Richard Leyland

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.

  • igniman

    Why travel at all? there’s a ton of tools to save you from the trouble.

    • leisa

      What startups need to know that the goal should not be about the money. I mean, we all want to earn but it shouldn’t be the final goal. I do believe that most developers now, are just thinking, how can we create money with our new startup?

      If you will swap the two words together then I believe its a good start. Also, It would be wise to start creating android apps now, for it will be the future.

  • Troy

    Agreed, along with needless burning of fossil fuels from aircraft travel so is the increase in your waistline. That’s right your widening girth is also a result of your constant fossil fuel usage. we are seeing advances in poor health in line with the advances in technology and economic growth. it is great to see young entrepreneur’s live this message and find new means of developing and growing companies without the need for extraneous travel. we may also see a shift in our chronic disease and lifestyle risks as a result of the shift in young business minds.

  • Paul

    Sorry, but this whole climate change thing is ridiculous. The actual problem the world has is shortage of water. But since in a country like the UK that does not work politically, everyone runs after climate change, although it is not the big problem. (Nor is it really proven that we are causing it…). If you dont want to fly, fine. But you should rather think about saving water by not taking a shower if you want to save this planet.

    • Damien

      Still, as alluded too in the article, the majority of scientific opinion is behind it. There is a lot of things we assume without absolute proof but instead relying on the knowledge we have so far.

      At the end of the day even if Global Warming turns out not to be man made it’s better to behave on the safe side rather than ignoring it until we know categorically if it’s true or false.

      • Russell

        Global Warmists seem to always want to use the term “The majority of Scientists” as if science was a democracy. “The majority of scientists” once thought the world was only 6,000 years old. “The majority of scientists” once thought the earth was flat….. etc… Reproducible proof! Until you have that, its a theory, similar to an opinion or a religion.

      • David Winter

        “Reproducible proof! Until you have that, its a theory, similar to an opinion or a religion.”

        Wait, wait – reproducible proof that we are f*cking the only planet we have? Where’s the second Earth to do your testing? Because we are not talking about isolated phenomena, but a pretty complex system…

        Also, it seems you do not understand the meaning of the word “theory” in a scientific context. Creationist? :)

      • Eddie

        For the people who are commenting to this article about climate change, how many of you are qualified to intelligently discuss it? How many of you have taken a university class even in Introduction to Meteorology? Its better to know when you’re out of your depths and not comment unless you have enough background education to offer intelligent comments.

      • Aaron

        You obviously don’t understand what a scientific theory entails. Evolution is “just a theory” as well, as are the theory of relativity and superstring theory. A well-developed scientific theory is “the best accepted explanation for the facts as they exist”. And I have yet to see a peer-reviewed article in any credible journal that says anthropogenic climate change isn’t happening.

      • Snitzelglobin in liederhozen

        You site superstrings to back up climate change? How many imaginary dimensions does that require? The real issue isn’t that Richard doesn’t fly, but will he learn to launder his clothes and get a decent haircut. Nothing this clown has to say is relevant.

      • Aaron

        @Snitzelglobin in liederhozen – you want to call me to task on my definition of “theory” and don’t know how to spell “cite” (or, apparently, even understand what it means, since I didn’t “cite” anything)? Obvious troll is obvious.

    • Wired

      They’re BOTH big issues. The world has many big issues: climate control, clean water, poverty, pollution, oil spills, morons running the world, etc.

    • David Winter

      That “climate change thing” is “ridiculous”? But “not taking a shower” will “save this planet”?

      Oh boy. There is so much to be said about that. For starters, how about reading this article:

      The related discussion on MetaFilter is interesting, to say the last.

      (Not saying that saving water is a bad idea – it’s not -, but maybe you should think beyond the personal, “feel-good” level of protecting the environment before telling others what’s “ridiculous”.)

  • Sheila Averbuch


    Wow, this is hugely ambitious of you, but air travel is clearly a dealbreaker for you so you’re trying to do deals without it. I haven’t come across such a Skype- and telepresence-heavy, real-life case study before. I used TP once in Dublin and it was fairly mind blowing to see the whites of the eyes of people I’d only interacted with by telephone.

    I believe Cisco has some push to allow home high-definition tvs as end points to move TP into the SME market; could be perfect for you in expanding into the US.

    Have you seen man on the go, a new blog by globetrotting Chris Brogan? You should guest on it and explain why they don’t need an airplane in their logo!

    Sheila Averbuch – ENNclick

  • sjaak

    global warming is a lie and you and your silly rules are ridiculous. you can just tell us you are afraid of flying, don’t need this bs.

    • Aaron

      If you’d read tha article, he specifically says he’s willing to trust the scientists on climate change. Rather than, say, you.


