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.

How We Built A Live Product and A Community While Maintaining Our Remote Work Culture

I work for Melltoo, a startup based in Dubai. I live in Tunis. I work with people who live all around the world, UAE, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Ukraine, France, UK, from so many nationalities, Singaporean, Algerian, French, Pakistani, Indian, Ukrainian, Russian, Egyptian, Spanish, Moroccan and American. We represent a diverse group of people working toward a common goal of building the biggest peer2peer marketplace in the Middle East. We dubbed it the no-meetup classifieds.

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 than our peers.

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.

How to successfully execute ideas when working remotely

Yes, we probably have too many google docs we jam ideas into, but we shelve each one as soon as we’re done with it. As a team, we’re task-oriented and we rally behind the ideas of any team member and accompany them to execution. Our workflow is managed with objectives and deadlines.

At Melltoo, we have iterated on our product, operations, and processes unceasingly over the past 3 years. We’ve also launched scores of different marketing campaigns. Typically, someone comes up with a new idea, perhaps from something they read or heard about that makes sense in our context. The idea is pitched on slack generating a lot of discussion and feedback, then the DRP (direct responsible person) drafts an extended pitch on a Google Doc and asks for contributions as a follow up. Objectives, a timeline, and a to-do list are key components to any pitch. Finally, a team call takes place and doubts are clarified and voilà: From idea to plan to execution.

This process allows us to distribute tasks across various teams within Melltoo, from tech to marketing to operations. To date, this has been very successful, evidenced by the weekly flash sale campaigns last year that we revamped into seller-focused campaigns (rather than category-focused); or the “guess and win” campaign during the Dubai Shopping Festival this past January.

Good communication is key

My daily routine includes checking slack every other hour to read conversations across various topics. I chime in if I have a question or something to add, otherwise let people speak uninterrupted when they need to. This is different from the office spaces which I have some modest experience with where other team members will need to constantly interrupt my work and concentration to tell me something (relevant and irrelevant).

Communication is different between different team members and departments. To each their own.

Rahul Choudhary, our technical team lead, relies on direct communication to get things done which includes fixing bugs and launching new features on time.

“One of my most important roles is to communicate with the 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 calls makes it easier for everyone to explain and to understand,” he told me in our conversation.

Personally, I prefer texting which may be is due to my generational obsessions with looking into screens, but I will admit that text often distorts the message and takes more time than necessary.

In a private conversation about this very post, the head of our operations also told me that he calls people outside of work to check on them. It’s a recurrent theme.

“I use phone calls and whatsapp for social communication outside of work with my team members. We share jokes of the day and have a good laugh among each other. We are not missing out [on social interaction].”

Mostafa Mohammed, our head of operations, joined our team in Jan 2016 and has gone through different stages of growth, hyper-growth and the slower growth of the summer. Like many of our team members, including myself, who enjoy working from multiple different locations, he is attached to his job at Melltoo not only because of the learning potential and missions he is tasked to execute but also because of the “remote” part.

“I like my job and am self motivated since I can travel anywhere anytime and work in new places from time to time,” he also added.

In essence, our daily work at Melltoo has as much shaped our experience with work in the 21st century as we have shaped the company culture. Like Hesham Mustafa (our Operations QA Manager from the previous piece) puts it, our team does not have to worry about benign problems such as commuting to and from a job and the waste of time and energy that comes with or figuring out food options and other related costs while away, enclosed in a space at work. This very nature of our work has sustained our business and our growth for the past three years. We invite you to try it too, perhaps for few days at a time!

Building a product through iterations

Vitali is a UX designer. He is from Ukraine. Vitali joined Melltoo to revamp our design and help us communicate better with our users. The role of a UX designer is to figure out the best flows and processes while minimizing user interfaces, the best UI is no UI.

Among Vitali’s first projects, was a revamp of the Melltoo referral program, a strong engine of growth for us. Vitali implemented two new flows to the process that did not exist before. User can now check if their referees had indeed accomplished all the necessary steps to receive their reward or remind them to go through these steps.

These two simple actions in-app have helped lower the inquiries about referral tech bugs and referral programs and consecutively freed our CS time to focus on operational inquiries which are more complicated in nature.

“We need to be aware of the limitations that we have. Limitations of time, limitations of people, and limitations of technology. And, one of the most important work we do is to prioritize what we need to do,” says Vitali.

 

Vitali works directly with the technical team. He prioritizes direct conversations and calls to clear out detailed plans before the UI team starts to draw new screens. We regularly prepare multiple versions of any given flow, get user feedback, before we decide on which one to implement.

 

Raghvendra Pandey is a backend engineer at Melltoo. He is also the hero of our user support team. When I was part of the CX team, we often communicated through a project planning tool in writing on a user case basis. Raghvendra works on the server team and specializes in database optimization. He has been with Melltoo since the early days. He interacts with all members of the Melltoo team (leadership, user support, operations, UX and frontend development).

 

“Communication among the team is very nice. The team is highly co-operative and collaborative. Management’s communication with the team members is also very good, it helps us understand our role in the greater organization. Melltoo is a great place to work and I have enhanced my professional development a lot since joining.”

 

In the end, becoming a location-independent business requires underlying commitment between staff and leadership. It is neither easily attainable nor too hard to pursue. It has become a trend in a new work culture dominated by millennials, who account for nearly 50% of the workforce today. The recipe for success begins with clearly communicating to every member of the team the company’s vision, mission and strategy. Distributed teams require a high level of independent decision making and good decisions cannot be made if the big picture is not well understood. Processes and workflows are also important since they will reduce  communication errors.

