Manufacture connection. In a traditional office, conversations and connection are organic. Being in the same physical space fosters communication with very little effort. When you’re working remotely, you’re going to experience a lack of communication and connection, naturally, so you need to manufacture that. That doesn’t mean you need to force people to talk for the sake of talking, it just means you’re going to have to devote time, money and company resources in general to manufacturing that connection. Don’t think you can get away without building that into your plan and your budget. One thing we’ve done recently was a virtual board game tournament. What was fun about this is that it was an organic idea that was personal to me — we used a board game I’d enjoyed with my family, and I wanted to share it with our team. We had a lot of fun with it. Just because I’ve made a special effort to foster this connection, that doesn’t mean it’s not genuine.
We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewingJustin Goldman.
Justin Goldman is RenoFi’s CEO and Co-founder. Justin is a seasoned entrepreneur who founded his first company as an undergrad at Penn State University back in 2002 and has been building internet businesses ever since. His own home renovation was made possible by a RenoFi Loan, a unique financial product he created for homeowners just like him. Justin founded three other companies before RenoFi, including Zoomer, which he and his Co-founder (then and now) Rob Shedd, developed at Y Combinator. Justin has been working remotely since before it was cool, back in the very beginning of his career almost two decades ago.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started? Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most interesting things to happen in my career may not be best for this interview :). But I’ll share an interesting story anyhow.
With my current company, the most interesting thing that’s happened to me was running into a personal pain point and using that to start RenoFi. The only thing that Megan (my wife) and I have pretty much ever fought about in our married lives was frustration over our home. It didn’t look the way we wanted it to or function the way we needed it to, and there was nothing we could do about it at the time, so it caused a lot of stress. So I made it my mission to solve that problem with RenoFi, and used a RenoFi Loan to finance our own home renovation.
RenoFi killed two birds with one stone: I solved a problem in our marriage, and I got a company out of it. Not a bad deal!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In high school, I heard the quote by George Bernard Shaw, that goes something like: “You see things and ask why. I dream things, and ask why not.” It was the first time I had ever heard a quote that perfectly explained how I thought about things, and how I saw the world.
As a kid and still today, I was always questioning everything. I was always trying to find a better way to do things, before I knew what “entrepreneurship” even was.
This quote resonated with me so much that I felt like I could have come up with it myself. So I put that on my wall as a freshman in college in my dorm room. Today, my email address and slack username are both “Jgynot” because of that quote. I’ve lived it ever since I came across it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think every married founder would be crazy not to point to their spouse. The stress of building a company from scratch impacts both parties equally, and you can’t start a company while raising a family without incredible support from your spouse. But if this question is focused on the business side, the person I am most grateful for is Rob, one of my two co-founders at RenoFi who I’ve worked with now for over a decade. I have always kept the CEO title in the companies I’ve started, but the reality is that I always view Rob as a co-CEO. Our strengths and our weaknesses really complement each other. Having a partnership like that, for over a decade now, enables us to operate in a way that few people can really match. We’ve worked incredibly closely at three different companies now and we just keep helping each other grow in different ways.
My career trajectory would not have been the same if I hadn’t found Rob, and created this awesome, complementary relationship.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
We built our company to be fully remote from day one, well before the pandemic came into our purview, because we had always known that remote work was the future of work. That said, like every aspect of life, there are pros and cons to it.
Building company culture happens much more organically in-person. Building authentic camaraderie is just simply easier when you’re all together.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
As a remote team, if you aren’t purposeful in how you’re building and helping your team learn how to work together, you can take culture for granted, and really end up with a dysfunctional team.
Also, there’s nothing that can replace the feeling of being in a room with your team, with a whiteboard, just problem solving. It’s not as easy to do remotely, especially with teams that haven’t ever worked together in-person before.
I saw a tweet the other day that described it perfectly: remote work is amazing for getting work done. Remote work is not great for knowing what work to get done. That’s so true. Everyone needs to be more thoughtful to make sure people are working on the right things at the right time, whereas in an office, it might happen more organically.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- In person matters even for 100% distributed companies. Ensure that you do get together with your full team physically at least once per year, and ideally once per quarter at the department level. I’m a big believer in remote work, and always have been, well before this pandemic happened. But we had never planned to be 100% remote 365 days a year. While we wanted remote work to be the de-facto mode of working, we always had a week long off-site for the whole company, monthly founders meetings, and maybe quarterly department off-sites. It is just critical to get together with your teammates and really know them on a personal level. Being in person means having fun, and getting to know each other more as humans and not just talking squares on your computer screen. Remote culture is the future of work, but don’t overcorrect and go 1000% remote. Remote doesn’t mean never meeting in person. Add events and retreats into your plan. While of course COVID has prevented this recently, as a company we have our sights on a week-long team offsite trip as soon as it is safe to travel.
- CLARITY. We’ve taken the framework from the book, The Advantage, which we’ve found to be an awesome guidepost to ensure everyone is on the same page. This lets everyone in the company know what’s the single most important thing right now for the business. With this, the team ensures their priorities tie back to the most important thing for the company. We have full company All Hands every other week and try to keep them casual. People can get really siloed off into their own work and their own departments, and these meetings allow us to connect, re-align, and motivate ourselves toward a common goal. When you’re working at a startup, things are changing all the time, so this connection is important. At its core, this is just clarity. I advocate for supreme clarity at all times.
- Find what works for your team. This one is hard because it’s unique for every single company, and it may take time to figure out what works for your people. The only thing that doesn’t work at all, is not being thoughtful about it. While we have a few things that we are trying and that work for us, we are always striving to learn more from other companies and do more ourselves. We try not to be complacent. One thing we do is “Insta RenoFi,” which is a Slack channel that we use as our own company Insta feed. People are free to post photos throughout the week of whatever they’re up to, and especially after a weekend. This is a casual way to stay up to date with each other’s lives, especially since a lot of us live in different countries and continents. The differences in holidays, climate and even social issues have sparked interesting conversation and connection for all of us.
