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mark-forrester

How WooThemes built an over $30m business using a remote work team

It sounds hard to believe, but Adriaan Pienaar, Magnus Jepson, and Mark Forrester — the founders of WordPress plugin maker Woo Themes — only met for the first time face-to-face 16 months after registering their business.

“We hadn’t even spoken on the phone in that time,” recalls Forrester, who met Jepson and Pienaar online in 2007, while based in London. Pienaar was living in Cape Town and Jepson, in Stavanger, Norway at the time.

After registering the business in 2008, the three would later base the startup in Cape Town. They grew WooThemes to 55 staff members across 20 countries by the time it was acquired in 2015 (together with its sister site WooCommerce) by web development firm Automattic in a deal estimated to be worth over $30-million, according to a Techportal article at the time.

Forrester, who today serves as an advisor to Automattic, says the three initially connected via their respective personal blogs and shared passion for WordPress and web design.

At the time Forrester was providing support for European and South African web-design clients, on a freelance basis, while Jepson was working full time as a web developer and Pienaar had started a boutique design agency.

“All the while we were ploughing in as much time to WooThemes as possible, and only communicating over email. So we could have probably done things a little quicker, or more efficiently in those early days had we taken the plunge and dedicated all our time to WooThemes,” says Forrester.

‘You can quite easily assess the character of remote work team members by a combination of their written words and their work output’

He says the arrangement the three struck up online was originally based on a loosely defined profit-sharing basis, where they would collaborate on off-the-shelf templates that they would then sell to WordPress users.

“Quite quickly we determined how our varied skillsets complemented each other and how much the three of us were each contributing towards this new venture,” he recalls.

He reckons cultural and geographical diversity was an advantage in building a WordPress business and brand that was unique. “Each of us had different web experiences, design styles, and personal networks to leverage,” he adds.

Cape Town office

Not long after meeting, the three set up a Cape Town office. They based the company at the office of Pienaar’s design agency at the Tygervalley Waterfront

“As Adi’s focus shifted to WooThemes we were fortunate to be able to move the team over to working on WooThemes and rebrand the office space,” he says.

In 2010, when Forrester moved back to South Africa from the UK, he began working out of the WooThemes office. “Not out of necessity, but after years of working from a home office, it was quite refreshing to have company and collaborate in a physical space,” he says.

The team continued to grow both remotely, and from the Cape Town office. So how did they know for sure that team members would be the right fit if didn’t meet them face to face first?

“You can quite easily assess one’s character by a combination of their written words and their work output. We’ve always looked for friendly, independent, compassionate people. With an important part of our recruitment process being a trial project or task,” he explains.

‘Shapes inclusive culture’

He says Automattic has proven, at scale, how one can recruit a very diverse and dynamic team remotely, without traditional and physical interviews.

“They’ve helped me understand how biased we often are assessing one’s character and cultural fit within minutes of an interview. It’s often a high pressure, nervy encounter that does not reflect your true best,” he says.

He says having a self-disciplined and experienced remote team, aligned around clear objectives makes for a very productive setup. “It also helps shape a diverse and inclusive culture that can be representative and understanding of the specific needs of a very different customer base around the world,” he adds.

So what tips does he have for entrepreneurs looking to hire remote work teams?

woothemes-group

When to go remote

Critically, Forrester reckons startups should only consider hiring remote work teams if they lack the right skills in their immediate vicinity, or if they need representatives in the cities they want to expand the business to.

“Most importantly, if you hire a remote team, or some remote workers, invest the time and money into ensuring communication can flow, and be interpreted accurately, amongst everyone,” he says.

“What we found with WooThemes was an office with remote workers is a tricky one to perfect. There are always water cooler conversations in an office that don’t make it online, and divides can easily occur,” he points out.

Initially the startup hired international team members as contract workers, until it had built up the expertise to register more efficient structures in specific countries. Contract workers needed to ensure they were tax compliant, he adds.

One challenge was paying remote work team members. “Exchange controls and PayPal limitations in South Africa were monthly hardships,” he recalls. 

He says since 2010, the team (now under Automattic) has been getting together for an annual and company-wide retreat. “It helped that our first one drew international attention and shaped one of our best sales weeks of the year,” he adds.

“Within Automattic we still meet once a year as a company. At 500-plus individuals. It’s a costly exercise with immeasurable benefits,” he says (see this blog piece by Forrester on last year’s meetup).

Ultimately Forrester says remote work teams are perfect for those businesses that build digital offerings, have “virtual” customers and no physical inventories, and adds that an increasing number of companies are adopting remote workflows.

But he points out that the recent move by big companies like Yahoo and IBM to call their staff back to work in location-based offices, proves managing a remote work team is still difficult to get right.

Read more: Q&A: WooTheme’s Mark Forrester talks hacking, investment tips & more [update]