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Cow-orking in the UK

It’s now three months since our UK business went legit so to speak and moved into a physical office in Milton Keynes, about 30 minutes north of London. Among other things, I’m pleased to report that I wasted zero time in executing against our strategic growth strategy, starting with branding up our own version of the famous Milton Keynes Concrete Cow.

I digress.

Apart from a short-lived rental agreement on a cupboard in London that Xero co-founder Hamish Edwards used in 2008, our UK business ran virtually for the best part of three and a half years.

Today, twelve weeks in to our new home, I have to say that I hardly recognise our UK business. Not least in the sense that our staff numbers have doubled from eight to sixteen since we moved in. So, as a seasoned veteran of remote web working but with the benefit of a little objective distance since we opened our office, how do I feel about virtual working and what have I learned?

Firstly, I should note that as an overseas subsidiary business, we benefitted greatly by not having to locally house a number of core Xero functions like finance, dev and operations. That said, we have the added challenge of operating at great distance and at the opposite end of the clock from HQ, which meant that our UK business was in effect virtual both upstream to the mother ship, as well as virtual in country.

When I joined Xero three years ago there were five of us in the UK. If your team is that small (and awesome) then individual contributor roles generally lend themselves well to working remotely. However it was a little more challenging managing a virtual team.

Unsurprisingly we leaned on web tech as much as possible to facilitate remote collaboration, helped enormously by the fact that our own back end line of business applications are all in the cloud, but we also quickly became power users of Google Apps, Skype and Yammer to negate our disconnected physicality.

Of the three, the one remote collaboration tool we just could not have lived without is Skype for a number of important reasons. Firstly, the combination of presence awareness and unobtrusive chat meant it was very easy to jump into an ad-hoc voice or video chat with someone to discuss an issue. But for this we’d have probably relied much more on email, which I’m sure would have slowed us considerably.

Secondly, while Skype’s conferencing capability also provided us with a platform for hosting our weekly team meetings, it also meant that if a 1:1 call required input from someone else half-way through the call, it was easy to drag and drop participants in and out. Skype’s screen sharing capability also made it easy to discuss product issues between colleagues.

We still use Skype today as a few people remain remotely based in the UK, but an interesting new use for Skype has emerged since we opened our office.

While having a whole team working remotely disadvantaged everyone equally, I sensed a risk that an ‘us and them’ divide might emerge between office based Xeroes (and more acutely so as we grow) and those in the team who are still based remotely. So, we now rely on Skype’s persistent chat room capability to create a back channel for all of Xero UK meaning that office based staff and remote based staff don’t forget that either constituencies exist, and we keep our UK team spirit strong. So far that seems to be working.

While we’re now well into a new chapter in the UK and you can’t beat physically bringing teams together, I’m still blown away by how modern web technologies both empowered and augmented our fledgling operation, enabling us to punch way above our weight for so long.

Could we have pulled this off ten years ago? No way.

 

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9 comments

Gayle Buchanan
31 May 2012 #

so Loving the cow, have requests for them all over the world … they are fab

Heather Townsend
31 May 2012 #

Great to see how far you have come as a company. We love Xero!

Gary Turner
31 May 2012 #

If you’re ever in our Wellington office, ask someone to take you to the Milton Keynes meeting room where you’ll find one of the Xero cows keeping watch.

Rob Collins
1 June 2012 #

You and your team are doing a great job. I have been working as a professional company director, specialising in creating appropriate business models for my clients and managing the implementation of start-ups, turnarounds and “high growth” opportunities since 1994. An accountant by original training (too long ago to mention) I have been a Sage disciple since 1987. I trialled Xero about three years ago, when an engineer friend of mine, who is a financial numptie, told me he had found an accounting package he understood. Quite a feat that. I now use it for three of my own businesses, which include a management consultancy in the UK, a distribution business for industrial goods with a warehouse in the Netherlands and sales denominated in €, £ and US$, and a sewage treatment company in the USA. I am currently starting to integrate the Unleashed inventory package with Xero for a UK based water treatment company that treats and controls legionella. The multi currency options are a dream. The customer service is always prompt and polite – also quite a feat. My Sage Accountants’ Club membership card has long been consigned to the bin and, when they call me and ask me why, I tell them it is because Xero is beating them like they stole something. You have a great product and you have good people interfacing with your UK customers. The challenge is to maintain that esprit de corps as you grow; and grow you will. I wish you the best of fortune; you are a breath of fresh air and are redefining the way that small businesses manage their financial management needs. Now for the integrated forecasting model to permit the creation of Business Plans and Budgets to compete with Winforecast so that I can use it on my Mac platform and store my models in the Cloud – please! Keep up the good work; and thank you to all of you with whom I have spoken or had email correspondence in the past for your terrific attitude, patience and courteous replies.

Gary Turner
1 June 2012 #

@Rob – Wow, this kind of feedback is just pure rocket fuel for everyone at Xero. Thanks so much.

Raza Rizvi
2 June 2012 #

Nice to see you expand to the UK.

Raza
(Customer since May 2008, now with 3 companies using Xero)

Gillian Rossouw
4 June 2012 #

Congratulations Gary & Team Xero. Fantastic to read about your growth, well done Xero UK.

Zinc S.
4 June 2012 #

It’s great to see startups grow into full-blown offices. It’s always tricky working remotely without really having a place you can call an office.

Wish you guys all the best; and I hope that my eternal quest for Xero coupon codes is fulfilled someday..

Peter S
6 June 2012 #

Great to see you guys settled in the UK. I had a special party in my head when I finally managed to dump Sage! The other day I had to go back to it to look something-up, and it was like traveling back in time to the Victorian age. I rave about Xero to everyone – who thought doing the accounts could be (almost) a pleasure.

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