Building a successful, European multi-city team. Myth or opportunity?

Written for FutureEnterprise by Maria Logotheti.
When in business school, you have probably learned that face-to-face (F2F) communication is a more effective employee communication channel compared with computer-mediated communication (CMC). Looking at the European startup scene and talking with some of them (including Parquery, Darwin Insurance and Commit Software), a European, multi-city located appears to be a common trait and an enabler spurring further growth. Without the ambition of being an academic qualitative study, this post intends to unveil how this is possible even if the teams do not meet every day.
Pros of a dispersed team:

  • Complementary mentality. Team members coming from different backgrounds have the ability to tackle problems and opportunities from different points of view;
  • Open-mindedness. It is the ecosystem that surrounds us that provides both entrepreneurs as well as their colleagues stimuli and ideas;
  • Proximity to customers. When approaching more than one market, it is valuable to talk and understand customers from different countries, both because of language skills and experience.

How to overcome complexities:

  • Identify a common language everybody speaks seems obvious, but let us repeat it one more time. Whether English or any other, for a team to be successful they all shall master a language;
  • Make use of computer mediated communication is obviously key. It is important, for teleconferences and videoconferences to be successful to follow even with more care the golden rules of organizing meetings. In particular, talking with the startups who have often used a trial and error approach, it is definitely necessary to prepare telcos in advance with an appropriate agenda and material properly circulated. In addition, effectiveness of the moderator, time selection (within Europe rather simple, but when the team enlarges it is also a factor), focus and audio quality also play a key role. It may be old fashion to write minutes, but at least do ensure that one of the participants is in charge of summarizing the key takeaways to be circulated within the hours following the conference call;
  • Organize F2F meetings with frequency as appropriate to stage of development, travel budget and important events such as clients’ meetings, trade fairs, networking events.

Organizing a typical working week:

  • Have a clear identification of the team cumulative goals and allocate them with clear expected outputs;
  • Keep agenda synchronized with the tools that best suit your needs. Here there is no simple answer and you and your team may have to try different tools before selecting the most appropriate tool or often bundle of tools. Indeed a task management platform may be appropriate to visually map all the pending activities and collect information coming from different sources;
  • Assess outcome at the end of the week and define areas needing more focus.

Building a long lasting team:

  • Ownership/Tight-Strategic Partnership. All startups we have talked to either have one of the founders/entrepreneurs in every office on a daily basis or have exclusive partnership agreement with every key part of the team. This appears, particularly in early stage, important to build appropriate enterprise culture and outsourcing proved complicated to manage and control;
  • Teaching/Learning and Cross-fertilization. Without willingness to share and openness to learn, there is no point in working in a team, let alone a dispersed team;
  • Hiring carefully. Hiring is even more complex because, in addition to the technical/soft skills required for the job, it is important that the team is built on reliable, responsible colleagues. A strategy adopted by one of the interviewed companies included screening 150 resumes received, preselection of 15 candidates to attend a 3 months course paid by the enterprise and, after 1 month of internship, selection of the 5 new teammates.

How ecosystems could facilitate the blossoming of dispersed teams

  • Networking opportunities amongst entrepreneurs, featuring participation of those founders that had successfully built an effective dispersed team;
  • Universities and institutions can support the temporary co-location of the entire team to attend workshops, hackathons and the like leveraging on travel budget support and/or existing facilities during time of limited use (i.e. summer);
  • Associations and chambers could support partner identification and selection.

Entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow have the opportunity to gain additional effectiveness provided they are able to leverage on a dispersed, multi-city, European team.