Experiment 2

Going to Chennai

How FULL Creative went global and how we stay connected around the world.

In 2005, we turned our business inside out—instead of bringing the workers to one central location, we focused on delivering work anywhere. This distributed model, which largely eliminates the daily commute, has real benefits for our customers, our employees’ quality of life, and for the planet. To make it work, though, we needed more collaborators.

Our mission is to change how the world works by helping more people work anywhere—a daunting task. This global mission calls for global reach and delivery. We wanted people who would join our team for the long haul. “We knew we had to branch out,” says Kevin Payne, who now leads our office in Chennai, India.

Kevin first contacted some early software companies in China, but found that language was a major barrier. “We had a smart team, but we were not able to communicate in an effective manner.” Next, he flew to Kolkata, one of India’s financial and cultural centers. After working with a consulting agency there for a few years, though, Kevin knew it was time for another change. “We wanted our culture,” he says. “We wanted our team to spend time learning new technology, new processes, new systems. They had a different opinion on that.”

It was time to open our own office in India. Kevin moved with his family to Chennai, on the country’s southeast coast. The surrounding state of Tamil Nadu is relatively tranquil and has more reliable electric power than some other parts of India. “They don’t have too many garages in India,” Kevin says, “so where you start up your business instead is in an apartment. So that’s what we did.”

Worldwide Challenges

Winning the trust of potential employees was a more significant challenge. “It doesn’t necessarily give you the most confidence in the world when you go interview in some older apartment building,” Kevin says. “Our employees tell us now they were pretty concerned about that, because they knew what it meant. They knew it could mean that we could disappear any day.”

Starting a new enterprise in another country is complicated. Filing paperwork and finding local vendors and contacts took time. Even things as simple as date and time took on new meanings. “When you’re working in just one location, time is relatively simple,” Kevin says. With operations in the western U.S. and eastern India—on opposite sides of both the planet and the clock from one another—even a mundane 10 o’clock morning meeting isn’t what it seems. (Specifically, it might be an 11 pm meeting.) “It begins to create another vocabulary within the organization,” Kevin says, not to mention the proliferation of wall clocks showing different time zones. Even a simple date on the calendar can cause confusion. We write “3/4/2014” for March 4th, 2014. In much of the world, they put the day before the month, so to others that’s April 3rd. “As you step into new environments,” Kevin says, “a lot of small challenges that you never took to be challenges can accumulate. And if you don’t find methods and processes to clear them off your plate, they can be overwhelming.”

Things Won’t Go as Planned

Going to Chennai was another opportunity to use iterative changes to build something new. “You tend to take lots of small steps, realizing that a lot of times you’ll trip when you take those small steps,” Kevin says. At first, he says, the company was in the wrong part of town—the shopping district known as T. Nagar instead of the IT Corridor where FULL now has its offices in the Ascendas Tech Park.

To develop the phone system we use in our business today, Kevin and the team had to go through multiple iterative steps. The first set-up was a bulky, copper-wire system nicknamed the “Refrigerator” as it was housed in a case the size of a fridge. Various technologies and vendors followed, as we searched for a solution that could port . . . anywhere.

Adding an international presence has been an evolving process. We’ve benefitted from the advice of others, but ultimately, Kevin says, it’s important to stay open to the possibilities you find yourself. “Sometimes the so-called experts in an industry present things as if there is only one path that’s known for sure,” he says. “What we’ve found is, they don’t know. Or if they do know, there isn’t just one path. Many times there are alternative paths that can get you to the same destination.”