The Remote Show

Show Notes:

Patrick Burns' Internet things:

Commons.so (on Product Hunt)





Tyler Sellhorn (00:02):
Hello everyone. My name is Tyler Sellhorn and welcome to another episode of The Remote Show, where we discuss everything to do with remote work with the people who know it best. Thanks so much for listening. The Remote Show is brought to you by We Work Remotely, the largest community of remote workers in the world. With over 220,000 unique users per month, We Work Remotely is the most effective way to hire.
Today, we are blessed to be learning out loud with Patrick Burns. Patrick is co-founder of Commons, which aims to make work feel more connected for remote teams. Previously, he held product leadership roles at Google, Snap, Amazon and several startups. All right, Patrick. Welcome to The Remote Show. What problems are you all trying to solve with Commons?
Patrick Burns (00:43):
Thanks so much, Tyler, and so good to be here. Really, really love all the work that you do with this podcast and everything else with the broader efforts around providing resources for many of us who are now working remotely or in a distributed environment. To answer your question, Commons is a company that myself, my two co-founders, started about a year ago, so right after the pandemic started. And, I guess you could summarize the problem that we're solving is that distributed work and hybrid, distributed, remote, et cetera, et cetera, styles of work have become very standard for many people, for millions of people. Yet, we believe that a lot of the communication tools weren't made for this style of work and it leaves a lot of people in what we call the cubicle era, meaning it's very hard to do things like, in our case, the tap on the shoulder interaction that you have when you're in the same room.
Patrick Burns (01:43):
So, Commons is a company... You know, our mission is to make work feel more connected. But we're starting with a product that we believe is the most efficient way to talk to your team.
Tyler Sellhorn (01:55):
Yeah. Yeah. I'd love to zoom in on that piece where you're saying you want work to feel more connected. You're saying that that's the mission of Commons and a worthy mission, for sure. So, as you guys think about building towards that vision, I mean, you've got a product where we're kind of tapping one another on the shoulder. What does that look like? How are you guys building your product?
Patrick Burns (02:13):
Sure. Let me give you a really brief overview of how the product works because it will help conceptualize how it ties into the mission.
Tyler Sellhorn (02:21):
Patrick Burns (02:22):
So, you can think of... It sounds a little bit piffy, but I think it gets the point across. You can think of Commons as kind of like a private Clubhouse for your team to collaborate and connect.
Tyler Sellhorn (02:36):
Just to interrupt you for a moment, Patrick. We want... We want to be inclusive here, like...
Patrick Burns (02:39):
Tyler Sellhorn (02:39):
So, Clubhouse is a synchronous audio product where we're all in the same room having a chat in an audio format together, all at once, so...
Patrick Burns (02:47):
Tyler Sellhorn (02:47):
Roll... Roll... Roll on here, Patrick.
Patrick Burns (02:50):
Exactly. So, to go into a little bit more detail, Commons is an audio-first communication platform that really tries to re-create what it feels like to talk to your teammates in the same room. So, the way it works is you log in. It's very easy. Everything is one click. You log in with Slack. You tap to talk, so it's kind of like a walkie-talkie style UX. You can see your entire team on one screen. We have different rooms where you can kind of go into the Project Thunderbird room and the Marketing and PR... Whatever room name you want, you make rooms, and each one of those rooms, you have conversations. You can record them. You can transcribe them. You can send action items from those conversations. So, it's really focused on enabling teams to connect using voice. So, that's kind of, high level, how it works.
Tyler Sellhorn (03:45):
Really, really cool. So, one of the things that I think is interesting about the way that you've chosen to kind of present your product is that it is something that's going to be at the same time, right? And, that's a big conversation that's happening right now inside of remote work, is asynchronous working styles versus synchronous working styles, and it really feels like Commons has chosen to step out and be opinionated in the synchronous space. And, I'm curious to learn about why that has been the version of things that you guys are stepping forward with because I know for myself, I work in a mostly asynchronous style, and that is partly a product of the fact that our team is fully distributed across 18 time zones. So, maybe your product isn't for us, but I guess I'm curious to learn why you are using that as your primary mode.
Patrick Burns (04:38):
Yeah. Great question and something that we think about all the time. I would say to start, we don't have a super-dogmatic approach to this specific question, which I do completely agree is a hot topic.
