Sendtask Team Retreat in Berlin – Recap and Takeaways for Your Team

team-retreat-berlin

Yesterday I got back from Berlin after another amazing week with the team. While working remotely has many benefits, nothing beats spending time with the team. I was really looking forward to seeing everyone again and especially Armen, our mobile developer, who had only recently joined our team.

Including travel days, we spent seven days together. The two travel days left us only five days to work on long-term concepts, explore Berlin together and, of course, to have fun and create memories.

I’ve detailed the reasons why we’re doing retreats and how we structure our days in another post. This is what the actual days looked like:

Day 1 – Thursday

After our morning workout and a visit to one of the many good coffee shops in Berlin, we started with collecting our expectations for the retreat. We went in circles and everyone added items to the list until we felt we covered everything. Expectations ranged from «Decide how to collaborate as we grow» and «define the roadmap for next features» to «Create Memories» and «Good Food». We then created categories and assigned all of the items mentioned to their respective category. We ended up with about three work-related categories and a few ‘fun’ categories like “Go to an Escape room”.

coworking-space

Defining retreat expectations in our coworking space

The three work-related categories corresponded to the bigger topics we had previously thought about and thus already planned the long term blocks for these.

We started with a block called «Vision Refresher». The goal was to check if we are on the right path, if the vision we captured during the last retreat still fits the one in our head, and to get our new team member up to speed on why we think the vision is right.

We had a couple more sessions as a team and individual work on everyone’s weekly project in the afternoon. We ended the day with a nice dinner at a local restaurant called Katz Orange.

Day 2 – Friday

Every morning when we gathered at the office, we started with two things – an icebreaker/ team building exercise and a riddle. On Friday morning the icebreaker that we did was called «Fears in a hat». We slightly changed it to «Fears in a backpack» due to a missing hat. The idea behind this was fairly simple: Write down a fear that you have or had. Everyone submitted this anonymously on a piece of paper and all papers were put into a backpack. Everyone then picked one paper and read the fear out loud. We then talked about how we can relate or can’t relate to that fear and how we share similar fears. We did not identify which fear was originally written down by whom. This exercise led to very interesting discussions and we learned a lot about each other that wouldn’t usually come up at a dinner discussion.

icebreaker

One of our team exercises involved building a tower out of marshmallows and sticks!

We made a lot of progress on the weekly project that day and synchronization within teams. We left to play blacklight mini golf in the early afternoon. Later, as one should on a Friday evening in Berlin, we did a bit of bar hopping and enjoyed the variety of the Berlin nightlife.

Day 3 – Saturday

We decided to start the morning workout at 9 am instead of 7 am this time. The bar hopping had left some marks on everyone and we were all glad to get a few more hours of sleep.

Saturday was an important day – our long term session was about «User Retention». We realized that we were getting a constant inflow of users by now but we had a hard time at retaining some of them. Our product has a lot of rough edges and we started by writing down what we think «Sucks about Sendtask». We collected all of these, grouped them by the team that could solve them (bugs, for example, were assigned to the tech team while missing documentation was assigned to the content/support team).

Then, we identified the ‘quick wins’ and agreed on a prioritization for the order in which we would attack them.

We had scheduled a call with some of our users later that day to interview them about the product and hear what they like and don’t like. The users we talked to were some of our first heavy users that we did not know personally. They had found us on a website and decided to give the app a try. By now they have added over ten of their team members and are using Sendtask daily. Hearing what value the product brings to their team and how they’ve been able to be more efficient by using it, was great for our spirit. After focusing mostly on what we didn’t do right all day, it was inspiring to hear what we DID do right.

user-feedback

Taking notes as one of our heavy users describes what we do well and what we can improve on

Day 4 – Sunday

After a quick work session in the morning, we went for brunch to the Bavaria Hofbräuhaus in Berlin. There, we met Fabian and Thomas, two of our investors. They had flown in for two days to meet the team and give presentations on their areas of expertise. We included them in our daily icebreaker exercise and the riddle and after a two-hour brunch, we headed to the office where we started with a round of introductions.

everyone

A policeman is taking our group photo near the Berlin TV tower after we met with Fabian and Thomas

There were only about two hours for breakout sessions where everyone tried to get as much out of their time with Fabian and Thomas. At about 2 pm we left for ‘Picnic’. After the last retreat, everyone mentioned that they loved surprises. So I decided to take them for one.