    Well technology is always important to take to next level, even am trying same with my website Hope customer is winner

  • Rahul Dighe

    I don’t understand what is the correlation between the kind of business they run and the pledge to not fly – if they want to be really carbon neutral there are better and more efficient ways of doing so.

    • Calderon

      They are just trying to get PR for a crappy company that can’t even break through the Alexa 500,000 mark after 1 year and a half.

      Don’t even give them the benefit of a comment. It would be one thing if Accenture said they would not travel by air and that all 200,000 of their employees would work remotely.

      Worksmug … err I mean Worksnug seems to be a company with 0 traction and 0 revenues whatsoever and which probably could not even afford a Ryanair plane ticket and their fees.

      I can’t stand smug pretentious people.

  • Max Niederhofer

    If you’re truly interested in climate change, you should also reduce your startups reliance on beef ( That means no burgers and no leather clothing. Or more burgers and more leather clothing. Depends on how you look at it.

    Ritualistic animal sacrifices (think: veal) upon feature launch may also appease the Earth Mother and make her smile benevolently upon your startup plans. I’m planning a blog post on this topic.

    However, I applaud your initiative. Startups working for the Greater Good motivate employees more than mere flailing can ever do. Jet travel is responsible for about 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change (, so you’re starting to take a bite out of that.

  • diana

    Am sorry, but I have to play devil’s advocate here…How about you do something and not preach to other people about your grand gestures? If the notion of zero flights policy was truly that important for you, you might stop and think about how the devices you’ve designed your gimmicky little application for got to you (and the users) in the first place. Moreover, each year, we’re bombarded with new gadgets, faster systems, and new soft/hardware to run the devices differently for applications such as yours – with lovely marketing campaigns to boot and make users keep as up to date as possible. So, what about the waste? And how did we manage before? Your application would be moot in this case. Let’s focus on the bigger picture here, and if you decide to take a stand by not flying or not showering in the morning (taken from another comment) or not eat burgers or wear leather (again, another suggestion in this space – not sure how it ties in, but never mind), then FINE. But please don’t preach. Or be smug. Do it because you mean it, and not because you can get free publicity out of it.

    • kengyew

      Well said Diana!!

    • Wired

      Typically most items get around the world by shipping containers on REALLY big boats, not planes. Cheaper per pound.

      • dana

        Perhaps, missing the point. ‘REALLY big boats’ also create pollution and so do the products we’re using (some people get new phones or computers at least once a year). Let’s not get into numbers because all of that is up for debate. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the notion of no flying…however, what I loathe is the do-gooder and preach-like tone. Who do you suppose is most likely to use this app? People in the “global workplace”. Business owners and travelers looking for mobile options! The timing of this piece just seems too tidy – just as the app needs to pick up traction. Quel coincidence!
        Again, not against the notion of conference calls, Skype, and alternative methods to doing business . In this case, it works and actually makes more sense. For many new ideas, it doesn’t. If someone is against flying, then open a local cafe or shop, use local suppliers, and encourage small and local trade – millions of people around the world do this without the luxury of blabbing about it. This piece is a really ‘on trend’ pr gimmick. Don’t be fooled by smoke and mirrors.

      • Steve O'Hear

        The app also, sort of, supports remote working by helping to locate new spaces to work from, making it easier to *not* commute everyday to work. So I guess it can be argued both ways.

      • David Winter

        “If someone is against flying, then open a local cafe or shop, use local suppliers, and encourage small and local trade – millions of people around the world do this without the luxury of blabbing about it.”

        That does not even make sense, but I assume what you are trying to say is: “Act local if the goddamn planet is so important to you, but don’t TALK about it!”

        You know, when I was younger, I enjoyed buying apples from New Zealand and wine from California. I could afford it. I didn’t think much about the fact that this stuff had to be shipped around the world to Europe, and that a few pounds of those nice NZ apples represent a gallon of oil with regards to energy consumption.

        I learned about these things – guess what? – from people “blabbing about it”. On the precursor of today’s web.

        If everyone did all Good Things in the closet to avoid being shouted down by people like you, the world would be a sad place. Mr. Leyland may or may not need free PR. Common sense and an ecological lifestyle obviously need it, more than ever.

    • David Winter

      “How about you do something and not preach to other people about your grand gestures?”

      Diana: The guy and his company *are* doing something. Probably more than taking trains. And he’s talking about it. This is as much “preaching” as a hardware company telling me they are striving for energy-efficient production. Yes, I’m interested in that (provided their products are interesting, too) .

      The hateful tone of your reply seems to indicate that – like a few other commenters here – you do not want to be reminded of the fact that an energy-intensive lifestyle is bad for the planet (energy consumption, pollution). The guy taking the train (and having the nerve to talk about it) is obviously a civilization-hating luddite.

