Remotely Roboflow: Co-founders share how they support a distributed team

Roboflow co-founders Brad Dwyer, left, and Joseph Nelson on a video call with staff.

Photo provided by Roboflow

The computer visioning startup Roboflow has been built from laptops in Des Moines, Washington, D.C., a Florida Airbnb and the Taiwanese beachfront. As of last year, Roboflow is officially a fully remote company.

Co-founders Joseph Nelson and Brad Dwyer are hosting seven of the eight full-time team members this week for an “on-site” staff retreat, based out of Gravitate Coworking Downtown. Roboflow is training two new employees who will also attend a leadership summit in Ankeny over the weekend, and both co-founders wanted to develop quarterly in-person events to help the team with long-term planning and creative work. Importantly, they also want the staff to hang out together.

“We didn’t make an intentional decision to build a remote company. That wasn’t part of our founding principles,” said Dwyer, Roboflow’s chief technology officer. “That just happened, so now we’re trying to figure out, what does that mean now that we can physically be in person and it’s OK? How do we develop the [company] culture?”

Employees hail from Des Moines and Iowa City, Chattanooga, Tenn., Minneapolis, and Oregon. Nelson, Roboflow’s CEO, splits his time between Des Moines and Washington, D.C., and a high school student from Texas interns with Roboflow remotely. Nelson and Dwyer talked with innovationIOWA about building a remote startup workforce. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What has it been like to operate Roboflow remotely?

Dwyer: Out of necessity, everybody was remote for the pandemic, so hiring the best talent that we could find — it didn’t matter if you were on Zoom next door or on Zoom a couple states over.

We’ve instituted a policy, or we’re trying to institute a policy, where if one person is remote, everybody’s remote. This morning when we had a call, because Amanda [Morrow, UX designer] is not here but would be on that call, we all went to separate conference rooms and dialed in on Zoom, even though seven of the eight of us were in one space. What we found is if seven people are in one room and one person is remote, it’s almost like that person is not as involved … because of the [Zoom] latency, the muting and unmuting of microphones. They’re not as integrated in the conversation. … If we’re going to have an egalitarian culture, where everybody’s opinion matters, we need to level the playing field.

Were there models of other startups or companies that you were able to talk to before establishing a remote company?

Dwyer: We’ve been having a bunch of conversations with friends who are startup founders just to understand what they’re thinking in terms of when the pandemic’s over. Are you going to have an office anymore, is everyone going to stay remote?

A lot of the things that serendipitously happen when you’re in the same room with each other need to be forced to happen. Explicitly planning social events helps, but it’s not quite the same. … It feels very planned, and that’s different from having a passing conversation with somebody in the hall or in the lunchroom. Because you have to plan a Zoom meeting, you don’t just have those 30-second interactions with somebody.

Sidekick was a company in our Y Combinator batch that gives each team member a dedicated tablet. It has a camera on it and you can drop in — either unmute yourself and just speak to the room, or drop in and have one-on-one conversations with people. It gives you a sense of presence, kind of like being in the same shared, virtual space all the time.

Nelson: It gives a little bit of personality, to some degree. Amanda’s dog will jump in-frame and stuff like that, which is funny. There’s a little less loneliness, I suppose. … Sidekick told us we are their top five in terms of most active users across all the teams that they have.

What other strategies do you introduce?

Nelson: We enjoy playing a game called Wavelength. … You kind of have to get in someone else’s head to try and understand [the clues], and that helps build a sense of camaraderie, which is a big thing.

Dwyer: We also do this thing called Donut, which is a Slack app. We’ll block off a half-hour on everybody’s calendar so we know everybody will be available at this time, and each week it will randomly pair up people for a Zoom meeting. We noticed we were having all these scheduled meetings but there weren’t a lot of spontaneous conversations.

It gives them a half-hour to talk with no agenda, just get to know each other, share what they’re working on, that kind of stuff.

Nelson: Some of these things were recent adjustments. Donut was implemented in the last two months, precisely because we heard feedback like, “I see these people in group meetings but I don’t see other people one-on-one nearly as much.”

What are your priorities when you get the team together?

Nelson: A really good anecdotal metric is, when walking away from an in-person gathering, you hope that two people who may not have known each other particularly well now have trust and confidence to text the other person something totally unrelated to work.

It’s like the “lead a horse to water” phrase — you intentionally want to create the space for those moments to happen, but you can’t force them. So what are the conditions that give someone unstructured space, but you’re having a shared experience?

It almost seems cold to ask, but you’re hosting these gatherings for a reason as a company. How do you evaluate or assess their effectiveness for your staff?

Nelson: It’s morale, right? People having a shared sense of excitement and purpose. Brad and I have one-on-one meetings with others on the team, and you just ask the question directly: What did you enjoy about this week, what kinds of activities would you do again. … Let people come away feeling refreshed and kind of rejuvenated.

It is a different side of our work when we’re in person. We have a higher percentage of meetings when we’re in person as a natural result of wanting to spend more time and take advantage of face-to-face.

How does hiring remote affect the way Roboflow attracts talent?

Dwyer: It’s really our job as founders of the company to build up these advantages and make it a no-brainer place to want to work. It helps that we’re working on a very cutting-edge, exciting field, it helps that we have a ton of customers already … but we’re a venture-funded startup in Iowa, that sets us apart. We went through Y Combinator, that also sets us apart. We both founded other companies before, that sets us apart. As a founder, nobody’s going to have that exact set of qualities the same as us. Your job is to highlight what the unique things are about you, and why somebody should come and work on your team.

For communities housing your remote-work employees, what’s the benefit to having a remote workforce?

Dwyer: It’s a huge opportunity for cities to be able to attract all these people. They don’t have to first attract companies to get those people, they just have to be an attractive place for the people themselves to go to and work at. I think this might decrease the value of having a big landmark employer based in their city, but it also means that if you’re a skateboarder and you work for a [remote] company, you might flock to Des Moines. It’s like a direct-to-consumer model for cities.

Nelson: I think people might make more conscious decisions about living in places that align with their values, their interests or their preferences. That’s interesting to think about from an employer’s perspective. As we get bigger, you hope that we’d be able to have an impact on the ecosystems of these developing places, either economically or contributing to meetups.