Thinking we were going for a Picnic, everyone got into a bus and we left Berlin, headed to Brandenburg, the countryside surrounding Berlin. About 30mins in, I told them we were not going for Picnic but instead we’re Skydiving. Some of them were slightly shocked but all of them were excited. About 20 minutes later, we arrived and soon got ready to jump out of an airplane. It was a beautiful, cloud-free day and while the ride up to 4000m was tense, the jump was an unforgettable experience.

skydiving

Getting ready to jump off an airplane 4000m above sea level

Day 5 – Monday

Monday already marked our last day as a group. We made the most out of our morning when Fabian and Thomas gave their presentations. Fabian helped us understand how agencies will use Sendtask and Thomas presented the basics of Web Security.

dr Thomas Dübendorfer

Dr Thomas Dübendorfer presents the basics of Web Security

We thought we did a pretty good job in this area but soon realized that there was room for improvement.

Fabian and Thomas left in the afternoon and we decided to finish our time together with an Escape Room Battle. After finishing very closely one after another (36 seconds!), we went for a dinner and a few drinks together and said goodbye.

Conclusions

In only five days, we got an incredible amount of work done and created a bunch of memories together that we’ll never forget. While it sometimes sucks not to see our team more often, these retreats make it all worth the wait. I’m already looking forward to our next one which will come up in September.

Our Retreat In Berlin Is Starting Today

We work completely distributed and remotely in Sendtask – except for when we go on a retreat. Four times a year we fly everyone to work in the same place. Why? To address the things that are easier to discuss in person. Strategy, Vision, Product Brainstormings, long-term roadmap and more. And last but not least – to have some fun together.

This time we’re meeting in Berlin. Most of the team did not know where we’re going until yesterday. We’re all big fans of riddles – and so the team found out about where we’re going for the retreat last night in a riddle during our weekly call.

We’re going to spend five full days together.

Our typical schedule will look like this:

  • The day starts at 7 am with an hour-long workout session.
  • We get to the coworking space at about 8:30 am.
  • We start with an ice breaker exercise (some of the team members are with us for the first time) and the daily riddle.
  • Now that our physical and mental muscles are warmed up, we dive into one of the long term topics. Some of the things that we’ll have sessions on are Vision, User Retention, Processes (How to further fine tune the way we work together? How do we prioritize features? What milestones are we working towards?) and some breakout sessions for the tech & product teams.
  • After lunch, we reserve 2-4 hours per day for individual group work. Everyone will work on a weekly project that they present at the end of the retreat. This could be a set of small features that we couldn’t get done in the daily grind or catching up on documentation or some fun animation that will enhance the user experience.
  • At about 4 pm we leave the office to explore Berlin and all the fun things to do there. We have quite a few fun things planned – but as most of them will be surprises (I’ll write about these after they’ve happened).

While working remotely is efficient, convenient and in many ways beneficial, it’s important for us to not forget about the human and social component. Getting together on retreats like this one allows us to both work efficiently on big topics while also having a great time together and exploring a new city!

Does your team go on retreats? How are they different from ours?

How We Keep Everyone Aligned With Just One 60 Minute Weekly Call

weekly-call-phone

At Sendtask, we are a completely virtual company. There are no two people in the same place or office. We only talk to one another once a week – for less than 60 minutes. We are very strict about that limit and often keep the weekly call to 45 minutes or less.

Every Wednesday we all get on a synchronous video call on appear.in to discuss the topics that need to be discussed synchronously with the group as a whole.

Why do we limit the time we talk to each other to as little as possible?

We are building a company that allows everyone to work when they are most productive. And take time off when they’re not. Also, we build a tool that allows people to work together without friction in a mostly asynchronous way. We have that vision embedded in our company culture and naturally get as much done in an asynchronous fashion through Sendtask as possible.

Also, we are going to grow quite a bit in team size over the next few months and in anticipation of that, we want processes that scale well. Finding a 45’ minute spot once a week is considerably easier than finding several or much longer ones – especially as people work from many different time zones.

What happens on the weekly call?

Even more important than what happens on the call is what happens before the call. Until the evening before the call, everyone leaves their update on Slack. The update consists of three parts: What have I accomplished last week? What am I working on the coming week? What would I like to talk about?