Tyler Sellhorn (04:55):
Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Patrick Burns (04:55):
We think it more from first principles. Right now, we're hyper-focused on this one mission, which is making work feel more connected. You know, we thought the best place to start with that mission was to build the fastest way to talk to your team. Now, what that means right now with the product is it is centered around real time interaction because we believe that there is so much that can be done when you have the ability to do things in real time, exchange information, solve problems, catch up about how the weekend went, et cetera, et cetera. And, I can go on detail in terms of why we think that style of interaction is extremely efficient.
Patrick Burns (05:41):
So, first and foremost, talking is seven to 10 times faster than typing, which is probably pretty intuitive. But when you think about it, there are some things that work where you can get as much done with a two minute conversation as a 30 minute email back and forth or a 30 minute Slack back and forth. So, we don't necessarily think that everything should be either/or. We think that for more companies, at least, there are times when email is best. There are times when Slack is best. There are times when you have a deadline approaching, you need an answer immediately, you need two or three team members to help you with this, and if you were in the office, you would just turn around and say, "Hey, team. Help."
Tyler Sellhorn (06:23):
Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Patrick Burns (06:24):
But that kind of thing is so hard to do over Slack and email. And so, we think it really depends on the scenario. And, I should also say, the final piece is though we have started with real time conversation as a primary interaction model, that's not where we're going to end up. We will build in things like asynchronous audio notes. We're getting requests from our users to do those sort of things because they're... Exactly. There are times where we have folks as well who are working around the world and 3:00 p.m. my time is 10:00 p.m. their time. So, I would like to be able to send an audio note, for instance, exactly for those kind of scenarios.
Tyler Sellhorn (07:01):
That's really cool. And, one of the things that I'm hearing in lots of the conversations that we're having here on The Remote Show is that... You were hinting towards and implying that there should be a sense of intentionality about where does this piece of communication live best.
Patrick Burns (07:17):
Tyler Sellhorn (07:18):
And, not necessarily always saying, "Okay, hey. It's about me and it's about my work." It's also about the us of it, that there is this shared space. There is this kind of thing. Okay, what works best for us to be able to accomplish these goals together? And, you guys are coming at it, to start with here, on the synchronous side of things, but it does feel like there's this shared continuum of communication that people are really starting to figure out as we spend more time on, okay, our primary mode of interacting in work is going to be in our own spaces, right? And, how are we going to go forward together when we're starting from that point? And, it's really cool to hear about how you guys are operating there.
Patrick Burns (07:56):
Want to build on one thing you said because I think it's super important, the word intentionality. We think about this all the time, not just in this context, but we think about it in the context of showing or displaying presence, another way of describing, "Are you available?".
Tyler Sellhorn (08:13):
Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Patrick Burns (08:14):
I think a lot of companies look at this problem. They say, "Oh, yeah. Red means busy. Green means available." And, what you realize when you think about this a little more deeply is it goes deeper than that. Again, when you're in the office, you can look over and I can see, oh, Tyler has his headphones on. He seems pretty busy. I don't want to bother him right now. Or, I can see Tyler is just hanging out, staring at the wall. So, there's all this visual information that we get from seeing how people are seating at the desk. We think about this in terms of levels of intentionality. There are levels of intentionality and that doesn't just relate to, in this case, are you available. It also relates to, as you mentioned, you're a team. You're working on a team and every person on your team is different. Your manager is different from maybe a direct report in terms of intentionality. So, you likely will want to be more available for certain people and less available for certain other people, depending on what you're working on.
Patrick Burns (09:14):
So, that level of flexibility, we believe is needed for distributed teams and hybrid distributed teams of today, especially given how much diversity there is in our setups and our locations and the ways of working, et cetera, et cetera.
Tyler Sellhorn (09:29):
Really, really cool. I think that that's a theme that's going to continue as we continue to iterate forward together. So, one of the things that we're curious about is what is the story of your showing up as a remote founder? You've chosen to center your working life around these problems, right? How did you end up finding yourself there and that being the thing that you wanted to do?
Patrick Burns (09:54):
Yeah. To be perfectly honest, I kind of fell into it. Didn't plan to start a company in the pandemic. It just happened that the company came together in the pandemic. It was... As many founders will understand, the three stars aligned. The right time, the right team and the right idea. And, those three things happened to align in the middle of the pandemic. And, paradoxically, there were several aspects of, in this case, being a founder in the middle of the pandemic, that made it almost more conducive, strange way, you know?
Tyler Sellhorn (10:27):
Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Patrick Burns (10:28):
Before 2020, if you wanted to raise venture funding from startup investors in San Francisco, you would go to San Francisco for several weeks and you would knock on doors. That's no longer a thing, thankfully. So, startups... Founders from around the world can literally book a meeting on Zoom and meet any investor and book eight meetings in one day.
