Working remotely

Gone are the days when owning a small business meant you had no option but to pay rent for a shopfront or office space. In 2012, many owners simply work wherever they choose: from a boat in the Maldives, out of a caravan in Mexico, or from the back room at home.

Nett spoke to five Australians running small businesses remotely about the benefits and challenges of turning wherever you are into an office.

Mark Kelly, Global Surf Industries

Mark Kelly is the managing director of Global Surf Industries, a business that sells upwards of 50,000 surfboards a year to over 70 countries. He spoke to Nett while in New York, attending a surf conference. The number used to contact Kelly is an Australian mobile, which he has diverted to his account on the free VoIP software Skype.

“I’ve diverted my Australian cellphone to my SkypeIn number. I’m talking to you through my computer, or [if I’m offline] it will divert to my US cellphone,” he says. “I can be pretty much anywhere in the world. I’ve got four local numbers, so it’s really easy for people to access me.”

The business has 16 staff – including eight based across the U.S. – all of whom work from home. Kelly claims that the lack of geographic proximity to his co-workers is good for productivity.

“It’s really interesting having everyone working on Skype. I think we get a lot done because we don’t have that constant interruption of people walking into your office,” he says. “You’re in the moment rather than the casual day-to-day chit-chat that goes on.”

The Global Surf Industries team uses Google Apps to host email, and free file-sharing service Dropbox to distribute documents that need to be immediately accessible throughout the working week.

“I have an iPad with me, two iPhones – a U.S. one and an Aussie one – and a Macbook pro, and all my resident files live on Dropbox,” says Kelly. “Basically, every file that I have sits in Dropbox – so any report that I’ve got, any pricing information, everything – but I can access that from either my computer, the iPad, or the iPhone.”

In addition to Google Apps and Dropbox, the business makes substantial use of remote desktop software, which allows Kelly and his staff members to collaborate on documents in real-time. All the business’s accounting software is kept on a server that each staff member accesses directly. Kelly explains that the warehousing is entirely outsourced, with staff coordinating the accounts and orders online.

He is quick to note that not all of the systems his staff uses were entirely shop-bought; some required modification to work the way the company needed them to.

“We’ve had some add-ons built for our accounting software, like email attachment strippers, where you can send an Excel file to the server and the email stripper will strip it out and put it into the system as an order, and you just have to release it,” he says. “That’s really helped when we go into our pre-booking time; we save a lot of the data entry.”

Kelly’s advice to small businesses is to not let expectations around what’s required to start a business hold them back.

“I think the big thing is don’t get caught up in what you think the norm is: having to have an office, having to have a warehouse; all that stuff just ads up to overheads,” he says. “Think more 2020 than 1975, and you’ll tend to have a lot less running costs.”

Lisa Page, Soul Satisfaction For Women

Lisa Page is the owner of Soul Satisfaction For Women, a personal success and relationship coaching business based in Adelaide that serves clients around the world. Her products include mentor groups and one-on-one coaching, as well as downloadable programs and live workshops, all carried out online.

Page’s key tool is project management software Basecamp, which enables her to keep track of projects and communicate with her virtual assistant, who’s located in South Africa. Interestingly, she has also integrated the software’s collaborative capacity into the courses she offers, instead of using it purely among staff on the business side. This has the effect of drawing customers into a hands-on online environment as part of the product their buying.

By placing the use of Basecamp in the hands of her customers, Page is adapting business-focused software to suit her products and clients. As the resource and its community are always accessible to them, customers are less likely to feel alienated or abandoned by the service – something that is vitally important in any kind of personal coaching.

“I use it as a part of the program so that they have access to me five days a week,” she says. “Monday to Friday they can post a question in there and get an answer from me immediately, whereas the actual calls are only once a month. On my part, it maintains client satisfaction, because I know exactly where my clients are at throughout the whole six-month program, not just once a month on that call.”

