Tony, thank you so much for coming on the show. An absolute honor and pleasure to have you as part of the show and to have you on. When I think about you and when I think about Oyster, I think about purpose and what it means to be a purpose-driven entrepreneur. I know that Oyster, I believe, is a benefit corporation, correct?
Why was that important to you? Maybe we start there. So there's kind of three parts to this question. Why was it important to you to be a purpose-driven entrepreneur? Why was it important to you to have a purpose-driven company? And why a benefits corporation? Sorry to start out with just three questions.
Amazing. Thank you, Clint, for having me here today. And hello, everybody. I'm calling from the island of Cyprus where I now live thanks to remote work. And let's go right in and answer this question.
So why is it important to me to be a mission-driven entrepreneur? Look, I believe in aligning what we believe in with what we do and having that purpose gives me energy. Starting a business is a rough journey for any entrepreneur or most entrepreneurs, and you need that extra motivation. You need to remind yourself why you're here, why you're doing what you're doing, so when you're faced with these challenges, you can be more equipped and more motivated to address them.
So that's why I do it. For me, why it's important for me, it's really a source of wellbeing. I want work to be meaningful for me.
And why I have to build a company that is mission-driven is because I believe in the power of business to transform the world. Today, business is the most important change agent in the world, and so it was important to me that I can put in service of that business my skills of building scalable high-growth businesses and technology. And software specifically is usually what creates scale, so you can really, by aligning purpose with software, you can amplify your impact.
And I have to say it's great for companies because being a mission-driven company enables you to attract the best talent, enables you to create a great culture, to retain them, enables you to attract more funding, and I can elaborate why today this is more important and more real than ever, and attract more customers.
Around 65% of customers who work with Oyster, and we have over 1,000 customers, said they picked us because we are mission-driven. It was an important factor in their decision-making process.
And to answer the last piece of the question, why a B Corp? We wanted to be B Corp since day one because we wanted to connect our legal status with our mission. We wanted to put mission at the center of everything we do. And having this external validation, B Corp is a pretty extensive process, they check about many, many areas of your business, and we wanted to make sure that there is an external body that is monitoring and assessing, are we really a mission-driven business? And we wanted to make it real.
I guess the follow-up question there is what is Oyster's mission?
Great question. So we are here to empower companies around the world to employ anyone anywhere, and we do that to make the world more equal and more free, and by more equal, we believe that by democratizing opportunities of employment for people all around the world, specifically in emerging economies who don't have access to the same opportunities that you and me have access to, we can really improve things like reduction of brain drain, wealth inequality reduction.
There is this famous economist called Bryan Caplan from George Mason University. He argues in his book Open Borders that if you remove this concept of border from tenant mobility, you can triple the world GDP.
So that's our mission and we are very excited about that. We are committed to sending over $1 billion of foreign direct investment into emerging economies by 2024. We have a significant percentage of our business in emerging economies, and these are people that can work from anywhere and they're working for companies in the western world and having access to better salary, more flexibility, and exposure to more growth opportunities.
Well, I love this idea of democratizing opportunities. That seems to be such an important challenge because we don't all start out in the same place. And so there's all this talk and it's become political, at least in the United States, around equality versus equity and what do they mean and all these types of things. But for me, equality of opportunity makes all the sense in the world. I don't know how anyone would figure out a quality of outcome, but equality of opportunity.
And I love what you said there where you said, "Business is the greatest change agent of our time," or something along those lines, that might be paraphrasing what you said, and I agree with that. Why do you think that's true? Because that hasn't always been the case.
Because for a number of reasons. I think first, business in general attracts the best talent. People are really capable of changing the world. They usually gravitate around business organizations compared to other types of organizations. And secondly is because it is the biggest economical force in the world.
I mean, today, businesses have a lot of capital. They move capital, they make investment decisions, they lobby governments to add or remove regulations. They're very powerful. Businesses are very powerful. A vast majority of the world's wealth is stuck in assets like businesses.
And within the business, we can segment that sector. Startups, smaller businesses have much more impact than bigger businesses because bigger businesses have developed cash cows and it's really hard for them to move away from them. They're stuck in the status quo.
