When Polarr CEO Borui Wang began recruiting tech talent for his photo editing startup at the end of 2014, he quickly learned to look beyond his local circle and take the search international. Wang found himself, as others have, dissatisfied with the lack of “product design vision” in a pool of otherwise-supremely-talented, local engineers.
The growth hack to getting past this is to find someone who's both an engineer and a designer. But domestically, they're hard to come by. “You can’t really find them in traditional places, like universities,” Wang explains. “People don’t really have time to craft their skills [in front-end design] because they don’t play around and do programming as a pure hobby.”
The global pool of those types of hybrid talents, however, is vast and affordable.
For Polarr's free professional photo-editing iOS app, a global search with tools like AngelList and HackerNews culminated in hiring of a “programmer-artist” from Russia and a CTO from Canada. The company launched its first iOS app to a “#1 Best New App” feature in the App Store within hours and 700,000 downloads in its first seven days.
This seven-person Polarr team regards its decision to recruit globally from the beginning, as one of its smartest moves. Here are some lessons for being an “internationally-minded,” global-focused startup from day one.
1. Recruit globally for people who can play two or more roles.
First, it's very difficult to go back and forth between a designer and a programmer. Wang calls this a “communication lag.” Combining roles eliminates this lag and ensures that tasks are tackled faster. The folks at Polarr found having remote team members capable of performing multiple functions generated more time-efficiency than having multiple team members working together in the same space. And, of course, working via video conference also eliminates the need for time wasted on commuting.
Today, the Polarr team gets by on twice-a-week video conferencing meetings on appear.in. The developers share information daily on GitHub. All tasks are integrated on Slack, which allows for real-time communication between team members, without the need for excessive mass email.
2. Hire people familiar with your product market region.
Planning an iOS launch in China? Consider hiring an independent contractor from that region, who would be familiar with the trends and marketing styles most effective there. Things like understanding local aesthetic preferences, or even the tone chosen for messaging groups of potential users, become key advantages.
“In China, there is this mindset of wanting to be special, different, because of the volume of products in a population of 1 billion,” says Wang. To capitalize on this cultural tendency, Polarr ran exclusive email marketing campaigns, with an opt-in system relying on user codes that could only be used once. The campaign saw unprecedented levels of email open-rates and click-through rates, making up one-third of all the company's downloads.
3. Growth-hacking is just one advantage of a small, international team.
Some of the benefits of having a small, international team are just plain economical. Having a language-proficient international team can help trim localization costs. Polarr's first iOS version, for instance, was released in five languages, for maximum market exposure. Yet, all but one of the languages were growth hacked in-house, for free, by team members.
Another is the built-in benefit of the diversity in approaches, mindset and background granted by having an international team. On such a diverse team how each member approaches problems is totally different.
“Daniel is a physics major. I am a traditionally-trained engineer," Wang said. "Sean is a non-traditionally trained engineer. They look at the same problem from different approaches, and both approaches have different merits.”
When building a product for an international user base, this kind of difference in approach makes all the difference.