While in WordCamp Europe, we had the chance to sit down and interview Amir Helzer who is the founder of OnTheGoSystems – the company behind some of the most popular WordPress plugins WPML and Toolset.
If you didn’t know yet, Amir has a fully remote team behind the two products, so in this interview, we discussed how fully remote team functions, what are reasons on ‘going remote’, and got a lot of useful insights. Even more than that, he shared the craziest place he’s ever worked from.
Hi everyone! We’re here at WordCamp Europe. And we’re together with Amir who’s the CEO of the company behind some very popular WordPress plugins – WPML and Toolset.
Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
I’m from Israel and I run a remote company. When I started the company it was 11 years ago. I was living in Argentina, the South of Argentina. And wanted to start a software business but there were no developers.
The first developer I hired was from Australia. I started posting job ads and I found someone. I didn’t mind where he’s from as long as he’s a good developer. The second one was from Europe. The third person is our HR lead now. She’s from Argentina. So we grew remotely from the beginning. And we’re still that way.
It’s not that common when one company has so many great and popular plugins. So would you say that going remote is one of the keys to your success?
I think it helps us a lot because it allowed us to get good people, exactly every time, with the skills that we need. Without having to be selective that he has to be from our street, from our town.
Remote work also made us more attractive to many people. The story that we hear from almost everyone who joined us is that they hated the drive to work. They just have more time for life, because they’re working remotely. You save an hour going to work and an hour going back. You’ve got two hours of free time to do whatever you want.
What have been the main challenges you’ve faced, being a remote team?
It’s all the same challenges that people face when they have everyone in the same office. If you hire the wrong people or if you hire really brilliant people but they don’t fit in the team very well, they don’t follow the team spirit. Then you’re gonna have a problem. I’ve seen people like this in our company and I’ve had some people like this in previous jobs that I’ve had in an office. So I don’t think that being remote causes this. Being remote, if you don’t know what’s going on, you’re not in touch with people, of course, it’s going to be a problem. But we started by having a friendly atmosphere with a remote company.
Everyone knows each other personally. Our HR lady knows what’s going on with everyone. Very cursory. So we don’t have issues because we’re a remote company, we have issues that every other company has.
For companies that are afraid to go remote, what would you say are the first steps they have to take?
I don’t know this from experience but I know other people who have an already established office, but the remote team feels like second-grade citizens. I think they’re not close to the boss, they don’t go and hang out together in the evenings, so they’re outsiders. They get tasks, they do tasks, but they don’t belong to the company. So I think this could be interesting. For us, because we started remotely, we never have this issue. Everyone was the same.
Have you ever thought of having an office, getting headquarters, settling down in one place?
The only reason why I want to have an office is to have more company. I didn’t think it would make, at least me personally, more productive. But it would give me some company. Instead of only watching people in Zoom calls during the day, to actually meet other human beings at work.
But on the other hand, the fact that I work remotely and others work remotely, it forces us to build a social life outside of work. In jobs that I’ve had before this company, a lot of my social life was intermixed with work. We had office parties, we celebrated holidays together. But then I realized, that when I leave the job I also sacrifice my personal life. I become an outsider to my friends now.
And now we have two different circles. We have work. I consider all employees friends. We’re friends with each other and their friends with me. But this is one circle and their all remote. So you can’t go out and have a beer with a friend who lives in a different country, a different continent. Your friends with them, you know what’s going on, you know about the family, you know the issues, they know what a lot about your issues. So I make sure to spend time and build my own social life independent of work. I think that’s a benefit.
A lot of IT people as we all know love to travel. So what has been the most unusual place that you’ve worked from?
I worked on a bus in Vietnam. Driving from Ha Long Bay to Hanoi with a chicken on me.
Wow, how does that happen to a person?
I was sitting in 45 degrees because the stools on the bus, they’re made for people with Vietnamese sizes. So a guy like me doesn’t fit on the stools, so I had to sit in the aisle.
So how does a chicken work into that equation?
Someone brought a chicken to the bus. And the road was bumpy. So I feel the chicken went free and did whatever it felt like. And I was busy talking with a person on a video call. Which surprisingly worked. I didn’t have time to fight off the chicken. The chicken wasn’t on me the whole time.
But still, it’s not very common to do that.
No, not for me as well. It’s not my typical work setup. But I was super surprised that the internet connection was solid enough all the way from the middle of nowhere 1 to the middle of nowhere 2, on the cellphone in Vietnam.
If we go back to your products. We know that you have a translation service, I Can Localize. Can you share some more information about those products? I heard you can build your own Airbnb with Toolset?
I Can Localize is how we started the company. I started the company before we went into WordPress. And I thought it would be nice to start a translation service in 2007. And then we thought, OK, we want to translate, how do people produce content. And I was like, oh, there’s something called WordPress. I think it was at version 2.2 at the time, so it was pretty early. And not as glorious as it is today. But it was a lot of catching up. We said, OK, let’s build a website for ourselves in WordPress, let’s figure out how it works, and how people produce content in this. It’s very difficult to make a site in several languages.
And this is actually how we started the WPML project. We created it exclusively for ourselves. Then we figured, well, it works for us and this is the open-source days, everyone’s happy. And we started sharing this with people. And soon after it became pretty popular. And we had to decide if we’re keeping it in the WordPress repository, but not being able to support it or we’re making it a premium plugin, pull it out of the repository, we started asking for money.
What do you think the reaction would have been, when we take something for free and say, it’s not going to be free, now you have to pay for it. What is the response you would expect?
I guess at least a hate comment or two.
So we got hundreds of love comments. Because folks will be telling us, good we can demand stuff. So we’ll be very happy to pay you 79 dollars. By the way, pricing hasn’t changed since. So we pay you 79 dollars and now we expect you to give us support, we expect to get updates from you all the time. We are not going to hear from you anymore “so, we’re doing our best”.
We get paid for it, and now we have to build a proper product.
We didn’t just throw it at them. We told them this is coming. We told them about our dilemma. We said, listen we’re a translation service. We started this and added it to the repository because we wanted to contribute something back. But it’s too big on us. Now it needs several support people. We don’t have the budget for it. We can’t do it anymore. Our other option is, if you don’t mind, we start asking for money and this is the list of things that we guarantee to give you from day one. And we prepared them for this several months ahead. When we flipped the switch they will be supportive. And we had a lot of sales on the first day. Because they saw that it’s for them. They’re getting more value than their paying for.