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How to Build a Startup From Anywhere

Gabriel Fenton spent years working in the retail industry in the US. Now he runs a Silicon Valley-backed startup with a distributed team scattered across Asia.

His career path is less surprising once you discover he’s the little brother of Couchsurfing Founder Casey Fenton, who dreamed up the hospitality exchange and social networking site in the late nineties.

Gabriel remembers his brother developing Couchsurfing while he was at high school. But rather than follow him to California, he finished high school, moved to Alaska and started working in retail management.

After leaving his career in hospitality to nurse his dad through cancer, Casey approached him with a new startup idea, Sovolve, a company that creates socially responsible products.

“At that time Casey was too preoccupied with Couchsurfing to work on it himself so he connected me with another guy who was living in Montreal.”

He traveled to Montreal and crashed on a couch while he worked on the idea. He then spent two years developing Sovolve, focusing on the UX and leading the tech and product development team of 20 people. Sovolve also gamifies the distribution of equity across the team, which leads us to the brothers’ next startup, Mastly.

Bruised by the experience of getting investment and not being able to reward the early supporters of Couchsurfing, Casey was keen to get the rewards and incentives right in the future. And so the idea of Mastly was born.

Mastly allows startups to reward employees or contractors with equity for their time, which the founders say will shrink startups’ wage bills and improve incentivizes for employees.

The platform, which is still in beta, allows team members to work for a portion of equity: once they reach their limit for paid hours on the platform, they start accruing equity in the startup.

“Employee stock options aren’t what they used to be. And many employees aren’t genuinely incentivized by them. We want to change that,” he explains.

The founders say the service rewards the hours worked by employees and contractors, aligns everyone and helps with legal formation.

It may be designed for US-incorporated startups but Gabriel has spent most of the past year developing it in Chiang Mai in Thailand, with his sibling co-founder in San Francisco, a copywriter in Kathmandu and a developer – also in Thailand. Other contractors split their time between Bali and Chiang Mai. And in the space of less than a year, Mastly has added 11 contractors to the project.

Many of the hires were the result of serendipitous encounters in Chiang Mai’s tight knit freelancer community. He met Mastly’s marketer, developer and copywriter in Chiang Mai.

“We offer our contractors the flexibility to work anywhere and all employees are paid in both wages and equity,” he explains.

Does it bother him that his team is scattered around the world?

“No, I speak to them every day. Sometimes I’ll just dial up our developer over Skype and leave it running in the background so we can talk like we’re sitting next to each other.”

For the moment, Gabriel has no plans to permanently relocate to the US, and is enjoying the advantages of being in Asia where there are fewer distractions (and expenses).

And now he’s mastered the art of managing a distributed team, he really can be anywhere.

Post Author
Clare Harrison

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