Take for instance, name any oil and gas company. Of course many of them are talking a lot about renewables, the future of renewable energy. Some of them are making investments, but over 90% of their revenues and profit comes from oil and gas. But you need these upstarts to come and shake these larger organizations through innovation and through innovative business models.
Yeah, I think that's right. I think what you said there is really important and really interesting. For those who are in college or starting their career, they're thinking, "How do I make the biggest impact in the world?" It does seem like entrepreneurship's right up there with getting into politics or whatever else would be the other options. And I love how equal that is.
In entrepreneurship, again, we don't all start in the same spot. Some people have far bigger advantages than others when they're starting a company or building a startup or maybe they have family and friends who can help fund them, all that type of stuff. But at the end of the day, the best entrepreneurs win and the advantages are super helpful, don't get me wrong, but at the end of the day, the best entrepreneurs are going to win.
And as you work with companies, in particular, startups, what about Oyster helps them win? What about distributed teams? What about remote work helps them win?
Well, today, successful growing businesses, they are successful in growing because of their people, because of the innovation and the talent they attract. And we live in a world where the best talent in the world is in shortage. There are 90 million jobs going unfulfilled in the west in knowledge work, according to BCG, resulting in $8.5 trillion of economic loss. And that's regardless of the economic cycle we're in.
Our customers keep hiring. 50% of talent on our platform are in R&D, engineers, product developers, and there's not enough of them in developed economies to really fuel the growth that is expected from these economies.
So when these companies really are hungry for the best talent, they need to go find them elsewhere. And when you give them a platform like Oyster that makes the world look like one country, they are empowered. They're empowered to find the best talent, to retain the best talent, and to really focus on their growth and creating a great culture instead of focusing on fighting on talent within a 20-mile radius from their offices.
It also gives them a unique opportunity to create a massive amount of diversity in the business, and we all know how much diversity is important, not only for company culture but also for financial success. More diverse companies succeed more. So when you tap into the global talent pool, you create diversity that resembles the planet earth.
At Oyster, we are 600 people distributed in 80 countries. We have a diversity level that is unheard of and it becomes a very special place to live in, to work in because it's not even a place, it's virtual. We have no offices, but it becomes a culture that has very little biases because I remember when my last job, was probably 15 years ago as an employee, I was working for this great technology company in the US and UK-headquartered, and I was managing their French market and I was like their French guy and I wasn't even French at that time. So I felt that I had to get closer to the headquarters to be successful. I felt that there were biases in the way they see the world that were not fit for success in my local market in France, I felt like an outsider.
And here at Oyster, since there's no dominant culture, people are coming from all over the world. We have over 100 nationalities, you have a very unique inclusive workplace that makes people less afraid of being who they are themselves. And that emotional safety creates a high level of engagement and fulfillment.
Do you think this interest and passion you have for the whole world being democratized in terms of opportunity and jobs and spreading that, like you said, to 80 countries with 600 employees, do you think that has anything to do with the way you grew up? I mean, as I understand it, you grew up in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War in the '80s, and I imagine, I mean I'm sure you weren't thinking about, "How do I start a company, distribute," all this type of stuff at that point, but I imagine this idea of, "Man, how great would it be if I could live anywhere and have this same opportunity as anyone else in the entire world?"
Absolutely, Clint. It has all to do with my personal journey and aligning with that purpose. So I left my home country when I was 17 to France to study computer science. Lebanon is one of the most unequal countries in the world. It's a failed state. It's a corrupt government. There's really no serious growth opportunity for the youth there. That's why you have a massive Lebanese diaspora everywhere in the world. That's why Lebanese cuisine is so widespread around the world.
But essentially, when I landed in France and I started studying there, the French government came to me. I wasn't French at that time, and they gave me €350 Euros per month. I said, "Why are you guys giving me money? I'm not even French." And they said, "Because we want you to focus on your studies. We want you to have equal opportunities with other people and not worry about paying rent."
And that touched me really at a deep level and I realized actually there's a whole different world out there that cares about equal opportunity, but 80% of the world population is living in countries that are not appropriate for human growth because they rely on this corrupt governments, poor infrastructure economies, and what they do is they leave their home countries and they brain drain.