      So – shoot the messenger, and everything’s fine again. Right?

      Also, you are attacking the “gimmicky little application” his company has developed. Classy! Maybe you were already too foaming-at-the mouth angry about the “preaching” at this point – but didn’t you realize that their app allows people (traveling “infoworkers”) to find nearby WiFi hotspots, thereby using existing resources more efficiently? Isn’t that “doing something”?

      As for shiny gadgets and their production + distribution costs – they are indeed relevant, and people buying the newest stuff just to show off waste resources. OTOH, information technology can (!) reduce energy consumption.

      You read religious fanatism (“preaching”) and smugness into a piece that only explains how a small, international business can use technology to reduce their carbon footprint.

      As for me, I’m a freelancer, I take the train wherever I can, and I get a lot of work done on those trips. I own no car, and I am trying to master my Shiny Gadgets Addiction (getting better at that each year). I like to read about what what else can be done.

      You, however, seem to enjoy shouting down anyone who suggests something might be wrong with the way we exploit the planet’s resources.

      And that’s what I would call “smug”.

      • diana

        @ David, apologies if you think the tone in my comments was ‘hateful’ – certainly didn’t mean to be. In fact, quite the contrary – it seems like we’re exactly on the same page on many points. Without delving into details or sparking any sort of argument, my main feeling was that this piece seems like less about ‘doing good’ and more about pr (and well done, here we are commenting). I most definitely support good ethics and business practice, but am not a fan of those who preach about it (and/or what others should be doing). Just do it because you believe in it, not write a piece in a way that I perceive as very ‘holier than thou’. The discussion of zero flights policy just seems a touch middle class to me, and almost decadent (most people around the world care about putting food on their plate and don’t have the luxury to think of such things)…let’s take a step back: not flying for a business that focuses on an app for the global and ‘mobile’ work culture. It’s gimmicky and I can see how it can be useful to many, but it’s not saving the planet or changing the world. Let’s get real here.

      • Tobias

        Writing really long, offensive, misinformed comments it a waste of electricity, please stop.

      • Richard Leyland

        Good Lord Diana, where to start?

        I’m reminded of the phrase “making the perfect the enemy of the good”. As I make very clear in my article, I’m hoping that our non-flying policy can demonstrate the possibility that it could work – to make our approach a model – And for this, we need to tell people we’re doing it.

        “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”

        Of course any concern for climate change demands a whole suite of actions, but then a piece by me entitled “bloke explains all the stuff he’s doing to reduce his carbon impact” would be neither interesting, nor particularly relevant to TC readers. You say, “just do it because you believe in it”, which is exactly what I am doing.

        I’m fully aware that there are wider issues at play too. The consumer culture in tech, the carbon embedded in the supply chain, working conditions in far-eastern factories, digital exclusion and more. It’s not good enough to read an article with a specific remit, then criticise it for all the things it doesn’t say, particularly when the article itself acknowledges that there’s a broader set of issues.

        My piece feels middle-class and decadent? OK, I’m as middle-class as they come, but it’s tough to read decadence into what I wrote. I’m advocating a better use of resources in a single, very wasteful, area of our current “business as usual”. Decadent?

        “It’s not saving the planet or changing the world”. I acknowledge that truth, using exactly those words, in my piece. Makes me wonder if you actually read it. Similarly, our products don’t save the planet, but then we’ve always had a fairly healthy sense of where our modest company fits in to the broader world. Check out our principle number 9:

        Reading all your comments, here’s how it looks to me: You got irritated on the basis of a single idea, that we’re getting PR benefit from writing about a social responsibility policy, then you threw a whole bucket of mud in random directions.

        So let’s address this issue. The reality of a no-flying policy is sitting on train platforms at 5am. It’s spending more money than strictly required on travel while trying to carefully manage cash in a startup environment. It’s leaving a day earlier than everyone else, returning home to your own bed a day later than everyone else. It’s not a cheap PR win. If it was about PR it would be a very expensive PR win.

        Our company does very well in terms of press coverage, we’ve had hundreds of articles written about us, all around the globe. Let me assure you that a single piece in TechCrunch on our no-flying policy isn’t the prize which justifies the policy.

        No, I’m afraid you’re just too cynical here. The reality is exactly as I wrote in the piece: We want to prove that companies can go global without flying, and to do so we need to explain how we’re getting on with that. Don’t believe it? You’re welcome to your cynical world, I’m just glad I don’t share it with you.


    • Samson


      Usually the people who talk about how holy they are are the worst hypocrites

  • Morning Take-Out - DealBook Blog -

    […] Here’s a start-up venture with its feet firmly planted on the ground — one of the founding principles of WorkSnug is never taking a plane. […]

  • Geoffrey McCaleb

    Why bother taking trains? Trains rely on electricity which (in the UK at least) is still being generated by coal and gas firing plants. Sure, the Carbon generated by a train journey is much lower than a plane, but don’t fool yourself that this grand gesture is somehow saving the planet.

