Hi! We’re Toptal, we help developers get jobs they can do from anywhere. AUA!

Hi everyone,

My name is Breanden Beneschott, and I’m a Co-founder and the COO at Toptal.

At Toptal, we help developers get work they can do from anywhere.

As a digital nomad, I’ve lived and worked remotely in >30 countries since I finished school four years ago. I’ve been building Toptal. Toptal is a private network of awesome freelance software engineers, and companies hire us to build cool stuff. We are also an a16z-backed company in growth mode, and this year we’ll hit about $80 million in recurring sales. Although our network has grown to thousands of people, Toptal doesn’t have any offices. We operate from more than 93 countries, and since we encourage everyone to travel, a lot of us are digital nomads.

Last year, I wrote a post on Tim Ferriss’s blog about how to travel as a founder/engineer that has some tips I’ve learned that you might find helpful: http://fourhourworkweek.com/2014/10/04/how-to-travel-to-20-countries-and-build-a-massive-business-in-the-process/

If you want to know more about Toptal (our developer community, how we travel, how we operate) or you just want to pick my brain, I’ll be happy to help where I can!

Thanks,
Breanden

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Hey Breanden! Thanks for doing this AMA :smile:

What do you recommend to developers that are working for fixed companies now that would like to be come nomads and work remotely? What skills should they focus on to get hired remotely (e.g. at Toptal), are those skills any different from general developer skills? If so, in what way?

Toptal started 5 years ago, back then remote work was even less fashionable than it is now (getting slowly fashionable recently :stuck_out_tongue: ), what made you and Taso decide to run the company remotely AND focus so much on getting the developers you hire/place to do the same? Why?

And the question I always ask…Is this the future? :smiley:

Hi Breanden,

We’re in our 3th project together with developers from Toptal. We’re really happy with the cooperation so far!

I’m wondering if in your ‘3% get accepted’ policy, people are also questioned/tested about remote-work and work-dedication skills like structuring work, fixed times, reporting back, etc.

What I’ve noticed is that all developers I’ve worked with seem to have a different take on this and me as a client was not always prepared for this. Maybe it’s a good thing, being toptal, to include and structure a sort of policy around remote work and it’s lifestyle. I guess it could at the same time promote remote-work and increase understanding at client-level.

Keep up the good work.

Tom

hey Breanden!

Do you find there is still a lot of resistance to remote developers? Personally when I ask my former employees and clients they don’t really like the idea that they’re not able to work in the same timezone.

How do you match developers with employees? Or wait… I just made an assumption, are your clients usually looking for fulltime developers or is there also a lot of freelancing going on?

how did you create the top3% test? I haven’t done it myself, but I just wonder how you came up with those numbers (26,7%, etc) and questions.

I’ll have to dive deeper into your site, but it looks like you’ve build up a great business there :smile:

Hi Breanden,

Do developer’s work exclusively with Toptal , if not what are some of the other marketplace’s / part time job’s etc that you see them do ?

When is Toptal coming to India ?

Cheers

  • What changed in the 5 years since you started the company?
  • Do you see a development in the amount of people who want to work location independent?
  • How do you structure your team calls? Are they gathered in one timezone like Automattic is doing or do you have another setup?

Hi Breanden, I’m interested in working remotely for US companies, but in general do US companies have visa restrictions? Do they accept developers living in other countries without US working permit?

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Hi Breanden,

How did get you Toptal off the ground and maintain traction so soon after graduating? Did you have early investment to jumpstart the company, and if so, how were you able to prove the business model and appeal of Toptal offerings with so little experience under your belt?

Thanks,
Nemrut

Hey Pieter,

Tackling your questions in order :slight_smile:

What do you recommend to developers that are working for fixed companies now that would like to become nomads and work remotely?

Practice communication (in English - both written and verbal) until you are excellent if you are not already. There are plenty of sites like Livemocha.com for this, and communication is one of the most important parts of working remotely. In fact, I think being responsive, clear, and communicative as a remote developer is almost as important as your technical skill. Get used to over-communicating and chatting to people online and constantly being available even if you aren’t sitting at your computer doing heads down work. It goes a long way with clients. Leaving Skype on all the time and replying to emails at odd hours (even if you’re on a train, standing in line for an event, etc.) takes some getting used to. You don’t always need to be working, but you need to be responsive even if it’s just to say, “Hey I’m grabbing some food real quick, but I got your email, and I’ll push in a few minutes when I get back."

What skills should they focus on to get hired remotely (e.g. at Toptal), are those skills any different from general developer skills? If so, in what way?

Again, proactive communication and responsiveness. At Toptal, we’re almost all engineers, and we look for great problem solvers with personality and drive. To us, that’s the very definition of an engineer. But when it comes to who really kills it at our company, it’s the tremendous problem solvers who are proactive and communicative. When you’re remote, clear expectations and communication are lifeblood.

Imagine two different developers:

Person A is smart, sociable, and you always know what she’s working on. In fact, because you guys communicate so well, you could be in two separate rooms yet have the same answers to questions like: 1) What are you working on now and why? 2) What were you working on yesterday and why? 3) What will you be working on tomorrow and why?