Tyler Sellhorn (10:48):
Here we are, screen to screen. Of course.
Patrick Burns (10:50):
Exactly. And then, the other... The other big piece is access to talent. We have a designer in Europe. We have several engineers in Turkey. We have folks in India. We have folks in New York. And so, the idea that the world, that the playing field is becoming more accessible, I should say, is also, I think just such an amazing shift and one of the biggest benefits, I should say, from this dramatic shift in the way of work from the last year.
Tyler Sellhorn (11:20):
Okay. So, let's go deep on your team, right? You've been able to hire a team remotely. When you're thinking about the signals that you're looking for from a candidate to say, "Ooh, I want to learn more about this person. I'd like to see if they're a fit for our team." What are those things that kind of are those flags that say, "Ooh, let's double click there."?
Patrick Burns (11:40):
Yeah. Yeah. It's a tough one because hiring in general is hard and hiring remotely is, in some ways, even harder because you do have more top of funnel, so to speak. But it's very hard to find those candidates that seem to be most conducive. The thing that has been a trend for us, to answer your question... So, myself and my two co-founders... Aziz and Nazan are their names and they're both full stack engineers with about 15 years of experience and I actually met Aziz at Snap. We worked together on Stories. I was product lead. He was engineering lead. And, his wife Nazan spent about, I think, 12 years at Microsoft. And, they're both from Turkey originally but they live in Los Angeles. And so, because they're from Turkey, they know the Turkish startup ecosystem fairly well and there's a lot of amazing talent in Turkey. So, that was one advantage in terms of finding great talent out of Turkey.
Patrick Burns (12:37):
But, to go back to your question, having looked at hundreds of resumes and portfolios and now done lots of interviews, the one thing, and it sounds obvious but it's actually extremely important... The one thing that when I look back and see the candidates that we immediately found very compelling, it really comes back to the mission of the company. Does the candidate really understand what we're trying to do at a really high level? And, that comes across immediately in the first conversation. In times where that was not the case, the candidate was amazing on every level... Amazing portfolio, amazing resume, et cetera. But the mission... It didn't feel like the mission resonated as much. Those times were ones we're like, "Ugh, it's just not going to work." Because at the end of the day, we're heads down, building product, helping the customers, going to market, et cetera. But what unites us as a company is this mission and it's a very, very bold and ambitious mission, but it really is all about making work feel more connected because there's just so much that can come from carrying that out.
Tyler Sellhorn (13:48):
That's really cool. I mean, any good hiring manager is going to really center the evaluation... There's going to be a certain threshold for, okay, this is a person we're going to talk to in the first place. And, you're saying, hey, after that, let's make sure that we're paying attention to is this a good fit? Not just does the candidate have the skills, but of these candidates that we're talking to... We've thrown a wide net. We're hiring globally. We're saying, "Okay, of this large candidate set, we're going to say who is standing taller than the rest as it relates to pushing forward on our shared purpose. Who is also interested in carrying this rock up the hill with us and saying okay, we want to make work more connected at Commons? Who seems most turned on by that?"
Patrick Burns (14:32):
Tyler Sellhorn (14:33):
And, that's the way you're kind of sorting candidates. Any more that you wanted to say about that?
Patrick Burns (14:36):
No. It's exactly that. And, it's because when you can identify people who share that same sense of purpose, you know that even when they're not working over the weekend, they're going to be thinking, "Oh. Oh yeah. That... Oh, shoot. We have to try [inaudible 00:14:50]." And, you know, having worked in several companies and seeing times when I was really plugged in to the mission or the times where I was less plugged in, it makes a huge difference. So, yeah, definitely.
Tyler Sellhorn (15:01):
You're talking about, you know, on down the line, of employee engagement and all of the experiences that come along with that. There's a bunch of downstream effects to making good decisions at that point.
Patrick Burns (15:12):
Tyler Sellhorn (15:13):
Okay. So, you're thinking about, okay, hiring folks, right? And, here's this person that's identified themselves as aligned with the mission of Commons. How do you think about communicating that mission? How do you communicate in a job advertisement or in the ways that you're presenting yourself online? What are the things that you're doing to try and signal to candidates, "Hey, we're serious about remote working. We're serious about showing up for our workers as a company." What are the things that you're saying there in that space?
