Podcast: Building Distributed Teams for Startups

Today’s discussion

In this episode of Globally Speaking, we chat with Peter Wang, Founder and CEO of 57Blocks, about his experience as a serial entrepreneur creating startups whose workforce is a distributed team model. He explains best practices for sourcing and managing distributed teams, how to earn their trust and what the hot new markets for talent will be. Plus, he reveals some of his own lessons learned about building products differently for new markets and adapting to the current self-serve software business model.

Peter Wang has been a serial entrepreneur for over 15 years. His current company, 57Blocks, was formed in April of 2018 and has three locations. Prior to that, Peter worked at TubeMogul, which was later acquired by Adobe, and StarCite. He also founded a company called Horzion Software, Inc., in 2003 that was acquired by Symbio, where he stayed on as General Manager until 2009. Peter has degrees in Electrical Engineering and Software Engineering from West Virginia University.

Where to listen

The full podcast can be downloaded and listened to on all major podcast platforms, or from the Globally Speaking website. If you prefer to read the full transcript, we have provided that below, as well!

About Globally Speaking

Globally Speaking Radio isn’t just about how we as language professionals can improve our skills. It’s also about building awareness of how important translation and localization services are in helping global brands succeed in foreign markets—no matter where their business takes them. Globally Speaking is an independent podcast that does not necessarily represent the views of Nimdzi Insights or any other sponsors.

Host: Renato Beninatto

Renato is the co-founder and CEO of Nimdzi Insights, one of the language industry’s leading analyst and consulting firms. He has over 28 years of executive-level experience in the localization industry. He has served on executive teams for some of the industry’s most prominent companies, and he co-founded the industry’s first research analyst firm. A dynamic speaker and communicator, Renato is a highly regarded thought leader in the language industry, and is known for creating innovative strategies that drive growth on a global scale. He has also served on the advisory board for Translators Without Borders.

Host: Michael Stevens

Michael has 10 years of experience in the localization and IT industries. He is the Growth Director for Moravia, where his primary role is to assist companies who are inspired to create global software that changes the world. A well-networked entrepreneur, Michael’s main interest is in connecting and bringing people together. He not only enjoys learning about a company’s exciting ideas and developments, he also has a keen ability to add value—and fire—to new and innovative thinking.

This is an episode of the Globally Speaking Radio Podcast. Globally Speaking Radio is sponsored by RWS Moravia and Nimdzi.

