Vibe Check Episode 02

Self Expression: From Skincare to Virtual Office

With guest Nick Allen

Host: Brett Martin

Episode synopsis

In this episode, Vibe Check’s host Brett Martin sits down with Nick Allen, Founder and CEO of Geologie, to discuss all things remote work– the pros, cons, tips and tricks. Nick founded Geologie in 2018, and takes listeners through the evolution of his fully remote company that now offers award-winning unisex skincare, haircare, and bodycare products. Nick describes the opportunities that result from operating as a remote company, including a diverse global talent pool and cut costs. 

With a flat organizational structure and high-trust environment, Nick confidently leads his fully remote team using a virtual office. He discusses topics of remote hiring, onboarding, and building company culture as a fully remote team in Kumospace. Nick pivoted away from enterprise-based remote work tools to using Kumospace, where his team is able to gather, build camaraderie, express themselves, and even throw virtual launch parties! The Geologie team maximizes productivity by balancing individual focus time and team collaboration, and contributes to a positive work environment that fuels remote company culture in Kumospace. 

Guest bio

Nick Allen is the Founder and CEO at Geologie, a leading direct to consumer skincare company serving 10,000 customers worldwide. Geologie offers a vast array of award-winning unisex skincare, haircare and bodycare products. Created in 2018, Nick has been leaidng the fully remote Geologie skincare team since its inception.

Episode transcript

Brett Martin:  Howdy and welcome to Vibe Check. It's an inside look at the culture and quirks powering the world's most successful and interesting companies. I'm Brett Martin, co-founder of Kumospace, and I'll be your host today. Today, really excited, we'll be speaking with Nick Allen. Nick is the CEO at Geologie. It's one of the leading direct-to-consumer skincare companies servicing tens of thousands of customers all across the world. In full disclosure, Nick is both a Kumospace customer and one of my portfolio companies of my fund charge ventures. It's one of the first investments. So, I've got a fair amount of dirt on Nick, and that's how we coerced him to join the podcast today. 

Nick Allen:  Nothing like a little leverage

Brett Martin:  Exactly, only cherry-picking here. Well, thanks for joining us and spending a little time talking about company culture. So, Nick, just first off just give us a little bit of the background on the company and where you're at today, what it looks like. 

Nick Allen:  Yeah, a little background. We started about five years ago. We've been in market for four. The initial idea was a skincare for guys. Very simple, let's make great product, let's make it easy for them to get and start a routine. The brand has expanded and evolved beyond that so we're now unisex and we offer everything from skincare to hair care and body care. We've won 15 major awards and the hits keep coming. So, we've evolved quite a bit.

Brett Martin:  And what does the team look like?

Nick Allen:  That is a great question. We started out as two and we are now, gosh, we won our own warehouse in Chicago so there's a few folks there. We have customer service in Serbia. We have some of our marketing team over in Italy. We have some folks in New York, Georgia. So, we're probably pushing definitely north of 30 and we're scattered all over the world.

Brett Martin:  And one of my favorite things as an investor in geology is just how kind of like scrappy and lean you've been. And so you were actually one of the OG fully remote companies pre pandemic, and so I just kind of would love to like know a little bit about like how you chose that, why you chose to be fully remote all the way back in 2018, and then what was that transition like when COVID hit and how you dealt with it?

Nick Allen:  So, what led us to be remote from the first place was I've done, this is my third startup, my previous two were in consumer tech and they were very much HQ oriented, hire a bunch of people, put them in San Francisco at 30 bucks square foot, engineering talent, 150k minimum, and all of a sudden you have a $500,000 a month burn right out the gate. And I think that's fine when you raise tens and tens of millions of dollars and you're building a particular type of business. But we're a direct to consumer CPG brand, and that is building that kind of company is different than growth at all costs, scale as fast as you can. You really have to build a brand and the trust of your customers. And so for us, saving every dollar we could and having just a wider talent pool to go after made a lot of sense. So, we chose to be remote from the beginning and as we started to grow, the tools got better and better and with COVID it’s just we never looked back.

Brett Martin:  So, it was originally a cost decision. You were trying to get more for your dollar?

Nick Allen:  Get more for my dollar and have access to a different talent pool. You know, there's when you put an HQ in New York or San Francisco there's a particular group of people you're competing from. And when you open that up worldwide, you have different perspectives, different types of talent, different goals as well from the people who you work with, and it allows us to be more well-rounded at a better cost.

Brett Martin:  Yeah. So, maybe you started for cost reasons, but now that you're obviously a successful company, you're doing tens of millions of revenue a year, you could set up a HQ in New York and San Francisco. Do you ever think about it?

