If given the opportunity to inspire the world, it would be on creating an equal society for everyone. A society where a woman is not viewed as a less human being to a man. A society where people are not discriminated against because of their skin color, religion, or who they choose to love. I think society has come a long way. However, social inequities have been instituted for so long, there would have to be major changes to make society a better place for all.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sahin Boydas.
Sahin Boydas is the Founder and CEO of RemoteTeam, and his goal is to revolutionize the future of work with the best HR and management tools for remote-first companies. Sahin is a serial entrepreneur living in Silicon Valley and an alumnus of 500 Startups, Stanford StartX, Betaworks Vision Camp, and Quark Accelerator. From movie marketing marketplaces to augmented reality applications, Sahin has built and successfully exited companies with a 100% remote team for over a decade.
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’m a serial entrepreneur with a love for building startups. I got my Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering from Koc University in Istanbul and my MBA (Entrepreneurship) from Bahcesehir University. Ten years ago, my entrepreneurial journey saw me move from Turkey to Silicon Valley. Since moving, I have gone on to join many entrepreneurial and startup communities, including Founder Institute, betaworks visioncamp, Batch 19 of both 500 Startups and Stanford StartX, and Quark Accelerator.
My passion for the entrepreneurship world started years ago and has been a major driver of my move to Silicon Valley. Since settling in the Bay area, I’ve met with 400 investors in the valley and raised from 40+ investors. I have had the chance to work with amazing people through the startups I founded and co-founded, including co-founding movie marketing platform MovieLaLa (later sold to Gfycat); one of the most successful consumer-facing AR apps:, Leo AR; and my current startup, RemoteTeam.com.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When I first moved to Silicon Valley a decade ago, and as someone who had already operated startups with remote teams — it was really interesting to realize that many investors and founders were not supportive of the idea of remote work at that time. And it was also surprising that such thinking would be so prevalent in the very place where technology and great ideas come from. As a result, early on in my career in the Bay Area, especially when I tried to raise money for my startups, I heard things like ‘operating a remote company will limit your ability to get funded’. Founders also pointed out a lot of bottlenecks to operating a remote company. While this kind of atmosphere may have changed my mind, looking back right now, I’m glad I continued to pursue the remote work revolution even before it was cool. And here we are looking at a future that will have remote work as the default work type.
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?
We are working on a social media viral loop for MovieLaLa. We were making customers follow movie stars and see their upcoming movies. If the users come from Tumblr, we were using tumblr connect and reposting the best tumblr post of that movie star. Our users were liking it and getting many hearts and followers. We saw that the most engagement comes from gifs in Tumblr. Then we built an instant gif maker :). We saw the trend but we thought it would never get big. This was in 2012, before giphy and gfycat. 🙂 , so we always felt that we had a huge contribution in the gif space. In a funny turn of events, later in our second company Gfycat, Giphy became our investor 🙂 but we missed the opportunity of building a hundred million dollar business 🙂
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Every founder should know that being so rigid and bureaucratic in the remote work environment doesn’t work. What wins in this work revolution is flexibility. So CEOs should desist from micromanagement and creating tight organizational environments that do not exhibit open communication principles and trust.
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?
I’ve been an advocate for remote work since before it became cool. While running my startups, I wanted to find the best people from around the world and that’s what led me to consider hiring remote talent — and I’ve never looked back since then. This is not just limited to the people we hire — I have had co-founders who were remote, but we still managed to build great teams and successful startups. From co-founding MovieLaLa and Leo AR, to my current startup RemoteTeam.com, my teams have always been remote. Today, as the CEO of RemoteTeam, I manage a 20+ team located in Turkey, the U.S., Ghana, and Nigeria.
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?
My 20+ team is spread around the world, many of whom are in Turkey, some in Ghana, Nigeria, and the U.S. Turkey is 3 hours ahead of Ghana and 2 hours ahead of Nigeria. Nigeria is also 1 hour ahead of Ghana. I am in Silicon Valley, which is 10 hours behind Turkey, 7 hours behind Ghana, and 6 hours behind Nigeria. What this means is that while the Turkey team is already in the middle of the day working, the team in Africa is just waking up or just starting — and for myself as the CEO, that will probably be the time I am going to bed or already fast asleep. Managing a diverse team of this kind is never an easy job, and so there are challenges relating to:
- Communication — difficulty in getting a single time that suits all of us, especially when there’s something that needs everyone on board.
- Collaborating — working together on the same projects, making work difficult to sync.
- Managing productivity — knowing what’s to be done, how much time is going to be spent on a particular project.
