How we run a “local” business from around the world

Plenty of software companies operate with teams distributed around the world. But that’s software companies: surely a “real”, physical business needs its team all together in one place? Based on our experience so far, it seems not…

distributed-teams

When we became digital nomads, we never had any intention of starting a property management company. But somehow, through a strange quirk of podcasts, books and an online community, we found ourselves in the perfect position to do so – and we weren’t about to let our nomadic habits get in the way.

So in 2013, along with our co-founder, we decided to start Yellow Lettings: a company that helps landlords to find tenants for their rental properties, and then manages the entire lettings process (rent collection, inspections, maintenance, legalities and a whole lot more) for them.

Mish came up with the name in Barcelona, we set up the basic structure of the business in Thailand, conducted interviews for our first hire in Edinburgh and launched the website from Prague. Meanwhile our co-founder is in London, our first employee is in the north of the UK, and future employees could be…anywhere.

Even though we’re remote, our first instinct was to set up a traditional business with an office in the UK where our team could work from, and our co-founder would base himself there a couple of days each week.

But in the end, we decided to make the whole business 100% remote, with team members working from wherever they want to. I thought it might be interesting to explain why we made this decision, and how – so far – we’ve made being a distributed team work just as well as if we were all in one place.

Why form a distributed team?

When the opportunity to start a property management company first came up, we knew that we weren’t going to go back to London to run it – and in any case, starting up in London would be a terrible idea because of the high costs of doing business there.

Our initial idea was to find a brilliant first employee, who could be anywhere in the UK, then set up an office for them and recruit other team members locally. But as we thought about it more, we couldn’t find enough advantages of having an office to outweigh the cost, constraints and extra hassle of having a physical location.

As we already knew that we wanted the business to be completely paperless, it seemed to make sense to just keep hiring the best people – regardless of location – and figure out how to overcome the communication and technology challenges of being distributed. Luckily, companies like Buffer, 37 Signals, Automattic and others had already proved that distributed teams can work – and sold us on the many advantages.

Among all the other benefits, the biggest plus for us has been that it’s allowed us to hire brilliant people who probably wouldn’t be motivated to leave their current job for just another “normal” letting agency – especially a new one with a lot of risk and uncertainty around it. Our first employee left her job to join us because she wanted the flexibility of working from home so she could have more time with her kids – and many other excellent applicants said they were attracted by the same thing.

The software we use

We run through the tools we use to run our various businesses in depth here, so I’ll just list them briefly:

  • HipChat for internal communication
  • Google Apps for email accounts and storage
  • Helpscout for external communication
  • Trello for task management
  • Skype for incoming and outgoing phone calls
  • MailChimp for emailing our clients and prospects in bulk
  • Mandrill for one-to-one automated emails
  • Google Drive to hold our documents and our “Standard Operating Procedure” files
  • LastPass for sharing login credentials between the team
  • HelloSign to get clients to digitally sign documents
  • ScheduleOnce for scheduling client calls
  • Go To Meeting for team meetings

We also use some dedicated property letting software which won’t be of interest here, and a couple of UK-specific services that scan our incoming mail and allow us to send out physical letters online.

The real magic comes from using Zapier to connect these services up to each other. For example, we have an elaborate automated system for handling interactiosn with prospective clients where dragging Trello cards from one column to another triggers automated call invitations, moves them to an appropriate MailChimp group to trigger an autoresponder sequence, and so on. In fact, the major pains we experience come from our central lettings software not having an API that allows us to link it to other services – which means we’re sometimes needing to enter data twice.

Making a distributed team work

Finding the right software and getting it all set up wasn’t a walk in the park, but overall it’s the easy bit: the real challenge is figuring out how we can build a team and adopt ways of working that will make this virtual business work just as well (ideally better) as a bricks and mortar alternative.

It’s still early days, but these are some of the practices that have been crucial for us so far.

Hiring for the right skills

As we outlined in our post about hiring, we asked questions in the interview process that specifically targeted certain attributes we were searching for. A fantastic employee in an office environment might not have the skills needed to work remotely – and the isolation might drive them crazy, too.

