Building your product successfully with a remote team: an interview with Sanoma’s Marie Louise Kok

ml pasfoto1Hiring a remote development team can be risky. Managing that team and ensuring that it performs well can also be a challenge, as we’ve written in a previous post. In this interview, Sanoma’s Marie Louise Kok shares some best practices for hiring and working with a remote team, based on her experience with StarterSquad. Marie Louise worked with us to develop Ucourse, an e-learning start-up.

Marie Louise, can you tell us more about yourself and your background?

I have been working in publishing for more than 20 years. I’ve worked for scientific publications, B2B publications, consumer magazines and, the last 15 years in digital publishing. I’ve worked for Sanoma for the past 3 ½ years. Sanoma is the biggest media company in Holland. The company is originally from Finland and is active in multiple European countries.

How did you become an intrapreneur at Sanoma?

When I first started at Sanoma, I worked as an e-commerce manager. I worked for Libelle, a lifestyle publication. At the time, Sanoma was working on a Libelle spin-off that focused on e-learning. The e-learning content was produced by Libelle’s editorial department, but the process was very time consuming and the learning management system we were using was too heavy. The output was in Flash and it didn’t work on mobile phones or tablets. Sanoma started an accelerator around that time, so I set out to solve this problem with a new idea.

The accelerator consisted of an 8-week program and competition. We were taught to work with the lean start-up methodology through e-coaching and webinars and could test and develop new projects. That’s how the initial concept for Ucourse was developed. I wanted to solve our learning management system issues, so I worked on a prototype for 5 days and presented the idea to the board. We received funding after that to develop the project further and Ucourse became a new venture within Sanoma.

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How did Ucourse’s relationship with StarterSquad develop?

Initially, Ucourse was an e-learning platform for consumers, modeled after Udemy. But the original business model didn’t work for us. The consumer market was quite difficult. After all, people can find tutorials for free on YouTube for all kinds of things. What we did notice, however, is that we received a lot of requests from trainers who wanted to use our platform to prepare and sell their courses. So we pivoted towards a B2B proposition. Since Sanoma’s strategy focused on the consumer market, we had to find a new partner and that’s how Atrivision and StarterSquad got involved. We worked together to take the platform development to the next level using validated learning.

Was this your first time working with a remote team?

No, before working with StarterSquad I worked with a team of developers in Hungary to build the first iteration of Ucourse. We had a difficult time communicating because none of us were native English speakers and that was the only language we could communicate in. In addition, that team was not used to working with an agile methodology, they were still using waterfall methods.

I wanted to build an MVP and test my riskiest assumptions with a quick prototype. The team in Hungary was not used to that. They had no SCRUM experience and no lean start-up training.

What was it like to work with StarterSquad?

StarterSquad definitely understands the lean start-up approach, so it was the perfect match from the start. Teams are used to working agile and dividing development projects into small tasks. I also really appreciated that they would question me as a product owner and ask “do we really need this feature or can we make it simpler to see if it works?

My project leader, Vlad, was also great. We’ve never met in person but we could communicate so well! He’s really patient and structured. I’m very creative, so having someone that is structured and technical on the other end was a big advantage. I’ve worked on several IT development projects in my life and I know now for sure that having a good project leader is really important.

The StarterSquad team is committed and enthusiastic. We had a weekly demo and never missed a beat. The tools we used helped as well. We used Trello for task management, Slack for chatting and Google Drive to share specs and designs.

Would you work with a remote team again?

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Absolutely, StarterSquad convinced me that remote working works. Colleagues within Sanoma questioned this at the beginning, but after I told them about my experience with StarterSquad, they started working with remote teams as well!

I think remote working is the future. If you have a product owner with clear goals and responsibilities then it’s really easy to do. Tools like Capacitor are making this transition even easier. You can set your budget and hire experienced, self-organizing teams. I would definitely recommend this approach to other companies and look forward to the next project myself.

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