MANUEL PISTNER is a virtual team enthusiast and Founder of flashhub.io. He went from a colocated team of 40 people to a virtual team of 180 in under one year. In this interview Manuel talks about why and how he transitioned his team, what he struggles with, and how he scaled in such a short time. (https://www.flashhub.io/, Virtual Frontier podcast)
His tips for working remotely:
- DON’T RELY ON HOPE AND LUCK for running your remote team. Put systems, workflows, and process in place
- HAVE CLEAR KPI’s (key performance indicators). People need to know what’s expected of them. When you do it right, you get speed, quality, and reliability.
- LEAVE YOUR COMFORT ZONE. Just start. Everything starts with leaving your comfort zone. Start trying new things. Experiment and see what works and doesn’t work for you.
- HAVE DIRECT ACCESS TO YOUR PEOPLE. Minimize the in between people and talk to people directly.
- DOCUMENT YOUR ROLES. Have a clear description of what each role on the team entails.
- CREATE A STEERING TEAM. These are people who provide support to the remote teams.
- MINIMIZE ROLE POLLUTION. Keep roles separate. Don’t have one person do everything. Create micro-roles and find ways to measure and check in on the responsibilities people have.
- TEACH PEOPLE TO SELF ORGANIZE. When people are new to virtual teams, they made need some help navigating the online world.
- FIND A “JANET”. When you find a superstar team member (Manuel found Janet), do what you can to keep them.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lissette: Great and we’re live so welcome everybody to this remote interview my name I Lissette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. Today on the line all the way from Darmstadt Germany I have Manuel Pistner and Manuel you are a virtual team enthusiast and the founder of Flashhub.io. So we’re going to get into that in a second about why you built this company and you built it with you built a virtual team. So we’re going to talk about all of these things but let’s start with, what does your virtual office look like, what do you need to get your work done?
Manuel Pistner: Yeah thanks for the introduction I’m very excited to be on the podcast. So I still have an office but I can still decide where I want to go, where I want to work and with whom I want to work. We have this office here because a year ago we’ve been a normal domestic agency delivering a niche technology service for web applications with [Inaudible 00:56] and mobile apps, but during this year we’ve transformed our local agency to a full virtual agency. That means previously in the in January even we’ve been forty people here in Darmstadt and now we are almost one hundred and eighty people all around the globe and that’s a completely different things to what I need from my equipment is my laptop, a headset, my phone and that’s it. So can I can work from everywhere in the world where I want I enjoy working on vacations while sometimes sitting at the beach watching the waves and talking to people that is very inspiring and the most inspiring thing is that every day you meet so many smart people experts from all over the world that have to share a story and that really contribute a very, very good work to your project and that had to learn every day and move forward faster than I could ever imagine.
Lissette: Wow, so you’ve actually transitioned from collocated to remote and scaled your team from forty to one hundred and eighty people?
Manuel Pistner: Yeah exactly and the, today I mean it was just in October this year another agency which is in Hamburg in the very north of Germany joined our company because they saw a huge chance in that they were struggling with a gap of talent locally. They couldn’t find developers and some developers left because they were headhunted for other companies and what happened then is that we talked about the same situation and I talked to him how I changed, I transformed my company to a virtual company and he said wow that’s great I want to join. So we merged together and now they were a very small agency with ten people doing only one technology Drupal and now they can offer full services with all these virtual people that we can provide them.
Lissette: Wow, and you’re doing that in, through the Flashhub.io is that correct?
Manuel Pistner: Yes, so first I did it with my own company I transformed everything and I have a virtual steering team of twenty-three people that help me to grow the company and to operate the company. Those are my like virtual assistants and with Flashhub.io, we provide fully managed virtual teams or virtual teams as a service for other companies that don’t want to have the struggles with finding the right people and how to compose the right team and how to lead the team and how to set up a proper work flows and tools we just give them a virtual team with everything set up we control the team and manage the team and they just enjoy results and can gather requirements as input for the ritual team that’s what we do with Flashhub because I want that other companies benefit from the same way as we did but much faster.
