The Birth Story of Sprawl Consulting
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
What to do when you get fired and then the entire company, and the world, shuts down?
I spent January 2020 on the north coast of the Dominican Republic in the small surf town of Cabarete, running a month-long event for the digital nomad travel company that I’d given the last four years of my life to—Remote Year. I was given a small raise at the start of the year, after four strong years of putting on my virtual hardhat and doing the daily work of trying to build a fully remote global community. This job had no off switch, no clock to punch. I was driven by the challenge and in love with the lifestyle that Remote Year afforded. I was certainly no prince but also no longer a backpacking pauper, just a gainfully employed traveler who never had to dread a Monday.
The Dominican Republic was an opportunity to bring twelve to fifteen folks from the community together, depending on the week, for the whole of January, as part of a “Nation House.” It was the ninth such event, in nine different countries, that I planned, organized, and then hosted.
I read in my hammock in the Dominican Republic with a clear mind. I was good at my job. Well-respected and liked by both my co-workers and the community that I poured myself into building. I was sound financially, sitting on some genuine savings for the first time in my adult life.
I also had incredible plans. There was another Nation House that I would host on the horizon, in Banff, Canada, booked for the start of April, and then a flight from Canada to Berlin for a Remote Year team-building week in person. There was a huge “x” on the calendar in early June for an Estonian island take-over for which I had already drafted and signed the contract. We had already launched the event and sold tickets to our community. We all know what happened next.
February brought increasing concern about a foreign virus that was rapidly spreading, and by March it was starting to affect all of our daily lives. Shelter in place orders were declared all over the world—the most antithetical order to traveling possible. Remote Year was at a loss and out of options. On March 18th, after an all-team call, I was let go along with half of the 120-person company. A week later, the rest of the workforce was made to look at the writing on the empty airport’s wall.
Remote Year—my job, my home, and my identity—ceased to exist as I knew it.
Compared to the pace of time we’re currently living in during the quarantine, it all happened in what felt like the time it takes to flush a toilet. Less than three months from a raise to ashes. At the time I was fired, if I was asked to make a Venn diagram of “Travis the human” and “Remote Year Travis,” the middle correlated section would account for around 95% of the real estate. I dreamt in Slack, and my global social circle was branded in Remote Year apparel. I was the Director of Community Development for the community and company, so I was essentially the guy handing out the swag, pushing the culture, instigating the bonding, starting the virtual “hoo-rah” positivity threads, and planning the adult Summer Camp style reunions. (True story, we planned an amazing summer camp in upstate New York and called it RYunion. Get it?)
When the pandemic dust settled around my quarantine life, I was left with one feeling trumping all the others, one feeling that stood up in front of the others like a brave flower pushing through cracks in the concrete. The feeling was gratitude—a deep well of the feel-good brew bubbled in me during those first weeks of my quarantined unemployment.
The experience I was able to gain while at Remote Year was invaluable, and I began making a list of all the things that I learned over the best four years of my life. The list was extensive, and I felt a mix of pride and good fortune in recognizing that I was now uniquely positioned in the world. I knew that I had developed into an expert at virtual community building and management. The experience grew on me slowly, like a beard, but after four years I was feeling like the ZZ Top of remote community development and leadership, stroking my imaginary belly-button-length beard.
As I let the global pause button slow down my actions and mind, I found myself thinking about what was coming next, for myself and humanity. For the future of my work, the future of the workforce. I had been working remotely and taking meetings in Zoom rooms for over four years, and watching the rest of the world and everyone lucky enough to still be working adjust to virtual meetings and remote work tracking platforms—one thing seemed clear. Remote Work was going to be an even larger part of the future of work than we imagined, and faster than we thought possible.
I was fortunate enough to help usher hundreds of people into the remote work revolution during my time at Remote Year, and through watching people adjust to it both personally and professionally, I was able to see how it doesn’t just happen, that it isn’t just a switch that’s flipped. Being effective as a remote worker isn’t as simple as just bringing your laptop to a remote outlet somewhere in the world. Being an effective remote organization isn’t as easy as just setting up a Zoom account and allowing your employees to work on the couch in their pajamas.
It takes thoughtful organizational change management, new remote-friendly policies, and folks willing to work across time-zones with stretched communication loops. How do you build cohesiveness and culture without Friday’s happy hour drinks or a communal coffee pot to stand around? How do you measure what is getting done when you can’t count hours or watch people work? How do you manage workflow and team meetings when the conference room no longer exists?
How do you squeeze the best aspects out of having a dispersed remote workforce, while mitigating the numerous potential pitfalls?
I had ideas on how to answer all of these questions. I was now positioned as an expert on the topic, having been instrumental in making it up as we went for four years. Remote Year wasn’t a perfect remote work ecosystem when the coronavirus shut it down, but our workflow processes and the company culture had gone through months of iteration, weekly calendar tweaks, and numerous new initiatives, many of which I devised. We had improved a great deal through numerous trials and plenty of errors. We saw what we were doing at Remote Year as helping to spearhead the remote revolution, and we actively tried to walk our talk. We tried to push both the envelopes of productivity and employee satisfaction as a fully remote company—which it turns out don’t have to be competing interests.
With all the time in the world and a new subject for my over-active brain to ponder, I started thinking about how to actually pursue the aim of helping workforces make the best of this forced remote revolution. As soon as I decided to take the next steps, I knew one thing for sure—I needed Jason to be my partner in this.
Jason and I had worked together for the entirety of our times at Remote Year. If we’re being picky, he started one week after me, which I don’t let him forget. Over our tenures at Remote Year, Jason was promoted to Programs Team Manager and ultimately into the Global Director of Programs role, remotely managing upwards of 15 people at any given time. Jason and I worked on the same small team for four years, generally approaching problems and issues from opposite sides of the same solution spectrum. Our boss for well over three years, Trish Kennelly, would often joke:
“When Jason and Travis agree on anything, then we have to do it. That’s how you know it will be a success.”
Jason and I have different approaches and different areas of expertise, and I knew my own holes in the pursuit of helping companies successfully transition their workforce remotely, would be filled to the point of overflowing by Jason. We always worked together well (we even planned the aforementioned summer camp together) and balanced each other's strengths beautifully. Jason is process-oriented, a 360-degree thinker, and excellent at finding pitfalls before they’re stepped in. I’m results-oriented, creative, and optimistic to the point that I often need Jason to ask about a possible issue or blindspot, while I confidently plow an idea forward.
Through a twist of fate, Jason and I both ended up in Mexico City, one of Remote Year’s hub cities, at the start of 2020. My partner was working in Mexico City, and, since I was still remote, it was an easy choice to call the city home. Jason was rightfully in love with Mexico City from multiple visits, and after three years of non-stop travel he wanted a home base, so he leased one in the Condesa neighborhood.
It took all of one conversation and he was in.
Jason went through a similar first few months of 2020, leaving him staring at a blank future with a very specific and needed skill-set. He knew that together we could deliver for clients. He knew that this idea, the help and wisdom we could provide, was what the future of work needed from us most.
Sprawl Consulting was born on a crisp May night in Mexico city as Jason and I sipped mezcal on his balcony, staring out at our equally blank futures just beginning to take shape—futures now connected by our calling to usher in the remote work revolution.
It’s a future that is coming, whether you’re prepared for it or not, and we’d love to help you get there.