Dave McMillan is a web developer for Lab19 Digital who grew up in Durban, South Africa an area notorious for shark attacks. Here's the kicker, he was never involved in any kind of shark related incident, in fact the last fatal incident in Durban was 1951.
Chances are he never would have been, but his job as a web developer enabled him to make a great transition to a remote, location independent lifestyle. He's lived in the UK, France and now has his sights on the shark-free surf haven of Portugal. Check out his story and how he balances this lifestyle with two young children.
When did you first start in web development?
I got into web dev just under 10 years ago. My good friend Brett used to work from his apartment right on the beach in Umhlanga (Durban), and I thought that it looked like a great way to be working, so I started skilling up in HTML & CSS.
At what point did you realise having a remote team made sense for Lab19?
It actually came quite naturally & instantly for us. I was in London working as a freelancer, and on one of my trips back to South Africa I got chatting with my (now) business partner Luke Siedle. I had starting making some London work contacts while freelancing, and a few of them were happy to continue working with us as a company.
So basically, us being a distributed team is simply down to the fact that we have always been in different countries, rather than anything we tried to force. It's worked really well for us, and allows us to find developers and partners anywhere in the world. I believe that it actually helps communication too, because everything is written down in Basecamp / Slack / Trello, rather than face to face meetings where things get missed.
What other companies that you're aware of have made the successful transition to remote working?
I think of the biggest examples I can think of a company actually completely abandoning their office and transitioning to remote working is "Buffer". They had 50 people working in an office in San Francisco, and ditched it entirely for a remote setup. They've never looked back. 37 Signals (creators of Basecamp) are also a distributed team.
There are literally thousands of companies that work in this way now! There are challenges of course, but no more than you'd have if you were in the same office. This is a great list of companies you probably didn't know were remote.
How does having a family impact your decisions on where to base yourself?
This is something that I think about constantly, especially now that I have young children that are growing up so fast. London has been amazing for us, but we are definitely looking to get a bit more of the lifestyle that we're used to from South Africa, while still having a close proximity to the UK for work trips / conferences / networking events etc.
We are looking to head to Lisbon, Portugal this year. It really does tick all the boxes for us, and it has a very cool tech scene blooming (among many other things - friendly people, amazing food, loads of sunshine, good surf... I could go on). Even Web Summit has moved there! The rise in remote working will mean that more and more people will start moving to places that they really want to live. It's a good thing too considering the almost impossible costs of living in some of the major cities. And I'll definitely be spending time at Cowork Surf which is only a 2.5 hour drive from Lisbon.
Why do Lab19 choose to specialise in WordPress?
When we started Lab19, we imagined that we would be this company that would be doing anything and everything when it comes to tech. Over the years we found that the work we were doing for our clients was naturally pushing us in a certain direction. We had been asked to build so many WordPress projects that we began to realise that it's better for us to niche ourselves as a WordPress company, and let the other types of work follow on naturally. It's also advice that we got from some bigger players, and it's working out well for us so far.
Everyone is a "Web Developer" or a "Digital Designer". If you can niche yourself, people will see that you're the expert in that area, and you'll be the 1st on their call list if they need that particular skill-set. Ironically, you'll end up getting other types of work anyway, so it's win-win.
Can you talk about some fun WordPress projects you've worked on at Lab19?
There are definitely 2 that come to mind. The first one was for our good friend & world musician Nibs van der Spuy (https://nibsvanderspuy.com). We worked with our favourite designer Rich Armstrong (http://mrra.co/work) on the UX & design phase, and the project had a great energy right from the start. Nibs was a great client, and trusted our process the whole way through. That makes a huge difference! It resulted in something that Nibs is extremely happy with, and something we're very proud of at the lab.
The other one is Superlative Life (https://superlativelife.com). We loved the idea of being involved in something that could add so much value to people's lives. Gavin at Superlative was another great client. He was happy to listen to our suggestions, but also very constructive when it came to explaining what he wanted the site to look like and achieve. It's exciting to work with people that have such a strong vision. Again we worked with Rich Armstrong on the design phase. Always a pleasure!
How do you manage your team effectively given the physical distances involved?
The beauty about our team right now is that we are all on similar timelines (within an hour or two depending on the season). This means that we don't have to worry too much about double checking the time in other countries before having a chat, or setting a Skype meeting for example. I think that being based in Europe is quite handy, because you can find team members anywhere in Europe or Africa and you're always in a similar timezone. The same would go for Australia and Asia etc.
In terms of general management, we have a Slack team where we do most of our day to day comms. I really like this because nothing is missed. When it comes to specific project management, we tend to use Basecamp for most WordPress projects. It's an easy-to-use tool for our clients, and when used properly it can be very effective. For applications that are more complex and time consuming, we would opt for something like Jira. These tools allow us to easily set tasks, assign them to the relevant person, and just crack on with our work for the day. I really don't think we miss out on anything by not being in the same room. We try to get together in person as much as possible. It's important to nurture relationships in a distributed team whenever you can.
What's the future for Lab19?
We are working on some exciting native applications at the moment using ReactJS with WordPress as a backend. The new WordPress API means that there are more possibilities now for this kind of setup. We are going to keep on expanding our skills in these areas, and taking on clients that are looking for a niche development team to work with. We are also working on a partnership with a company Down Under. Watch this space!
We are a much bigger threat to sharks than they are to us. Check out this great project to see how you can get involved in saving sharks http://www.projectaware.org/
And once you've done that give the guys at Lab19 a shout for all your WordPress development projects.