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Guest post: Can a startup think global without boarding a plane?

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This is a guest post by Richard Leyland, an entrepreneur and writer with a particular focus on the future of work. Richard is also the founder of WorkSnug, the location-based service for mobile workers.

Last year I founded a tech company in the augmented reality space. We’re doing pretty well. What began as me, an idea and a laptop is now a company with five people, plus a small army of freelancers and contractors. From roots in London we’ve now launched in sixteen cities across nine countries and two continents. We can reasonably claim to be global.

But we don’t fly. More than that, our founding principles make a public commitment that we won’t fly in the course of our business.

We’ve run out of petrol at 1am on the German autobahn, shared French trains with evangelical Buddhists, cycled the streets of Copenhagen, somehow came away from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and several events like it without a free Google Nexus One, but not once have we flown.

So why don’t we fly? Climate change of course. Don’t believe it? Google it. I’m no expert in these things, but I’ll trust the scientists. Flying is far from the only factor causing climate change, but as an example of our wasteful fossil fuel addiction it really takes the biscuit.

Of course our company’s absence from Heathrow won’t save the world, the actual impact will be relatively small. But we hope to be a model. We want to prove that companies can go global, and can succeed, without flying.

So how are we doing? We certainly haven’t managed to keep “business as usual”, but then why would we want that? In the world of the start-up there is only business as it’s been done before, and if you’re not prepared to change business as usual in the face of catastrophic climate change it may be that your priorities are out of whack.

The first thing we’ve done is take to the trains. We’ve spent the last year darting from the UK into mainland Europe through the tunnel, attending conferences meeting new partners and launching our product in new cities. I’ve personally discovered the joys of the overnight train (tip: pay for your own cabin and don’t drink beer). In most cases the train has been more difficult to book, more expensive and a longer journey. Though there are several noble attempts to improve the train travel experience, there’s a long way to go here. If you thought Ryanair were bad, try booking with Rail Europe. Yet I still suggest you take the train where possible. Trains are excellent for concentrated work, they drop us in the middle of target cities and we’ve removed airport stress at a stroke.

We’ve also allowed technology to take the strain. Our default meeting mode is the Skype call, in which we turn the camera on as a matter of course. We’ve employed developers in the UK and Pakistan, a database guy in South Africa, a community manager in New York and reviewer teams in San Francisco, Barcelona, Paris and a dozen other cities. We have never met most of these people, but video calls offer a reasonable substitute. More recently we’ve negotiated commercial partnerships over jaw-dropping Tele-presence links, though this remains beyond the reach of most start-ups. We use it because our partner provides it.

Trust has come to the fore, and we’ve yet to be stung. In the hyper-connected social media world we’re offered a hundred windows through which to view our associates. Twitter showed me the wedding pictures of two of our web developers and the childcare strife of one of our main sponsors. To some this is an erosion of privacy, to us this strengthens bonds with distant partners and leads to better trust decisions.

Of course to a greater or lesser extent you do all these things too. There’s nothing revolutionary here, it’s simply that by abandoning the plane, we’re all in.

And I feel like it’s working out fine, though it’s far too early to be celebrating success. Our business has moved from radical uncertainty last year, to a stable platform and an opportunity to prove medium-term profitability this year. We have had to turn down a conference in China and a couple of meetings in the USA in recent months. Did we miss an opportunity? Perhaps, but in start-up land we create, fumble and grasp opportunities several times daily. We’re not losing sleep over it (though I can’t resist noting that we would have lost sleep had we travelled…)

What we do know is that we’re a highly efficient team, we qualify opportunities very quickly and we’ve never devoted a day, or a flight, to “putting a face to a name”.

There’s a danger we sound smug in all of this. We’re as flawed, contradictory and stumbling as the next company and we don’t mean to stand on high, telling you how to conduct your affairs. We do however think we can prove that grounding yourself doesn’t ground a global business. So far so good.

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