What are the Secrets to Running a Remote Startup? GitLab has Been Doing it for 5 Years

Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

remote work generic

As employees and employers have scrambled in recent months to adapt to remote work, nothing has changed for GitLab, except that its founders feel vindicated after years of doubts about whether not having an office would harm productivity and scare off investors. The company, which provides software for developers, is valued at $2.75 billion and employs 1,200 people in 67 countries, all of whom are remote.

GitLab has been fully distributed since it was founded out of Y Combinator in 2015 and far from slowing it down, Darren Murph, the company's head of remote, says eschewing the office — or the co-located model as he calls it — has been a major driver of success.

"In 2019, the company tripled in size," said Murph. "That would have been literally impossible in a co-located space because we would have had moved offices at least three times — and just the time it takes to actually move would have prevented us from hiring that amount of people. We havebeen able to scale and grow at an amazing rate because of the efficiencies when you don't have to worry about an office building. You can run circles around companies that continue to do the co-located model."

What are the Secrets to Running a Remote Startup? GitLab has Been Doing it for 5 Years about.gitlab.com

Murph, who has been working at home for 15 years in various communications roles, was hired by GitLab last year into a position he thinks more companies should have. That's because, he says, for all its advantages, being a remote office is not easy. It requires intentionality, especially for employees who've spent their whole careers in offices.

"This isn't just something where people flip a switch and say 'oh great, we're remote' and everything can work as it always has'," said Murph.

Aside from being an evangelist for remote offices, Murph helps new employees onboard and wrote GitLab's Remote Playbook, which anyone can view. He recently spoke to dot.LA from his home in North Carolina about what other companies can learn from his experience and how many others will ultimately follow GitLab's path.

GitLab has been fully remote since it was founded out of Y Combinator in 2015 and far from slowing it down, Darren Murph, the company's head of remote, says the distributed model has been a major driver of success.

Why did GitLab decide to go fully remote when it started?

The first three employees at GitLab were based in three different countries, and so we were very much remote by default. The company did come to California through the Y Combinator startup accelerator — and as all companies do, they did what they were told and they got an offer in San Francisco. That lasted about three days before people just stopped showing up. The work continued to get done and it just dawned on the founding team really early on that spending money on real estate was not useful in any way, so they let the office fade and thus the all-remote company was born.

Did you ever feel before the past few months that there was a stigma put on you guys because of that decision to be fully remote?

Early on there were actually some investors that told the founding team, "Look, we love your business and we love your business model, but here's the deal: We have various companies that we can invest in and we've never seen a company do this long term. And so that means there's more risk associated with this. And we're not in a position where we have to take that risk and so we're not going to."

And what's crazy about it is over the years, many of those have made a complete 180 and are actively seeking remote first and all remote companies because it simply makes sense. When you look at a VC, if they're going to cut you a million dollar seed check and 40% of that goes to an office that you're leasing and you have no equity in, compared to a startup where 100% of that goes to people and technology, which do you think has the longer runway for success? It is amazing to see the turn of mindset from nine or 10 years ago. Last year we partnered with General Catalyst to host a half-day panel specifically on making remote work because General Catalyst wants to be known as a VC firm that is actively looking to invest in companies like that. That would have been unthinkable 10 or 15 years ago.

So these remote trends were underway before coronavirus?

Yes, well before COVID, because the technology is not the issue anymore. Fifteen years ago, Slack and Zoom did not exist. The only thing you have to get your head around is the management culture side, and (employers) have seen that startups tend to skew younger and they have never known a life without the internet. They've always been comfortable communicating digitally. It just makes sense. They don't view it as remote work. They just view it as work. And I think what has happened has simply accelerated what was already happening.

But VCs have always liked going in and walking around — to, in some sense, see where their money is going.

But that doesn't mean it's intelligent. Laying your eyes on people and on chairs that you don't own has never been a good way to measure productivity or success. And that is the great awakening that's happening right now, which is the question of, 'how do I know if someone's working remotely?' Well, how did you know they were working in the office?

This great migration is starting to force people to take a look at how much they were biased and how much they really should have been focused on results. But listen, I don't think you'll ever get away from some B.S. that they want their start ups in an office, because they they want to command and control. And look, it may work better for some companies than others. If you're dealing with physical hardware, it's still going to be really hard to do it remotely. But if you're dealing with a truly digital products, (working remotely is) really amenable to do that.

It seems like there's already been a whole backlash to the all-remote movement. Ultimately when there's a successful vaccine, how much of a shift will there really be?

There's definitely no putting this genie back in the bottle. I think the long term effects of this are going to be way more positive. That will outweigh any negative. I think one of the major things to come from this is it has finally democratized the conversation on workplace flexibility.

Working moms, caregivers, military spouses, people with disabilities and people that simply want to live somewhere outside of a major urban center have been (reluctant) to bring up the conflict in conversation and interviews. What COVID has done is every company is going to have to have an answer to question: 'What is your stance on workplace flexibility?'

To me, that is massively empowering and massively liberating. I don't think all companies are going to shut their offices down overnight. The point is to provide more flexibility and support for people no matter where they are. Companies need to realize that their offices are simply another place to go to work in. And if you look at it through that lens, you design your company to have a thriving culture no matter where someone is.