Person B is also smart and friendly enough, but you don’t always get the updates you’d expect, and maybe days go by where you only vaguely know what she’s working on (“refactoring…” or “back-end work mostly…” etc.). Eventually cycle times are extended due to communication delays, and problems that could have been resolved in a few seconds get incorporated into code and product simply because you weren’t asked about them when they arose.

Who are you going to hire again? Who are you going to tell your friends they should hire?

Toptal started 5 years ago, back then remote work was even less fashionable than it is now (getting slowly fashionable recently stuck_out_tongue), what made you and Taso decide to run the company remotely AND focus so much on getting the developers you hire/place to do the same? Why?

Pasting an excerpt from an article I wrote the other day :slight_smile:

We could have gone to San Francisco, set up shop, raised many rounds, and pursued Toptal in the typical Valley way. But of course when Taso and I started all this, I was still in class, and everything had to happen virtually. Taso didn’t live in Princeton, and I didn’t have time to commute to NYC or SF for meetings every day. So, using Skype as our office, we said from day one we would be distributed (meaning we would be working from anywhere but a central office), and we proceeded to “meet” people and companies all over the world using our computers. And instead of having two or three in-person meetings a day, we could do ten or twenty virtually with people who were located anywhere. We didn’t lose any time for commutes, and we avoided all of the costs associated with them. No one stared at clocks, and no one wore a suit.

While working like this, we realized that we didn’t need to physically be in Silicon Valley for Toptal to take off, and this opened up a world of possibilities—literally. Taso and I are adventurous people, so we began talking about cool places we could go that were also economically strategic so we could reinvest as much as possible back into growing the business and skip funding rounds in the meantime. We quickly set our sights on Budapest, as one does. It was significantly cheaper than San Francisco, and, to us, it was significantly more fun.

As we grew in Budapest, we further embraced the freedom of not having a physical office. We traveled to dozens of nearby countries and met hundreds of incredible people—from Topcoders to Prime Ministers to CERN researchers to infamous hackers—often in the places we’d least expect. Soon our core team members were operating from Russia, Brazil, and Argentina, and with our team’s coverage map widening every day, Toptal began to grow organically in that same way. We were able to practice what we preached—working remotely—and because we were entirely distributed and that was never a question, we figured out how to have our cake and eat it too. We had the freedom to hire talent wherever we went and build local Toptal communities in every country we visited.

And the question I always ask…Is this the future?

Of course. Staring at a clock in an office sucks, and as Tom Preston-Werner (CEO of GitHub) said, “If you do not have a distributed team you are, by definition, not working with the most talented people.”

Cheers,
Breanden

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your message. Before I answer, I really want to clarify that ‘3% get accepted’ is not a policy. While “top 3%” sounds sexy, for us, it is simply the result of a numerator and a denominator which are successful_applicants over all_applicants and our process, which is designed to make sure anyone who passes is very smart and will thrive here. Sorry to diverge, but I see a lot of copycats changing their taglines to “the top X%”, and as an engineer, seeing arbitrary numbers like that makes me cringe :slight_smile:

To answer your question: We do cover aspects of effective remote working during our screenings (esp during the test projects), and we have a very active internal community + blog where people share knowledge and learn from each other, but we do limited formal training here outside of making the communication and availability expectations very clear. I would really like to hear about your direct experience here, though, to see if we can perhaps do something even better.

Please email me at [email protected] any time.

Breanden

Hi Flowen,

Answering your questions in order :smile:

Do you find there is still a lot of resistance to remote developers? Personally when I ask my former employees and clients they don’t really like the idea that they’re not able to work in the same timezone.

Yes, every day! I wrote a post about this topic here: http://qr.ae/pvi0V, but for us it comes down to helping people understand that:

  • A good remote developer is better than a bad local developer.
  • A great remote developer is better than a good local developer.
  • A top developer is a top developer regardless of where they are.

How do you match developers with employees? Or wait… I just made an assumption, are your clients usually looking for fulltime developers or is there also a lot of freelancing going on?

We are a network of freelance software engineers, so virtually everything we do is freelance :slight_smile: For matching, we have a core team of very senior engineers here who sit down with clients and help them choose the best fits for every project/position they have.

how did you create the top3% test? I haven’t done it myself, but I just wonder how you came up with those numbers (26,7%, etc) and questions.

It wasn’t arbitrary. We didn’t start by saying, “wow, we should set the acceptance rate at 3%, because that sounds nice” or we somehow knew that the bottom 97% were bad. 3% (and every value you see on our screening process) is simply the result of a numerator and a denominator (successful_applicants over all_applicants). We designed the process to be the bare minimum criteria for us to be extremely confident that we are admitting someone into the network who will thrive here. We’re engineers ourselves, and we look for great problem solvers with personality and drive — the types of people we want to work with (and learn from) ourselves.

Thanks!
Breanden

Hey Divraj,

Many Toptalers work here exclusively, but it’s not a requirement. Some have day jobs at big tech companies, other have their own freelance clients, and others have their own start-ups.

