This week I sit down with Adam Nathan, Cofounder and CEO of Almanac, a collaboration platform that helps remote teams work on the internet, with more structure, more transparency, and fewer meetings.
Adam emphasizes that the debate between remote and office work is irrelevant because even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most companies were already operating online and utilizing tools like document editors, Slack, and Zoom. He refers to it as "internet work" and believes that remote work brings flexibility, focus, and improved productivity for employees. Adam argues that the transition to internet work is an inevitable force of change that cannot be reversed, despite some resistance from those who are invested in traditional office environments.
However, Adam also acknowledges that there are challenges to remote work. While remote teams offer benefits like global hiring and individual flexibility, there is a need for more structured and transparent workflows. Many teams still rely on traditional office mechanisms such as meetings and messages, which can overload calendars and hinder productivity. Adam suggests that successful remote teams work with more structure, transparency, and fewer meetings. He also addresses the importance of creating human connection and fostering synchronous collaboration in remote settings. By implementing structured best practices and thoughtful approaches, remote teams can overcome the cons associated with remote work and achieve effective collaboration.
Special thanks to Adam for joining the pod!
Transcript (this is an automated transcript):
MPD: Welcome everybody. I'm Mark Peter Davis, managing partner of Interplay. I'm on a mission to help entrepreneurs advance society, and this podcast is definitively part of that effort. Today we've got Adam Nathan, the co-founder, and c e O of Almanac. On Almanac is a SaaS platform that helps teams interact and manage workflow.
It's a cool product but really interestingly, he's really an expert on remote work and managing distributed teams. He's philosophical about it, brought up some points that remote or in person. It's all the same. He's calling it internet work. And we dive into some really interesting best practices for how to manage the human elements of teams while they're distributed.
So I found this to be a very insightful conversation. If you're at the top of an org in HR or otherwise, this is probably gonna be a good listen for you. Enjoy.
All right, Adam, what's up man? Thanks for being here. Good to see you. Can we start off at the top? You wanna give us a little overview of Almanac? What's you're building? Sure.
Adam Nathan: Almanac is a structured collaboration platform, and what we mean by that is it's really an all one place for building out asynchronous workflows for basic types of collaboration.
Most people these days are writing in online document editors, but Trying to get basic pass done isn't basic at all. And what I mean by that is if you wanna get feedback on sales contracts or proposal, if you need approvals on marketing copy or engineering RFPs, if you wanna share out new knowledge or SOPs you can't just push a button in a tool.
It often takes hundreds of messages on Slack or on email. Lots of different meetings. It can take up most of your week just to get basic things done. And so what we built at Almanac is a tool that with structured workflows for feedback and approvals and sharing. So that there's a lot of transparency around the work.
And you can cancel meetings and spend your time on, on stuff that matters. Instead, y you're
MPD: building in a really kind of contentious space, right? Like for tech people, a lot of us have acclimated to this remote world, but they're even within our industry. There's some pretty serious feelings around whether or not people should be in the office or not.
I've got buddies who run major financial institutions. The sentiment over there seems to be a little bit weighted to the other side of what you hear in our world. I wanted to, you're thinking about remote work and collaboration in a way that probably most of us aren't, cuz you're building product for it.
So you're down the rabbit hole. Yep. What's your take on the state of play? Like where are we post covid now and does remote work make sense? Does it work? What's your take?
Adam Nathan: Yeah. I think that this debate that's mostly happening on Twitter between remote and office it's not just tired.
I think it's irrelevant cuz if you think about it even before Covid if you were in an office as, a lot of us were, we were working online, we were working in Realtime document editors like Google Docs or Microsoft Teams. We were communicating on Slack, we were attending meetings on Zoom.
And in fact, most companies at scale, like global corporations were distributed were operating remotely even before it was cool. And I think what Covid and the pandemic did for a lot of people is it made us realize, Oh, because we're already online, we actually don't have to be in the same place.
And so I think that's why the benefits of remote work, the flexibility it brings the, how it enables focus and flow for people have just made work better especially for regular employees. And I think that's why you see this a lot of the labor, so to speak resisting the return to the office wanting to stay remote because it enables them to do their jobs better and.
And improve their own productivity. I think there's this kind of classic tension between capital and labor where, you know, people who run big businesses have only managed or led in environments where they can control people's presence. The same people may be invested in corporate real estate or other businesses.