And in many of these economies, they are not able to compete and grow in a healthy way because they're losing their best talent. So it became really apparent to me in late 2019, I took a year and a half off from my previous business, and I was really seeking to clarify my purpose here. And it became evident to me that my purpose is connected to reversing the brain and addressing some of that inequality in the world.
Why did you choose France to go? I mean, what made you choose that country? Obviously, a beautiful country, beautiful people, but out of anywhere you could have gone, why there?
To be honest, I didn't have any other choice. So it's not like I had the luxury of choice at the time. Lebanon was a French colony, French is a second language, everybody speaks French. I was fluent in French. I presented my French baccalaureate when I was in Lebanon back when I was 17.
And by accident, I wasn't even planning, my school had a relationship with a university in France and they came to select a few lucky people from the class and I was on that list and then suddenly I had, "Oh, maybe I should seize that opportunity." It really wasn't a planned move.
Yeah, just out of necessity. And I like the idea that, well, I don't like the idea, but you had no choice. And sometimes there's some kind of beautiful thing that comes out of just making the best of the situation that you're in, which obviously you've done. I want to pivot a little bit to the whole mission of Oyster and the future of work.
And I know this is a big topic and debate, particularly in the tech community, but I imagine in every industry, now that we're post-COVID, so people can come back into the office, whether they should and should it be more hybrid or should they keep doing remote work and all this types of stuff?
And it's a real challenge I think for a lot of leaders and a lot of CEOs to make this decision like, "Hey, do we go hybrid where they're coming in three days a week, two days a week, the other days they're working from home? How do we do this? What should we think about this?" And you, like you mentioned here, you're a fully distributed company in 80 countries. What is your advice? How could anyone replicate that?
It is not that complicated actually. The thing that you need to do to be a successful distributed company is the same thing you need to do to be a great company. So one is you need to intentionally build trust because you're not seeing the person in the seat. As we transitioned from the industrial revolution to the new age of knowledge work, we inherited from the management techniques and behaviors of that era.
When you go to business school, they teach you the stuff that was valid 100 years ago in terms of management. So essentially, as a manager, you have that ship in your mind that tells you if the person is in the seat, that means that the person is productive. So you have to delete that ship and start trusting people more intentionally. And when you default to trusting relationships and behaviors, your team flourishes because they feel that you trust them as a manager.
So number one is building trust intentionally makes you a great company. So whether you're remote or not, it becomes a necessity for you to do it in a remote environment. In the office, you can get away without that. Secondly, what is important in building a great distributed company is to be clear about how you work, to define the methods of collaboration and communication.
Luckily, now there's a lot of technology that enables us to be effective no matter where we are, but you have to code that, you have to spell out how you do meetings, how do you collaborate asynchronously, what tools do you use for what? And by doing so, by being clear about how you work together, you increase the productivity in the business and you create more predictability in the behavior as a leader and you create more fulfillment and more engagement as well. Again, whether you're in the office or not, that makes you a great company, but being remote forces you to think about how you work.
And the third aspect is really around being clear, how do you measure performance? Similar to when you were in the office, we confused presence with performance, but essentially we didn't feel the need necessarily to build sophisticated objective and key result systems that enables you to define what success looks like on an individual level, on a team level, on a company level and connect all these parameters together.
So again, that makes you a great company. So that's what leaders have to do, whether in the office or not: build trust intentionally, be clear about how you work, and then be clear how you measure success. And that's why distributed companies are the companies that are going to be the best companies of tomorrow. They're going to have these superpowers and they're going to also attract the best talent.
When Airbnb announced that they are now a remote company, they're career site traffic went 10X in five days. Oyster, we used to hire a lot of people, a couple of years ago, we used to receive 13,000 job applications per month for a company that is not even a year-old because people wanted to work, they wanted to have the freedom, the flexibility, they wanted to be in a system that makes them successful no matter what they are.
Yeah, I have a lot of questions based on that. Let's just get to the nuts and bolts of things, which is I imagine software becomes very important in how you manage your team. What software do you use to manage a distributed team—I mean, you were an expert at this and there's all sorts of different software companies who focus on this problem or some version of it and we could list them—but from your experience, what's the right tech stack for a distributed company?
