This company was fully remote with 1,300 employees long before coronavirus — here's how they did it

Key Points
  • Despite having no offices, GitLab has enough revenue to go public, its CEO said.
  • The company keeps information open by default, and recently it removed language on its website about timing for an initial public offering. The company still wants to go public, though.
The founders of GitLab, Dmitriy Zaporozhets and Sid Sijbrandij

Many companies have had a rough time adjusting as all their employees moved to working remotely.

That's not the case for GitLab, one of the world's top enterprise software start-ups. It has no offices. It's been remote since its start in 2014.

So when the pandemic appeared, GitLab was prepared. Employees already had adequate spaces at home where they could work.

Like many other businesses, GitLab relies on virtual communication tools such as Slack and Zoom. Employees just use these tools in a very specific way.

They follow policies on picking the correct emojis to react to chat messages and allocating a certain number of minutes to wrap up video calls. Its website regularly posts and updates detailed instructions about how to onboard new employees, and a buddy system keeps new hires from getting overwhelmed. Many of the company's activities are logged in GitLab's own open-source software, which companies can use to manage their source code. In-person gatherings are rare.

"We'd get together once in a while with people living close by, and about once every 9-10 months with the whole company," said Job van der Voort, a former product vice president at GitLab, in an email interview.

"Those moments were great to get to know other sides of people, but admittedly we already worked on that a lot through more casual Zoom calls, for example."

Even though some employees have been taking care of their children on top of their existing responsibilities, productivity has shot up since Covid hit, GitLab co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij told CNBC in an interview on Monday.

"After interviewing people, it seems they're bored," he said. "There's not much else to do, so people tend to work more to counteract that."

And this isn't some small group. GitLab has over 1,300 employees, having raised $436 million from Goldman Sachs and other investors. Sijbrandij wants to make sure employees stay together and don't feel overly isolated. There are new daily gratitude and mental health channels on Slack, and soon there will be a day when family members will be able to join internal Zoom calls.

"With kids at home, the kids are super curious," he said.

GitLab employees sometimes hold themed social calls over Zoom.

Transparency and an IPO date

One of GitLab's six core values is transparency.

GitLab's organizational chart is public. Its infrastructure and marketing proposals are public. And employees are constantly consulting and updating a publicly accessible handbook for all manner of the company's operations. There's a history of past versions of documents that reveal who said what. The idea is to make things that anyone inside GitLab can review at their convenience. That makes it less important to attend every video call, for instance.

Van der Voort, whose start-up simplifies the process of hiring employees in many countries, liked the strategy of having everything be open by default while he was at GitLab. He thinks it's a requirement for a totally remote companies. "It makes it so you don't run into the 'who can give me permission to see this thing?' issue, and gives trust and ownership to all employees," he wrote.

One of the most significant pages in GitLab's handbook addresses the company's strategy around going public. In 2015, when it was still a small start-up, GitLab disclosed that it intended to go public on Wednesday, November 18, 2020. The specificity surprised people. It showed outsiders the company meant business. For employees, it meant that even though they could work from home, they would have to be serious about building and selling products that many people would be willing to pay for.

Then the coronavirus emerged. In March the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic, and businesses the world over switched to functioning remotely as GitLab had done for years. Stock indexes fell as the economy contracted, and people lost their jobs at technology companies and in other industries. Some GitLab customers delayed purchases or reduced their orders.

With the odds of pulling off a successful market debut in 2020 looking less certain, employees began asking Sijbrandij about GitLab's own stated IPO plan, said Darren Murph, the company's head of remote.

On May 13, GitLab's head of investor relations, Tony Righetti, who previously ran investor relations at application monitoring software company New Relic, made a change to GitLab's handbook. The IPO timing details were removed.

"We continue to believe that being a public company is an integral part of realizing our mission," the new language said. "As a public company, GitLab would benefit from enhanced brand awareness, access to capital, shareholder liquidity, autonomy, and transparency. That said, the strength of our business model enables us latitude in selecting a favorable public offering environment and not be beholden to a specific date. In order to maintain the flexibility discussed in this section, we have chosen to remove the dates previously targeted for these goals."

While it might look like the company hid significant information from the public, Murph said that by changing it, GitLab was, in fact, being transparent. GitLab's commitment to transparency, and its use of software that logs all adjustments, makes it possible to see who tweaked the IPO language and when. 

For Sijbrandij, the target had served its purpose for GitLab. It grew to over $100 million in annualized recurring revenue. 

"Today we have enough revenue to go public," he said. The company hired people like Righetti who know how public companies operate, and it became clear that having an IPO date was not a great idea. So the date went away.

GitLab hasn't given up on its goal of being publicly traded, though, despite having no offices.

"We will go out when we and the markets are ready. We will not give you a heads up, just like every other company," said Sijbrandij.

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