I think there's a kind of a natural reflex to go back to the way things were because I think there's incentives there or just muscle memory, but I don't like the term remote because what we're really talking about is internet work. And if you think about the transition we've made over the last 20 years is this is a big transition from the physical world to the digital world with the internet.
And in a lot of ways, especially on the consumer side the benefits we get from, internet tools and internet products is just like a standard deviation better than anything we got in the physical world. And I think the same thing is true about internet work versus office work. I don't think we're going back.
To the office in the same way. I think internet work is better for everybody. And so I think this is a force of disruption that can't be turned around. And and so I think a lot of this kind of return to the office speak is like the last gasp or a natural resistance to this inevitable force of change that's just sweeping how work gets done.
MPD: Yeah, and I think this
is, About to play out. It already has started a big way in the markets validating what you're saying. Commercial real estate, we're already seeing a lot of material bankruptcies, but a lot of my friends who are investors in that world are expecting 24 to be a bloodbath. So there, there is this anticipation that more to come on the impact of commercial real estate occupancy plummeting and staying low.
But there's also, on the other side, there are a lot of people who. Our thoughtful and forward thinking who are seeing gaps with the remote work. My personal experience was I was really scared when Covid hit. I thought, it was gonna bring our operation to a little bit of a halt. And it didn't, we accelerated, but we did lose a little something.
There was some human dimension that was lost working from your home office or your bedroom or wherever it may be. What have you seen as like the real cons of this? I know you're a proponent for it, but the reality is nothing's black and white in this world. What are the real cons as this is shaken out, getting away from the hype and hysteria?
What's the real,
Adam Nathan: yeah. Our thesis that almanac, the reason we started the company is that we think where we work has changed, but how we work hasn't. And. Yeah. And to that end, I think we're con only like halfway through this transition to internet work where yeah, we've all realized that we can work remotely.
There's benefits of hiring people across the world for individuals. There's more flexibility and focus and how they can structure their days. E even now that we're often spread across time zones and geographies, the way we work is. Still largely reflects this idea that we're actually all in the same place from nine to five.
And we're still using the same mechanisms like meetings and messages to try and get stuff done. And I think it's overloading everybody because people's calendars now are just filled with this kind of overhead work instead of having actual time because we're overusing tools that were designed for the office, not tools that were designed for the internet.
And when we've talked to the best teams around that, that have really mastered how to work on the internet. The themes that we've seen are that these are teams that work with a lot more structure so that people don't have to ask questions and be in meetings all the time. They work with a lot more transparency so people can answer things on their own and get the information they need to do their jobs.
And they work with a lot fewer meetings as a result. And they end up being faster even though they're distributed rather than slower. And so I think for people who are still struggling with remote, I think it often comes from this tension where they're not in an office anymore. They may be spread apart, but they're still working like they're in an office.
And so they've, they have one foot into the internet, but like one foot stuck in the office. And I think a lot of the teams that will win in this new era will figure out how to work well on the internet. I think to the point you brought up about human connection yeah.
The obvious implication of working remotely remote is not a location, right? It's an absence of one. I say you're not together all the time. And I think part of being structured and intentional and thoughtful as a remote team is to think how do we create connection? How do we make the synchronous time we're spending together really great?
How do we bring people together physically? One thing I hear a lot as pushback to remote is oh, creative work happens so much better when we're in an office and I've talked to like thousands of people about how to do brainstorming and I think everyone who's listening can probably imagine or remember a time that.
You've been in a terrible, in-person brainstorm where you're like, you enter a room, the question you're solving isn't clear. The loudest voice ends up dominating you don't make a decision. You leave with without next steps. It just feels like a complete incineration of like 30 to 60 minutes. And the way to do brainstorming it is often reflects like a bunch of structured best practices.
You have a specific question. You give people time to brainstorm on their own. You group ideas together and vote on them. Make a decision you assign. Action ends at the end of the meeting. You can do that in person, you can do that remotely. You can do that in a meeting. You can do that asynchronously.
I think a lot of this bid for connection doesn't have as much to do with we all need to be together all the time, as much as it has to do with being thoughtful and intentional and structured about how you interact and how you manage. And I think remote often just exposes how teams are actually running because it takes away all of the the theatricality of the office, all of the meetings and the water coolers and the lunches and it just shows are you actually operating well?
And so I think what's happening, what with remote teams now are that good teams, managed teams are operating better and faster. And teams that were not managed well before are falling apart. And I think for those leaders and those managers, they have a choice. They can either recognize reality and say, how do we get better at managing?
