This article was published on December 21, 2015

The magic and madness of doing a global Secret Santa for your team

The magic and madness of doing a global Secret Santa for your team
Martin SFP Bryant
Story by

Martin SFP Bryant


Martin SFP Bryant is the founder of UK startup newsletter PreSeed Now and technology and media consultancy Big Revolution. He was previously Martin SFP Bryant is the founder of UK startup newsletter PreSeed Now and technology and media consultancy Big Revolution. He was previously Editor-in-Chief at TNW.

The ‘Secret Santa’ is a well-established tradition in offices around the world at Christmastime, but when you’re a team spread around the world, it turns into a complicated logistical nightmare.

The Next Web editorial team (i.e., the people who bring you the articles you read on this site) is spread around the world from San Francisco to Bangalore which means we don’t see each other very often. So, we thought, why not do a fun bit of bonding this holiday season and buy each other presents?

In case you’re not familiar with it, Secret Santa generally works like this:

  • Pick the name of a colleague out of a hat
  • Buy them a present up to an agreed price limit
  • Someone else does the same for you
  • Everyone opens their presents at the same time (sometimes everyone keeps the identity of who gave each present secret, other times they’re revealed as each present is opened)
  • Much fun is had by all

Our Secret Santa seemed easy enough. We entered our names into this online tool, which randomly decided who was buying a gift for whom, and generated a page like this for each of us…

Secret Santa

It seemed simple: buy something, send it, voila.

Not so much. Very quickly the problems started to emerge.

A few days after the Secret Santa draw was announced, I received a parcel. As happens with parcels, I opened it right away. Inside was a delivery direct from a retailer, which was confusing as I hadn’t ordered a bonsai tree kit and a marble roller coaster. Was this my Secret Santa gift or a random delivery via a PR company, or maybe a stalker with a thing for small trees and marbles?


I wasn’t the only one. Some people started opening their gifts as they received them, deliberately or not. We’d planned to open them together on December 18, but that part didn’t get through clearly enough.

Meanwhile, ordering from Amazon turned out to be a minefield, as Lauren found out when she sent Amanda her ‘secret’ gift:

amazon gift

Meanwhile, Ben’s plight highlighted what can go wrong if you have an old home address listed in the company database… The redirection label covered the ‘Secret Santa’ note the sender had added to the parcel.

Royal Mail

For some, the humble postmark was their undoing…


The exchange rate proved a problem with international shipping too, as some people were able to get a little bit more for their 25 dollars.

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 12.17.18

Even a simple, donation to charity proved difficult. Nate was happy with his Secret Santa gift…

But Nate’s Secret Santa, Abhimanyu, had to get creative to arrange it…

“There wasn’t a way to make a donation and notify Nate through the site I used. so I had to pay and then open the 2-page email receipt with my name on it, stitch together screenshots, remove my name in Photoshop and then use a disposable email service to send it to him.

“Even then, I wasn’t sure it’d make it through spam filters what with sketchy email address and large attachment.”

As for me, I discovered the nightmare that is international shipping. I found the perfect gift for my designated recipient, Owen, in the form of a plush shiba inu. Even importing it from Japan fell just within the $25 price limit we’d set for gifts.

I had it delivered to my house so I could remove any shipping notes that might give away my identity and then put it in a new box and took it to the post office. Clever! Or so I thought…

The problem? Three-day shipping from the UK to the Netherlands (chosen so it would get there in time) cost more than the $25 limit itself, meaning I ended up spending around $50 in total. Also, the post office made me put my own name and address on the box, ruining the mystery entirely.

So yes, Secret Santa for distributed teams is difficult. A couple of people’s gifts didn’t even arrive on time, but still, on Friday we had a fun team video chat where we opened our gifts and revealed who sent what. All the agony was worth the fun of that call.


So, what have we learned?

  1. Secret Santa for distributed teams is REALLY complicated.
  2. It’s also a lot of fun and we’d definitely recommend it if you work with a team around the world. The things that ‘went wrong’ didn’t spoil our enjoyment of it.
  3. There’s room in the market for a Secret Santa app that offers shopping from the app itself with international, anonymized shipping and a wide range of gifts. Maybe something for Amazon or a cunning startup to consider for next year. Given the rise of remote working, it’s only going to become more needed.

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