Subscribe to our newsletter to catch every headline.


Office Hours: Virta Health’s Sami Inkinen on Changing How Type 2 Diabetes Is Perceived and Treated

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

Virta Health’s Sami Inkinen
Image courtesy Virta Health

Sami Inkinen’s first taste of entrepreneurship was running an online bulletin board system from a farm in Finland.

On this episode of Office Hours, the Virta Health founder and CEO joins host Spencer Rascoff to discuss how to find a compatible co-founder and how his own health scare inspired his latest company.

Read moreShow less

Prediction: Cities Have Learned a Lot From COVID. In 2023, More Will Tailor Their Infrastructure Toward Micromobility

Horace Dediu
Horace Dediu is the co-founder of the media platform Micromobility Industries and the coiner of the term "micromobility."
micromobility graphic ​
Evan Xie

Over the last two years, the COVID crisis had an unexpected effect in urban centers all over the world: drivers lost space, in the form of car parking and lanes, while riders of bikes, scooters and other forms of micromobility vehicles gained space in the form of bike lanes. At the same time, cities began to realize electric cars are not the solution.

In 2023, policymakers will double down on what they’ve seen work: infrastructure that makes travel cheaper, safer and easier — and micromobility options that make better use of cities’ limited space.

Read moreShow less
Prediction: Here’s How Brands Will Find Their Way Around the Social Media ‘Platform Tax’ in 2023
Image by Evan Xie

I spoke with a guy the other day who runs a $60-million-per-year ecommerce business. I asked what his number one problem is today.

His answer: “I’m paying Google and Meta 30% of every dollar in revenue. I know customers love my product, and I’d love to have a more direct connection with them.”

Truth is, I hear this all the time from marketers at business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) brands . And it’s not just those two players. TikTok, Snapchat, LinkedIn and others have built powerful platforms that keep users locked in, turning these sites into de facto gatekeepers for brands.

We call it the “platform tax.” You want to sell something digitally? You need to pay a platform for access first.

With the shaky economic outlook for 2023, many brands are cutting back their media dollars and seeking new avenues to reach potential customers.

We spent the first five years at Influicity helping brands work with influencers, including movie studios, consumer goods, automotive brands and so on. At its essence, these brands were tapping into communities that influencers had built using platforms that could provide massive scale.

Social marketing’s next evolution will see brands building their own communities. And these communities are directly tied to revenue. Here’s how they’ll do it:

Working Directly with Influencers

Content creators are a phenomenal community builder because they drive consumer attention while lending a halo to the brand. Influencers come in all shapes and sizes — from the micro, such as the neighborhood soccer mom to the mega, such as the reality show star.

We see more brands leaning towards long-term relationships with influencers to generate authentic and continuous demand. They’ll do this by partnering with individual influencers on longer term commitments (i.e. 6-12 months) with exclusive requirements (i.e. you can’t work with my competitors during this period).

A good example of this is apparel brand Hollister Co, who works with a group of about 30 influencers on live streams and custom collections.

We see brands doing this on the social platforms as well as other channels, like podcasts and email.

Turning to Podcasts

Massive communities have been built through podcasts: Joe Rogan, Lex Fridman and Alexandra Cooper, to name a few.

A brand example of this is RestoTalk, a podcast from restaurant-tech company TouchBistro. This podcast is hosted by Food Network star Justin Warner and has a loyal following of restaurant industry pros. (Disclosure: TouchBistro is a client of Influicity)

Another example is HubSpot, which acquired the podcast My First Million to reach the entrepreneurship community.

Podcasts avoid the platform tax because users can download or stream them directly from their favorite podcast app, like Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Brands only need to cover server fees.

Some marketers get tripped up because they think their podcast should be about their brand. It shouldn't. Your podcast should be about what your ideal customer cares about. Running a food brand? Talk about recipes and meal prep. Have a construction company? Talk about architecture and building innovations.

There are lots of opportunities for brands that put in the time.

Building a Rapport By Email

It was old, then it was new, then it was old —now it’s new again. When done right, regular emailing can actually be a great community builder. They can become a part of the user’s daily ritual. And they can work with many different formats including text, photo and video.

Email can easily be the largest single revenue driver for consumer brands. It can also help B2B brands build a sales pipeline.

Consumer apparel brands like Tilley.com and Indochino.com (full disclosure: both are clients of mine) have daily emails that drive hefty ecommerce sales. On the B2B side, analytics company Ahrefs offers a weekly newsletter that is very popular with search marketing professionals.

Email is also one of the few non-interceptable communication vehicles. No news feed algorithm is going to filter out your message. You can’t be de-platformed, and you don’t need to pay for access to an inbox.

Organic Reach on Platforms

The same platforms that charge for access are also your best allies in creating communities: TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and the rest.

I know brand leaders will complain that their content is getting filtered out and only seen by 2% of their followers.

So here’s a secret from first-hand experience: I get 500K to 1 million impressions per month (free) on LinkedIn. And it’s not luck.

It's a deliberate exercise in figuring out what the platform wants to surface and playing into that theme. And you need to do this while staying true to your own brand.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, one or more of these channels could be a vital part of your brand’s communication strategy. As 2023 rolls around, take the time to experiment with the right mix. It’s not an easy balance, but it’s critical to building a community of your customers.