 

We are proud of being a part of this new work culture. We encourage you to get in touch if you and your business decide to give distributed work a try!

If You’re a Startup, Don’t Act Like a Business

This article was originally published on Wamda by Sharene Lee, co-founder of Melltoo.

It seems everybody has a startup these days. I’m the co-founder of www.Melltoo.com, a social network that connects buyers and sellers in the second hand marketplace. It is a startup. Prior to founding Melltoo, I also co-founded and successfully exited two other businesses, a popular café in downtown Los Angeles, and an import-export company trading candies between Southeast Asia and Europe. Even though my co-founder and I built up those businesses from scratch, and exited them quickly and profitably, those businesses were not startups.

Contrary to popular opinion, technology does NOT a startup make. As a startup co-founder, it is important to understand what makes startups different from other businesses. Misunderstanding often leads to flawed business strategy that can be costly in the long-run.

busy_kitchen

More customers means more cooks.

An orientation toward growth and scalability

The major difference between startups and traditional businesses is an orientation toward growth. The reason why most startups are tech-oriented is because technology makes things scalable, which allows for growth. A scalable business can increase revenues without having to increase investment. An e-commerce site doesn’t require more staff to go from processing 10 to a 1,000 orders a day, unlike a restaurant which would have to hire an additional server and cook for every additional 100 orders. An orientation toward scalability and growth underpins all startups, everything else follows from there.

Business objectives: profitability vs. growth

The primary objective of a traditional business is to get to profitability as quickly as possible. At the outset, businesses work on growth, but as growth peaks, businesses turn to cutting expenses and increasing productivity to enlarge the bottom line. With startups, the primary objective is growth, often at the expense of profitability. Uber and Amazon are perfect examples, losing money in order to capture market share and crush competition.

Business metrics: COGS v CAC

In my restaurant and import-export businesses, I was watching my cost of goods sold (COGS) and expenses closely. They were the key metrics of profitability and hence were used to guide decision-making. Coffee supplier raising prices? Switch suppliers. Sugar taxes for a particular region too high, find a different way in. Today, with Melltoo, I’m watching my customer acquisition cost (CAC) and burn rate (amount of money being spent to keep the startup running). My focus is growth, so I need to maximize my resources and reduce my burn rate by finding the user acquisition channel with the lowest CAC and highest ROI (return on investment). While common business sense tells me I shouldn’t spend more on CAC than the LTV (lifetime value) per user, it is okay in the short run if it brings growth.

Capital financing: banks vs. venture capital

I hear endless complaints from startups about funding in the region. They complain about the difficulty in securing investment and general lack of money available for startups here. I definitely sympathize as we are currently raising our first round of external funding. Then, I recall my previous business endeavors. Not so long ago, rather than seeking funding from investors, we were seeking loans from banks. Loans require collateral and payback and a mountain of paperwork. By comparison, busy investors are much more fun to deal with than cranky bankers. While equity costs more in the long run than interest, owning 100% of nothing is still nothing, while owing 10% interest on anything is definitely a bad thing.

Dorothy (Abby Miller), Megan (Jessica Par?), Gigi (uncredited) and Allison (Alexa Alemanni)

In a tradtional business everyone knows their place.

People: team vs. employees

In traditional businesses, job positions are pre-defined roles that people fill. In startups, people create roles that they occupy. In traditional businesses, roles are designed so that they can withstand turnover. Someone quits, someone else is hired. In startups, when someone leaves, that role is largely destroyed to be recreated by someone else. In other words, startups are flexible organizations that change according to the people involved. This is particularly the case in early stages and continues on until the startup grows to a size where corporate structure becomes necessary.

Another fundamental difference: in traditional businesses, employees negotiate for the highest salary possible; in startups, team members are willing to sacrifice salary for equity, because they care as much about the startup as the founders do.

Product: move fast and break things (agile vs. waterfall)

When it comes to product, the differences between traditional businesses and startups is best understood in the comparison between the waterfall and agile model of software development. In the waterfall model (traditional businesses), each phase of development is completed, tested, and perfected before moving on to the next phase. The end-product is usually as good as it gets. In the agile approach, development goes forwards and backwards between phases. Planning phases are quick, but often get revisited mid-development when things don’t work. Features from different phases get developed in tandem and sometimes get thrown out altogether despite the plan. There is no such thing as an end-product, just a “latest” release. The first release tends to be less than perfect, then quickly followed up by subsequent releases that fix bugs and introduce new features.

Zuckerberg said it best: “Move fast and break things”. Because startups are growth-focused, they need to move fast, and in doing so, they break things and change directions. Product follows the “release fast, release often” model in order to stay flexible and truly respond to changing market needs and user feedback.

The speed at which business is changing today is why startups have become the dominant model of entrepreneurship. However, not all businesses are startups, not all businesses are created to grow fast and scale big. If you are running a startup, be sure not to run it like a traditional business or that’s what you’ll end up with.

Bootstrapping Startups In Dubai

Dubai is the fastest growing and most dynamic city in MENA today- it’s rife with opportunities for startups to build successful businesses, but it’s an expensive place to live and an even more expensive place to execute your enterprise model. Unlike Silicon Valley, startups here don’t have the option of working out of a garage or a dorm room. Like other businesses in Dubai, startups need to rent office space before being able to open a bank account, get a business license and in turn get a work visa to operate legally in the country. As the co-founders of Melltoo, a social network for buyers and sellers in the UAE, we’ve been there and done that and we’ve survived to share our tips on how to start up in Dubai for cheap…

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