Yeah. So it's less about what tool you use, but more importantly, how do you use them together and why do you use them? So for instance, we use tools for synchronization and tools for asynchronous communication. So synchronous, let's say would be a video live application such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams. We also do in-person, in-person is important. We do it maybe twice a year maximum in my team, but we plan it ahead of time.
And in terms of asynchronous tools, we use a knowledge management system such as Notion. That really is the core of knowledge of the company. Knowledge is really important in a distributed environment because people can be in a different time zone and they have to access their work. So we really document a lot and we have a framework around that.
We use recorded videos a lot. For instance, in my C-level meetings and executive meetings, I do receive the updates ahead of time. Every Tuesday, I spend a couple of hours going through all the videos from each team, each leader records that and then we have a specific format for that and we have a specific agenda for the meeting.
And there's a pre-read that you have to read before and comment on and engage in. And then when you hold the meeting, it's the most effective meetings I've ever had in my executive career in terms of productivity and engagement and conversations because what you want, you want to reduce the amount of reactivity people have in business.
And when everything is synchronous, people are put on the spot. They haven't had time to reflect, they're reactive, they're less responsive, and you want to have a culture where people are responsive. And so by consuming the content ahead of time, engaging with it, there's no surprises coming into the meeting. You reduce surprises. And that's also important for the future of work because why does work have to be more taxing on your life emotionally?
Already your life is pretty hard. Work is supposed to support your life, no? I mean, it's more than just a paycheck. You need the money, but you also spend at least 60% of your life working. So how can that massive activity that you do in your life be a source of fulfillment, a source of creation, creativity, a source of connection with other people, and without all the negative aspect of work, which is being reactive, having a high level of anxiety, burnouts, having to commute every day a couple of hours, which is totally wasted time, and live in places where you don't want to live?
I mean, some people want to live in cities. I loved living in London for 14 years and in San Francisco for seven years, it was a great part of my life. Now I want to live near the beach on a remote island in the Mediterranean and still run a $1 billion-plus business. I can do that. I don't have to be in a polluted environment where there's little access to nature. Work can be a wellbeing source for you. It has to be. That's the future of work.
Yeah, I think a lot of people would agree with you there. How do you maintain culture throughout the company? I mean, you're in 80 different countries. How do you develop a culture and how do you maintain that culture if the entire workforce is distributed?
Yeah. So first, culture is a changing animal. You don't want to have too much control over the culture. You want to influence the culture and accept that it's going to change over the course of your business, for good reasons because what you need as behavior in the beginning of your journey or different when you are a late- stage business, let's say.
But how do you reinforce, how do you influence culture is by being clear about the set of values with which you operate, with which you behave. The how is important. And the more you go up in the organization, the more important that leaders model the way for others in the business.
It's also through communication. The way you communicate, the way you show up is critical, and the way you embed these values in your decision-making process and reiterate them and explain them. It's also about how you relate to other people because the culture is about behavior. So the way you treat people is really important to sustain the culture that you said you are. Yeah, these are some of the things I've observed in my career.
Yeah, I think those who push back on remote work, that seems to be like the number one pushback, which is like, "How do I maintain the culture? How do I maintain these water cooler conversations, they call them, and things like that, these kind of just happenstance things that happen before meetings and after meetings?" But you can't really control those either, right?
It's really about control, right? It's about the need to control, the illusion that leaders are controlling things. Of course there's things that you need to control as leaders, let's say your financial trajectory and the numbers and you want to influence your strategy, but everything else is an illusion. You cannot really control many things in your culture. You cannot control people's behavior. So it's not because you're in the office that these water cooler conversations are net positive to your culture. People could be chatting about toxic things, they could be talking about politics in these water cooler conversations.
Now, if you're talking about connection, it's a different story. If you want to create a culture where people feel connected, they feel belonging to it, then you need to engineer some of these experiences in the virtual world. Say we have these donut conversations, where randomly people book me to chat with me.
In every meeting I start, whether it's a one-to-one or we have an executive meeting, we do check in with people and ask them what is on their mind, what keeps them up at night, and make sure to understand the context that they're in so that they feel that they are part of community. It's more about belonging and rather than controlling.
Yeah, I like that. It's more about belonging than controlling. That's actually pretty deep and something people should probably write down. I think that that's a really interesting concept.