How do we get better at collaboration? Or they can ignore it and say let's just go back to the office where we can paper over all that again. And I think teams that try and regress back to a world where dysfunction was masked by all this stuff all this overhead is, they will ultimately lose.
MPD: I, I agree with so much of that. There's one thing I do wanna put a question mark on though. I personally found it wasn't a functional question. We just lost some of the human touch. There's a layer of friendship in our team. And when we went to remote, we were faster. I think we fell into that camp of, we probably were missing some elements of structure, but we had enough to where the machine accelerated.
Yeah. But after a couple years, I didn't know who people were dating or what was going on in their life because the meetings were so punchy. We were off. There was none of that small talk. And it's not natural to do the small talk always on the zoom. Dynamic. We, our approach to this at Interplay has been you know what's, it's worked for us pretty well.
I don't know that it's right by any means is we do one day a week where everyone's required to be in the office and every other day is completely optional. Some people are there every day and probably in three, four days a week, some people are there on that one day, and it's it tends to correlate a little bit with not only commute, but if they have families.
The younger folks who don't have families tend to live in smaller apartments and they're more excited to get out of those and go to the office. The people with longer commutes and more space and kids like that commute time back to have dinner with the family, there's a pretty clear correlation on that.
I get it. The second we started showing up in the office, again, the friendships really warmed up and it took a few months to get back to where it was, but even that one day a week was fairly magical for us. You guys, I'm assuming are fully remote on your team.
Adam Nathan: Yeah we have people around you kinda given from Turkey to Hawaii, so how do you get the friendship element? Forget the functional stuff. That's, there's tactics and there's technicalities for that and maybe you don't need it. Maybe that's another headline. It's like some teams, not everyone's gonna be friends and that's okay, but we do have a strong bond at our firm.
I think you're exactly right. I, I think people leave jobs often because they lack friends at work or they hate their manager at the root of it. And so I think building strong connections where people can see and value and trust and respect each other as people, as humans is critical to building a strong team, retaining great employees, producing business value.
So it's I think it's, I think it's a really important question. And I secretly love offices. Even though we're a fully remote team I love offices cause I'm a super extroverted person. I've always had a lot of friends from the places I've worked. And when I started Almanac I fantasized about the kind of office that we would build and like the bookshelves and the light and the couches and the happy hours.
And as we become fully remote, we've, we spent a lot of time thinking about this question of how do we build connection between the team? And we do it in, in, in a couple different ways. The first is retreats and so we try and bring people together about three or four times a year.
We do this in a couple different forms. One are kind of team-based sprints, often around like a project where we get together and like hop box it for a week and we build something really cool that we couldn't have otherwise done remotely. And everyone feels great by the end of it. We do company retreats or larger retreats that are more cultural based.
We have one coming up in Costa Rica in September. And last year we implemented what we call coworking weeks which we're bringing together people cross-functionally from different teams without a business agenda. And we basically gave people a stipend to get to a location. We did them in Greece and Tuscany and.
Palm Springs in New Orleans and the idea was there to, was to replicate like those great happy hours you go to where you might have three or four or five drinks and stay till eight or nine and really get to know someone well. There's lots of happy hours in offices, but we thought there's often one or two or three a year where people are really building those types of connections, that the kind of friendships that you talk about that last over a long time.
And so we think bringing people together three or four times a year and really focusing Those those in-person moments on relationships can start to build the kind of connections that that boy people up even when they're not together. We also do a couple things in a distributed form. One is that we start most meetings with a kickoff question, and it sounds so cheesy, but we have a library of a thousand questions now.
Things like, what's your favorite color? Or What did you wanna be when you grow up? Or describe your perfect Saturday. And that just brings the human element into the meeting and starts the meeting with us all recognizing, oh, we're real people. We're not just gonna jump into the things we have to do.
And it definitely elevates, I think the, and the warmth and the meeting after. We also have something called Almanac Community Dialogues. Cohorts of Almanac employees spend I think 10 to 12 weeks together two hours a week in this kind of protected time where they talk about like big life questions and there's a set curriculum on things like love and work and purpose and meaning and family.
And we as a company make an investment in this. We make sure that people who are in the cohort aren't disturbed during this time. It's like a phone office. Digitally off as you can be being remote. We've seen from the data that those people love that experience cuz they really get to know people as people even over a Zoom.
And we have extremely high retention from employees in general. We have very high retention. Overall, I think it's 96% of all the employees that we've hired. But we high retention from folks that have been through Almanac community. It really helps them. They understand the why behind the person.
