Building a Non-Stop Machine: How Melltoo, The No-Meetup Classifieds, Built A Location-Independent Business

At Melltoo, we work as a distributed team. It was not the plan, but we started out this way and kept growing from a team of 2 to 25. And in this time, we have not felt like we are disadvantaged, in fact, we have executed and grown much more rapidly then our peers.

We are not a team by virtue of sharing office space, but rather by a strong belief in our mission and by working toward common goals. For many of us, Melltoo is a unique opportunity to work within a rapidly growing market while not physically being in Dubai. It is also a great way to make an impact from wherever we are in the world, by contributing to the sharing economy and helping make resale and resuse part of the product lifecycle and in turn build a more sustainable future. Every single of one us finds meaning in our work.

Most people don’t fully understand what working remotely is about. Great ideas don’t always happen in closed spaces. We live in a world with excellent communication technologies (slack, hangouts, appear.in, jit.si Meet, etc.). Idea generation takes place when there is communication, it really doesn’t matter if it’s spoken, written, in person or asynchronous.

Achieving work-life balance in the 21st century

After all, working from the same place every day can be really depressing. With Melltoo, I have had the opportunity to travel to several destinations around the globe while launching major feature updates, such Melltoo Pay&Ship in October 2015. I still remember this experience as one of the most fulfilling work-personal experiences in the past three years. Perhaps, it is the change of routine that helps me schedule both work and “me” time evenly. One thing for certain, I did not feel overwhelmed by either work or travel, as compared to other times where I woke up every day and did the same exact thing over and over. Being able to work-travel also opened my eyes to new things and experiences that I’ve been able to import into my work.

When given the chance, many office employees welcome the option to work remotely. There is even a new “workation” trend, where you are able to fulfill your passions outside of work, while still successfully fulfill your job duties without being limited by physical space. These trends along with digital nomadism is responsible for a new work philosophy among Millennial workers and Gen X-ers. Southeast Asia and cheaper European and Latin American cities are filled with transient digital nomads who hop from city to city looking to feed both their soul and portfolios.

Parents also prefer working at home when available to them. Santosh Binwal, Melltoo’s quality assurance manager, works from home due to family reasons.

“I needed to work from home due to some family conditions. Melltoo gives me this chance. There is no hard timing and pressure. All members in our team are like family. Everybody helps one another. Top management are transparent with all team members and everyone knows what is going on. No hidden things,” Santosh wrote me when asked to contribute to this article.

For the uninitiated, here are three myths about the nature of distributed teams that need debunking.

Myth #3: Working remotely is freelancing

Working remotely is not akin to freelancing. We’re bound by KPI’s, tasks and objectives. Our commitment to the company is very real. In fact, everyone on our team, except several new hires, have been with us for at least a year. It’s all about organization and setting clear, achievable goals. Working remotely does not negate the development of company culture. In fact, I would argue that working remotely has shaped our company culture into one that emphasizes results and execution over office politics.

Many of our customer service agents have been working remotely with Melltoo for over a year. In fact, many are polyvalent and perform several tasks within our broad CS-Operations team. They have witnessed many changes to our processes from the way we verify and book orders to how we treat claims and cancellations.

Timing is especially crucial for a company like ours which prides itself for great customer experience we offer to our users. We schedule our working hours within peak hours of customer interactions. Typically these peak hours fall within people’s resting schedules. Our team is experienced enough to anticipate peak days and hours before they occur in synch with our marketing campaigns schedule.

Our CS team has been through different growth stages. They helped shape CS processes and performances in the past year resulting in a decrease in our CS reply time from hours to 10 minute per query. Everyone continues to learn on the job while also supporting themselves in a handful of small cities in Egypt plagued with a higher-than-average unemployment rate. Fortunately, our team’s professionalism and fondness for team work has kept them in their jobs year after year.

Myth #2: Working remotely is isolating

While this may be true at times, it is still preferable to working in an open office which tends to be awfully distracting with chatty coworkers, background noise, and office politics. According to a Harvard Business Review Research on work satisfaction in open-floor work spaces, the results are not great. The main complaints are noise, lack of cleanliness and constant interruption. In fact, the study reports a loss of 86 minutes per workday due to distractions.

From my own experience, as customer experience manager and content writer, I am able to focus better with a silent background while being the only person in the room. I do my work first and then I schedule calls and meetings around it. Hours of optimal productivity also differ from person to person. Allowing people to work asynchronously improves productivity while increasing job satisfaction. So, while working remotely can sometimes be lonely, it actually helps getting the job done, especially in creative tasks that require a lot of concentration, like coding or writing.

At Melltoo, we recognize the need for social interaction. It is something we constantly work towards.

Rahul Choudhary, our technical manager, recently moved to Melbourne, Australia. Just like the rest of the members of our team, he is not restricted by location to do his job. He fashioned his own communication style with his team of 10 people.

“One of my most important roles is to communicate with the tech team and get things done. I usually talk with the team on phone or skype. Text chat is only used to keep records. So, if there is something that needs to be present as reference, then I put it on Slack or email. Voice call makes it easier for everyone to explain & to understand,” he wrote to me on Slack.

Slack is our favorite channel of communication.

Myth #3: Working remotely decreases productivity

Wrong. As I mentioned above, working alone has the benefit of reducing distractions and boosting productivity.

In addition, work productivity is measured by motivation, not location. Remote workers are by default a motivated bunch of self-starters; you won’t survive very long in the remote work environment if you aren’t. There is no one to tell you when to start work and no one to prevent you from stopping. Without self-motivation, you won’t get anything done, which is a one-way ticket out of the job.