Lissette: Indeed so then the ideas I as a customer have a project that I need developers for, I would come to you and say I’ve got this project, I need a team and I don’t know how to find a team and then you take over from there you-
Manuel Pistner: Yeah absolutely and it’s not only developers because you know you need to find the right experts for specific disciplines and then create a virtual team which consists of experts in different roles and by having this specific roles you ensure quality by design of the team. If you keep away all the administrative work from people and that’s what we do they can contribute the maximum by their expertize to the whole project and that is one very important thing that we want to give to other customers and this is not for, for software development project only it’s for support teams we have virtual support teams from Mexico to the Philippines and they are even native speakers, so they offer twenty four seven support to our customers. We have H.R teams, virtual H.R teams, we have marketing teams, we have business development teams, software development teams. So everything that you can do with a virtual team this is what we do and how we compose virtual teams for our customers.
Lissette: Wow great so we are going to dive in to some of the details of that but first I want to ask about the transition, first why did you transition and then I’d love to hear a little bit about how you did it because tons of companies would like to and they have no idea where to start.
Manuel Pistner: Everything starts with pressure and leaving your comfort zone you know. I had one project that crashed on my desk. So there were project managers here in the company they were not able to deliver the project and I had to yeah restore it, keep it alive and deliver it finally and the story was we had a content migration, a manual one in three and a half month with eight thousand pages, which is a lot of work and we tried to hire outsourcing company in the Ukraine so they could do the migration automatically. After three months passed and we only had four weeks they said ‘sorry that’s not possible it cannot be automated because the systems are too different,’ and then I thought okay now I need many people and cheap people so I go to India and I hired a project manager in India, an independent project manager a freelancer and this person should find an outsourcing agency in India. So I thought I can bridge the cultural gap and have shared responsibilities which leads to better quality. Then this person found an agency but I only had contact to the account manager and this account manager showed me every day like ten pages, but ten pages compared to a thousand that’s not representative and I had no idea which people were working behind this account manager. I had no access nor did I have idea of their profile, what they can do, how many there are and one day before the deadline it was on Thursday morning 5:30, and the deadline was on Friday I got an email ‘sorry I have to cancel the job we can’t deliver the project.’
Lissette: Oh my God.
Manuel Pistner: Yes and that’s how I felt there was lots of pressure and I thought it can’t be the truth because locally we were not able to deliver it, with an outsourcing agency in Ukraine it wasn’t a possible, Indian guys failed on that so what to do now. Okay then I decided I find a project manager and she’s now our virtual lead of operations her name is Janet she’s from Canada now lives in Barcelona and I asked her to help me with that situation, she told me I need to find an H.R person this person needs to find recruiters we did that in a day and in even the same day this H.R team, a virtual H.R team staff me a team of twenty-five people that were specialized in quality assurance and manual content management and they migrated everything from Thursday to Monday and this was an absolute surprise. It was even a more surprise because they committed to work 14 hours every day each individual person, they canceled all their family appointments during the weekend and committed to deliver everything and they did and that was a power I felt that I never want to miss and that was a way of doing projects where that I never want to miss. That was the time where the idea of Flashhub was born because I thought okay, now I will do, transform my whole agency to virtual work and I want other companies to make the same experience if they have the same struggles that I had.
Lissette: But you also had two very negative experiences before this positive, I mean you had the Ukraine team and Indian team that didn’t deliver. So why did this why did it work this last, why did Janet make it happen what’s-?
Manuel Pistner: Because I had direct access to people you know if you work with a company and you hire a team in this company most likely you have an account manager and you talk to the account manager, then you have a quality assurance person and maybe a development team but they all share a common interest the interest of the company. If I have freelancers that only work for their own interests then they don’t share the common yeah expectations of the company and this leads to much, much better quality on the one side and on the other side I have direct access to people. I can talk to them I can manage them and I can establish my roots and work flows and tools that I need because I know how to do the project I do this in twelve years, but in a relation with an outsourcing agency and this was what I experience with this Indian guys it’s more hope. You hope that they are able to tackle this challenge but this is only hope it’s not a system it’s not a plan. So that is to be that it’s most likely to fail okay because if there is no system behind that ensures that the system the project is delivered yeah-
Lissette: Yeah I don’t want to build my company on hope that’s for sure, yeah no business owner wants that.