The Transcript

Michael I’m Michael Stevens.
Renato And I’m Renato Beninatto.
Michael And today on Globally Speaking, we are talking about part of our industry that the entire business is based on. There are plenty of people around the world who are contributing to the work that we do and they’re translators, they’re developers, all of those. And our particular guest has made a career of making sure excellent projects are done in places around the world.
Renato So, I wonder who our guest is?
Michael Why don’t we let him introduce himself?
Peter Hi, my name is Peter Wang. I’m the founder of a startup called 57Blocks. We started April Fool’s Day last year.
Michael What? Peter, how do you start a company on April Fool’s Day? That alone is a story in and of itself. Like, is that just because it’s only April Fool’s Day in the US and who cares?
Renato It’s not.
Michael It’s not?
Renato No, it’s everywhere. Actually, in France they call it the April Fish, or in Italy it’s also Fish, in Brazil, Stupid’s Day, and every country has April Fool’s Day.
Michael So, what drove you to start a company on that day?
Peter Well, I was leaving my last company, Adobe, around the end of March, and we needed to pick a day to start the company and what inspired us was, you know, there’s a great company and a great product that was started on April Fool’s Day: so, Apple was started on April Fool’s day.
Michael No way, no way!
Peter And also, Gmail was launched on April Fool’s Day, so we’re like, “Well, it’s good day to start a company.”
Michael Oh, that’s awesome, you’re following in a tradition. So, Peter, this is not the first company that you’ve started. Can you talk a little bit about your background, because you’re someone who sees needs and figures out how to get them done. So, talk a little bit about that spirit and how you build things.
Peter So, I’m an engineer by training and 15 years ago, I went to China and built a startup over there. We were building products for US and European companies. Did that for three years and we were acquired by a much bigger player that was based out of San Mateo here in the Bay Area.
And for the next altogether 10 years, we were building products for global companies, companies like IBM, you know, Microsoft and a lot of big tech companies in the Bay Area, also in China and also in Europe.
And after 10 years of that, I moved to the Bay Area and joined an ad-tech company that was public on NASDAQ called TubeMogul. And I was their VP of Engineering. It was really interesting to build a team here in the Bay Area and also help them build a team, you know, in China. And I did that for about four or five years and [was] acquired by Adobe, and you know, about a year after the acquisition, I left and went to start this company.
Renato So, you’re what they call a serial entrepreneur. This is a fascinating model which is essentially: you create an organization, you build, you grow it, you sell it, and you build another one. And of course, our focus here is the international part of that. So, you outsource it, you’re building and developing content and code internationally. How do you leverage that international aspect in the growth of your organizations? Is that a key factor in it or is this just circumstantial?
Peter Well, there’s two aspects to what we’re doing today. One is really leveraging the global talent, right? So, when we started, we had a team in China and we had a team here in the Bay Area, and it’s hard to hire, right, for any startup or even large companies here. You’re fighting with, you know, the largest employers, right? You know, the Googles and Facebooks of the world. So, talent is really hard to come by and there’s talent everywhere, right? All over the world.
So, by having a team in China, and then later on we’re looking to expand to South America, because there’s talent everywhere. You’re tapping into international talent.
The second aspect of what we’re doing that’s interesting is that, you know, China is a big market, and because we work with Bay Area tech companies, we’re helping them enter into China. And entering into China is quite different from entering other markets.
Renato It’s, yeah, just 1.6 billion consumers there. It’s very different, essentially. It’s like all of the United States, all of Europe and half of Africa—that’s about just one China.
Peter [Laughter] Yeah. And what’s really interesting is there’s a very different ecosystem that’s in China today. So, if you want to enter into a market like that, it’s not like entering into Europe or even Japan for that matter. It’s not just about language and localization; it’s actually how do you build for that ecosystem. Because the way that you build is quite different, and I’ll give you a very interesting anecdote. So, we’re working with a client right now and they’re almost a unicorn in the US, and they have localized and entered into about 50 markets so far and they’re looking at China and they’re thinking, “How do we do China different?” Right? Because there’s a lot of companies that have entered into China and haven’t really been successful.
So, how we work with them is instead of saying, “Let’s take what you have built for the globe, right, and localize it for China,” because it hasn’t really worked well for a lot of companies, what we’re doing right now is building a WeChat mini app.
Right? Because, you know, with WeChat, you have more than a billion active users—this is like monthly active users—and they have a wealth of ecosystem, right? And if you build a WeChat mini app, you have the social aspect already, you have the payment aspect already, you have [the] data aspect already. So, you can build something that’s really light. And you don’t really have to download it, right? Someone can just pull up the mini app and try out your services. And you can pay for it and you can share it with your friends and the users can try the services out.
Michael So, Peter, what are you actually building? What are you enabling for these companies?
Peter So, our business model is a managed service to build products for tech companies, right? So, for this case, we’re building the WeChat mini app. We build an MVP [minimum viable product], we launch it and see how it does, and then, you know, build version one, version two, and so on and so forth.
Renato Give me some examples of what those products are.
Peter What we specialize in is actually mainly SaaS, right? Software as a service; enterprise apps. Salesforce kind of started the whole SaaS model, and now there’s like an explosion of SaaS companies, right? Microsoft is moving to SaaS and Adobe already made the transition, and then there’s a lot of different SaaS startups. We built up expertise around building SaaS.
Michael And so, in this WeChat world where you’re developing a mini app, you’re enabling the product right away in an infrastructure that already exists, so getting to revenue is pretty quick.
Peter Yes, because WeChat has payments already built in, right? If you want to purchase—whether it’s a subscription, a service, a product—in the mini app, you don’t have to hook up your credit card. You basically just enable payment on WeChat and, well, it’s done. So, monetizing makes it very easy.
Michael So, you’ve been working with offshore teams for years now. What are the advantages, what are some of the disadvantages you’ve run into there with these teams and what are some best practices that you could share with our audience?
Peter I think the number one thing is trust, right? When you’re sitting next to each other, when you have a question, you can walk over and just talk and you can communicate. The number one thing of building a remote team is how do you ensure that there’s trust on both sides, right? When you’re at headquarters, when you give a task to a remote team, how do you know that they will do it well? How do you know that they will ask the right questions, or how do you know that they’re not blocked? Right? So basically, building up the trust and through communication channels, having video calls, having, you know, real-time communication over Slack and starting something small and then building on that success, I think that’s the way that we’ve been successful.
Michael So, I’m hearing communication, I’m hearing video is a key part to building trust. Are there any other things that people can do to build trust with these teams?
