How to Manage an International Startup with a Co-Founder Abroad

When we think of startups and entrepreneurs, more often than not, as I've said many times before, we think of a dynamic duo working out of a garage and not a Bat Cave. Maybe they're in a coworking space. But no matter where we place them, it's usually side by side, sharing the same oxygen. That isn't always the case, of course. 

Take the pair behind Nanny App, Laurence Hayes and Rachel Provest. She's the one with the Chicago connection, which is a good. She graduated from the Booth School of Business this year, but has been based out of Vietnam for the last seven years. Her associate, meanwhile, has been in the UK and likely will not be leaving there anytime soon. They've worked together for many years, despite their distance, which she describes as a "massive geographical difference."

I gave Rachel a call at 9 a.m. Chicago time -- which is 10 p.m. Vietnam time -- to discuss the "massive geographical difference," the app and what tools they use to overcome the potential obstacles with so much space between them in the same business.

So tell us about this app, first off?

Rachel Provest: With Nanny App, we're dipping our toes into the iPhone app market. We started with what's effectively a reference guide for expecting mothers and new parents. It's been written by a Norland College nanny -- in the UK it's a very prestigious world-famous college for nannies. We basically are trying to create a real-life Mary Poppins in the palm of your hand, is what we're calling it. The app is a Q&A format, which gives you the gold standard of childcare advice that new parents and primary caregivers can look at and get authoritative advice. Our hope is to give a very reliable source of information. And being a mother myself, this is something that I realized didn't exist when I was looking for it.

And who all is involved with it?

Rachel Provest: Laurence Hayes, we work together, and then Nanny M is our mystery nanny that we're using to provide us with the information.

And you worked with your co-founder before this, right?

Rachel Provest: I used to work with him in London, so, I've known him for many years. I think, to be honest, this is the core tenet of why our relationship works and why the distance isn't an issue. I think when you've worked with someone so long -- that's part of why we work together so well. We've been dabbling in a lot of creative ideas. Most of them fail, but it's just about having a go. The nanny one was very easy to do. Being out in Asia, this sort of back-end technical stuff was very cost-effective to do, so I was able to get that going. And then Laurence, he's quite geeky, so he helps with the IT part, and then between us we just put it together very easy, it was fun.

How do you run a company like that, though? What hours of the day do you overlap when you're both awake? Does it matter?

Rachel Provest: I think with UK it works quite well. I mean, to be honest, the time windows, say, you and I have got to talk I think we both agree are quite narrow. But I guess with Laurence he can work with the US more. So, between the two of us we feel we've got pretty good global coverage when we need it, which isn't all the time, honestly. But we're six, seven hours between the UK and Vietnam. And I think you have to be flexible. It's 10 o'clock in the evening here, which, I'm sort of quite happy to do. I think you've got to be able to do that.

What do you use to make sure you're in lockstep? Google Docs?

Rachel Provest: Well, this is the marvelous thing that we realized not that long ago -- that the level of real-time communication you can have, and it's all free, it's just fantastic. Obviously Skype comes in on the conversation side. Google Docs for versatile document sharing. Dropbox more than anything else is a fantastic tool we use between us.

All free tools, then?

Rachel Provest: To be honest, there's probably more complex things, but these are off-the-shelf, everyone can use them and we really don't need anymore than this. It just works brilliantly.

Have you tried more expensive things, thinking they might help more? Because I think that is the temptation.

Rachel Provest: Yeah, and to be honest, we haven't been feeling temptations and with what we've got already we haven't really been tempted to that. And also as a business you're always very conscious about your workflow, so, where you don't need to spend, we're not going to spend.

How did he wind up being in London and you in Vietnam?

Rachel Provest: We're both from the UK, originally.

I sensed that, yes.

Rachel Provest: [Laughs.] The accent give it away? I should have put on a Chicago accent for you. My Vietnamese one is even better.

Mine too. Shoot.

Rachel Provest: [Laughs.] Anyways, we both are trained as accountants, which we try to keep very quiet in London. I guess Laurence never really truly left. He's been there ever since. It's just me that's fled far away.

You mentioned you are due for a change of location. If you did, would you still continue to work with Laurence on the app?

Rachel Provest: No, I really need to relocate. And that's the thing, it's portable, it doesn't matter. You take it with you and it doesn't matter where you go. I think that's the thing Laurence and I enjoy so much, is the flexibility, having both been desk jockeys for years and in large institutions -- to break out of that and feel the flexibility and discipline you have in doing your own thing. It's wonderful.

Do you work out of your house, or a co-working space or where do you go in Vietnam to get stuff done?

Rachel Provest: [Laughs.] It's a bit of both. I can do a bit at home, but with small children I really am trying to escape at any excuse that I can. Vietnam is a very creative environment. There are lot of people here doing their own thing. It's one of these places where not only can you reinvent yourself, but if you have an idea, this is a place you can actually do something about it. I think because it's so cost-effective and labor is cheap and also because there's a lot of bored expats here. So it's a very creative place with people trying to do their ideas. There aren't shared workspaces, so you would just go to a café, I guess. We don't have Starbucks , but, whatever the equivalent is, if you have wireless and a laptop there, you can work.

You said there are a lot of bored expats there. From the UK or where?

Rachel Provest: Yeah. There are so many housewives here doing design. There's a lot of frustrated creative people here just trying to get stuff done.

So that's one of the advantages of working from there, then?

Rachel Provest: Yeah, I think so. There's no limits. You can really have a go at doing anything you want without too much risk of failure. Or if you do fail, you don't fail at much cost. Most things aren't going to work, but you can really have a go of things. And often there are huge successes, which is very inspiring.

Is it easier to get stuff down and accomplished in Vietnam than it is here in Chicago?

Rachel Provest: Well, I think so. The cost of what you could be doing with your time is higher in a more developed market. Here, it just feels easier to turn yourself into something. Maybe people just have more time on their hands. I'm not really sure, but it really is this great place to just try things out no matter what.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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