When Jordan Schwartz and Peter Brown open their laptops to work, the founders of the small Seattle startup Pathable are never in an office, and they’re not always at home. Schwartz might be seated on a cliff overlooking a beach in Portugal. Brown could very well be shirtless in Uruguay or sipping a beverage at a cafe in Amsterdam.
While working from home or remotely can be a nice perk if you happen to be employed someplace that encourages the practice, it’s all they know at Pathable. The 12-person company has no dedicated office and has turned that distinction into a secret weapon that allows the startup to compete for talent against giant tech companies trying to lure people to Seattle.
Schwartz, the CEO, and Brown, the CTO, started Pathable about 8 years ago as a service that builds mobile apps and websites for conferences and trade shows. They haven’t had an office for years, since a building where they were working in Seattle’s University District was knocked down to make way for a light rail station.
Schwartz told GeekWire that he can’t afford to compete for high quality developers and other personnel against Google, Facebook, Amazon, or even against Zillow, Redfin and the next tier of funded companies. But he says Pathable can offer its people something that those employers can’t: the ability to work from home, wherever that home may be.
“Because we didn’t have an office we didn’t have to recruit people to come into our office, and we were able to reach out all over the world,” said Schwartz, who works out of his home in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. “We have a developer in the Philippines, we have one in Chile, we have one in Spain, we have a designer in Macedonia.”
Other workers are in Edmonds, Bellevue, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Schwartz said everyone has been hired directly, without a recruiter — it’s not “some off-shore team managed by someone in India.” Pathable looks for developers in markets where the U.S. dollar is strong and/or tech opportunities are weak.
“The biggest point for us is the dev team,” Schwartz said. “These are high-quality people that would compete successfully in the U.S., but they’re not here.”
The lure of working remotely also served Pathable well when Schwartz recruited one of his client service managers through the “Green Lake Moms” mailing list.
“I was looking for someone who was technical and high quality, but couldn’t take a standard office job because they had a family,” Schwartz said. “I hired someone away from Apple who had recently had a baby and wanted to be home with her during the day.”
It’s a benefit Schwartz, 46, knows first-hand. He began at Pathable just before his 7-year-old son was born and he’s been home the entire time.
“When I take my coffee break I can take him outside to the playground across the street for half an hour and then come back,” Schwartz said. “And if he wants to show me something that he’s doing he can just walk into my office and show me. Being present for that part of his life was so incredibly powerful and meaningful to me.”
Telecommuting is by no means a new phenomenon that is unique to Pathable. Plenty of companies of all sizes have realized the advantages of allowing employees to work from home for varying amounts of time. Time magazine, for one, listed some of the reasons why in an article predicting workplace trends last year:
- It reduces the amount of office space needed.
- More work can be transmitted over the Internet.
- Phones and videoconferencing have become even more capable.
- More companies have workforces distributed across the country or world.
- More employees want to avoid lengthy commutes and noisy, open workspaces.
The Census Bureau further supports the notion that working from home is on the rise, citing data from 2010 that showed 13.4 million people working at least one day a week away from an office.
Being a web-based business that relies mainly on email, Skype and Slack for employee communication, there’s more to Pathable’s model than just being able to work a few steps from bed or hiring talent for less in far-flung places. For Schwartz and Brown, the other piece of the no-office puzzle is the ability and desire to pack up and take work with them to anywhere in the world.
“At a certain point [Peter] realized, ‘Hey, I’m flipping open my laptop every day at home or at the coffee shop down the street, why not flip open the laptop in the coffee shop down the street in Lisbon or in Barcelona?’ Schwartz said. “And then when it’s 5 o’clock and you get off work, instead of being in Capitol Hill you’re in … Uruguay.”
The two men and their families have spent a chunk of time in Belize where they rented houses near one another. Brown, 39, has also worked remotely from San Francisco for three months, two months in the Dominican Republic, a month and a half in Uruguay, three months in Lisbon and Barcelona, and some time in Vancouver, B.C.
This summer he’s planning a month and a half in Amsterdam and a month and a half in Barcelona.
Schwartz and his wife and son spent three months last spring in Spain and Portugal and Amsterdam.
“I found a coffee shop or made sure I had good wi-fi wherever I went and I worked, and people wouldn’t know where I was,” said Schwartz, who pointed our that Pathable uses a Call Ruby receptionist who puts calls through regardless of where he is. “And the timezones worked out really well because I could spend the day with my family exploring these interesting cities and then about 4 or 5 p.m. European time it’s 8 a.m. Pacific time and everyone’s waking up and I go to work. So I could work in the evenings but still be able to enjoy the cities during the day.”
Schwartz and Brown will both be living and working in Iceland and Amsterdam for part of this summer. And at the beginning of April, Schwartz and his family will head to Sayulita, Mexico, during his son’s spring break from school.
“It turns out they have a co-working space with fiber Internet coming into it, right in that little town, and so I’ve rented an office and I’m going to work,” Schwartz said. “I may do four hours and then go for a swim or a surfing lesson and then come back and finish out my day. But again, from my office’s perspective and my work perspective, there’s no impact. I don’t have to warn people I’ll be out or anything like that, I’m working. It’s just, when I’m not working I’m in a different spot.”
Schwartz does admit that there are times when it would be useful to all be sitting in the same place — which hasn’t happened in about five years. There can be communication lags in the Slack chatroom, especially when workers are trying to identify or reproduce a bug. It’s why Schwartz is a big believer in video calls.
“I find it so important to be able to look at somebody when you talk to them,” Schwartz said. “The level of communication that you have is so much deeper and more effective when you see facial reactions. It’s easier to catch — if someone furrows their brow I can tell that they’re worried, and I’ll stop and say, ‘Wait a second, did I just say something that worried you?’ And some of it is just more subtle. I feel that it’s easier to build that relationship with people when you can see them.”
From a cost-benefit perspective, Schwartz stresses how big a role Airbnb has played in his ability to do these lengthy stays in Europe and elsewhere.
“It wouldn’t be affordable or reasonable for me to stay in hotels and do this kind of traveling with my family,” Schwartz said. “With Airbnb it turns out I can rent my house out in Seattle for the same amount or more than it costs to rent an apartment in Lisbon, and the grocery stores cost either the same or less. So from a cost perspective, all I have to do is pay for the plane ticket and everything else doesn’t cost me anything. I still earn the same salary, I still pay the same mortgage, and there’s no other costs.”
Before he started Pathable, Schwartz spent time at Microsoft, commuting across Lake Washington like so many tech workers do. Today if he discusses the commute with anyone it’s usually with friends who bike to work.
“It’s rain or shine and in some ways I actually miss that,” Schwartz said. “I did work briefly for a company downtown and I biked down there every day and I got some exercise, got out in the sunshine. One of the drawbacks of this lifestyle when I’m working from Wallingford is I can go days and not leave my house. And it’s actually not a good thing.”
But it’s not enough to lure him back to an office. He’s become very attached to the benefits of working from home (or from a beach or cafe in Europe).
“I think about getting in a car and getting on that highway every day and sitting in an office, it would take some getting used to,” Schwartz said. “I remember just sitting in my car and clawing my hair. I saw my life dribbling away.”
And on a recent weekday morning, Schwartz could see the morning commute playing out on Interstate 5 above his neighborhood. People were headed downtown and traffic was backed up on the Ship Canal Bridge.
Already at work while standing in his own home, he chuckled. “I gotta say, it’s a good lifestyle.”