Manuel Pistner: And you know what was what was really exciting many people tell that success in remote teams comes from trust and I experienced the complete opposite thing because if I built my company or if I base project success on trust this is more like yeah hope. If you find new people and you put them together to a virtual team within a day they never met, why should you trust them, because they are smart people they’re good people maybe but if you just rely on trust your project is about to fail and what we did we’ve built a system of workflows tubes and processes that ensures project success and with continuous project success and transparency every day this is a system that helps to build trust, but trust is not the base for success this is one very, very important learning for me.
Lissette: Right, right, right because everybody is very focused on trust, I hear it all the time.
Manuel Pistner: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Lissette: Yeah, you got to have trust and trust is important it can be the magic glue that that binds the team together but you’re right its systems and workflows and processes having those in place I’d prefer that over a team that really liked each other.
Manuel Pistner: Yeah definitely, definitely. So we have KPIs clear KPIs for the whole project and for each and every role that works in a team and if you monitor this and make it very transparent to everyone in the team and by seeing that they match their KPIs and everyone is responsible and delivers results I grow trust in these people. So, for example, today while working almost eight months with Janet I trust her one hundred percent but I trust her because she delivered every day-
Lissette: Hey don’t give out her, don’t give out her last name or you are going to have headhunters asking because she sounds amazing.
Manuel Pistner: She knows, she knows what she has working with us, they can’t contact her.
Lissette: So I’m wondering if you can describe a couple of the systems or workflows or processes that you’ve got in place something that has really helped you it can be really basic really simple but I’d like to just instead of making it abstract I’d like to make it a little more concrete for listeners.
Manuel Pistner: Yeah definitely. So on the one side we have the standard tools which is [Inaudible 11:54] confluence, Slack. So these are the things for communication and for planning the project. Then we have a huge documentation for each and every role we have a clear description of what each and every role should do every day. We have so-called expert apps and these are small apps where experts’ login and they see what they should do right now to contribute to the project and nothing else. So this is how they get their driver seat to be successful in the project this is a self-developed tool or setup, yes. And then we have this virtual steering team which consists of H.R experts, recruiters, and virtual operations team and the virtual business analyst team. They support the ritual teams but they are also virtual teams they support our virtual teams. So if they face challenges with one person for example I mean you might have faced it in the future if you are freelancer you have a better opportunity sometimes you leave the project and jump to the next one that can happen so you should not be disappointed in this case our people go to H.R and tell to replace this person and they can do that within like four hours, yeah and very, very important is that we don’t have one person that should do everything. I call this usually role pollution where you give one person as a developer and then you ask the developer to do design and Q.A and dev op engineers and maybe project managers, project management and this is a huge problem because you expect that this person can do everything but the person can’t, the person is an expert in one specific thing and if you pollute the role and even more important if the person leaves then all roles and the whole knowledge and know how it’s left.
Lissette: Awesome, so you have got KPIs, you’ve got some tools that facilitate communication, documentation so people know what is expected of them and then a steering team that sort of helps manage things along the way is that?
Manuel Pistner: Absolutely.
Lissette: Yeah sounds like a great recipe for success. So what do you guys struggle with?
Manuel Pistner: Yeah taking local people that still work here in this local agency on the journey to fully remote work, you know if you have a local agency and you run that for like ten years and people are used to sitting to next to each other they are used to talk to each other, they are used to jump into the next room and scream for help because something crashed and they get immediate help at least they feel that somebody is sitting in the same boat and helps them immediately you don’t have that when you work virtually you need a better structure and you need very, very good self-organization tools and methods and most people don’t have that so they mistrust, they miss being face to face with people sitting in the next in the same room and they miss that they can rely on direct help from somebody sitting next to them and this is, yeah this is a challenge to teach people and to educate people to self-organize them to use different tools to talk to people in English not their domestic language from all over the world.
Lissette: Right so it’s it seems really interesting because people think that working remotely is so easy you know we’re sitting at home in our pajamas and yeah maybe yeah maybe we are but that doesn’t make it easy necessarily. So I find it interesting that the struggle is keeping the communication open when we’re virtual, being able to figure out how to ask for help and how to self-organize.
Manuel Pistner: Absolutely yeah.
Lissette: It’s kind of a surprise.
Manuel Pistner: One important thing is that if you work remotely you enjoy one hundred percent freedom but to enjoy this freedom you need to be very, very responsible for your work and for results and for being available and responsive. So that is one thing that people are not used to if they work from nine to five sitting in the office doing their job and then leaving the office when everything is done and they don’t care after that so that’s a different thing.
