The Startup Team That Never Met

My Grandfather was a mechanic. He was old school, he went to work, he got dirty and tired, he came home in the evening to a hearty meal cooked for him by my grandmother. This was his routine, and he went on like this, building his business and providing for his family until the day he retired at 65 in 1971. Men like him and indeed my father, a highly skilled carpenter, could hardly comprehend that I earned money ‘writing stories’, as my father used to jokily dismiss my early career efforts.

Imagine how they and working men like them might react to the story of Stan Dmitriev, 22, and his team of four spread from Helsinki, Finland to Minsk in Belarus, Novosibirsk, Russia and Kharkiv, Ukraine. They run the lock screen content app Get Corgi. The team of four have only met once in their entirety, more than a year after starting - last month in the Belorussian capital of Minsk, home of Sergei, 30.

We caught up with Dmitriev in Helsinki, and asked just how that worked. “It was interesting,” he starts with a grin, “you know, you work with people for more than a year and you kind of become friends, but you still have no clue who they really are ... the interesting thing is, that when you finally meet them nothing changes. Like, you know, it's the same person, you have the same arguments, you have the same problems, just now you can see each other physically but it really doesn't change much … and if you try to explain this to your parents or like, your grandparents, they're like, how can you know this person, it’s just, that's how it is.”

Two of the guys were working on a lock-screen advertising app before they invited Dmitriev to join them in February 2014, needing help with marketing in English and to liaise with the Finnish accelerator Helsinki Ventures. With a bit of tweaking they managed to launch a rough version of their app in September 2014, “We created an app that shows you news from wherever in the world you are, in Nigeria or in Japan, or Helsinki, you will find the resources that you want, and that's how the idea started.” Russian geek media picked up on their idea and drove 10,000 downloads their way, they were also getting attention from the likes of TechCrunch, but the app was far from finished and radical action was required in order to capitalise on the exposure.

We agreed that if we don’t get together and boost ourselves to work much harder it’ll stay on the same level” says Dmitriev, “That's when we decided to meet.”

Due to the geographical locations of the team, they ran into several issues that whilst working online they hadn't encountered. “Our plan was to actually start working in Latvia, in Riga, but due to all the visa issues and stuff, we decided to go to Minsk. All of the other guys didn’t need a visa at all, so I was the only one who had to do the visa, and I went there as a tourist for exactly 30 days!” says Dmitriev, “we just found a co-working space and we started working, I actually had one day off during the month, it was quite intense. We would leave to the office about 8 am, and return about 12 midnight in the end.” He goes on to explain the benefits of working together as opposed to online, “when you see everybody working you feel like you need to kick your arse better. Everyone is doing their best so I need to do the same.”

At the end of their time in Minsk the team returned to their virtual office, using tools such as Slack, Trello and BitBucket, as well as Skype and a Google+ group to keep the momentum. Going from online to offline and then back was fairly seamless, “Every week we decide what are going to do, what are the tasks, what are the deadlines. We have a huge Trello board for transparency, you don’t need ask, ‘hey everybody what are you doing?’ just go to Trello and check.” This consistency seems to be the key, that when these guys are together in the flesh, they keep the infrastructure they rely on when they're apart.
Their vision is clear, “It’s all about the content, it’s all about engaging with the user, were keeping the same idea that content consumption should be a part of the daily user experience, we are looking at the Nigerian market. Next year there will be 30 million new people buying their new smartphone in this market. This will be their first experience, and we want to make our app a part of that first experience so they take it for granted.”
The business is working, the team is tight and there is the important element of trust.

“I think at some point people will start making even bigger deals without meeting each other, because the trust level is growing so much. The hardest thing about online is that you have to build this trust.”

It’s a telling lesson to us all and our governments if trusting strangers online, who are passionate about the same things, is easier to achieve than getting a visa.