Deepak Shukla, Founder of Pearl Lemon and Waikit Lau, Co-founder of RemoteHQ discuss the future of work and what a remote working environment means to them. Deepak has never run an in person team and dishes out his thoughts on why remote collaboration works best for him and his team. His team has been able to increase customer satisfaction by 33% with RemoteHQ. Waikit touches on why he is a serial entrepreneur and how he evolved his career from working in a cubicle. Watch highlights from the Q&A on YouTube.
Can you quickly summarize what your company does and what your teams look like?
Deepak: We’re a marketing agency, primarily SEO. We have a totally remote team, everybody works from home. We’ve been that way from the beginning. We help our clients rank on Google. A lot of our days fundamentally are spent building links, making technical changes, communicating reports back to clients. That’s really the core of what we do. It’s fun, I like it, and hopefully so does the team. No one’s left yet, most people have stuck around which has been good. Hopefully we’re doing something right. In terms of what our teams look like, we’re about 25 people. If we include part time people we work with regularly, then maybe around 30.
Waitkit: The pain points of how you (Deepak) use RemoteHQ is exactly why we built it. My last company (this is my third startup), we grew to about 500-600 people globally and it was such a pain. We spent so much money flying people around and people hated it. Though not everyone, some people liked to travel but those with families hated it. The idea is how do you make a lot of the dynamics of in person meetings, all the things you need to collaborate, how do you put it virtually. Even today, I look around at the other tools, and sort of what you see and what you get with tools from a lot of other platforms is video conferencing and screen sharing. That’s a 30 year old invention. You can’t do anything beyond those features. So anyways, I’m trying to break that barrier and allow people to collaborate as if they were together.
Deepak: You did a good job. That’s exactly why I’m here. Kudos.
What drove you to start Pearl Lemon/RemoteHQ?
Deepak: I like marketing. At its core, I like marketing. I used to want to be a rapper, maybe I still do. Along that journey, back when I was 14 or 15, the main problem I had was that no one knew who I was and no one would take me seriously. I found that I was much better at getting people to know who I was than taking me seriously. And I set up a recording studio and I discovered there were many many others that were like me that had a passion about solving a problem or sharing something with the world but they didn’t necessarily have the resources, the know-how or the expertise to position themselves in a place where they could share their gift with the world. And being able to help people with that, that’s what gives me butterflies and lights me up. Still today, fast forward 10 years, I discovered I enjoyed producing music and helping these rappers get in front of other people more than rapping itself which is not what I saw coming at all at that stage. That’s why many years later, I thought about what I want to do and I enjoyed sharing products with the world and finding a way to communicate that. That’s why I started Pearl Lemon and why I still love marketing.
Waikit: My background - I am glutton for punishment. Deepak, running your own startup you know what I mean. My wife always asks me “why are you doing this?” A lot of it is what you said, I like your phrase, the butterflies. The output of building your tool and having people using it and liking it is amazing.
Deepak: It’s amazing, it’s such a wonderful feeling. Once you get beyond making enough money to pay your bills, in a weird way the money stops mattering. When you don't have enough money to pay your bills, all that matters is the money. But one you get past that, it fades into the background and you care about improving service and introducing people to your product.
How long have your companies been remote?
Deepak: We’ve been remote since the beginning. I first started my agency life in Oct 2016 when we incorporated the company. It wasn’t Pearl Lemon then, it was Pearl Traffic. We were remote from the beginning though. I’m 34 and I spent my 20’s backpacking. When I hit 30 I was like I need to make some money. I’m Indian, I’m 30, and I’m living at home which was every f*cking social taboo put together. I was like I still don’t want to sit in an office. It’s something I’ve done for a little while and I did try, and it was actually why it didn’t work. My business partner when I first started Pearl Traffic had an office and the glove didn’t fit when we tried to work together. And that was really telling because then I did try to go into an office every day. I made the commute an hour to where his office was and I had a desk there. He had a software company and this was his side thing and my main thing. And it just didn’t work. So I think there is also a cultural difference which may be breaking down now as everyone has been forced to accept that remote is how we work. I think there are new kinds of people that are coming online and have never considered this before and discovering that it’s not that hard actually. I like the freedom and flexibility and I think you get more from people. You get more happiness and more effective people. You can argue that I’ve never done the inverse so what do I know, I haven’t been to an office in 5 years. I’ve worked for the man in the office but I’ve never run a team in person. You could argue my perception is skewed but it is what it is and I ain’t changing it anytime soon.
Do you enjoy working fully remote or would you prefer to be in the office?
Waikit: I think it’s like once you try it you’ll never go back. I’ve spent a big chunk of my life in offices and cubes and this is much better. I will say that there are pros and cons. Truth be told, I sometimes miss the downtime when you commute, when you’re actually forced to have downtime. Other than that, I love the flexibility. I have 2 young kids, I think for folks with young kids, school related stuff - having the flexibility helps a lot. I think what you said was interesting - this is something the tech industry has slowly dabbled in for the last couple of years. Folks can’t compete with Google in SF, NYC, they realize they have to figure out their remote strategy. Covid just accelerated the whole thing.
In your opinion, how has remote work impacted (positively and/or negatively) your team’s performance?
Deepak: I think what’s happened is a lot of companies have fundamentally seen that we make the same or more money and everyone is at home. And we can cut costs. Everyone’s looking at cheaper economies now. There’s going to be booms in places like South Africa and Nigeria. People realize there is no distinction between me hiring Casey in San Francisco versus me hiring Casey in South Africa and I can pay Casey in South AFrica $3k less a month. Ordinarily I would never consider Casey in South Africa but I don’t care anymore, it makes no difference since we’re all remote. There’s also going to a cull of costs. What’s going to be interesting is that none of these companies will be looking to reduce their fees. What’s interesting is also seeing it at an academic level. My partner is in academics and they’ve all gone remote but they haven’t changed their fee structure. There’s uproar at the moment. But also at the moment the UK is suffering because there are no international student applications anymore. Usually schools would get a guy from the states who would pay $30K a year to go to Oxford. They aren’t seeing these applications anymore. And also these students are probably now like I can stay in New York and attend Oxford University. It’s going to be interesting to see when the dust settles what happens.
What do you think about salaries based on location?
Deepak: You can now get a talented banker who’s based in Idaho or Montana. Now you’ve got these talented people who live in small and remote locations who are all on a level playing field with people in New York. And to be honest it is cheaper to live in Idaho than downtown SF. So it’s a bit complex. But at our level, sub 100 employee level, it doesn’t really matter. Everything is going to turn on its head. I think it’s going to be good for business.
How do you recreate office culture and social events?
Deepak: I think you don’t, the truth is. I think it’s just different. A zebra is not a dog. So don’t try and make a zebra a dog. I think it’s different expectations. You can emulate certain aspects of it but you can’t replicate it. Getting it like-for-like is a challenge. And it’s two different mindsets. For those companies with huge cultures, that is probably very scary to the Googlers. I don’t think it can be the same. Humans are tribal by nature and it’s not the same, having a beer on video. The people who ask the question are asking the wrong questions. It’s the same as asking how we can turn this apple into a pear. It’s a f*cking apple dude.
Waikit: Stop trying to recreate it. Doesn’t mean you can't do get-togethers and offsites once covid is over. But the day to day is very different. If you’re trying to do it the same you’re thinking about it wrong.