Lissette: So I know a lot of managers are reluctant to let people work remotely because they’re afraid that they won’t get their work done but often it seems like the opposite is true people more are struggling with burnout than they are struggling with laziness. What do you see with the people, are there some people who are just really lazy they’re trying to hide or is it mostly you know like workaholics?
Manuel Pistner: It’s neither the one thing nor the other thing so I believe burnout comes from if you don’t see a sense in your daily work and you are you are forced to work in a small box like you have to be there from nine to five, you do your task but you don’t know why you should do that and what’s the big sense behind that, and if you have freelancers of course they are one hundred percent free they can go wherever they want, work with whom they want and in which project they want but they are self-responsible for their results and we’ve established a culture that I don’t care when they work, where they work and how much they work I just ensure that they deliver results and they get like a dashboard with KPIs. So they see how their performance is and that everything that matters, we want to keep all the rules away from them only results matter and then they see a sense and they know why they contribute and how they contribute and yeah and as they are free they can decide to like make a day off if results are okay.
Lissette: Okay so then do you have any sort of like an agreement in place with the teams that you work like ‘here’s our core hours,’ is that part of the documentation for each role or so you know like here we have core hours or we want you to be in touch with us, this how often you want to check in, what do you call it??
Manuel Pistner: Yeah that I mean core hours heavily depends on the roles if you have support teams, of course, they need to work in core hours because they need to deliver SLAs. For project teams, we try to ensure that they work in the same time zone and have an overlap time of four hours a day if we can’t ensure that that’s a problem because you need to have your daily stand-ups and need four hours to collaborate. On the other side, we sometimes have teams that are on the east and on the west of the world so they can work twenty-four seven, so one team finish the day hands over to the other one and they continue with the production. so that is the kind of speed that you would never experience when you work only with local people.
Lissette: Right do you have any struggles with time zones in that regard in terms of communication I mean it’s great I mean the benefit of being able to make it work if you have twenty-four seven online yeah collaboration but people seem to really struggle with that.
Manuel Pistner: Yeah in the very beginning you do because you are just not aware of that problem, you just you just expect that this person responds but you don’t have in mind that this person might be sleeping right now. So you need to plan your day in advance and that’s what I mean when I say you need a very good structure and self-organizing tools. Otherwise, you will yeah if you work with one hundred and fifty people every day you don’t know who’s sleeping who’s working who’s where and who is off for today you need a good structure and that helps to understand what’s going on.
Lissette: Indeed so we are coming, I can’t believe we’re coming to the end of our time it’s getting that twenty minutes went super-fast but I have a couple more questions we’ve just got to dive in so one is about scaling, scaled from forty to a hundred people in less than a year that’s super impressive. I mean I don’t even know where to start with the questions like how did you do it and what challenges did you run into, what tips do you have for others?
Manuel Pistner: Yeah so one tip is you need a system to ensure that you really have experts and you really need to understand which experts you need. Never look for a person that can do everything for you if you find one this is good luck but luck is the same as hope it’s not a system. So better if you are a technical person and you know micro-services where you split different services into fine train services this is the same what we do with roles, we call the micro-roles. So one person has a specific responsibility and this person ensures that the responsibility and the KPIs are met. This is a very, very important thing that I want to yeah give to others if they want to start.
Lissette: Okay so really it’s all about the systems and it’s about the KPIs. So what are the results that you’re looking for and then finding ways to measure and check in on the way-
Manuel Pistner: And that helps, that helps to scale because if you just find one if you have responsibilities very clear and small responsibilities you can scale for example Q.A is one specific discipline you can scale Q.A. up to five people up to ten people almost on demand with a good H.R team and you can scale it also down if you don’t need them anymore and you don’t need to hire people always full time you can hire them for like ten hours a week, twenty hours a week so that it keeps it very, very flexible and scalable.
Lissette: So what’s, what do you like most about this way of working since you’ve transition now what are some of the things you personally get out of it?
Manuel Pistner: Speed, quality and reliability, I love speed and I love results and with virtual teams I just have it. I talked to you in the beginning of the show that we’ve produced a podcast and I had this idea in Barcelona three weeks ago I was there on vacation. I had the idea to create a podcast I handed this over to my marketing team they hired a specialist for podcast and now they’ve created the first episode and set up everything and I just saw this yesterday by accident and I was so surprised that ‘oh wow we now have a podcast and I even didn’t know that,’ so if things happen they happen fast and in unexpected good quality and that’s what I absolutely enjoy.
