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Leadership Stories

Tips for building an international team with Siavash Ghorbani of Tictail

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Illustration by Michele Rosenthal

With their focus on the future, Tictail has grown into a multinational company.

Unlike many kids who grow up with a passion for technology, Siavash Ghorbani, CTO and co-founder of online marketplace Tictail, didn’t immediately want to turn his lifelong hobby into a career. In fact, when it came time to choose a course of study at college, he felt like everything in his life revolved around computers and decided he wanted to study something different.

He instead pursued a product design and development, focusing on how things get made. However, he soon found that the siren song of software was too strong:

“I missed software development so much that I started a very small consulting firm with a friend, doing the most basic technical projects for small customers. Gradually, we got more and more customers and eventually we were doing things like helping poker companies building up their back-end system and helping TeliaSonera, the biggest telecom operator in the Nordics, building their warehouse solutions for their day-to-day sales.”

Doing It Better

Around that time, the small consulting firm realized that so many people had been asking them for ecommerce solutions that they should try building one. The first effort didn’t work out, but it did give Siavash some vital experience in the area of online retail.

As he moved forward in his academic career, working on his master’s thesis at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, he took a position at a digital marketplace company called Blocket (the largest classified ads site in Sweden, akin to Craigslist). Since his thesis was about the processes behind product software development projects, he felt a strong need to bring some of his observations to Blocket’s CTO.

According to Siavash, “He had a non-traditional management style, so instead of answering my feedback, he gave me a laptop and said, ‘Well, do it better yourself.’ I quickly became a part of the tech team, and six months after that I became the tech lead for the web department.”

Global From Day One

Tictail was the brainchild of two technical co-founders, Ghorbani along with Birk Nilson, and two other co-founders, designers Carl Waldekraz and Kaj Drobin.

“At that point,” says Siavash, “we didn’t really have any processes — we were just two really talented engineers and two really talented designers, and we wanted to build a product that we believed would revolutionize ecommerce.” They drew their inspiration from the way that the blogging phenomenon had changed the way we share and consume news and information.

All of the founders tend to take different roles depending on the situation, but in general, Siavash would say he’s the futurologist of the group — as in, “trying to predict the future and make sure we’re positioned well for it.”

Today, they have 40 employees in their Stockholm office (located right across from the famed Spårvagnshallarna building, in a large, classic Swedish apartment decorated with items from Tictail brands), and 15 more work out of the New York office.

The New York office came early on, in 2014 (two years in). The decision to operate in both America and Sweden, as well as the decision to choose New York, was very intentional:

“As a Swedish company, you realize very quickly that Sweden is a very small market — there’s just about ten million people living in Sweden. It doesn’t make any sense to constrain yourself to Sweden as a market. So when we launched Tictail, we decided it would be a global business from day one; we launched it in English, we built it with PayPal from the start.”

As for choosing to establish a base of operations in New York, Siavash says it came down to a few factors: proximity to investors, relative proximity to Sweden (as compared to Silicon Valley), and NYC’s reputation as a fashion capital.

Growing An International Team

While you might think that there would be some culture clash between teams from two considerably different backgrounds, Siavash says that hasn’t been the case.

“It feels like the internet-based engineering school of thought is so international — everyone reads the same blogs, hangs out in the same forums, follows the same processes. So as we built up the New York engineering team, there was never a concern that there’d be a culture difference.”

The bigger challenge was rebuilding their engineering culture in a new city:

“We spent so much time building the engineering team — the whole team — in Stockholm, and we had structures in place for onboarding someone, but they all relied on someone more senior already being there to support you and be your mentor. But when you’re starting a new office, you don’t necessarily have five engineers that can onboard the sixth.”

As a way of solving this problem, several members of the Stockholm team relocated to New York to help with the process. One of their earliest engineering team members moved and became the head of engineering for the New York department, along with two of the founders, the CMO, and one of the community managers. “That allowed us to start building a team in New York, using the structures that were similar to how we would have continued expanding the Stockholm team.”

Baking Process In From the Beginning

“In the early days, we spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing how we wanted the organization to grow and work,” says Siavash. “So that made a lot of these things easier. Long before we actually had the need for these processes, we already had documents describing how we wanted them to work.”

One example of this is that early on, they set up a buddy system for all of their engineers. When they joined Tictail, they’d have a dedicated buddy to ask any questions, whether it was about engineering or the organization or where to find lunch nearby, for the first six months on the job. After six months, that new person would be ready to be the buddy for someone else, which was a good way for that person to feel more senior inside the organization.

Of course, there were mistakes made along the way — “we thought the processes would work one way, and then later it turned out those ways weren’t the best, after the organization had grown to a certain size. Looking back on it, though, I can see why we thought it would be a certain way, given the experiences we had or the way we expected the organization to develop.”

One of the core values that’s stuck with them from the beginning is autonomy. “We strived to provide as much autonomy as possible, from day one. But it wasn’t just providing autonomy for each individual — it was also about establishing different teams and giving those teams autonomy, too.”

We strived to provide as much autonomy as possible, from day one. But it wasn’t just providing autonomy for each individual — it was also about establishing different teams and giving those teams autonomy, too. Siavash Ghorbani, CTO and co-founder of Tictail

When asked what he’d suggest to other organizations who want to launch with a global product (aside from the previously mentioned things like language choice and using a global payment processor), Siavash has three recommendations:

  1. Identify how you can validate your idea with minimal investment and do that.
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. I’ve seen a lot of smart young founders fall in the trap of reinventing everything their company touches instead of focusing on innovations around their core business.
  3. Invest in people. Hire smart people and set them up to do great work and great things will follow.

How do you find the balance between autonomy and organization and build with the future in mind? We’d love to hear about it on Twitter. In the meantime, if your team is looking for a tool to manage an evolving workflow, try Clubhouse!