- Manufacture connection. In a traditional office, conversations and connection are organic. Being in the same physical space fosters communication with very little effort. When you’re working remotely, you’re going to experience a lack of communication and connection, naturally, so you need to manufacture that. That doesn’t mean you need to force people to talk for the sake of talking, it just means you’re going to have to devote time, money and company resources in general to manufacturing that connection. Don’t think you can get away without building that into your plan and your budget. One thing we’ve done recently was a virtual board game tournament. What was fun about this is that it was an organic idea that was personal to me — we used a board game I’d enjoyed with my family, and I wanted to share it with our team. We had a lot of fun with it. Just because I’ve made a special effort to foster this connection, that doesn’t mean it’s not genuine.
- Empathy acceleration hack. This last point is really important to me. Zoom meetings make 1:1 conversations and deep connection difficult. As a founder, you’re juggling so many things at once, and so getting to know someone on a more personal level, via Zoom, feels really difficult. One way that we try to connect on a personal level, and not just a work level, is through what we call Spotlights. Spotlights are these stories that we publish internally about each new employee that joins our company. A writer that we work with will take time to interview every new employee before they start about their whole life story: their family, their hobbies, their career history, whatever is important to them that they want to talk about. Then, our writer will craft an in-depth story for everyone else at the company to read, based on that interview. In person, you might be able to get this information about a person’s backstory during lunch or over beers after work. Remotely, Spotlights allow everyone the chance to learn more about each other’s lives at their leisure, in a pretty non-intimidating way and it happens immediately, so you feel like your new teammates already know you. The better you know your teammates, the more empathy you’ll have for them in your day to day work environment.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
We are a remote-first company and we were perfectly set up to work remotely when the pandemic started, and we really didn’t miss a beat. We were lucky in that regard.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
In short, I don’t think there’s anything that really replicates the benefits of being together in the same space, and I don’t think we’ve employed any tools to replicate those benefits. Obviously we use Zoom, we rely on Slack, as lots of companies do. Rather than try to focus on using technology to replicate being in person, we really focus on the benefits of working remotely, that are different from working in person. Not having to commute, getting to be close to our kids and our family during the day, being able to work from anywhere, not having to pay to rent an entire office building. And of course, when a pandemic comes around, already being ready to adapt 🙂
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
A perfect communication feature for me would be a better video set up, so that you could walk around your room and change positions in the middle of a meeting or workday a lot more easily, and the camera would just follow you. I think that would be a lot more natural.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
We’ve always been remote, so we’re really accustomed to working across different devices, from anywhere, and through a cloud-based system. Truthfully, we can’t imagine doing things any other way. I’m sure the pandemic has created a necessity for other companies to switch to this mode of work.
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
There are a lot of new technologies out there that we’ve looked at — none of them VR, AR or Mixed Reality. We’ve looked into Donut and Remotion to help foster connection more, and other things like that. All of it is really exciting. Our company has been remote from the start. We were ahead of the curve on that, and we are always looking to stay ahead of the curve, and that means being open and curious about new tools that would enable us to connect better. We’re always looking at new options out there.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
No, I am extremely excited about the future of work being remote. For folks like myself, who have young, growing families, the ability to work crazy long hours and yet still be home to eat dinner with your kids, help them with homework, and put them to bed, is just magical. That outweighs it all. I am optimistic that remote work will just get better and better as time goes on and as society adapts to it, with new technology and new ways of living.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
From our customers perspective, being remote hasn’t changed anything. We’ve always used Intercom on our website, as well as email and phone calls, as a way to chat with customers, because we serve homeowners all over the country. Our business model has always been digital, so that’s not an issue for us. On the other hand, building partnerships with credit unions, our lending partners, is crucial. Before the pandemic, a lot of that has been in person. It has definitely been harder to build long lasting and deep relationships. While we have moved over to phone and video calls to communicate with them, we are looking forward to the day when we can finally visit and meet our partners in person.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
In person, you give feedback, and then you’d see them the next morning or at lunch and you can move past it, quickly. Remotely, it’s a little bit harsher. You hang up the phone, or the Zoom call, and the other person is just left to dwell on that feedback for a long time. It’s important to make sure that your constructive criticism is not what you end a conversation on. You need an interaction, post-feedback, that hangs out there as the last words exchanged, to avoid any unintentional harshness. That’s one trick that I use. This question also comes back to building personal relationships. If your team is close, then honest feedback is more natural. If you create that sense of closeness, I think people are less likely to interpret constructive criticism in a negative way.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
I think it’s important to talk about things other than work. We do this through a Slack integration called “Donut.” If you opt in, it randomly pairs you with someone else at the company for a 1:1 check in. These every other week check-ins are a way for people to just catch up and share whatever’s on their mind. It’s a great way for people who aren’t working together everyday on the same projects to get to know each other on a more personal level in a casual way. Another thing we did recently is a group fitness challenge, where some folks are partnering up to motivate each other to track their fitness goals. And of course, our board game tournament and Spotlights, which I mentioned earlier. Any opportunity for people to come together over something other than the task at hand is a great way to build camaraderie. And a health dose of competition always helps!
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The world needs more founders. There’s plenty of capital out there that can help startups get off the ground. I’d say there’s more capital than there are founders out there. We just need more people that have confidence in themselves to take ideas and make them a reality. Innovation starts with founders. That’s a movement that I am personally making a reality by mentoring and investing in as many founders as I can, and I’m really inspired and optimistic about the ideas I’m seeing.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Follow RenoFi on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, or check out our website at www.RenoFi.com. We’re just getting started.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.