Nick Allen:  No way, Jose.

Brett Martin:  No way. 

Nick Allen:  No way. 

Brett Martin:  So, you wouldn't go back even though you can?

Nick Allen:  No.

Brett Martin:  Even though you can. 

Nick Allen:  No, I would never go back. I think there's fully remote, there's fully HQ and there's hybrid. I think fully remote or fully HQ makes sense. I think the hybrid's pretty tough to pull off in a lot of ways. And so for us, because so much of our team is global, it would be very difficult for us to go to HQ and a hybrid situation I think suffers in a lot of ways.

Brett Martin:  Yeah, a lot of times it's actually easier to be fully remote than hybrid. That's been figured out now. So, the question being is like okay you've done this, you've been fully remote the whole time, first off, how would you describe your company culture and how have you managed to create that in a fully remote setting?

Nick Allen:  Yeah, that's a really great question. I would describe our company culture as very flat. We're a very flat organization. We tend to hire people who don't need tons and tons of direction. Like you point them in the direction and they go solve the problems. They do the hard work. They are people who work really well with a lot of autonomy and flexibility. And so we build this culture of, frankly, just like a lot, lot of trust. My teams trust that their teammates are going to do the hard work and the lifting when it needs to be done. My teams trust me that I'm going to be there when they need me, but I'm also not going to be like looking over their shoulder. So, it ends up being a really collaborative environment that people find very empowering.

Brett Martin:  So, you created a high-trust environment because you needed to. Now, I assume that was a learning process and it took you a while to perfect that. What were some of the challenges along the way of building that culture? Like when didn't it work and why didn't it work?

Nick Allen:  That's a good question. I think the challenges in the beginning were identifying like when you're interviewing somebody, how is this person going to excel, right? Like are they someone that can clearly do their best work in this type of environment? And once you do it a couple times, then like the culture's built, right? You know, the profile of the people are then looking for the profile of the next hire. So, I think it was a challenge in the beginning, now I think it's just how we function. Problem solved.

Brett Martin:  So, it sounds like your answer to how do we create a high-trust environment is that we hire trustworthy people. And so what would you say are the characteristics of those people and how do you identify them in the recruiting process?

Nick Allen:  A great question. I mean, the characteristics are like the self-starter, the action towards bias.

Brett Martin:  Bias toward action. Yep. 

Nick Allen:  Bias towards action. Yeah. And you can tell that in an interview process of people talking about the projects they've tackled or the problems they've solved and how they went about it, right? Like people who are self-starters and who want to dive in and tackle something, it kind of just shines through.

Brett Martin:  So, you ask a lot of questions around like people's ability to take initiative?

Nick Allen:  Yeah. Like if I'm hiring somebody in a marketing role, they have to do the job way better than me. Like I'm not a marketer, I shouldn't be telling you how to go market our products, like you need to be coming to me and being like, “Hey, here's an opportunity. Here's a customer segment that we can go after. Here's a tactic. Here's how we're going to go flush this out.” It's not my responsibility to come up with all the ideas. That's somebody else's job. So, in an interview process that comes out.

Brett Martin:  So, my question there is, was that a process to learn that? Like what were some of the recruiting mistakes that you made and what did you learn from them?

Nick Allen:  Yeah, I mean the recruiting mistakes that you make are ignoring red flags in the interview process because of some other shiny object, right? You know, great resume. They worked at, you know…?

Brett Martin:  Blah, blah, blah, brands.

Nick Allen:  Like some hot flyer brands, right? And you get sort of enamored that you think that they actually really contributed to the growth of X, Y, Z brand when in a lot of times like they were riding the coattails of that brand. And you can miss those warning signs in an interview process because you're too focused on the packaging and not what's inside. 

Brett Martin:  Do you think it's easier or harder to recruit remotely? Like do you think that it's harder to identify those characteristics over the internet, or is that the same, or did you have to come up with some sort of different process to gauge those things?

Nick Allen:  I think it's relatively the same. You know, obviously in-person you pick up on maybe some more body language, but I find video chats to be highly effective. You know, I can see you, I can hear you, I can, besides like shaking hands, I can get most of the read.

Brett Martin:  And it makes sense. I mean, if you're hiring for remote, then this is going to be the form of interaction you're going to have. So, you might as well get good at it. 

Nick Allen:  Yeah. 

Brett Martin:  So, first is find the right person. My question there is like do you think that person's harder to find?