In my opinion , there is nothing more exhilarating than taking the lead and achieving the goals you set out for yourself.

Santosh has worked on multiple app iterations including major feature updates and changes. He relishes increased responsibility.

“I am motivated by taking responsibility. In Melltoo, there is a high responsibility on me that the application should be Bug Free and Users can use it without any hassle. One more thing, it gives me a sense of accomplishment and I am proud to say ‘I am working for Melltoo,'” he wrote me when asked about routine and execution in the job.

We, at Melltoo, have worked remotely since day 1 and we’ve been thriving and growing for the last three years. We don’t clock in, we don’t clock out, we travel, we work. In this time, we’ve served hundreds of thousands of buyers and sellers, raised several rounds of funding and continue to grow the business while working cohesively as a team from many places around the world. We haven’t missed a beat.

It has been a routine of mine to experiment with new automation processes along with our operations QA manager, Hesham Mustafa, often at the wee hours of the morning. We’re both night owls and I prefer test sending messages to users outside of rush hours to see what works best. We never found the need to sit together at one place at one time, we just communicated constantly as we worked together on developing a rationale and method of automation.

Hesham, who is a chemistry graduate, took a liking and commitment to learning and customizing codes and API’s from our tech team to fit the needs of our operations team.

No one on the team is really second-guessing their experience at Melltoo. He wrote:

“Everything I do now I have learned on the job, which was made possible because I could choose where and when to work and didn’t have to waste my time and energy going to and back from a certain work place. In addition to that, I was given the space to innovate and apply my ideas which was a huge motivation to do even more. I’ve thought of it as a hobby that I enjoy more than a job that I would have to do just to get paid,” he writes.

In just a few months, we managed to automate a large chunk of our operations at Melltoo. We have about 10+ people who collaborate daily on operations, from the product development team, CS team, Operations and QA. We’re not bound by strict schedule but rather the simple logic to serve our customers in the ways and in the hours they need us the most.

Why We Built A No-Meetup Classifieds In the Dubizzle Era

When we first launched Melltoo in 2014, we saw ourselves as classifieds on mobile. Everything was moving to mobile, except classifieds. Online classifieds were still just electronic notice boards. We saw the opportunity to bring classifieds into the post-smartphone era and to take advantage of hardware capabilities like geolocalization, instant messaging, and push notifications. The rise of social networks also brought about a paradigm-shift, every product became social, so why not social classifieds?

To be clear, we didn’t pick classifieds from a long list of industries needing disruption after, classifieds has always been in the blood of the founders. Morrad Irsane, co-founder and CEO of Melltoo grew up around buying and selling second-hand. While raising a family of 13 children in France, Morrad’s mother regularly re-used clothes and hand-me-downs were standard. During their annual summer break in Algeria, she had a thriving side business reselling clothing she collected from France.When Morrad invested his savings to launch Melltoo in 2014, he was reviving an old family tradition. Morrad envisioned a mobile app he could take with him anywhere, with a built-in chat so he would never miss a deal.

Finding ourselves

As with all first-time founders, we thought that we would build it and they would come. Launch an app and everyone would use it. We were wrong.

While we grew in our first year, it was a struggle. We had to get creative. We experimented with many different user acquisition models, content marketing, social media, app store optimization, SEO, spamming, even offline events. Name it, we’ve probably done it. In fact, our downloads were healthy with over 500 new users daily with almost no marketing spend.

But, there was no WOW moment. Users came, they tried, they left. Meh. “The app is cool, but…”

While our first iteration was not a huge success, it gave us plenty of opportunity to talk to our users and this is what we discovered.

User Objection 1: “I would like to use your app, but I don’t have anything to sell.”

When someone says this, it isn’t because he doesn’t have something to sell, it’s because he doesn’t want to sell his stuff. Search a bit more and you’ll discover that what he’s really saying is: “I don’t need the money so I don’t want the hassle of selling my stuff.” Yes, selling via traditional classifieds is a hassle. In some cases, it’s downright torture. The main problem is meetups. List something for sale, get a bunch of phone calls from strangers at all times of the day and night, get lowball offers and then take time out to meet with multiple buyers before one finally buys (or not). If you don’t need to, why would you?

User Objection 2: “I don’t trust buying second hand, there are too many scammers.”

Web classifieds are no-man’s land. Anything goes. List something for sale and get an offer from the wife of the ex-president of some unknown country on a continent halfway around the world. People ask you to ship them stuff cash on delivery. You get spammed. Who do you trust, who can you trust?

User Objection 3: “Your app is cool, but nobody is talking to me to buy my stuff.”

Lesson 1: Peruse the startup literature and it is littered with the idea that founders must be “obsessed with the product.” There is no doubt that a great product is important, but a great product that nobody uses is still a flop. It is much more useful to be obsessed with the customer.

Lesson 2: 2-sided marketplaces are among the most difficult businesses to build. You need buyers and sellers, but buyers don’t go where there are no sellers and sellers won’t go where there are no buyers. What do you do?

Armed with this knowledge, we began to realize that classifieds didn’t simply need to be moved from web to mobile and the problem wasn’t one of technology and UI/UX. The problem was that classifieds was broken. People have stopped trusting classifieds and hate the hassle involved. They use it only when necessary, which meant when selling a used car or home and large items that needed to be disposed of, such as furniture. Anything less was simply not worth it. And just like that, we saw an opportunity to re-imagine classifieds, no-meetup classifieds.