Toptal is in India! We don’t have a large presence there yet, but I know several Indian Toptalers.

Best,
Breanden

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Hey Marcus,

What changed in the 5 years since you started the company?

Wifi, 3G/4G coverage, and data plans have changed a lot. It’s significantly easier (and cheaper) to have internet everywhere now, and it used to be a pita. In February, for example, I was in Svalbard (essentially the North Pole), and the wifi was faster than in SF. Outside, you couldn’t take your phone out of your pocket, because it was -40C, and it would freeze in seconds, but inside the wifi/4G was like lightning. I’ve started using ATT’s Passport plan as a backup wherever I go, and it’s simplified my life a lot.

Do you see a development in the amount of people who want to work location independent?

The numbers are surging. You’re telling me I can travel, have an awesome life, make money, build big things, work with smart people… all while I’m young? Badass. I’m in.

However, what I’m starting to see from people a bit now (including myself at times) is nomadic life post honeymoon period. There are very real risks associated with it that can sneak up subtly. Isolation, loneliness, impatience, restlessness, and even depression are all things people should to be aware of, and the movement will eventually have to figure out real solutions here. I plan on writing more about this topic in the near future.

How do you structure your team calls? Are they gathered in one timezone like Automattic is doing or do you have another setup?

We try to have very few of them. We’re not big fans of meetings. Every team here has a call on Monday where they sync up, and the rest of the week is meant for one-on-ones and on-the-fly Skype calls where you pull in the people you need to in order to get things done. In general, most of the company operates on a loose UTC−05:00 time zone and is surprisingly available regardless of the time.

Thanks!
Breanden

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You can freelance as a non-US citizen working outside the US for a US company. You just complete a W8 to prove you’re not a US taxpayer, and then you’re responsible for paying your taxes in your home country. Your US company may actually have a hard time getting you your money when the time comes, and you’ll probably be frustrated by that process and the many fees different services (like your banks) take, but you can definitely do it.

Hi Nemrut,

We started Toptal six months before I finished university—proper dorm room style in about 400 square feet. By the time I graduated, I think our run rate was nearing $1M/year, so we had some traction before I picked up and started traveling. We did raise a little bit of money (about $1.4M from a16z and a few others) for strategic and stability reasons, but our initial traction came from our network (Taso and I were both developers and we knew a lot of people in Startupland) and our endless hunger (Taso and I are both the kinds of people who need things to be accelerating forward at all times or we freak out). When you combine a good network with that kind of drive, you can make a lot happen.

Best,
Breanden

Hi Breanden, thanks for doing this AMA!
Since I’m thinking about joining your network, I was wondering how likely it is to find projects through Toptal? Is the level of demand and supply balanced or are there many more developers than potential clients? Myself, I’m from the Java world getting acquainted with Scala/Play/Akka at the moment and based in Europe.

Thanks!

Hey Breanden,
What would your advice be for someone who’s looking to eventually pursue a career as a developer? Would you recommend that they get a degree, take courses or learn to code on their own, eventually getting an internship and freelance work? What path would you suggest in order to gain the most knowledge and experience as a developer? Thanks for doing this AMA :slight_smile:

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Hi Pilcrow,

The short answer is: there is always a way for you to create value (financial, educational, and social) for yourself at Toptal. As a Toptal engineer, if you are ever in the position where you feel like you are out of options, that means I am failing, and you should yell at me immediately—my skype is smsprep. While there is no guarantee of client work, we do work very hard and invest a lot of resources to ensure that anyone in Toptal who is looking for an engagement has multiple good options at all times. There are always many new positions open (Scala/Play/Akka > Java), but ultimately it does come down to whether or not you are a match for any specific client/project, and of course it helps if you can be flexible in terms of your availability (full-time, part-time, hourly, possibly on slightly different time zones, etc.).

Another important point is that, as a Toptaler, you’ll have free access to a lot of Toptal resources like Udemy, Pluralsight, conferences, misc events, etc., and you’ll have ways to earn significant money by working with us directly whenever you choose.

Does that answer your question?

Best,
Breanden

Hey Breanden - good to see you on here.

One thing I’ve been curious about is how you started out getting deal-flow and how you’ve scaled it over time. I know for a lot of freelancers, doing the work isn’t the challenge - it’s scaling the business & sales side of things.

It’s also one of the scary things for many about traveling, as people feel they’ll have to exist on their existing clients and won’t be drumming up new business.

Can you talk a bit about strategies you used and what kind of processes you have in place? What have you learned over the years in how to close clients and win their business?

thanks for the answer @breanden ! I totally agree with that blog post, more is not better.

Good to hear it’s mostly freelance. My ideal situation would be to work for a client 3 days/week remotely and be able to carry on with my own projects in the other days. Have you seen such possibilities @ toptal?

and a completely different question: you travel around a lot i presume. Do you still develop or rather not so much these days? if so, what’s your favorite laptop for travel and work? You’ve probably spoken to many other traveling developers, any favorites out there? :slight_smile: Looking at the new macbook as I love the minimalistic idea behind it, but I worry the screensize is too small.