Before the call, everyone has read everyone else’s update and there’s no need for us to update each other on what we’ve worked on and what we’re going to work on. The third question is important though and an integral part of what we do on the call.

1. The one-word open

We start the call with the ‘one word open’, a technique we borrowed from EO (Entrepreneur’s Organization). Instead of just asking everyone how they’re doing (their answer would usually be ‘good’ and not tell much), we each state the predominant feeling at that point. It could be ‘calm’, ‘tired’, ‘excited’ or any other feeling. We’ve found this to be very powerful as it allows to immediately connect with each other in very little time. If someone is not doing well, we clarify if it has anything to do with the team and/or if the team can help. Especially in a remote setup, it is important to be aware of everyone’s state of mind.

2. Talking points

We then go through the topics that people listed under ‘What would I like to talk about?’. These are typically things that need group consensus and are not easy to discuss via Slack – because they require demos or an extra level of creativity for example. The topics range from ‘I need feedback on the screen designs’ to ‘What do you guys think I should focus on between a, b and c?’.

3. User feedback

The third part of our call is someone presenting their learnings from onboarding a new user. Every week someone onboards a new user to Sendtask and interviews them about their three most positive and three most negative impressions in the process. It is paramount for us to provide a great user experience where our users immediately and intuitively understand what they can do with Sendtask and how. This is why a) we want everyone in the company to be confronted with that process on a regular basis and b) want everyone in the team to hear about what we do well and what we do poorly.

4. The weekly riddle

The fourth part is fun – it’s our weekly riddle. Similar to the feedback on the onboarding experience, we also have another person each week preparing a riddle for the group. We all love riddles and logical challenges and this part of the call is more of a reward and group fun activity. It’s something we all look forward to and preparing the riddle is as fun as solving it. We try to find tough riddles to really make the team think. This is not easy nowadays as we’ve gotten quite used to a lot of different types of riddles. Next week will be my turn and the solution to my riddle will be the destination of our next retreat – which we’ll fly out to the day after.

5. The one-word close

We end the call with the ‘one-word close’ which is very similar to the ‘one-word open’. We go around and everyone shares how they feel.

Conclusions

When we started Sendtask we did not think that 45-60 minutes per week would be enough time to update each other and discuss the topics that need to be discussed in a synchronous fashion. However, we quickly learned that we can boil down the topics that we discuss during the call to the most important ones and with good preparation, we can discuss all those, have some fun with our weekly riddle and still sometimes be done in no more than 45 minutes.

How often does your team meet and how long do your company-wide meetings typically take? Are there any important agenda items we forgot?

Four Reasons Why We Work Remotely

work-remotely-sendtask

When we started Sendtask, we made a conscious decision not to have a traditional office. Our team is spread across 7 different countries. And we only speak to each other once a week – for no more than sixty minutes. These are the reasons why this setup resonated with us:

Focus on the important vs the urgent

Being in a distributed setup often allows us to work on the important things versus the urgent. In a traditional office setting, it’s easy for a colleague to come over, tap you on the shoulder and ask questions. In a distributed setup, it’s not as easy. Sometimes, this means that it will take you a bit longer to figure out something. But what we’ve seen is that over time, everyone becomes better at helping themselves, reading documentation and figuring stuff out on their own. And if a problem just seems too complicated, the colleague is never more than a phone call away.

Less distraction

It’s very easy to get distracted, especially in an open space office. You hear the sales people talk, there’s a meeting in the room next to you…the potential distractions are endless. This is the main reason why a lot of developers wear headphones in a traditional setup. They come to an office and virtually remove themselves from it by wearing headphones. This never made sense to me and our distributed setup has proven to be very low on noise. While we use Slack for all our communication, we don’t even require you to be online constantly. It’s ok to check Slack 2-3 times a day. If there’s something urgent, we’ll find a way to reach the team member (Whatsapp, Skype, Phone Call) but those emergencies are rare. Less noise has made us a lot more productive and allowed us to be in a flow state for extended periods.

Everyone can be productive on their own schedule

One thing that was challenging for me when I was a developer were office hours. One day I felt productive from 7 am early afternoon and the other day it was from 1 pm until late night. One thing was certain: It was very rarely 8am-5pm. Very often I was sitting in the office, trying to get work done but just couldn’t. And then I would go home and feel productive but was tired from already spending the day at the office.