    Also, as previous posters have commented on, you want to *really* save the planet? Cows baby. Cows directly and indirectly generate massive greenhouse gases – more than cars.

  • Techpolice

    You’re so afraid of flying man haha! There’re pills for that you know?

  • Robert

    This post struck a cord on a personal level. I love the idea of a no flying policy for a company. But only in Europe and some parts of Asia (Japan, South Korea) could this really be an efficient business policy.

    It is a complete waste of resources (time and money) to drive a car or take a train across the US. The rail system in the US is so piss poor such a feat is almost impossible. The geographic size of the country also makes driving impossible.

    So the question is, if reducing your carbon footprint an important business policy does it not make more sense to fly and then offset your carbon by planting trees? $1 donations to American Forests plants 1 tree.

  • yohan

    wow, nice post, thanks for sharing :)

  • Mike James

    Thanks Richard for the post, I like the worksnug app too, if you ever release a paid Premium version let us know at and we will work our magic ;-)

  • Briznye

    I had to fact check, and it looks like you are correct. Air transportation has the highest CO2 emissions per passenger.

  • şehmuz

    Doing well ? Why do I have trouble believing that.

  • Andrew

    Based on these comments, no good deed goes unpunished.

    Give the guy a break. He didn’t say not flying was the last noble act he would perform. It’s a start. He’s trying to raise consciousness.

  • heri

    you should create a website with tips on how to travel without flying. well it already exists, but mainly for backpackers, but there isn’t one for business-oriented people

  • Gabe

    I’m an American and I spent six months working in Beijing starting a development team there. I cannot emphasize how valuable it was to actually be there in person, not just to establish a closer working relationship, but to immerse myself in the culture to gain an understanding that would be impossible to get by video conference. In establishing a close working relationship with the team, it was crucial to develop and display a genuine interest and enthusiasm for the local culture. I could not have done so remotely.

    It is fine to try to save on carbon emissions, but it’s baloney to think that a global company can work without spending time abroad. That may be possible for a small company with principals that already have a close working relationship. But it is not possible to expand effectively without face time.

  • Anna

    respect for not flying Richard – and for taking a stand and will to stand up for what you believe. I guess all this criticism that followed shows how addicted people are to flying and how far they will go to justify their views. I am also committed to not flying (ever again) because of the impact on climate change. I am not perfect and I don’t harangue people to do the same.

    I do find it interesting and a cause of great concern to hear environmentalists talking about flying all over the planet to preach, to educate or to celebrate new technologies. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms – to be an environmentalist and to fly regularly.

    I really wish more people would come out of the closet and admit that they are choosing not to fly. We should be encouraging people to stand up for what they believe rather than shooting them down.

    I think you are great – and brave for venturing out to talk about that HUGE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM that no-one wants to talk about.

  • Harry

    I applaud you, Richard.
    My little policy suggestion: ban (or tax) airmiles.
    I think they motivate, on the margin, unnecessary flights. And mean that the people who can most afford holidays (bankers, investors, management consultants etc.) end up getting them for free.
    I see execs like me building up Executive Card status and drifting into Club lounges, and think “Well done us: We’re risking the future desertification of large swathes of Africa in exchange for a shiny black card, a leather sofa and free Wi-Fi.”
    Of course lots of air travel is essential for oiling the cogs of global commerce, preventing wars and stimulating innovation. But I’d love to see how much more amenable everyone would be to video conferences, virtual trade-fairs etc. if airmiles accounts didn’t come into the equation…
    (P.S. please state airmiles status when commenting back:-)

    • Eddie

      I agree with the applause! Climate change reasoning aside for the moment, the title of this post was “Can a startup think global without boarding a plane?” … what’s really exciting about this is that Richard and his colleagues are collaborating and they’re scattered all over the world and its not practical to fly in most cases (I.e., it would eat into startup costs). What is more, for all the people bemoaning of a recession and unemployment rates (such as in the U.S. that’s all the financial news types talk about these days is the “bad news” about unemployment), this article is something to rejoice about and shows that people can create their own jobs in startups and be instantly global (like Hal Varian’s “micro multinational” concept)!!!

  • Thomas

    If The market is really Global my answer is yes. Just set up offices with locals.

  • Hannah

    Inspirational and original!

    A very interesting article and an engaging idea. You argue it well Richard and your enthusiasm and commitment to going greener while growing your business shine through.

    Long live the good ship WorkSnug and good luck to all who sail on her :)

  • Marc

    Check out to reduce your startup’s carbon footprint. Get int’l calling, a smart ph# plus free soft phone with video capability.

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