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Peter Imburg of Elfster: “It is a pain — but it is so helpful! ”

It is a pain — but it is so helpful! — to get your remote team all together in one location from time to time. It is also essential to get your leadership team together in real life even more frequently. Try Asilomar or somewhere not too far flung but kind of exotic like Montreal. As a part of […]

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It is a pain — but it is so helpful! — to get your remote team all together in one location from time to time. It is also essential to get your leadership team together in real life even more frequently. Try Asilomar or somewhere not too far flung but kind of exotic like Montreal.


As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Imburg.

Peter Imburg is the CEO and founder of Elfster. He launched the Oakland, California-based company in 2001 after his wife and sister realized how complicated it was to coordinate a cross-country Secret Santa exchange.

Since then, he has grown Elfster to 17 million users worldwide, partnering with dozens of the most popular retailers and brands while collaborating with organizations like Toys for Tots to encourage charitable giving during the holiday season.

Upon founding Elfster, Peter brought more than 10 years of experience working in technology, finance and business at companies including Exigis, BenefitStreet, QuantumShift, Merrill Lynch and Wells Fargo.

He is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley and the Executive Leadership Program at Stanford University, as well as attended leadership programs at Babson College.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

I’ve got more than 20 years in technology, business and finance, growing Elfster, which I started developing in 2001, to more than 17 million users from 50+ countries. I started designing this application during the holiday season when my wife and sister realized how complicated it was to coordinate a cross-country Secret Santa exchange. Five years after its inception, I was able to quit my day job to lead the growth of Elfster as its CEO and Founder.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

We see many really amazing stories at Elfster about how different groups and communities support each other by fostering generosity. For example, one group of 491 Triplet Moms comes together for a Secret Santa Gift Exchange at Elfster each year. Their story of helping one another with support and kindness was so compelling we wrote a story about them on our blog. Later one of those triplet moms (and her husband, too!) joined us on the team at Elfster to help other users who were spreading the love.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I wanted to throw a launch party the first year we made Elfster.com public — I thought it would be fun and we could support a good cause as part of it. It got so time consuming and the expected budget kept rising — all while we were starting to get traction. It became a big distraction. I learned so much from that: to stay focused on the customer, to not get distracted by inessentials, and there are easier ways to support good causes!

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

I have learned the hard way the message I am about to share! For your company and staff to thrive (you need both), make sure your staff is clear and aligned with respect to where the company is going. Communicate, repeatedly, that direction to your team and make sure that they are motivated to achieve well-aligned objectives that all support the well-understood company direction.

To avoid burnout on your team, try to avoid sending email and slack at night or on weekends. Make time to connect with staff members for something fun online, like a Zoom happy hour or a Jackbox game session. To deepen personal connections with teammates, we have started using Donut in Slack — it’s great to get to know more members of the team.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

Before it was as commonplace as it is today, through its 15+ year history, Elfster has worked with 100% remote staff since the beginning. Currently we have 15 year-round employees and an additional 35 seasonal “elves” around the country.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

1- You’re in many different time zones. — e.g. all hands meetings are at barely the intersection of when everyone works.

2- It’s impossible to stay in contact without reliable communications (can you hear me now?) — e.g. group videoconferences routinely include 5 or more people — being set up and ready a couple minutes before the start is necessary — too often the first few minutes of the meeting can be fiddling with cameras and mics.

3- You must have outstanding support systems to help coordinate project management and workflows — e.g. Jira, Trello, ProductPlan, Slack, Hubspot, Github, 15Five, and of course, Spotify.

4- It is a pain — but it is so helpful! — to get your remote team all together in one location from time to time. It is also essential to get your leadership team together in real life even more frequently. Try Asilomar or somewhere not too far flung but kind of exotic like Montreal.

5- A video call is always better than just audio to really be able to connect with your staff.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

(Please see above where I incorporated solutions).

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing 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 employee?

This really begins with building a trusting and collaborative environment. That is done by ingraining in the team the importance of some basic communication skills, like don’t take things personally, appreciate others’ perspectives, be kind, seek to understand not to win, etc.

With that backdrop, candid feedback will land much more softly. In the moment of providing feedback, make sure it is a good time, ask permission to deliver some candid feedback, and deliver your message in a constructive way.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Don’t Do It! Pick up the Slack Phone / Facetime if there is something meaningful to be conveyed.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

Find a comfortable / proper place to work. It is enticing to think you might work from your La-Z-Boy and you may do it from time to time, but you really need a good workspace with minimal distractions.

Also, take some regular breaks! You need to step away from work periodically to really function at your peak; maybe take a walk around the block. The fresh air is great for keeping you sharp and creative.

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

Once COVID is over, plan to get together in person! In the meantime, have some fun online together — take time out for a Zoom happy hour or Jackbox session.

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. 🙂

What if every person took just 30 minutes a week to think about how they could be kind and generous to someone else — and acted on it?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars, to change the world.”

Harriet Tubman

Thank you for these great insights!

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