Patrick Burns (15:46):
We typically... Obviously, we share our mission statement, but we also share... We have a manifesto of sorts, which is six principles or values that we believe in, that really kind of not just guide the company, but they guide every product decision. So, it's like, first, teams that communicate well perform well. Intuitive, backed by research. I mentioned this one before. Talking is more efficient than typing. Third one here is small talk is big talk. So, you could say water cooler chatter is important is another way of saying that. What we mean there is that it turns out that the water cooler chat, the small talk, is often... You could call it the informal chatter. That is so important because it doesn't just help you understand who you work with and maybe why they're having a stressed afternoon or things outside the workplace that actually influence the workplace. But it also provides an opportunity for you to have some sort of creative inspiration that you might not have otherwise. So, small talk is big talk.
Patrick Burns (16:54):
The fourth one is we say don't let your screen box you in. This is kind of an allusion to Zoom fatigue and video fatigue and the idea that people spend eight hours a day back to back on Zoom and it's just kind of driving people crazy. We really think that you have to get out of that paradigm. You know, the average conversation on Commons is four minutes long versus a half an hour. And, because it... Again, we believe that if you enable those two minute tap on the shoulder chats, that can really drive work forward.
Patrick Burns (17:24):
Number five is we believe that friction creates barriers. How many actions does it take to go from a Slack thread to a Zoom call? We've calculated this several times and it takes roughly 10 actions. Create a meeting, copy the link, paste the link, tell the people that you're meeting, asking if they can join, they say join, open the Zoom, wait, wait, wait, wait, accept, talk. So, it's like 12 actions, right? That's a lot of friction. Alongside that, reducing friction unlocks doors, in this case, when it comes to connecting with your team.
Patrick Burns (18:01):
So, those are the values or the principles that we think of. Those are the things... Back to your question. That's what we share with our candidates and we [inaudible 00:18:11] and we also share a bunch of customer quotes and we see how they respond to those things. And, the ones who are like, "Oh, yeah, I completely agree. This happened and... Yes. Yes. Please. [inaudible 00:18:26]." Yes. That's when we're like, okay, cool, cool. This person really understands what we're trying to do.
Tyler Sellhorn (18:29):
That's awesome. Listening for the people that get turned on to the things that you guys are already communicating.
Patrick Burns (18:35):
Tyler Sellhorn (18:36):
Yeah. That's really cool. Okay. So, you mentioned in the midst of that... Right there at the end, you were talking about the friction of where things are at currently. Talk to me some more about when you think about other places that you see frictions that are preventing us from connecting as a remote working teams. What are some other points of friction? You just mentioned here's this situation, right? We want to get on a Zoom after our little back and forth on Slack and there's 12 actions that need to occur for us to get to actually having the conversation. Where do you see other points of friction for teams to be able to get work done?
Patrick Burns (19:13):
Yep. I have several examples.
Tyler Sellhorn (19:16):
I was hoping that would unlock it for us, so I'm glad that we double clicked there.
Patrick Burns (19:20):
Yeah. So, a couple numbers. In the pandemic, and probably still the case, there has been a 20 to 30 percent increase in number of meetings. This is universally. This is basically the workforce that has been working from home. So, 20 to 30 percent increase in number of meetings, number of emails and number of Slack messages. This is from various data points and I'm sure everyone, anecdotally, can just kind of cooperate like, "Yes, we're in meetings all day long." That's obviously top of mind. Additional [inaudible 00:19:53] time in meetings means less time to do work.
Patrick Burns (19:56):
And so, that's one of the biggest, and we think that... This is why we say that we're in the cubicle era, where, you know... This is a reference to the cubicle style of architecture in 1990s. You know, Office Space is a classic example of this. In that era of building design, there were two types of spaces. There was your desk, which is your cubicle, and then there was a meeting room, which is where you would go to collaborate. And, the idea of this third space, what we might call today the white board space or the huddle space or the huddle room or the collaborative space, that didn't exist. Didn't exist until the late nineties, early 2000s.
Patrick Burns (20:35):
So, in a similar way, we think that this style of collaborating today, where you spend all your day on Zoom and then you, at night, just furiously try to catch up on emails, it's not the ideal way to collaborate. So, that's one step. Another one is... I referenced something earlier but we think about speed. So, I saw on this study recently the median response time on Slack... So, I send a message and then I get a reply. The median response time is 16 minutes on Slack. On email, it's 72 minutes. And, on Commons it's instant. If I want to talk to somebody, as long as they're there, I just talk and boom. And so, we think... Again, going back to friction. If something is going to take 16 minutes, if I need to... If [inaudible 00:21:22]... If I have a deadline in 10 minutes, I need a response now, there are times when Slack and email just don't cut it.