What about, I wonder too, again, being in 80 countries, building the company that you're building, doing what you're doing, what have you seen in terms of mental health and the difference in employees' mental health and people's general mental health during COVID, post-COVID? And are there some countries that you're seeing like, hey, they're doing better than others? I imagine you have a really unique insight into the overall mental health of the workforce of the world, interestingly enough.
Yeah, it's an important topic. Look, mental health challenges are on the rise everywhere. They are. We live in a world where the rate of depression is up, rate of anxiety is up, PTSD is up, addictions are up. And it's like it is expected. I mean, the pandemic was a pretty rough period for many people. There are wars in this world.
There's an economical crisis, a high level of uncertainty and volatility that is impacting people's life. And there's also not a lot of awareness about these issues yet. There's more awareness, but it's not enough in my opinion.
So what we do at Oyster is first, we want to have data. So how do we have data is we use an app on Slack called Kona that enables us to check the sentiment of people, how they're feeling, every day. And we aggregate that data and we look at dashboards and we ask ourselves questions, why there's a dip, why it's recovering, and so on and so forth.
Secondly is we have a dedicated Slack channel for mental health support where people can share anonymously or not what they're going through. Obviously, most of it is not work-related, and they get support from the community, from the community in that Slack channel. I am on that channel. I also do share sometimes when I need help from the community. So we create this nurturing environment where people feel safe to voice their issues, their challenges and receive support.
And the future of work has a role to play in this because we want work to be a net positive for people's life and leaders have to... They can, it doesn't cost money, and they can change the way they behave, the way they connect with others and show that it's okay to have challenges because everybody has some of these challenges. So you need to show some level of vulnerability and be open about
these things so that others can have the permission to be open about this. Just by yourself, by modeling the way about these things, you can help people as a leader.
Yeah. How do you lead yourself, Tony? I wonder, how do you maintain your work-life balance, your mental health? I'm sure living in Cypress helps.
I'm sure that that's pretty great for mental health, but how do you do this? What does a typical day look like? How do you maintain your balance?
Yeah, so energy management is important for personal leadership. So I don't work in the morning because my team is mostly in the US and Europe, so I work in the afternoon and evenings. I use the morning as an opportunity for me to do what I need to do in my life, spend time with my children, go for a swim, do my exercises.
And in between meetings, I also have small breaks where I engage in energy- fulfilling activities such as playing music, for instance. Also, we at Oyster, we have what we call Focus Friday. It's a day where we don't have internal meetings, so it enables me to catch up on everything I need to catch up on that week so that when I go into the weekend, I totally disconnect, with few exceptions here and there. And that gives me the ability to really recharge my energy.
I do keep myself... I do some exercise as well. I do a couple of Pilates sessions a week to stay fit on top of swimming. And as important as all of this is minimizing reactivity. How can I be a less reactive human being, a less reactive leader? And that requires a journey, a journey of understanding why you're reacting the way you're reacting. It's a journey of expanding your awareness of your reactivity and your emotions and being connected with these emotions. That's a journey that I'm pretty excited about.
Yeah, I noticed the guitar. What is that guitar behind you? Is that a Fender? I couldn't see it very well. Oh, okay. What is this? Is this a Gibson?
It's not. I don't know the brand. I'm pretty new to guitar playing.
Actually, let me check. It's a pretty famous brand actually. It's an Ibanez. Do you know Ibanez?
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay. Very cool. Yeah. So how long have you been playing and isn't that kind of... I've actually started doing a little bit of this myself and it's so meditative because you have to be so focused and it's kind of the only thing you can think about in order to do it, at least do it well. Has it become kind of a meditative process for you in a way?
It is, absolutely. Actually, I started playing recently in March this year, and I was doing a retreat in jungles, in the Amazon jungle, and there was a guy playing guitar. And for the first time in my life, I started hearing the music, not with my ears, but with my heart. And the next week I was totally convinced I have to start playing guitar.
And since then, it's something that I really look forward to right now. I don't play well at all, but actually it's practice. It's just to be in the moment and—
No, yeah. Yeah, it doesn't matter at all how well you play. It's like fly-fishing. Catching the fish is kind of not the point. In fact, sometimes catching the fish is a distraction from just the meditative back-and-forth thing.