And even in business meetings when you're like, oh it helps to contextualize why somebody said something or why somebody did something, when you understand like how they became the person they become. And we've, those are all experiments that we've done over time to try and figure out how we build this type of connection even in a remote environment.
MPD: That's great. And I know obviously you're probably dogfooding your own platform. Are there other tools that you think are really important that remote teams should use to supplement the experience?
Adam Nathan: That's a great question. Ironically, I'm a tool minimalist. I use like Apple Notes for my own note taking.
We use at Almanac a lot of Zoom. A lot of Slack, so probably a lot of companies out there. I don't think we're I wish we were fancier with some of our own tooling. In, in the end we believe that Great management shouldn't be hard work. And that the tools and the processes and the systems that we use should be like fast and easy and simple.
And we've endeavored to build almanac that way so that it doesn't take a lot of configuration. That it's, that it can like automatically help your team get better without you having to put a lot of work into it. And I think probably our own tool stack reflects that, that same approach, that rather than buying a better tool, we just try and use the tools that we all use as well as we can I think other tools in this camp are things like linear or superhuman, where they're not trying to create like a different use case but they're just trying to execute extremely well on a thing that we all have to do every day.
MPD: you think are missing, any space where entrepreneurs listen to this can go and build and complement and support kind of productivity and remote
Adam Nathan: work, et cetera. Yeah. I think you talked about the lack of relationships potentially un distributed teams. I think there's a broader loneliness epidemic that's happening.
It's not endemic to the pandemic. It's been ha I think it's a long-term trend that has been influenced by many factors, the collapse of a lot of social institutions in this country. Which the book Bowling Alone is about the rise of like suburbia. And I think this is a huge market opportunity because the number one like cause of death in the United States is loneliness.
Like people die because they lack connections. And there's like lots of really interesting research behind this, like scientific, medical, behavioral research. And I think, as you were talking about, unless we figure out how to build relationships and community on the internet, both professionally for people at work as well as for consumers, like I, if you look at the impact of Facebook and Instagram, I think it's harmed mental health despite a lot of the benefits.
And so I think there's a huge opportunity in this space for someone, for people to continue to experiment with new formats of how do we build connections? Between people, how do we create community? How do we reinforce identity? I think there's some really cool ideas with AI around, like, how do you do this?
Where maybe the machine can dive back to you rather than another human? Or like, how does AI fit into this picture? I don't have any super bright ideas myself, but I think that this is like a multi-billion dollar, somewhat trillion dollar space because I think connection, belonging, purpose are.
Core human needs, and I don't think that they're being served very well in today's world.
MPD: Side comment, it's never been cooler to be an introvert than today. What's the most important thing you've learned as an entrepreneur? Look, you've been on this journey there's a lot of other people on journeys.
Everyone's swapping notes and figuring things out. Figuring things out. What maybe surprised you or was something that you think you would've wish you would've known before you took that first step?
Adam Nathan: Yeah, I think in one word it's patience. I think there's a phrase that it takes years to become an overnight success.
And I think the dirty secret in startup land is that it often takes four or five years for product to truly gain traction and hidden inflection point. A lot of the stories that are celebrated like whether it's, Facebook or. Some of these like newer AI startups, is that oh, I had an idea and then all of a, and I built something and I launched it, and then then it worked.
And I think that's true in a small minority of cases, but I think in most of the time founders have been working for years to make something work, even in cases where they make it work quickly. It's not their first company, it's their second or third or ninth or 10th try. I think that was the case with the clubhouse guys.
I think it, it takes a lot of grit and persistence to to make things work. And I think success comes from just like trying again and again, and listening to your customers and learning from them and iterating and making small tweaks like literally hundreds or thousands of small tweaks on product and marketing and sales until you figure out the exact right combination of factors that that lead to fast growth.
How did you
MPD: decide to do this, right? I know every entrepreneur has some sort of calling. What was your journey to get here? I know you've done a bunch of the standard, you went to good schools and had big jobs. Anything that stood out as a novelty or a unique experience that kind of helped shape this?
Adam Nathan: Yeah. When people often tell me that they wanna start a company, I say don't unless You can't do anything else job-wise, and you have an idea that just keeps you up every single night. And for me I think one of my strengths and I have many weaknesses, is that I'm able to see around the corner and kind of see into the future.
And I've always had this ability throughout, I think my entire life. I've always just been really interested in what the future holds and bringing people along with me on a vision. But, in, in terms of ideas themselves, I've always been really attracted to complex systems.