The most important skills we targeted were conscientiousness and the ability to make decisions independently – both vital when there’s nobody looking over your shoulder, and when you can’t just shout across the office to ask someone how you should handle a certain situation.

Our first hire couldn’t have worked out any better, and now we’re hiring for our second permanent role. This time, we’ve tweaked our interview process to assess written skills early on – because being able to communicate clearly and concisely in writing is vital in a distributed role.

Effective internal communication

I don’t disagree with Joel from Buffer on much, but their policy about all internal email being copied to everyone gives me the beginnings of a panic attack just thinking about it.

We’ve followed many other companies by going to the opposite extreme and banning internal email completely. All our conversations take place within HipChat (a private instant messaging platform for teams), which allows for complete transparency and means that information is never trapped in one person’s inbox. (By using HelpScout for external email, we also make sure that every team member has access to every conversation that’s being had with those outside the company.)

Roughly speaking, HipChat is our equivalent to shouting across the office to ask a question – but better, because if the person being shouted at is busy they don’t have to answer right away. Any more complicated issues are saved up for our weekly meeting, or we’ll ask in HipChat if the other person can jump on Skype for a minute.

Structured meetings

Because we don’t spend as much time speaking as we would if we were in the same office, it’s important that we make the most of the times that we do speak. Every week we have an all-staff meeting, in which we follow a structure we adapted from Mastering The Rockefeller Habits:

  • Personal updates: as silly as you like (useful for getting to know each other better)
  • Client feedback: what have our clients said about us that’s positive? What has someone been unhappy about which we can learn from?
  • Reviewing KPIs and quarterly goals: we look at our most important numbers, and track how we’re progressing towards our targets
  • Individual issues: working through a list of talking points that we’ve all thrown into a Trello list throughout the week

We make sure that every item that’s discussed ends with an action item assigned to a particular person: as the author of Mastering The Rockefeller Habits says, “Nothing ever happens in an organisation until it appears on someone’s weekly to-do list.” Even if it’s just “Think about a list of options to solve this issue and report back next week,” someone needs to take responsibility – otherwise we could spend time complaining about something without getting any closer to resolving it.

Relentless focus on values and targets

At the start of each quarter we set out a plan that contains, among other things, our targets and key initiatives for the next three months. We make time to review these in every weekly meeting so we can make sure we’re always taking action towards achieving them – otherwise there’s a danger that we’d feel good about ourselves for setting ambitious targets, but rely on luck as to whether or not they were reached.

Our targets are always closely linked in with our core values, and in all our personal quarterly plans we say what we’re going to do to bring those values to life. It’s the kind of thing that I used to think was total corporate bollocks and would have moaned about doing when I was an employee, but done right there’s real merit to it: it makes sure that we’re really living our values, rather than just having them as a poster in the staff room (or a mandatory company-wide desktop wallpaper, in our case).

We plan on copying the likes of Buffer and Moz by making our values public – although so far, we’ve been too busy getting the business off the ground to even set up a simple blog.

Well-documented procedures

Procedures matter in any business, but more so when knowledge can’t be passed on through observation. In the early stages of our business it’s been hard to figure out what we’re doing, do it and document it thoroughly, but one of our current quarterly targets is to have all our processes written up in full.

When we make our second hire, he or she should be able to read the procedures and then perform the core functions of the business without even a formal induction – so when we make that hire, we’ll really find out how effective our documentation is.

Can your business be run remotely?

Of course, some parts of our business have to be done face-to-face: those parts are delegated to local contractors. We’ve just taken every part of the business that doesn’t 100% rely on someone sitting in an office, and made it “virtual”.

Similarly, we know people in traditionally face-to-face jobs – like financial advisers, and even therapists – who realised that plenty of clients would be willing to work with them without needing to meet them over tea and biscuits, and relocated to wherever they wanted to be.

Even businesses that do require a physical location can still be managed remotely with the right processes and people in place: we know owners of a music school and even a circus space who travel while other people manage the physical part of the business.

So, do you have a business that could be run by a distributed team – or at least managed remotely?

Are you doing it already? Or if not, what aspect would hold you back?

I’d love to know, so please leave a comment below!