Lissette: Yeah when you get the right people working for you then, then it’s awesome indeed speed, quality and reliability not hope and trust folks.
Manuel Pistner: No not hope and trust, definitely not.
Lissette: Love it, love it. So another question before we end this I want to, we talked a little bit before we started the interview about the reluctance that Germany, in particular, has in starting or adopting remote teams. Germany is not alone many, many other countries around the world where does this fear come from or where does the hesitance do you think come from in German companies?
Manuel Pistner: I think it’s a culture that we’ve crone in the last like ten, twenty maybe fifty years. You are used to work with people, you are used to have your administration staff, you have used to have your clear rules that give you security and that ensure that you are not too responsible if something fails because you can always tell okay I worked according to the process and now it fails so it’s not my fault, and having I mean that’s a human thing you trust people and you like if you have people around you and this is what you don’t have if I close my laptop I’m alone and that is that feels like I’m not safe I’m not secure in what I’m doing and I if I need help nobody is there. And this is something the comfort zone yeah this is a huge problem if you leave it and I had to leave it because my projects were crashing and my whole agency was in risk I had no other chance so I always say I was in hell and in heaven at the same time in hell because it was an immense pressure I was working like eighteen hours every day during two weeks and then I slept a week but then I was in heaven because I saw what’s possible and that gave me a complete new vision of where I want to head to with my company.
Lissette: Indeed it seems like it’s opened up I mean what you can do with a hundred and eighty people all over the world is so much more than you can do with forty people in a local location indeed. Okay so last, second to the last question what do you have advice for people who are just starting out how do you, well what would you, what would you tell them?
Manuel Pistner: That just starting out is the right thing, just try it, try it with small things try to find a remote design and try to find a route virtual assistant a remote quality assurance expert, maybe even a consultant I have like ten consultants in my team that I hire occasionally. They help me to do financial planning they coach me with different struggles that I personally have always done remote I don’t even I don’t need to find a local consultant which takes like two or three or four weeks. I just go to my H.R team tell them I need to consult that records for a specific thing and next day a person is there and helps me and this is a very, very small barrier that you can try even today and that with your experience how it works and that you enjoy results
Lissette: So just try it and don’t steal Janet she is-
Manuel Pistner: Definitely, but I’m sure there are many others that really work well as project managers for virtual teams you just need to try and find somebody.
Lissette: Totally so try it, experiment and try in small steps I’m assuming don’t just make your team go remote on day one like small steps.
Manuel Pistner: It was my vision till 2020 to transform my company to a whole virtual team or virtual company but yeah as I had this project I decided to do it immediately.
Lissette: Wow yeah you need a new vision since you acknowledge-
Manuel Pistner: I need to save my customers yeah because if one projects crash the next one crash then people are overwhelmed, some have burnout, what do you want to, yeah you need to do something different otherwise you will always get the same results.
Lissette: Right so speed, quality and reliability do not rely on hope and luck that’s for sure not if you want to build a real business. So very last question is if people want to find out more about you and your podcast where should they go?
Manuel Pistner: So you can meet me on my LinkedIn profile Manuel Pistner or just type Flashhubio there you can find the credentials as well and the podcast is called Virtual Frontier. Yeah we will release the first episode next week and I will tell more about the insights what I experienced, how I felt where there are key struggles and key findings during the journey of becoming a full virtual company and it is still in a transition and we are growing every day and also we have struggles I want to share all this experience in my, in my podcast.
Lissette: Right it’s all it’s not all just virtual parties.
Manuel Pistner: No, no, no.
Lissette: It’s also very difficult but not impossible and-
Manuel Pistner: No it’s not impossible.
Lissette: Yeah totally the future.
Manuel Pistner: Yeah.
Lissette: I think but I’m very biased.
Manuel Pistner: I’m one hundred percent sure.
Lissette: Okay well see you have heard it from Manuel you don’t have to trust me. So thank you again for your time I really appreciate it I think I took tons of notes so I think people will enjoy the show notes for this show and until next time everybody be powerful.