My degree in undergrad at Duke. I designed my own major around systems change. And so it was like part engineering, part public policy, but I was really interested in like why things work or didn't based on the number of factors and how individuals could affect change in those systems.
And after Duke, I worked in a bunch of really complex systems. I worked in the federal government as part of the Obama White House. I worked at a nonprofit consulting firm. I worked at an airline. All, n none of those spaces are paragons of efficiency. They're all pretty dysfunctional.
At least that's what most people think. And I was just fascinated with, why why they were the way they were and how you can make it better. And I think. What we do at Almanac is think about the system of work that teams and companies are a part of and how we can help people get better at it.
Because if you can change how people work it doesn't make just life better for them, which is important for us, but it can change how we as a society confront really complex problems and opportunities. It can help us solve problems better. And I've always been obsessed with this idea of systems and improving them, and I always say I couldn't have just started any company.
It feels like Ahman is that company that was the right company for me because it's just a, it seems like a natural consequence of all the experiences I've had in my life to date.
MPD: It's funny you mentioned airlines in this. I have a buddy. I just, someone I just met and the guy is going out in the process of trying to buy an airline and I looked at him puzzled.
Because I'm a software guy, you know where when I hear big CapEx, I think bad and I said why airlines? And he'd been in the industry forever. So it wasn't out of the, wasn't outta the blue. And he said, this industry has it all. Extremely complex operations, extremely complex financing, extremely complex marketing, pricing strategies.
And I think he was looking at it as a Rubik's cube, right? Whereas I'm always trying to simplify things into one dimension where there's less risk. Yeah. I think the complexity in the risk appealed to him. And pretty fascinating perspective. I just wanna double click. We're both Duke grads.
Unfortunately I'm a bit older than you are which I'm trying to undo. It's not working. And one of the things I've found is Duke has really ramped up. There's been a lot of people who have. Put in blood, sweat, and tears to making the university more entrepreneurial. Yeah. Which I'm personally passionate about.
There's a lot of great things to be passionate about. That's mine. One of the organizations we've been involved with is we started a group called the Duke Venture Community, which is probably gonna rebrand soon as the Blue Venture Community. And the basic concept was there's a whole lot of VCs and entrepreneurs that have come out of that university.
But I didn't find they were talking to each other. So have you how do you think about the, your experience at Duke as an entrepreneur in hindsight? I was trying to start stuff on campus. I don't know if you were and now the community at large, there's, it's a great school.
They've had tons of people out. Have you felt connected in to the peers from the university?
Adam Nathan: Yeah. I have a lot of love for Duke and and I'd love to be part of your community. I have a bunch of friends. I was 2010, my friend Zach, started Plaid. There's been a ton of, I think the vintage of Duke grads from oh 8, 0 9, 10, 11, 12 have gone on to start a bunch of huge companies.
I'm proud to be a part of it. I think a lot about what was in the water there? Like why does Duke seem to outperform when it comes to successful entrepreneurs? I think Duke wasn't like an ivy where like privilege and success we're just handed to it because of like thousands of years of lineage.
I think as a, as an elite institution, it's fairly new. I think only really came about in the like seventies and. There's like a practicality to the culture of the school and hunger, and I think it attracts people who like wanna make a difference and yeah. Have this ambition to to do something.
And that combined with, I think, the social nature of the school where yes, it's never been a better time to be an introvert, but I think do teach you, teaches you how to work together as part of a team and a community. Like I, I tend to, when I was there for basketball all four years, which is crazy to think about, but I think when you were like, tent number seven or something, and I slept outside for three months and I learned a lot about like how to work together with people on my tent and the like, people on Cville.
And I had many other experiences at Duke that were like that. And I left probably a changed person. But yeah I'm proud of being a blue devil and. It's just super cool to see people throughout my community Yeah, tech who come from the same place.
MPD: Adam, thanks for being on today.
Really appreciate you.
Adam Nathan: Yeah, it's been a pleasure.
MPD: Very cool to have Adam on. Always interested in good perspectives and best practices on how you pull off team management, especially in this distributed world we're in. It's funny, I didn't expect, I didn't. Based on how he initiated the conversation, I thought he was gonna say very little about building those in-person relationships.
But he dove into a lot of really tactical and valuable recommendations on ways to go out and build and create real connective tissue beyond the kind of work product. So anyway it was great to have him on. And stay tuned. We'll catch you next week.