Nick Allen:  Not anymore. I think there is a huge pool of people who working remote is absolutely their preference. Like they get more done, they're not commuting, they have flexibility in their job, and all of those things turn into a more productive, more happy, more grounded, more willing, better employee because they're not bent all the time. They're not like, “Jesus, I just spent an hour like stuck on a train that's not working and I'm sweaty and I'm late and like Goddamn it I'm annoyed.” They got to like do their yoga in the morning and start the day fresh.

Brett Martin:  Like they appreciate being remote on a kind of daily basis based on the small freedoms and flexibilities that they get.

Nick Allen:  Yeah. I do think people to a degree miss the like office camaraderie especially if you are like new in your career. I think that's very hard. You know, if you're 22, 25, like a lot of your social life comes from your work life and when you're remote, that doesn't quite happen. 

Brett Martin:  How do you manage that? Do you hire young folks or are you hiring mostly more senior people?

Nick Allen:  We do have some younger folks, but they're ones that want a remote opportunity. You know, they recognize the benefits and they're not looking for their entire social life to come from their work. This kind of thing I think was more acute too in cultures like San Francisco where the perks, I guess, around of being a tech employee were significant, right? It's like there's a bar at work.

Brett Martin:  Yeah, it really was like a social hub, right? I felt like the pre-pandemic world was all about companies bringing more of life into work, right? 

Nick Allen:  Yeah. 

Brett Martin:  Like bringing the nap pods and the massages and the coffee bars. 

Nick Allen:  Yeah. 

Brett Martin:  And then post-pandemic has been bringing work into your life and like working from home and having a good setup and 

Nick Allen:  Yeah. 

Brett Martin:  And we're trying to figure out like how to do that in a graceful more sustainable way as opposed to just like being a little robot either sitting on your glued to your computer at every moment of every day. 

Nick Allen:  Right. 

Brett Martin:  So, I guess my question is like, okay, so you basically pick for people that are going to thrive in this environment. 

Nick Allen:  Yep. 

Brett Martin:  And then how do you onboard them? Because that's something we hear a lot is that like it's challenging to bring on new employees, get them integrated, get them connected, and then also make them not feel like just completely isolated, especially if they're working from home. 

Nick Allen:  Totally great question. That is a really good segue into some of the tools that we use, Brett.

Brett Martin:  This is not a paid advertisement.

Nick Allen:  Well, I will say the tools that are available today that even five years ago did not exist make remote work like much easier and I think much easier to sort of onboard and I think much easier to communicate a company's culture much more quickly. So, like, okay, I'll use Kumospace as an example, right? We've used Slack like forever, we use Google Meets, all that stuff. Those are like productivity things that are very enterprise oriented, right? Yes, you can do forward slash gfi and send a funny note on your slack. But something like Kumospace, we use it as a place to meet and also to just express ourselves as a company, but also like as an individual. Like you can go see somebody's office and like how they've decorated it, you know? And like it changes all the time because of the little edit button in the corner. And so like Thanksgiving, there's like gobbling turkeys all over the office, you know? 

Brett Martin:  Bringing back a little the humanity of work.

Nick Allen:  Yeah, a place where you can gather and like have a little fun. 

Brett Martin:  I guess it's like you feel like you have to start being kind of intentional about that as running a remote company, you have to kind of create opportunities and spaces, social spaces for your team. 

Nick Allen:  Well, yeah, and it also it's like, look, like you go, when you walk into an insurance company's office you're in an insurance company, right? Like it's cubes, it's beige, it's cold and weird. But like you go to Airbnb's office in downtown San Francisco and you're like, “Whoa, this is hit. This is happening.” And so with like a virtual office you can't go into someone's Slack channel and like get a really good idea of the company culture, but you go in someone's Kumospace and be like, “Oh, I get, I see what kind of people are up in this place.”

Brett Martin:  What is the benefit of that for your team? Like why is it important for them to have a place to express themselves and to each other? 

Nick Allen:  Well, I think it gives like permission and like air cover like, oh, everybody here is expressing themselves in some way. The company is expressing themselves in some way. Like is this a place where being casual and making jokes is cool? You know, is there humor here? Is there irony? Is there earnestness? Like a space projects those elements. Physical space does it really well and in this case, I'm not aware of something like Kumospace that allows you to do that. And I'll add something like take Slack, right? You know who's on in Slack because they've got their little green dot there, but it's different than me coming into the office and walking by your office and I see you in there. That's different. Like someone's head at their desk is different than a green dot on a list of people's names.

Brett Martin:  So, there's like something about that sense of like presence and shared experience, I guess, right? That you are in this together, working together toward a common goal. That's sort of the feeling that you're trying to create for your team?

