The San Francisco Bay Area is home to some of the happiest cities in America, but it also boasts the highest housing costs. Technically, Zapier is one of the thousands of companies based here, since that's where its founders moved after getting into the startup accelerator Y Combinator.

But the 80-person startup, whose product helps more than one million users automate workflows across disparate apps, isn't really based anywhere. It doesn't have any offices. Even those founders don't work from the same place -- all three men work from home. Zapier is a 100 percent remote company, and it wants its workers to make the most of that.

In March, Zapier introduced a de-location package for new employees. Here's how it works: If a new hire wants to leave the Bay Area, to get away from the high cost of living or the urban cultural milieu or the triumphalism of Warriors fans, Zapier will reimburse up to $10,000 of moving costs incurred within the first three months of employment. Employees who use this benefit are asked to commit to Zapier for a year, a company blog post says.

Zapier's de-location package appears to be the first of its kind. Over the past century, as technology has advanced from the telephone all the way to videoconferencing, telepresence robots, and other internet-enabled tools, collaborating across time and space has only become easier.

Automattic (which makes WordPress.com) is an older, larger business that shares Zapier's all-remote approach. Automattic's jobs page says, "Everyone works from the location they choose. We're spread out all over the world in more than 50 countries." Zapier's employees, who are spread across nine countries, coordinate their work via Slack and a variety of other software tools.

"When we started hiring, we had just moved to the Bay Area," Zapier CEO Wade Foster told Inc. "We didn't have much money, so we couldn't afford Bay Area salaries at the time." They also didn't have the local contacts they needed to find staff. "When it came to hiring, who the heck would we hire here? We don't know anyone," Foster explained. So the founders, who also include CTO Bryan Helmig and CPO Mike Knoop, drew on their pool of relationships from back home in the Midwest.

Foster said, "I had a friend who was in Chicago, and Bryan had another engineer friend in Colombia, and we were able to bring them on into Zapier. That set us down this remote path. And we've since just gotten really good at it." So good that Zapier has published a guide on remote work for other companies.

The de-location package is an extra benefit that Zapier thinks will help with hiring and retention, which is key in a hot labor market. "A few teammates had joined Zapier who were living here in the Bay Area," Foster explained. "They liked the product, but they also liked that they could go live wherever they wanted. They were working at great tech jobs here in the Bay Area, but in one case their family was back in Pennsylvania; another one, their family was back in Florida. Really, that's where they wanted to be."

Foster continued, "I love the Bay Area, and as much as many of us do love the Bay Area, the reality is that it's just incredibly expensive to live here. And it doesn't necessarily suit most people's lifestyle. However, people come here because this is where the jobs are."

If remote work takes off, it may help stem the "brain drain" of highly skilled workers moving to busy cities instead of staying in their sleepier hometowns. When marketing director Danny Schreiber originally joined Zapier, the remote setup allowed him to stay in Omaha, preserving his then-fianceé's job as an elementary school teacher. Later, they moved to Storm Lake, Iowa. "The town is 10,000 people," Schreiber said. He and his wife could afford a larger house with a home office for him, and stay close to the B&B that her parents had started.

Schreiber says that logistically, an all-remote company isn't as tough to run as it seems. When he talks to people who are hesitant about the idea, he points out that many office workers, especially at tech companies, spend all day in Slack and project-management apps anyway. "At big campuses," like the ones that Google or Facebook have built, "they have videoconferencing from one building to the next," Schreiber said. Is it really so different if your co-worker is in another state or even across the globe?

Published on: Mar 17, 2017