A start-up with global gumption

The first code of Yellowbrick was written in Hong Kong, the USA, the UK and Estonia.

A start-up with global gumption

We're lucky to have many tens of thousands of users of our data warehouse all around the world. We've never gone to the usual lengths of announcing global expansion because we've always been a global business with global employees. I thought I'd share a little bit about the benefits and challenges of this model especially given the pandemic of the last couple of years. It's a choice many new startups are now considering making given the scarcity and cost of technical talent.

We've always been a global company since, literally, before we incorporated the business. The first code of Yellowbrick was written by our co-founder Mark and I in the USA (San Mateo, California) and Hong Kong. Much of the code in Hong Kong was coincidentally written on quiet afternoons at the bar of a pub called The Globe (no quality jokes please) along with a pint of Old Speckled Hen, London Pride, Gweilo or Yardley, where I've been a regular for a good fourteen or so years. The next tranche of code was written by Thomas in Estonia, then more staff in California, Denmark, Virginia, UK, France, Poland and elsewhere.

The team structure meant that we were used to working with remote teams and doing late night or early morning meetings from Day One which certainly made life life easier when transitioning to the "everyone remote" way of working in the pandemic.

The global nature of Yellowbrick went beyond the engineers and code. Our Beta customers were in the US, Europe and China as well so we hired early support staff and support engineers in all three of those regions. Having staff scattered around the world meant we could provide 24-hour coverage at a much earlier stage than most startups.

Our first paying customer was fully US-based, the second has users in the US and Pakistan, and the third is in Macau. The fourth customer was based in both the UK and California with users in across Europe, the US and India. Over time we've added customers and users in Iceland, India, Thailand, Mexico, mainland China, Korea, Japan and elsewhere. We're starting to grow in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Many of these markets are developed in conjunction with partners like Apptech (Latin America), NI+C (Japan), Zelesia (Korea), HKBN JOS (Macau), Bairui (China) as well as global Systems Integrators. We've worked on projects with Accenture, KPMG, PwC and others, enabling joint customers to get compliant with standards like IFRS more easily. Working with partners is a win/win situation, they get to make good money selling the best enterprise data warehouse and it saves us from having to open offices all over the place.

On offices, we're still fans of office culture despite the distributed nature of our business. We see that certain things, like intense, focused workshops, brainstorming, architecture discussions and design white-boarding go far faster and more efficiently in person. What would take multiple spaced out zoom meetings interspersed with Confluence editing sessions and reviews in between can be accomplished in a mere 2-3 hours in person. For a while we'd forgotten just how much more productive seeing each other face to face can be. We've got wonderful new offices in Mountain View, CA and London, UK.

There's some key strengths to this "go global early" model of operating:

  • Early global coverage: As described above, we get to 24x7 development, customer support and escalations far faster without having to establish shift-based rotations that are tough on people and their families.
  • Access to talent: Just as London is now also Palantir's largest single office due to their ability to tap into talent from all over Europe, London is also Yellowbrick's fastest growing office in engineering. We're starting to grow marketing there as well. The competition for talent is still intense, but less so than in California.
  • Immigration-friendliness: People from all over the world are willing to move to cities like London and it's relatively easy to sponsor them. I moved to the USA on an H1B visa but now it's become almost impossible to move staff here.
  • Cost saving: Top talent always costs a lot of money, and is worth it, but by hiring globally rather than just locally, we have been able to find more amazing staff with a lower average cost per head than would be the case purely in the USA.
  • Crisis preparedness: None of us saw the Covid pandemic coming or expected whole states and nations to force their citizens to work from home for so long. Fortunately, being a global company with global customers, it was far easier for us to adapt to this mode of operation than 100% in-office businesses that scrambled a lost time while changing their working practices and infrastructure.

That said, there are also operational complications and downsides that have to be managed as well:

  • Time zone co-location: It's better but extra effort to try to keep teams working on similar tasks, whether in marketing or engineering or elsewhere, as close together in timezone as possible in order to enable easier collaboration. The East Coast of the US and Western Europe work very well together. Eastern Europe and Asia do OK together. California is somewhat harder to collaborate with internationally in either Europe or Asia.
  • G&A overhead: Entities need to be incorporated in different countries, legal agreements need to be struck in different languages, and payments made in other currencies. We've learned how to do this very efficiently for example our GC is accredited in both UK and US law, we work with agile and cost-effective accountants and law firms in remote geographies, and we've worked out how to move cash around efficiently in other currencies without incurring banks' typical fees.
  • Getting to critical mass, isolation: It's very hard, in the early days, to just have one person working in a location and/or timezone detached from others. As soon as possible, us humans need others to keep them company nearby so we've made it a priority to do so. We built our London office around a key employee who was fed up of working at home alone.
  • Communication: Everyone involved must have a great grasp of English and people need to be sensitive to others' timezones. As with all remote teams extra effort has to be put in place to make sure everyone's in the loop and for management and leadership this involves working some long hours in early mornings or late evenings.

Overall we've found the benefits of being a global business far outweigh the costs from the earliest of times to today. If I were going through this journey again I'd do the same thing again. However next time around I'd make sure we had multiple staff in each region from day one and perhaps be even more aggressive given talent is now even harder to hire and retain than 7 years ago.

Cheers 🍻