Like so many other CEOs I founded my startup, 15Five, in San Francisco. Located in the Runway incubator, directly below the swanky Twitter compound on Market Street, we’re based at “startup ground-zero.”
But I don’t live and work in San Francisco. In fact, I’m based one state (and an entire universe) away in Sedona, Arizona. Why did I choose to be a remote CEO and what does it mean for my company’s growth?
Silicon Valley may be the center of the startup universe, but that doesn’t mean the CEO, or anyone else, has to be physically present there. We use web-based communication and collaboration tools to stay in touch, manage goals and progress, and set strategy. At this point, just about any SaaS startup can run its operations using Zoom, Google Apps, and employee feedback software.
Of course, team members also meet in person frequently. I come to San Francisco at least once a month, and executives and staff visit Sedona for in-person pow-wows and offsites on a regular basis.
If I have to explain why I moved to Sedona, that means you’ve never been here. Its red rock canyons and wide blue skies filled with hot air balloons are stunning. But it isn’t just the hiking, climbing, and the other outdoor adventures that balance out my time in front of the computer.
My wife and I wanted to leave the hustle of San Francisco to have our first child and dive deep into family without distraction. In Sedona, I knew I could focus on my two babies, my little boy, and my startup. Many entrepreneurs feel that business comes first, and they sacrifice family life as a badge of honor. I am living proof you can have both.
For many CEOs, the thought of being 800 miles away from the base of operations is scary. But living in Sedona instead of San Francisco actually puts me 800 miles closer to the New York office that houses our development team. My company is globally distributed, with employees as far away as Poland and customers around the world, so we’re all committed to embracing freedom and flexibility. Nothing drives that home more than a top executive who you see in person only once or twice each quarter.
Our company culture of 100 percent honest and open communication also makes it easier to not be physically present. I trust my employees and give them the space they need to do their best work. The same philosophy would hold true whether my desk was in the same zip code or if I was working from a space station.
We have daily video calls, and meet weekly via Zoom video conference to share our goals, challenges, and accomplishments. Every team member uses our own 15Five feedback platform, where employees answer a handful of pointed questions about their jobs, goals, issues, and ideas each Friday. Managers, including myself, review all of the feedback every week, responding with recognition, help, or a request to meet face-to-face.
If people are off-track or out of alignment with company goals, I can see right away, respond quickly to get them back on course. Since nothing can really replace meeting in person for brainstorming and collaboration, and the entire team meets several times a year in San Francisco or Sedona. I also meet with my executive team on a monthly basis.
I am sometimes asked if there is a risk to being so far away, if potential investors may see me as less than ‘committed’, or if I miss opportunities to network with the valley crowd. So far, my decision is working: 15Five has raised two rounds of funding, has nearly 1,000 customers whose 24,000 employees use our platform to answer 60,000 questions each week.
One day, I may move back to San Francisco. But I know I can be a successful CEO no matter where I’m based. Who knows, maybe the reason I’m able to pull it off isn’t just the modern technology that keeps me connected to my team, but perhaps there’s also some truth to the “magic vortex” claims about this high-desert paradise?
David Hassell is the CEO and founder of 15Five, which provides a team feedback platform used by more than 1,000 companies in 100 countries.