I used to think startups should be in the same time zone as their customers and investors.
Given that many startups are targeting the US market or trying to raise from US investors, that means a lot of founders want to be on US time. But it turns out the time zone question is not so clear cut.
Actually, European time zones might just be the best for early-stage startups who want to grow their business in the US.
Operating from Europe gives time for deep work
First, a bit of context. Varos’s customer base and our investors are overwhelmingly in the US. I’ve spent a lot of time in both the US and Israel since founding the company.
Working from Israel means a seven-hour time difference with New York and 10 hours with California. We have every day — in the hours when we're sharpest — to do deep work on product, marketing, strategy and more with no interruptions. Then, at around 4pm, the games begin: demos, support requests, user meetings…
For anyone who's built something, you know how critical deep work is. If you are constantly being interrupted by calls and virtual meetings, how will you have time to sit down and truly build complex features or think through big-picture strategy? That deep work time is even more precious if you’re a startup trying to build something no one has done before. You need quiet time to work through hard problems, have lightbulb moments and be able to brainstorm.
I feel this acutely when I work from the US. As soon as I wake up, I’m in meetings or putting out fires. With the exception of a few gaps, this goes on until evening when finally I can sit down to work on product or strategy. But by that time, my brain is fried. I’m not in the mental space to do important business-building work.
As an early-stage company, you’re going to have to work late often anyway. And I think it’s more productive to frontload the deep work earlier in the day when you’re sharp and then meetings instead of vice versa.
How to collaborate across time zones in a hybrid-work world
But how should founders think about time zones in a world where more companies are moving to fully or partially remote setups? Some startups have team members scattered in time zones across the globe and work asynchronously.
Our approach is to have everyone on a European time zone, though here and there people might work abroad for a few weeks. We think it’s critical for collaboration — because we’re able to all work together and have meetings together without bending over backwards. There’s something about everyone working at the same time that causes the team to feel a lot more together than everyone working on their own hours.
And of course, the moment you ask people to be online at a time that doesn’t overlap with working hours where they are based, work-life balance becomes more difficult. Think about working parents who need to take kids to school or someone taking care of a parent.
Interestingly, other startups with remote work programmes seem to recognise this too. Amsterdam startup MessageBird, for example, lets employees be based anywhere as long as they are in the same time zone as their team. Bitpanda also lets employees work anywhere for 60 working days a year, with the caveat that 80% of their daily working time overlaps with their team’s.
For all those startups out there who want to crack the US market, I’m long on having your whole team on European time zones. At least at the start when you’re going from zero to one.