Learning as we go: Building a distributed, multi-national product agency

While Rocket started out as having almost all of our talent based out of the East coast - the company has transformed over the last five years into having a truly global team. Not only did we join Dept, an international digital agency with offices in 13 countries, but we also have large Rocket teams in Argentina and Croatia in addition to the US. Without this distributed, multi-national team we would not be the fastest-growing product agency in the US.

Every week, our #general Slack channel lights up with similar messages:

So why have we been so busy creating an international superpower? It is easy to look at our client base today to understand the dynamics that are driving this. For example, we have local clients in Argentina, such as La Surferia, that want a local team. And, our multi-national clients that have European teams want to work with teams that are closer to them. This means clients like Robin and Globalization Partners want to work with our Croatian team. Finally, of course we have many clients based here in the US who are looking for a mix of onshore and nearshore talent to support their project which leads to better overall quality, more diverse viewpoints, and cost-effectiveness.

As we have transformed over into this global team we thought it might be worth sharing some of our lessons learned and why we believe in this multi-national model so deeply.

It might be worth going back to how we got started on this journey.

Five years ago we were working with a client that brought a second vendor based out of South America into a project we were working on. They brought this second vendor into the project for cost savings reasons. While great on paper, we were horrified by the degradation of the project from a quality, enjoyment, and overall delivery perspective. Some of the reasons for this were:

  • The lack of integrated teams meant inconsistent coding practices which lead to a deterioration of quality.
  • The other third party had a model where a PM stood in front of the designers and developers. Things became lost in translation as we (and the client) could not interface with the development team directly.
  • Related to the point above, they wanted to work in a very ‘waterfall’ fashion; design, development and strategy were not well integrated, which we have found critical to a successful product agency. The dissonance between our way of work and theirs simply made things more difficult.

This was an “ah-ha” moment for us. We realized that if we could start to build our own international teams then it could be a win-win. Clients could still realize the financial benefits of a hybrid team but the overall delivered product would be better since it would be a single integrated team doing the work composed of the best talent from across the globe.

As we’ve grown our multinational teams we’ve had a few guiding principles that we have followed that have made all the difference.

As always, communication is key. This means a couple of things:

  1. It is central to our ethos to have client-facing designers and developers. Everyone enjoys a project more when folks can work directly with one another and not have layers in-between them. Also since our client's primary language is English this means that an English assessment is part of our interview process and also an integral part of growing at Rocket.
  2. We consciously built these teams and locations because we wanted to make sure that our entire team could overlap in work hours. For our clients with teams in the US, this is why we selected Argentina. As we’ve grown we have many clients that have European teams as well which fits nicely with our Croatian team.

Quality is our “high holy” at Rocket. Building the best team and products possible is what drives us. Getting access to a larger talent pool simply makes Rocket a better company to work at and work with.

We are one team. While Dept and Rocket have offices in multiple countries, we operate as a single team. Even when Argentina and Croatia face each other in the World Cup. While this is enabled by a consistent hiring process - the end result is that when composing teams we don’t think about a person's location. We don’t need to. The designer can be based out of any location. The lead engineer can be based out of anywhere. The end result is that we have a product-oriented, client-facing team that works the same hours as our clients. This leads to the best product work possible.

These principles have served us well and we believe have led to the best digital product teams possible. While we are not big into lists, our two-time inclusion by Inc. as one of the fastest-growing companies supports this approach.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that having multinational teams means a more diverse team. More viewpoints, more backgrounds, and a deeper understanding of more cultural nuances. Not only does it lead to a better product but also makes Rocket a more dynamic and interesting bunch to work with.