I have a couple more questions for you. What advice would you have for companies and leaders on the best ways to recruit remote talent?
So I think first you want to make a decision that you want to go beyond 20-mile radius from your office to find talent. I think that's an important decision you need to make. And it can be scary for many organizations, but actually, it's much easier than it sounds. There's a lot of recruiters in the world that are specialized in talent in many countries, depending on the skill set that you're looking for and the type of role.
There is a platform that helps you find this talent, and we are partnering with many of them. And you have to essentially, when you find the talent, this is what I mean, finding the talent is not really the hard aspect because today there's many platforms that enable you to do so and you have many companies that have developed their interview process and an assessment process. So the challenging part is how do you employ them?
Now you found Mary in Athens, you want to hire her, she's an amazing software developer. Do you hire her as a contractor? Maybe she doesn't want to be a contractor and maybe a contractor is not compliant to hire her full-time in Greece. Some countries are, maybe Greece is not. How do you know that? How much do you want to pay her to give her fair compensation? How can you give her equity in your business, if you give equity to people in your business? What kind of benefits do you offer her? Do you want to open an entity in that country? Do you want to find lawyers, accountant, payroll providers, insurance companies?
I mean, the list goes on. It's a pretty complicated process after you find the talent, and this is where Oyster comes in. Oyster solves all that problem for you. It's a software platform that enables you to make global hiring as easy as local hiring with a few clicks on our platform and make sure that you are talent-competitive and you're taking care of Mary in Athens the way you want to take care of her.
Obviously, this is a marketing message. My marketing team will be happy, but essentially this is how it works. Companies now, they don't have to anymore think about, "Hey, where should I hire," before hiring. So before, think about it. You had to decide, "Hey, we want to open an office in Turkey, or I don't know, Argentina," and then you open the office, find a manager, and then that manager starts hiring local talent. That's a huge investment and a huge commitment. It could take six months to one year.
Today, by changing the order of things, you don't need anymore to pick the country. You need to pick the person first. You need to find the best talent no matter where they are, and then use a platform like Oyster to employ them and give them great benefits and pay them compliantly.
What is the future? Yeah, yeah. I mean, that's incredible. And your marketing team will be happy. That was a great answer. What is the future, finally, what is the future of Oyster? And I mean, is there plans like, "Hey, we want to take this company public, we just want to keep executing on the current mission and just grow and get more countries and get more talent"? What is the future of the company?
Yeah, we want to make sure that we continue to align profit with purpose, so we're going to continue enabling people from around the world to access more equal opportunities. We've been experiencing pretty massive growth since the beginning of this company in 2020. We do envision a path to going public.
Actually, I was exposed to public markets in my previous business where we were public on the New York Stock Exchange, so we know how to do this and we have a great opportunity ahead of us to do this, specifically that we are an ESG company. We are a mission-driven company and there's a lot of capital in the market, in the public market that are looking for a company that aligns profit with purpose. So we want to be a role model for other companies and other entrepreneurs. And being mission-driven is actually great for return on investment. Mission-driven entrepreneurs should be rewarded more than less mission-driven entrepreneurs.
So that's kind of the ultimate goal. Obviously not the goal, the ultimate milestone we're going to reach and our path to delivering impact, but along the way, many things could happen. So at the moment, we are heads down in ensuring that we continue to grow and we continue to execute until the opportunity arises. And today, with the way the market is behaving, the IPO opportunity is not going to be available for at least 12 months for companies like us.
Yeah. Finally, we end every interview the same way at CEO.com where we believe the chances that are given are just as important as the chances we take on ourselves. I wonder for you and Oyster in your life if there's someone who gave you a chance that got you to where you are today.
Absolutely. So I told you about the story of France and how I was able to... I think the French country, the government have made an important impact on my trajectory. I'm very grateful for these guys.
And I would say I was fortunate to have met amazing people along the way that helped me. I can think of so many people, but I just was on the phone with Pascal, my mentor in my previous business, who was really an important coach for me in my leadership skill development and a good friend of mine. I think he had a big impact on my leadership in my previous business that continues to pay dividends today.
Tony, thank you so much for everything you're doing, the mission of the company, and for coming on the show and sharing your wisdom with us. Really appreciate it.
Thank you for having me, Clint.