Peter Face time, right? Actually going there. Going there and visiting with them. Right? Eat with them. Work with them.
Michael Oh, we’ve had some good meals together in Beijing. [Laughter]
So, we’ve talked a lot about China, we’ve talked about dealing with offshore teams. Where do you see the future of work going? What do you see as the next level? What are some of the trends you see or what’s next?
Peter You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot and basically, the core of our business is betting that the future of work is distributed. So, how you build software. Like, building software using a distributed team is nothing new. It’s been around for a long time. When we look back 15 years ago when I started this business, it’s been a very high-touch business. It’s all about building trust, right? So, you have to go visit the clients, got to give your pitch and try to win their trust, give you a pilot, you start, and you do a good job and then continue to grow from there, right?
But if you look at where enterprise software has gone today, it’s all about self-serve, right? Try it. Try it for free. If you like it, then you pay for it. Do you pay for a subscription? If you don’t like it, you leave. If it’s a bigger engagement, then maybe it becomes higher touch.
But it’s all about lowering the friction, making it self-serve. And if you look at the whole distributed development—outsourcing, off-shoring—it’s still a very high-touch business. We think this business is also going to become more a self-serve model. And we actually already see that today, right? With companies like Upwork.
Renato How do you play the geographic stuff? So, China, 17 hours apart. You have South America, two, three hours apart. How do you leverage this footprint, this ability to find talent in other geographies? It sounds in a way that China is easy, India is easy, but how about the opportunity in other places? How can you leverage those? Because Upwork, you find people everywhere.
Peter Yeah, so, there’s smart people everywhere, right? China, India have been doing this for a while. The up and comer is Africa. South America’s also been doing this for a while. I think the key is there’s good universities. Right? There’s smart people everywhere. There’s geniuses everywhere. How do you build a team around [an] accelerator, and that would be a good university? So, basically building a team around a good university and the up and coming locations and then scale from there.
Renato Any geographies that you have in mind particularly?
Peter So, what we’re thinking about is South America next because our focus is mainly in the Bay Area, and in terms of time zone and also access [to] talent, you know, South America has a lot of talent. So, time zone is really easy.
Renato Today, bandwidth is still a limitation, but in the next three to five years, we’re all going to move into 5G and Africa and South America want to go from 3G to 5G; they don’t need to go through 4G. Boom—you have this accessibility and speed and availability that expands the market. I personally think that 5G is going to revolutionize our business. Do you have any insights with regard to that?
Peter Yes, absolutely. With the start of the internet back in the late 90s, it really connected India and the US together and so, it came [to] birth a lot of the big Indian service providers. And then China after that with broadband, right, and then with high-quality video, with real-time communication, so on and so forth. And with 5G, like you said, it’s going to connect a lot of people, right? And it’s going to give high-quality connections. The people that’s connected, they can go learn, you know, pick up knowledge, take open courses, right, and become knowledgeable and become available as part of the global talent pool. So how do you tap into that?
So, I think 5G is really going to accelerate that. I mean, but that’s kind of obvious, but I want to point out something that might not be so obvious. What we’ve been talking about is employers, right? So, a lot of it is the tech companies in the US and Europe employing global talent. What’s happening today is you’re seeing a lot of emerging companies that come out of a lot of different locations. So, a good perspective is you look at global unicorns, right? So, in the 2000s, if you look at unicorns, it was pretty much 90% out of US.
2010 is still mostly out of US, and then a small percentage out of China. 2020, if you look at today and 2020, it’s going to be like…it’s US and China, in terms of number of unicorns, probably going to be equal, but then you see the emergence of unicorns that’s coming out of Southeast Asia, right? Even in South America and Africa. And why is that? It’s because you have access. I mean, you have all this talent that’s coming online, and you have venture capital, right?
Venture capital is global now, right? So, if there’s any smart person that has an idea, that’s trained by working for one of these tech startups, global tech giants, they know how to build product, and if they know how to pitch to VCs and get funding, then they can go build the next unicorn in the world.
So, so, Uber is actually a great example, right? You have Uber and Lyft in the US, but then you have, you know, Didi in China, and in Southeast Asia you have Grab and GoChip—they’re all unicorns, right? So, the next wave of tech that’s going to be enabled by 5G, we’ll definitely see more and more global unicorns, and in the case of a company like TikTok, right, it’s a Chinese company. You started Chinese, how do you expand to English?
Renato Well, Netflix is another great example because they have productions—until very recently, most of the media translation was English into other languages because a big chunk of multimedia video production was done in the United States and in English, but now, you have Netflix streaming French series, Spanish series, Italian series, Brazilian series. You have Chinese content being translated into different languages. So, it creates a demand for localization in different directions, not only starting from English.
Michael So, Peter, what is your advice to a founder who has just received funding?
Peter Maybe what I can do is I can share my journey on the latest startup and what I really learned from it, and maybe that’s the advice. You know, when we started on April Fool’s Day last year, actually we didn’t start as a service company; we started as a product company. We were building a blockchain-enabled investment platform. And, you know, we were able to launch the product, we got initial funding, we launched it and got initial traction, but then we needed additional funding to scale the product and scale the team. And we weren’t able to because I was probably bad at pitching.
But actually, more importantly, I would like to think it’s because the crypto market had dropped like 95% last year, right, so it was very hard—
Michael It’s bad timing.
Peter It was very bad timing. And so, that was around September, October of last year, and we were out of funding. So, we had to ask ourselves a really, really tough question: what do we do? And, between October and January, I flew to China to be with my team five times to lay off, like, 70% of the team. Every time I got on the plane, I told myself that’s what I’m going to do, and I couldn’t do it.
And then it really forced me to ask the question: what is it that we are really passionate about and what is it that we can really do well? And, now it’s easy to see, but back then it was a little hard when you’re under all that pressure. And what I found is that, you know, I’m really passionate about building distributed teams, right? Building products using distributed teams. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, so why not just do that? Right? And it’s really hard to get funding from investors, right? But it’s actually easier to get funding from clients. Right? And so, that’s what we did. And, yeah, we were very lucky to land Google actually beginning of this year. It was much easier to get funding from them then, you know…
Renato Selling to clients instead of selling to investors is more rewarding, is that what you’re saying?
Peter Absolutely.

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