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Business / Business development / International / Marketing / Remote work

How do you run an internationally HQ’d email company? Email helps, of course

Bron Gondwana, CEO of private email company Fastmail, talked about what works and what doesn't for the company with teams in both Philly and Australia.

Fastmail team members in the Philly office. (Courtesy photo)

Bron Gondwana, the Australian CEO of the private email company Fastmail, found himself in Philadelphia this week for the semiannual Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) conference.

But Gondwana is not new to the US city: He travels from Oceania a few times a year to visit his company’s Center City office.

Fastmail acquired the Philly-based email company Pobox in 2015 and since then, the company has grown its local team, along with its Australian team. During his latest visit — Gondwana is involved with multiple working groups under IETF, which defines internet standards and discusses the evolution of internet architecture — asked the exec about the role email plays in business today, and what it’s been like running an international team during the pandemic.

Email as ‘electronic memory’ and workplace stalwart

Gondwana said email and the role it plays in business has changed very little in the past few years, and remains most valuable in the workplace as an “electronic memory.”

He expects that more important conversations end up in email now than are discussed face-to-face as people pivoted to remote work. Email is generally where things are generally written down that you might want to keep for a long time, instead of Slack or other instant messaging systems, which are more ephemeral.

The switch from on-premises email to cloud-based email was already underway before the pandemic, but has accelerated since then.

“As part of a general move to being able to work from anywhere,” he said, “the fact that email was already mostly set up, that people could already access from their devices wherever they were, made it very easy to transition that to work from home.”

The benefits and processes of an internationally distributed team

The draw of having an international, software-driven, customer-facing team, as Fastmail does, is obvious: Someone is always awake. For Fastmail, servers are running 24/7, and its customers are all over the world. If something goes wrong or a customer needs support, it’s ideal to have someone who is already up and going address the issue.

Bron Gondwana. (Courtesy photo)

“It’s much better, particularly since a lot of our customers are in the US, to have the bulk of our support team based here, because they are awake during the time that the bulk of our customers are awake,” Gondwana said. “If something goes wrong with the servers, the person who responds to that will be awake and not be woken up in the middle of the night.”

As for managing a team across the world, Gondwana said Fastmail is indeed challenged by time zones, but as the company gets larger, it can have more complete, functional teams in each location. A lot of its processes are built around — you guessed it — email handover, or updating tasks in a task tracker.

“That’s one of the few things that technology can’t help you with, is that different people are awake at different times around the world,” he said of international communication. “But email, of course, is fantastic for handovers because you send someone an email at the end of your day with what they need to know. And they don’t have to be right there to have it handed over to them at the time.”

Tech companies call that following the sun — as one team finishes for the day, the other team is starting up and taking on their projects.

In general, Gondwana said, scheduled one-on-one chats and clear communication have helped in managing teams in two different countries (echoing other technologists’ advice for cross-time zone collaboration). He said it will never be as easy as catching up with someone in the office kitchen or overhearing conversations like in a traditional workspace, but Fastmail encourages employees to (virtually) think out loud in their Slack channels, and to be vocal about when they are and aren’t available.

Both Australian or Philly accents are acceptable.

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Fastmail

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