In our distributed setup, we allow everyone to work on their own schedule. Not just the hours of the day, also the days of the week. If you don’t feel productive or have something more fun to do on a Tuesday – go do that. Feel productive and have a good idea for how to solve a certain problem on Saturday – why not solve it then and there?

We only have one synchronous meeting per week – every Wednesday at 2pm-3pm CET we update each other and check in on topics that should be discussed with the whole team.

When we do get together, it’s extra fun

All of that is not to say that working remotely doesn’t have its downsides. The biggest one being that you don’t get to spend a lot of face time with the people you work with. I’ve caught myself using the term ‘team crush’ lately and it adequately describes how I feel about this team. We assembled a pretty amazing team and I often wish I could just walk over and chat about life, alien movies and whiskey.

We deal with this by bringing everyone together four times a year for a week of fun and work. This is when we work on long time topics – our roadmap, vision, processes, and ideas. And we take a good part of the day off to have some fun together. On our last retreat, we went to Gran Canaria and went hiking, surfing and escape rooms. Next week we’re headed to our next retreat and we have another set of experiences planned. But that’s for another post.

Conclusion

We came up with the idea of setting up Sendtask as a remote company because we were frustrated with certain aspects of working together in a traditional office setup in past companies. Working in a distributed fashion helps us focus on the important vs. the urgent, reduce a lot of the noise that comes with a traditional setup and allows everyone on the team to work when they feel most productive. Still, we’re looking forward to seeing each other in real life and we bring everyone to the same location for a retreat four times a year where we make the most of the time together.

What’s your setup? Have you ever thought about going to a remote setup?

How We Get From 600 Applicants To One Top Hire In 11 Hours

hiring-sendtask-hire

One of the big benefits of running a completely virtual company is that our candidate pool is larger than that of a traditional company which is restricted to hiring people from one country or even one city.

But a much larger hiring pool forced us to re-think the hiring process. We stuck our heads together and came up with a process to go from hundreds of applicants to just a few final candidates in very little time.

Preparation

When we start looking to fill a new position, we start by writing a detailed briefing for that role. The briefing has the following structure:

  • Description of the role and hourly commitment (E.g.: MEAN Stack Developer, 30hr+/week)
  • An intro including what we are building, where candidates can try our product, our vision, and mission
  • What’s important to us and how we work
  • General Responsibilities for this role
  • More fine-grained list of tasks for this role
  • What we offer (the way we work together, our retreats, …)
  • A high-level overview of our hiring process

This briefing is typically about two A4 pages long (about a thousand words) and takes 5-10 minutes to read.

You can find an example briefing here: MEAN Stack Developer Briefing
You can find our currently open positions here: Sendtask Jobs

We then publish the briefing on various channels – freelancer sites, social media, our network, job sites, etc.

Typically, until here I have invested about 30 minutes of my time to tailor the briefing to a new role.

The Tripwire – Going from 100% applicants to the best 15%

On a typical post, we get about 600 replies. Way too many to review by hand and filter the good from the bad. This is why we came up with “The Tripwire”.

The Tripwire is one small sentence that makes a huge difference. We place it somewhere in the above briefing. It reads like this:

“If you’re interested in this job, make sure to start your application with these exact words: “Hey Team Sendtask, I’m the MEAN Stack Superstar you’re looking for!””

This very simple detail allows us to immediately filter any applicants who have not carefully read the briefing and missed that detail.

Typically, only about 15% of all applicants get this right! This was a huge push for the efficiency of our hiring process as it allows us to spend zero time on the 85% of candidates that did not take the time to carefully read our briefing!

Typically, it takes the team about 15 minutes to filter out the candidates who did not get the first line right. In total, we have invested about 30 minutes of my time and 30 minutes of the team’s time.

The Questionnaire – Going from 15% to just 3%

80 Candidates are still too many to manually review and interview. This is why we added this next step. It gives us two things:

1) A lot of data about the candidate and much more depth than any CV
2) A good idea of how much the candidate wants the job

We send a Google Form questionnaire to the candidates who got past the first barrier. We split the questionnaire into four parts:

Part 1: General questions about the candidate’s name, their Skype ID, their location, etc.