- Dealing with cultural differences — which may lead to communication misinterpretations and subsequent issues.
- Trust issues as a result of the lack of physical presence — which can usually culminate into micromanagement and sometimes, unnecessary pressure.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
Some of the best ways to address remote team challenges, which I have found success in my current and previous startups, include, but not limited to:
Setting expectations. one of the best ways of managing a remote team and overcoming the challenges mentioned above and one that I particularly encourage remote teams to do is to set expectations. Your expectations of productivity, timely submission of tasks, and participation in group discussions should be made known to the team. This serves as a pillar against which your remote team’s output is measured. Apart from being a great way of measuring productivity, it helps create an environment where everyone is on the same page, at all times.
An open communication environment. Building a remote team requires constant communication, some may call it over communication. In this kind of atmosphere, it’s good to loosen the communication channels — letting teams feel comfortable talking to one another about inconveniences, their grievances, and their contributions towards big issues in the organization. This does not just solve communication problems, but also builds trust among employees and managers.
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?
Of course, giving feedback in a remote team is difficult, but there are ways to make feedback achieve its purpose. I recommend using a video call — some remote managers and even employees may not like it when feedback is given over video, but it’s one of the most effective ways of achieving the purpose of your feedback and making the experience look like that of a physical office. It gives an opportunity for the manager and remote employees to see each other, read facial expressions, and even articulate conversations better, which might sometimes be misunderstood if done over chat.
Personalize Feedback. Whether it’s a positive or negative one, don’t give people feedback in public Slack Channels or during company Zoom meetings unless the feedback is a clarification to something that everyone should know — and even with that, I usually find a way to still keep it personal between myself and the employee. Personalizing feedback by talking to employees one-on-one is a great way to calm nerves and not make them feel intimidated.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Giving feedback over any form of written communication is never easy as a result of the absence of the “physical human” touch, like facial expressions and gestures. But there’s always a way to make things better.
What I’ve found useful is for managers to use more positives in their email, especially for more constructive feedback. Mentioning an employee’s contribution to the company’s progress and how you want them on the team before going to a negative review is a great way to make your feedback email sound ‘normal’ and not ‘insulting’ or ‘intimidating’.
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?
If you’re a team that has just transitioned to remote, there’s one important thing I have for you: don’t rely on tools too much for things that need a “human touch” to them. We all know tools are crucial to every remote team. Right from communication to file sharing, we can’t do away with them. However, one thing I see new remote teams doing wrong is to rely too much on tools. Tools may help you communicate, but they don’t replace the empathy and the clarity you need to exhibit when communicating as an employee or manager. Tools will help you create nice team-building activities, but that doesn’t replace the effort you need to put in to trust one another as a team. This is why I usually remind new remote teams that while they use these tools to make work better, they should never forget that there is a part they need to play as team members to make the connections worthwhile.
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?
My biggest advice to remote teams when it comes to building a healthy work culture is to start everyone on the team during the onboarding stage. Onboarding should be an avenue to learn more about a person’s life and less about the work they’re coming to do. Of course, onboarding time is too short to get to know employees, but it’s a great avenue to get employees to talk about their personal lives — which gives managers and other employees an idea of how to treat each other.
Additionally, I recommend managers to call in and check on employees from time to time, outside of work. Not every conversation should be about work — but rather some conversations should focus on getting to know one another as a team. When practiced well, this could be replicated by other employees, which will help build a people-first culture in the team.
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. 🙂
Equality. If given the opportunity to inspire the world, it would be on creating an equal society for everyone. A society where a woman is not viewed as a less human being to a man. A society where people are not discriminated against because of their skin color, religion, or who they choose to love. I think society has come a long way. However, social inequities have been instituted for so long, there would have to be major changes to make society a better place for all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“invent yourself and then reinvent yourself, don’t swim in the same slough. invent yourself and then reinvent yourself and stay out of the clutches of mediocrity. invent yourself and then reinvent yourself, change your tone and shape so often that they can never categorize you. reinvigorate yourself and accept what is but only on the terms that you have invented and reinvented. be self-taught. and reinvent your life because you must; it is your life and its history and the present belong only to you.”
This quote has influenced how I hire talent. When I see the good in people, I take the decision to hire them even if they’re not the best at what they do — with the hope that they will improve themselves as time goes on. This is my way of giving opportunity to growing talent to better themselves while working. In startups, most successful companies are founded by people who have no experience in the field , so one of the most important things in startups is to become self taught.
Thank you for these great insights!