Patrick Burns (21:29):
So, I would say that those are the things that come to mind. I mean, there's tons of other data points we can share about how this style of working is impacting morale, it's impacting the propensity for younger employees to shadow and learn from more tenured employees. But what we know for sure is just from the actual numbers, there's more time being spent in meetings, more time being spent on email, and a lot of that time, unfortunately, we think is not being optimized. So, that's the problem we're trying to solve.
Tyler Sellhorn (22:04):
Really, really cool. So, what would you say that it is that you do here, Patrick? For those of you that didn't catch the reference, I'm... You know, he mentioned Office Space. If you're a child of the eighties like us, you'll know that reference, so. So, Patrick, when you think about rejecting the cubicle style of working and saying we want to build for what's next, you're envisioning what? We're saying not this. What are those things? What are those items that we're saying, okay, not cubicle style, right? And then, we're saying yes to what? When we kind of do that side by side, what are...? What are you thinking of?
Patrick Burns (22:45):
Yeah. Yeah. So, let's... Let's look at a couple of them. So, let's start with meetings. A lot of meetings don't necessarily need a full 30 minutes or an hour. They might often need five minutes. And so, the idea of going from meeting by default to meeting on demand is something that Commons is enabling. So, alongside that, we hear from customers all the time who say things like, "Well, before using Commons, we'd have our team meeting on Thursday and if I ever had a question or an idea or a comment for somebody, I would just write out a list and I would share it all on that meeting on Thursday. But by the time Thursday came around, often the idea was no longer valid. The question had already been sort of answered. It's not as relevant. Now, with Commons, I can share that question and idea in real time. When it comes up, I can just start talking to whoever I need to talk to." That's one sort of major change in the way that work happens.
Patrick Burns (23:55):
By the way, that dictates... You know, your calendar dictates everything, and so, if you can free up time throughout the week for yourself and then your team, all of a sudden, it's like, whoa. A lot of teams tell us, "Oh, we saved three hours this week by using Commons instead of having our typical four half an hour syncs. We got as much done, if not more done." So, that's kind of where it starts. I'd say a similar style of... Similar impact is it's about knowledge. It's about how do you capture knowledge that exists in people's heads and get that codified. A lot of folks who are remote work pros, like yourself, are very trained in how to do this and it really is built around writing. Everything documented, everything is codified and accessible. And, that is extremely important.
Patrick Burns (24:44):
What we're trying to work on is if you go even upstream from there, how can Commons be the input to that knowledge codifying process? Meaning... So, on Commons, you could be in your daily stand-up, let's say, which a lot of teams use Commons for. Daily stand-up, 10:00 a.m., and then afterwards, you do breakout rooms. And, in one of those breakout rooms, there's a really good idea that someone's like, "Oh, we should do this." And, everyone's like, "Yeah. Oh. We need to think about this." Press record, record the conversation. This is getting really good. Real time transcriptions. And then, from the real time transcriptions, you can share to Google Doc, you can make a Trello card.
Patrick Burns (25:25):
Our researcher I was talking to recently said that in a given company, roughly 70% of knowledge is tacit. It's in your head. 30% is codified. So, how can Commons help take some of that 70% of tacit knowledge and make it super simple to translate that into codified knowledge using voice and obviously using our product?
Tyler Sellhorn (25:44):
Awesome. Well, we brought it full circle. We're coming back to the continuum of communication and figuring out how to allow for the best use of our communication to drive forward the work that we're doing together. Well, Patrick, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with the community here at We Work Remotely. We thank you very much for showing up and trying to solve the problems of how best to work in 2021 and beyond. You can find Patrick on LinkedIn, Patrick Burns. On Twitter, Patty J. Burns. And, of course, commons.so. You can check out their product and learn more about how to find a place for your team to talk. Thank you very much, Patrick.
Patrick Burns (26:24):
Thanks, Tyler. Really appreciate it. I had a blast.
Tyler Sellhorn (26:27):
Tyler Sellhorn (26:29):
Thanks so much again for listening to the show and be sure to check out weworkremotely.com for the latest remote jobs. And, if you're looking to hire a remote worker, We Work Remotely is the fastest and easiest way to do so. As always, if you have someone we should talk to, any advice you have or if you'd like to advertise on the podcast, please reach out to us at [email protected]. That's [email protected]. Thanks so much for listening and we'll talk to you next time. 

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