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Our experience running a virtual company

17-May-2019 - Yves Berquin
It all started because my co-founder and I started developing our application during our free time, evening and weekends. We got used to working from home, using a chat app to discuss details and a skype call for the occasional times when typing was not working.

Office

At some point, of course, we created an actual company – going in front of a very serious German Notary in the process – this is the only time I actually went to the official company headquarters (which are my co-founding parent’s home). And these are the only physical papers we have to keep!
Fun fact: one of our customer, a big pharma company, wanted to come and physically audit us ... hmmmm ... not sure how to answer that one!
 
When we started hiring, Ann, our first employee (also an ex-colleague) came on board partly because of the change it would bring to her private life: she used to commute at least 3 hours a day. Now she’s working from home. She told us recently how amazing a change that was for her.
Ann was a bit worried about the lack of social professional life – being alone every day all day. We decided to see each other by driving to a coworking place midway. That proved to be a welcomed change of scenery and we were lucky enough to be in a place (The Mug in Enghien) that was welcoming almost like a private home.
The next 3 employees (all ex-colleagues as well) were also welcoming in various degrees the opportunity to work from wherever they wanted.
 
Since then we moved the coworking place to a location more convenient for the 4 Belgians of the company. Being there one day every week brings us all closer together and gives us a chance to exchange things outside of the pure work topics.
The day we meet in the coworking we do a 10’ standing meeting with the whole team. This is surprisingly efficient in letting our teammates know what you are going through that they may not be aware of at all.

R & D

Coming from a very controlled industry (medical devices) we also took an immediate habit of using Jira to describe tasks and bugs, using a source control server to keep track of source code and other documents, and sharing some ideas through a whiteboard document in Google Docs.
As soon as we had prototypes of our first product MatrixALM, we decided to eat our own dog food. We used it to design and validate MatrixALM.
We also decided that we want to work according to the standards in use for medical devices (e.g.. IEC 62344), implementing the same quality processes and creating the same documents.
In order to be able to link design changes to the source code changes we integrated Jira in Matrix and Subversion, now we have complete traceability for each change: from a line of code to the Jira ticket to the product spec in MatrixALM, and from there to the requirements, risks, and tests.

Accounting and Financing

Accounting is done in Germany – we just send the accounting office our invoices and a Google Spreadsheet explaining the movements in our accounts. We met them once to set up the process.
Fun fact: our account told us that her colleagues asked her once why she was allowed to play on her computer sometime - these are the times she works on our account - they thought she was playing since she had no paper or binder on her desk!

Communication

When you decide to have a virtual office, a key is to have good internal communication.
 
For the instant messaging which is the backbone of our internal communication, we moved from Hipchat to Slack, and from Skype to Zoom – two much-needed improvements.
 
Our customer support is done with Jira Service Desk, nicely coupled with our development Jira and our Slack. It’s not perfect and still needs much improvement, but we get the job done.

Quality

Since we are in a regulated environment, we are using MatrixQMS, an online Quality Management application we developed ourselves, with the help of Ann, our RA/QA manager. Our audits for ISO13485 and ISO27001 were made directly on the online application through a remote audit by BQS Group in Slovakia.
We store all our design documentation, risks, and tests in our MatrixALM application, shared with our remote testing subcontractor QA TestLab in Ukraine.

Status

That’s where we are today – 6 colleagues in 3 different countries happily working together on the same projects, supporting our customers from where we are. No commuting involved, no leasing of offices, no need for company cars. Lots of spare time to spend with our families.
 
As far as I’m concerned, it’s sometimes difficult to leave “the office”. It’s a lot better now than it was when we created the startup: we went from 80 hours/week to something like 50. Since my wife is also working from home it’s not lonely. 
Remote working has really worked well for us. We implemented a very efficient set of digital tools, without which it wouldn't be possible. I think it is so frictionless because we totally trust each other.
 
When are you switching to a virtual company?  ;) 
 
Please share your experiences with remote companies.
Also, read this blog from Atlassian on the topic - at a quite larger scale and much smaller time frame.
 
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