Part 2: Assessing whether they will be a good fit for the company. We ask them about their favorite productivity tools (which is important as we build one), what they hope to get out of the role and also seemingly unrelated things like what they do for fun.

Part 3: We ask them for their first impression of Sendtask. We ask them to try our app and answer a few questions. This is extremely important as we want to understand if they are getting the point and if they have good inputs for how to improve our product.

Part 4: The fourth part is three technical problems in their area of expertise. For a MEAN stack developer, the questions will be about these technologies.

The questionnaire can take anywhere between two and four hours of their time to complete. Some people get frustrated and stop about halfway through.

Working in a completely virtual and distributed company can often be frustrating – there’s no one you can just walk over to and tap on the shoulder to ask for help. You need to have above-average persistence in order to be successful and happy in a distributed setup and that’s why we test our candidates here.

About a quarter of the candidates that we send the questionnaire to complete them within the deadline. Now we’re down to 3% of our original pool. Typically up and until this point, we have spent less than two hours between myself and the team to go from 100% of all applicants to the top 3%!

Here’s an example questionnaire.

The Review – Going from 3% to 1%

Because we use a Google Form for the questionnaire, all the answers end up in a spreadsheet. One member of our team goes through the first three parts of the questionnaire (General, Company Fit & Impression of Sendtask) and assesses the applicants’ communications skills. How good is their English? Are their answers complete? Are they able to give clear and concise answers?

Working in a distributed company requires everyone to be even better at communication than in a traditional setup. This is why we need everyone to adhere to high standards. Our team member goes through the answers and marks answers green (very good answer, +1 point), leaves them unformatted ( the answer is ok but not great, no point) or marks them red (answer doesn’t meet the benchmark, -1 point).

After this, we reorder the candidates based on their score from high to low. Now a technical team member reviews the answers in the fourth section, starting with the candidates that have the highest score so far. He assigns them either a ‘go’ or ‘no-go’. He stops once we have three candidates that scored high on the first three parts and passed the technical review.

We’re now down to the top 3 candidates, which is typically the top 0.5% to 1% of all applications we have received. So far, we have typically invested about 30 mins of my time and about two hours of the team’s time.

Test Task – Finding our Favorite

At this point, we prepare a test task that takes between eight and twelve hours to complete. The applicant is paid for those hours if hired. The goal of this task is to see how much a candidate can get done within that time frame and also understand his thinking process. How does he split up larger tasks into smaller tasks? How does he react if he runs into a roadblock? Does he do any of the bonus tasks?

One of our engineers prepares a two to four-page document that contains the specifications for the test task. There are several main objectives as well as bonus tasks.

We start with our favorite candidate and have a one-hour phone call with them. Typically, it’s me and one of our engineers on the call. The call’s purpose is to get to know each other, clarify any questions that either party may have and introduce the test task. Then, we agree on a deadline for when the test task will be handed in. We track the test task progress in a Sendtask project where the engineer and I are added so that we can see how the candidate breaks down the test task into smaller tasks.

We schedule another two-hour call for the day after the candidate hands in his solution. On this call, we dive into how they approached the problem, what they found difficult and what was easy. If all goes well, we then schedule interviews where every team member gets to speak to the potential new team member. If everyone likes the new candidate, he gets hired.

When we’re not satisfied with the results of the test task or if any of our existing team members vetoes, we move on to our 2nd and 3rd choice.

If we go with our first candidate, we typically spend about three hours of my time and about eight hours of the team’s time.

Conclusion

Realizing that we will hopefully get to hire much more people into the Sendtask team, we took some time to think about how we can optimize this process to be respectful of both the applicant’s and our own time. So far, this process has proven to be very efficient and led to great hires.

What does your hiring process look like?

A Simple Guide To Decluttering Your Digital Workspace

Declutter your digital workspace example photo imac desk

Online content has exploded in recent years. We’re all bombarded with news, messages, push notifications and all sorts of information on a daily basis.

On top of that, over time we accumulate various data on our phones and computers such as photos, videos, software, and the occasional virus.

How much of all this data do you suppose is important?

It’s quite natural for digital clutter to add up and this is not as harmless as it seems.

Research suggests our working memory can only handle a limited amount of information at any given time. This means that every extra bit you add can be at the expense of something that’s really important.

