people that fit within our team you know receptive, the feedback they want to improve, and they want to learn. We’ve had someone in our team last year who wasn’t so receptive to feedback and if we gave sort of if we didn’t like the idea or something she just wouldn’t communicate with us for the rest of the week which was horrible. Horrible as a manager, it’s horrible as a team to send messages and not have any response because they’re upset about something and weren’t respective to feedback.
Lisette: Yeah that passive aggressive nature can ruin a lot on a team, I’ve had the similar situation for people to shut down and I used to be that way until I started managing a team of people who also had those qualities and I changed myself. I worked very hard to change myself because I saw how destructive it was. I mean it’s also not good to duke it out but on a remote team it seems like you that things bubble under the surface and I like your comment that like get it out immediately because otherwise it will explode in weird ways, these holes open up and small things become big things and yeah.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah nip it in the bud.
Lisette: Right, hard to do in the moment because we’re remote it’s easy to let it go but don’t let it go right, so don’t let it go. Okay so the last question super easy one which is; what is the best way to get a hold of you, if people want to learn more and they want to get in touch and they want to work for Go Skills what is the best way to get in touch with you?
Bhavneet Chahal: Please email me, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and yeah I’m very receptive on emails. Otherwise you may just want to learn more about Go Skills head to goskills.com, check out our courses, and if you’re interested in a job please send your CV. We’re always looking for smart, motivated independent people.
Lisette: Remote workers man, that’s awesome remote working but one thing caught my eye really quickly in my notes, sorry I know I said that was the last question it was the second to last question, you said… like I’m curious what are the in demand skills for 2018? What are people taking, what should we know?
Bhavneet Chahal: That’s a good question, it’s a question we always ask ourselves. So our most popular courses are the Excels and the Microsoft Office. So we started of like selling Excel courses and that’s still a most popular courses. More recently we’ve seen a demand in professional qualifications like project management. So basically we have a series of project management courses that leads up to the PNP project management professional certification and whereabouts to release venture, within these six sigma courses which also leads to the yellow, green and black belt certifications that you can get out of it at the end popular. They’re in demand because employers look for them and you can happily prepare on your CV and you can be a qualified professional.
Lisette: Super important to know that actually because yeah people are looking for those certifications because I come across people who are like “oh certifications, modifications who needs them,” but I think actually if you’re looking for a job it does not hurt it does not hurt the resume.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah it puts you above people that don’t have a certification and it also I think it shows the potential employer that you’re dedicated to learning on your own which shows discipline and you know like a culture of wanting to improve and learn.
Lisette: That is a great tip, if you’re looking for remote jobs that is a great tip, show your dedication to learning.
Bhavneet Chahal: Yeah.
Lisette: Yeah, great we’ll end with that, that’s a great one show your dedication to learning. Thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your story, it is great to speak with a woman entrepreneur or just an entrepreneur in general and to hear how you’re managing your remote team I really appreciate it.
Bhavneet Chahal: Likewise thank you so much, I’ve really enjoyed this chat.
Lisette: Great and for everybody watching until next time be powerful.
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