Nick Allen:  Yeah. Like we have a room in our Kumo office that's like the warehouse team and they're just on. They're all in there and there's people on and they're just doing their day kind of shouting back and forth because there's like a lot of action in the warehouse, right? It's like, oh, stuff's getting shipped, a customer just wrote in wrong address, duh, duh, duh. So, they're just kind of like they're just on all day in the same room talking to each other all day. They're like there physically and on Kumospace so you pop in there and you're like in the warehouse.

Brett Martin:  That's pretty interesting. And so is that how you use it? Like how does your team use it? 

Nick Allen:  It totally depends on the function like customer service people kind of sit together, our engineering team like sits together. And so people who are working together all the time kind of have shared space and then other people who need more like heads down thinking time have their own offices. And then we have like lawns and beaches and goof hangout spots with gongs and chickens and clapping noises.

Brett Martin:  People are just kind of getting weird using it as a place to express themselves and it's like even the different personalities of different types of teams kind of even show through. That's something we've seen a lot is that like sales teams are very different than engineers in Kumospace. And that's pretty visible.

Nick Allen:  And I think the magic is you can probably build all the tools that like Slack and Google and these things that we use and integrations. Like it's easier to me than the creativity and the consumer layer you're kind of putting onto this. You used the word like humanizing work. I think that's tough to do.

Brett Martin:  So, you talked about the tools today being better than five years ago. Like what does remote work look like in the next 10 years?

Nick Allen:  Good question. I think it just becomes more ubiquitous. Like I know how many clients that you guys have, but I think more and more remote teams will like mature into this kind of setup that we have and I think they'll find the benefits of it. So, I guess it's we're in early adopter phase by necessity because of COVID and everything, and then now it's I think it's going to turn into not something that is forced upon us, but that many more companies and people choose as a better for productivity work-life balance like just whatever, all the checkboxes that you're looking for.

Brett Martin:  So, if you were starting a company today, you would still start a remote-first company?

Nick Allen:  Yeah, I don't think I would ever go back to an HQ. Why?

Brett Martin:  I mean, you have a pretty good setup. Last time I checked on you, I think you were working off, out of a beach in Mexico.

Nick Allen:  Yes, that is true. 

Brett Martin:  Is that true?

Nick Allen:  That is true. Yeah. And so that like, I mean…

Brett Martin:  You can have your cake and eat it too.

Nick Allen:  Exactly. And why shouldn't we have our cake and eat it too at this point? I'm not a humongous fan of Elon Musk these days, but like Starlink has made remote work really actually like possible, possible, like you don't need to remote work from your apartment in New York City. You can remote work from the beach in Mexico.

Brett Martin:  Kind of ironic given that this is the guy who's calling everyone back to the office and trying to create a hardcore work culture. 

Nick Allen:  Yeah. You know, hey, different strokes for different folks, but it is ironic.

Brett Martin:  It's more than one way to make money. And we definitely subscribe to the have your cake and eat it too sort of world. Like obviously starting a company requires massive amounts of sacrifice, but I feel like now we can be more flexible about that model. You know, I think that was one of the things we've learned about remote work is that like an office is kind of one size fits all. It's a box you throw everyone in there.

Nick Allen:  Yeah.

Brett Martin:  It's the same experience for everyone. Whereas remote work acknowledges the variety and the heterogeneity of everyone's experience and you need to provide a different setup for people just out of college versus parents versus people empty nesters all have very different needs which I think it's actually much easier to accommodate with software than a physical box.

Nick Allen:  Definitely a lot more flexibility.

Brett Martin:  Well, so before we close up shop, I guess, do you have any kind of remote work bloopers or highlights from your experience of building a company, a distributed company, over the past five years? Is there either a hilarious or just like lovely notable moment that you can recall from your time building?

Nick Allen:  Yeah. I mean, so right around Halloween, we launched a ton of new products, like a ton more than doubled our skew count. And we threw a virtual launch party in Kumospace. We built another floor. It was awesome. It was like live streamed on Twitch. We had half a dozen of our like major influencers come through. The whole team was there. We did interviews. Like it was cool and like you could not really have pulled that off in another way. Like the Kumospace kind of made it all sort of happen. And I thought that was really cool, our partners thought it was cool. It felt very like the very futuristic in a way.

Brett Martin:  The future- Nick Allen at Geologie keeping our skin looking good and young and also preparing us for a new and remote future. Well, Nick, I just want to say thank you so much for joining us. Thanks so much for being a Kumospace customer and charge ventures portfolio company. And it's obviously just been an absolute pleasure working with you and wishing you and your team the absolute best.

Nick Allen:  Yeah, thanks, Brett. It was great to be here.