At Toptal, we are proud of our ability to wing it and make things happen wherever we go. We are a company, but don't have an office or headquarters. We are completely distributed with hundreds of core team members working from more than 25 different countries, and together we support thousands of engineers working with more than 2,000 clients across 93 countries--all in real-time.
Every day we are asked how that is possible. The full answer includes many, many details, but what people generally find most helpful/interesting are the high-level aspects.
So, since this is a popular question, I'm writing about it here:
Align your vision and first principles.
This is hardly unique to a remote company, but the most important thing you can do as an entrepreneur (or as a lead on any team) is to make sure that everyone on your team shares a common vision and operates via the same first principles. That way, when you're not all in the same room (or continent), everyone will be able to derive for themselves what they should do in virtually any situation.
Hire tremendous problem solvers.
Startups are full of problems, and every day every person in your company will need to make a thousand decisions without over-analyzing, wasting their resources, or bothering you. At Toptal, we're engineers, and we look for great problem solvers with personality and drive. To us, that's the very definition of an engineer. We test problem-solving ability in the application process for our network of developers and for our internal team as well. Problems will arise. Hire people who can tackle them straight on. Being remote usually means less structure and fewer well-defined processes. B-players need structure and processes in order to thrive. A-players can wing it and do great. As a distributed company in growth mode, you'll be winging it every day. Hire people who can thrive in that environment.
Nurture a meritocracy.
We track goals reached, not hours worked. We don't micromanage, and we don't want people coasting along by navigating office politics or wasting their time just to punch the clock. In order to make this work, we hire excellent engineers and problem solvers--and they have to be extremely proactive and responsible. Everyday, successes are recognized and rewarded, and people advance accordingly. The kind of lifestyle we have at Toptal isn't for everyone, and we recognize that. But for those who do work with us, we want to see that they're continually driving things forward and accomplishing something new.
Create a culture of accountability.
Because we are all spread out, we can't--and don't--micromanage our team. Instead, we try to create a culture of accountability. If you are doing something right, you will be told. If you are doing something wrong, you will also be told. We're always bouncing ideas off of each other and giving feedback. The only way you'd ever be fired at Toptal (other than gross misconduct), is if it was confirmed that 1) the expectations of you were crystal clear, and, 2) that it was crystal clear you were not meeting them. When you're distributed, expectations and communication are lifeblood.
Prioritize by impact.
Everyone on our internal team can be found working on the most impactful thing they are capable of working on. Each team at Toptal has at least one meeting per week where each team member reports what s/he did that week, what the results were, and optimizations for the next week. We try to never waste energy on time-consuming tasks that aren't going to have a huge impact, which means saying "no" to a lot of requests and ideas.
Be a fighter.
We encourage new ideas at Toptal, but you better be ready to fight for the ones you have. As my colleague, I will force you to convince me that what you're doing is good, and I expect you to hold me to the same level of accountability. We're always looking for results, and we want to know the results that you expect from any idea you put forth.
Be rigorous with ideas and logic.
While we welcome ideas, we also require our employees to be rigorous with the logic behind them. We are not only constantly brainstorming ideas, but also constantly questioning them. What makes this idea work? How can we make it better? What are the tangible results? In this vein, we also require extreme candor from one another. If your idea is full of holes or can be made better, you have to be able to rely on your team members to tell you that.
Make sure everyone has great internet and microphones.
This may seem obvious, but it's easier said than done. I frequently come across companies that are great in many regards but are trying a partially remote model and doing a very poor job of it. They'll have conference calls where half the attendees have poor connections, and people are dropping in and out the whole time. A remote model won't work like that. Everyone needs stable internet and a good microphone. Fortunately, Speedtest.net and the basic Apple Headphones are all most of us need in order to achieve this.
Perhaps the most important part of making remote culture and collaboration work is communication. The only requirement for our team members is reliable access to the internet and a solid microphone. Of course, nowadays this is easier than ever with the right tools--4G is available in pretty much all of the remote corners of the world and many countries have better access to free wifi than we do here in the States. Bring an unlocked phone wherever you go, purchase a local SIM card, and you can be set up on the best network wherever you find yourself. We are almost always on Skype, so any team member is only a call away.
Work from your ideal environment.
By encouraging our team members to work from anywhere they want, we've found that they are able to change scenery when they need to, and they end up taking fewer days off from work. We offer unlimited paid vacations, but few people take them. Need to recharge? Hop on a plane to Santorini for a week or visit a friend in Montreal, all while working from the same laptop, smartphone, and tablet that you would be working from at home. Spend your days in an Internet cafe or co-working space and your nights exploring the city, or--depending on when you work best--vice versa.
You know you're doing it right as a company when your team has problems like this:
The end result: People do amazing things.
This is where remote really shines. When smart people are empowered--empowered to think, to execute, to travel, to be comfortable, to choose a lifestyle for themselves--they do amazing things. Over and over. Sure, many of us spent the past few years traveling around the globe and our Instagrams look like we've been on vacation. But we've also been working 12-14 hours a day at the same time. Ping anyone at Toptal, and you'll be amazed at how quickly you get a response. We love working. No one here wants a four hour work week or the typical nine-to-five job. This remote company wouldn't work with that schedule. No one at Toptal is a nine-to-fiver, and that's been key to our success.