In addition, the extra pressure on our mind creates unnecessary stress and impacts our ability to make decisions.

This is why people like Steve Jobs and Barrack Obama keep wearing the same type of clothes and simplify their life – they know that even the smallest decisions take mental energy so they use it carefully.

This simple guide to decluttering your digital workspace will show you how to create some empty space in your mind so you too can enjoy more creativity and mental freedom.

Here are five steps you can take to quickly declutter your digital workspace:

Step 1: Take advantage of free cloud storage

Cleaning up your desktop and uploading some of your hard drive files online can make a huge difference to the amount of unneeded information that gets to your mind.

While you’re at it, make sure you also organize whatever is currently online.

Services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and pCloud will give you free storage that should be more than enough for stuff like old photos and videos.

You may have some extra free space as part of any recent technology you’ve purchased – for example, HP and Asus offer free cloud storage when you buy some of their products.

Keeping everything online and regularly uploading your data will ensure your desktop does not get cluttered and that you can access your files wherever you are.

Step 2: Use a single password (without sacrificing security)

After reading the above, you may be thinking – what about all the passwords I need for online storage? Well, you don’t really need more than one password to keep your security.

Services like 1Password or LastPass will provide you with a free online “vault” and store your usernames and passwords as you register and log in to various websites.

You can choose if you want to add the particular account to your vault or if you want to keep it out for now.

They also have mobile and desktop versions, so you can keep in sync wherever you are and never have to deal with multiple passwords again.

This way, you don’t have to keep spreadsheets with passwords and usernames and you don’t have to compromise security in case you use only one password for everything.

Step 3: Reach inbox zero every day

Reaching inbox zero is, without exaggeration, one of the best feelings you can get. There is a lot to say about email so we’ll cover this in a bit more detail.

Email is where we spend most of our time when working so it’s crucial that we keep our inbox tidy and distraction-free.

Following are a few tips which you can use to reach Inbox Zero every day:

  • Unsubscribe

The first step you need to take is to gradually unsubscribe from all unneeded newsletters and email lists.

This may require you to invest some time upfront, but the returns you get on it are more than worth the investment once you take into account how many emails you have to delete down the road.

  • Forward emails to one account

You don’t really need more than one or two email addresses in most situations. If you have more than this, you can forward your work email addresses to a single account and control everything from there.

This way you don’t have to open each separate inbox.

  • Set up filters

Most email providers will allow you to set up filters which automatically label your incoming mail into individual folders.

For example, if you’re working on several projects at the same time, you can create an individual filter for each of them and your incoming mail will be allocated to the respective folder.

This will keep your inbox well organized and you don’t have to worry about important emails getting lost among everything else.

Step 4: Remove push notifications

Notifications on your phone and browser are some of the biggest sources of distraction nowadays.

Every time your mind gets pulled away from the task at hand, it could take up to 20 minutes to get back to the same level of concentration as you were prior to the distraction.

If you want a productive day at work, it’s best if you turn off notifications at least for a while and leave out some space to deal with them later.

It’s a good practice to work in 90-minute increments with 20 minutes of rest.

However, beware of checking your notifications during these 20 minutes as they could easily turn into hours, especially if you don’t have someone supervising you all the time.

Step 5: Set up auto-backup for important data on your phone

You can set up auto-backup for the contacts, photos, and videos on your phone. These are normally the irretrievable pieces of information that we miss the most if we lose them.

The auto-backup means you can always reset your device to factory settings if you feel like there’s too much on it or in case you just want to make a fresh start.

Google Drive gives you unlimited storage for standard quality photos and videos but keeps in mind that you will need an internet connection if you want to access them later.

Conclusion

Digital decluttering may seem intimidating at first, but most of the time you will be surprised by how fast you can do everything.

Once done, you will appreciate the feeling of lightness and a job well done.

In addition, you will experience all the benefits like reduced stress, better decision making, and optimal energy levels.

Keep in mind, however, that in order to stay organized long-term, it’s always best if you regularly tidy up your digital workspace instead of waiting for a mountain of data to add up. Better yet, you should control the amount of clutter in the first place.

Tools such as Sendtask.io can help you stay on top of things while collaborating online, keeping everything organized and easily accessible. This way you can be sure to always find what you need and keep your digital workspace distraction-free.