When Matt Drozdzynski set up Pilot in 2009, he recruited two employees. “I hired one person based in Poland, who became my co-founder, and the other person was based in Greece. Three different countries, three different timezones. It didn’t even occur to me at the time to interview them over the phone: we just exchanged conversations over IM. And we didn’t meet in person until at least half a year later.”
To many companies, this will sound highly unusual. But Drozdzynski and Pilot are pioneering the distributed company model: one with employees all over the world working remotely. Pilot, a design and development studio, has grown to 66 employees across the globe in the 4 years since Drozdzynski founded the company after he graduated from Cambridge University.
Pilot, says Drozdzynski, is concerned with building great products for great companies. They put together distributed teams of developers, engineers and designers for companies, focusing on building websites and apps. Previous clients have included Lonely Planet and e-commerce firm Skrill.
The benefits of being a distributed company
“We started working as a distributed company, and it felt very natural. We didn’t have access to the pool of talent that a bigger firm could hire from. So being distributed gives access to talent that is otherwise unavailable to you.
“A distributed company means you can work with people wherever they are: you’re not restricted to where your office is or where you’re based. And you can usually get talent at a slightly discounted rate – you can work with great people with great backgrounds who want to have a different lifestyle, where they don’t want to work in Silicon Valley or in London.”
Being a distributed company gives Pilot another key advantage in the startup market: it makes scalability easy. “It’s another benefit which we didn’t really think about when we started but I can really see it now,” Drozdzynski explains. “When you hire more people, you’d have to move to a bigger office if you run out of space. And that tends to come at a time when it’s more uncomfortable – the last thing you want to deal with is office space.” Being able to scale remotely removes these concerns, and enables rapid, cost efficient growth.
That’s not all: efficiency can be improved by remote working. “It forces you to channel all the communications through Slack, Trello, GitHub, email. By necessity everything is documented and it’s searchable,” says Drozdzynski. “I don’t have to try to recall a conversation or guess what was being discussed – there’s no miscommunication because everything is there. It’s searchable and it’s documented. It’s an advantage a lot of companies don’t appreciate or think about. Using these online platforms is unnatural when you’re in the same room, but when you’re remote it has huge benefits.”
Drozdzynski also thinks that distributed companies benefit from a greater sense of community. “It’s a little bit counterintuitive: you’d think people based out of the same office would be more connected and get along better, which is true up until a certain point. But once you’ve got 20 – 30 people and you sit next to someone at lunch and you have no idea what they’re working on or what their name is: that’s a period companies struggle through because people now feel like it’s a big company and they don’t know each other anymore. You don’t get that feeling if you’re remote. You’re working with a closed group of coworkers, and communication online hides that problem a little bit. When we get people together for events, it feels like extended family getting together. It’s a really interesting dynamic.”
Pilot is so committed to this idea that they have a rule saying that they’ll never have more than 30 people in an office.
Go all in on the distributed company model
Drozdzynski recognizes that the distributed company model isn’t for everyone. “My view on this is either you’re a distributed company or you’re not. You either have to be fully committed to it or you can forget the concept altogether.
“It’s something that large companies allow but it’s not part of the culture, it’s not the main communication channel, and in those circumstances remote work can be less efficient. In our case, everything goes through Slack, so everyone is privy to the same information.
“Whereas from my understanding of a large company, like Yahoo!, you have these large office blocks where some people are ‘allowed to work remotely’, and those people are always going to be a bit left out – they’ll have to have ideas communicated to them through some other means. Not everyone will be on equal footing.” Drozdzynski thinks Yahoo! made the right call by banning staff from working at home. With distributed companies, “it’s either/or…not both,” he says.
Pilot does have offices, but they serve a social function rather than a work one.
An academy for developers
Pilot is also pioneering a training programme: the Pilot Academy. “We’re trying to contribute back to the community – we’ve taken a lot from the open source community and people being very generous with their time. And I’ve always been of the opinion that I’d rather get someone extremely talented who’s a blank slate, and we can teach them the Pilot way.
“We’re trying to teach people marketable job skills. We’re not selecting people for our hiring criterion, we don’t need them to want to work for us. We’re widening the pool of developers – it’s the least we can do.”
Pilot receives around 100 applicants for 10 to 15 places on the Academy. Around half are hired. “We designed this program in a way that after a year you have the equivalent of three years of commercial experience.
“We use case studies, as frequently employed by top business schools and law schools, and it’s proven to work so far. We spent a lot of time designing and testing this program, and the level of progress these people have made over the course of a year long program is incredible. They’re able, more or less, to get senior engineering positions.”
Pilot’s distributed company model and training program bode well for the future.
The company is planning on running even more Academy sessions – they’ve just wrapped up their 6th edition, and are planning 5 or 6 more for this year. And Drozdzynski projects that Pilot will have 220 distributed employees by the end of this year. So what’s the future for Pilot? “We see ourselves as doing everything that we can to help companies build great products. There are a number of aspects a company will need: talent, funding, insight, education, and a community and ecosystem of likeminded individuals and companies.
“I see Pilot as being at the intersection of all of these things. We’re predominantly focused with providing companies with great talent. And the remaining aspects are something that we’re working on. I really see Pilot as being able to provide all of these needs that a large company will need.”