Remote work sucks
But that doesn't mean it's over
Jacob EitingJune 2, 2023
The commercial real estate folks are mad again about where we plug in our computers. This is not surprising. There is a certain type of tech gadfly whose biggest exposure to real startup work is the quarterly EA-led walk to a Perrier-stocked conference room, where, they spend the next 3 hours looking at charts saying “Hmm, I think we can go faster.” They are far enough removed from the day-to-day challenges that many are mostly pattern matching on their own personal “vibes.”
The only folks with any right to judge the efficacy of remote work are the people building remote-first companies. So let me just get it out there and say: remote work sucks. You oscillate from feeling exhausted, bouncing from Zoom call to Zoom call, digesting a never-ending barrage of information, only to compliment that with quiet spans of isolation where you yearn for a colleague to share the foosball table with.
But we knew this. This is just what sitting at a computer all day means. Whether you’re wrapped in a shiny, multi-story adult day care, or tucked back into the spare room of your house, the motions, agonies, and ecstasies of remote work are the same.
RevenueCat started as a co-located company. Miguel and I lived in San Francisco, and spent the first 6 months working from my living room. When we finished Y Combinator, we were so focused on iterating on the product that we didn’t put much thought into the company we wanted to build. We were able to hire a few folks, all in SF, and we remained co-located.
This period of the company I will always remember. Five standing desks, one pod. Everybody knew everything – everyone’s emotional state was observable. Bandwidth was high, and cohesion was even higher. There is no doubt in my mind that this, on a per-capita basis, was the most productive time at the company. We were making changes daily, fighting fires together, sharing lunch, and playing weird Safeway promotional Monopoly games. We were pre-product market fit. The rapid iterations helped us find that fit, and the time together laid the foundations for our culture. If I could choose to redo this period of the company, I wouldn’t choose to build it remotely. But great companies doesn’t spend much time in this phase.
Towards the end of our magical $0 to $1M year, the contradictions of building a tech company in San Francisco began to come to bear. The hiring market was smaller than you think (most people in “tech” want to work for Meta, not your stupid startup). The middle-class lifestyle in the city was non-existent. You were either a poor 20-something who didn’t care or a 30-something looking for big packages at FAANG. There wasn’t a huge pool of senior folks willing to take a risk. My network of engineers whom I wanted to hire were leaving or had already left the city. One of our first 5 hires wanted to move back home. Our 6th hire we wanted to make was on the other side of the globe, a Bay Area expat engineer who I respected immensely. The algorithm for building a startup is to always focus on your greatest bottleneck, the biggest fire, the shark closest to the boat. At that moment, our biggest hurdle was requiring everyone to plug their computers in the same room. So, we broke that constraint.
We read the Gitlab playbook, started documenting everything, and had Zoom calls with everyone on their own computer. It was awkward and slow, and maybe less than magical, but it was still exciting. Like we were starting a new exercise routine or a habit that everyone says will level you up. It was harder and a little messier, but you know what, we were still growing. We were able to make the hires that would have been impossible without adopting remote, and we were making progress. And that’s the only measuring stick for remote work.
The title of this essay isn’t just clickbait. It’s really true, remote work does suck. We just came off a week of having the company mostly together in one place, and the differences were stark. Complex topics could be resolved quickly. You got to have way more casual, valuable conversations. It just felt great. But it wasn’t real. That team, those people, with those ideas, and that passion for our mission could never have existed if we weren’t a remote-first company. Most of them are not in the Bay Area and not even in the United States! I’m 100% sure RevenueCat would not be where it is today if we hadn’t made the switch.
RevenueCat is now almost 70 people in countries all over the world. At this point, I couldn’t bring us back to an office if I wanted to. And I wouldn’t if I could. The conditions that made us go remote still exist. I still don’t have to sweat where somebody lives when I want to hire them. And, because we pay equally worldwide, we have a tremendous amount of market advantage on the compensation side. My daughter gets to grow up in close proximity to her grandparents and cousins, something I think we undervalue as a society. The good outweighs the bad.
Yes, remote work sucks. Yes, when you are very small, I think you should try to co-locate if you can. But no, remote isn’t a failed movement. It’s a model for scaling a company that has a different set of tradeoffs and advantages, just like everything else. Do what’s best for your company, your people, and your mission.