For her group coaching sessions, she sets up a ‘group’ in Basecamp and has each of her customers log in independently from wherever they’re situated.

“I use it as the hub for uploading all of the audio from the recordings of the calls,” says Page. “I use it as a way for women to share and stay in contact in between the coaching calls. I’ll post tasks and inspirations, and women will share their experience.”

In addition to Basecamp, she uses Instant Teleseminar to run webinars and online events, and AWeber to distribute her e-zine and communicate with her database. Live webinars are delivered in installments, which are recorded using Instant Teleseminar, and repackaged as products that can be downloaded directly from Basecamp at any time by new customers.

“In a sense, it’s the same principles as a brick and mortar business. The difference is delivering my service in a way that creates the same sense of connection and satisfaction as if they’d walked into my shop, and walked out,” she says. “It’s just using the online systems and software that will enable me to create that feeling in my clients of ‘wow! I can’t get that anywhere else. That is fantastic. I’m going to tell my friends about it, and I’m going to come back for more.’”

Téa Smith, consultant

Téa Smith is a Perth-based entrepreneur starting up an IT consultancy with business partner Martin Frinking, who is based in Sydney. Given the significant distance between the two co-founders, Smith has had to find effective ways of collaborating and communicating online.

For basic, ad hoc collaboration, Smith has been using the Hangouts feature in Google’s social media network, Google+, in addition to the other tools offered by Google Apps.

“We’ve been using [Google+] a lot as a collaboration tool, particularly the hangouts,” she says. “You can actually screen share, you can interact, and you can watch YouTube videos together. It’s got sound, video chat, whiteboard sketch; all these sorts of features, and it’s just linked to our Gmail account.

“You can also integrate Google Docs so that the full office suite is within your hangout, so you can actually share a document and talk on video whilst collaborating in real-time. It’s quite extraordinary.”

While Google+ provides a convenient and quick way to collaborate remotely, for more formal communication, Smith uses project management software called Comindwork. She suggests businesses be very rigorous in researching different collaboration tools before investing any budget in one.

“You have to invest a lot of time in choosing the right tool,” she says. “What you end up having to do is move all of your systems over, actually rely on it, and create a workflow that incorporates it, and that takes a lot of time. I think that you’ve to do a lot of research before you even sign up because migration’s a nightmare.”

She also advises owners to carefully consider what the business might need from software in the long run, rather than settling for something that simply satisfies their needs as a startup.

“Be clear about what your needs are, but be clear about the future as well, and make sure the tool you select can be flexible enough and can grow with you,” she says. “One of the problems with [project management software] Basecamp is that it’s great for five people. If your app or startup suddenly goes to 50, it becomes very difficult and onerous [to switch].”

Sonja Firth, Verve HR

Sonja Firth is the owner of Verve HR, in which she manages a team of virtual assistants who work remotely for a variety of clients, both local and international.

Firth explains that for virtual assistants to be effective, they need to have an informed and attentive relationship with their clients. While it’s relatively straightforward to manage this using online tools, she claims that the biggest challenge is maintaining continuity in the relationship between business and client when a staff member falls ill. This is when the practice of keeping crucial client project information in an online collaborative hub becomes particularly useful for Firth.

“Although we each have our own clients that we look after, if suddenly we had to be rushed to hospital, there is always information there that somebody else can go in and pick up where you left off, and access the same information and be able to work for that client,” she says.

Verve currently relies on Dropbox to meet this need, using it to store the basic information required to serve clients.

“In Dropbox, clients have access to their own folder, we have access to their folder, and we keep procedures manually in there of all sorts of bits and pieces they might need,” says Firth. “It could involve their seating preferences on flights, it could involve simple things like addresses or contact details.”

The business is also in the process of migrating this data into 37 Signals, a web-based suite of collaboration apps, that incorporates standalone apps like Backpack for file-sharing, and Highrise for contact management, as well as Basecamp. While she claims the chat and file-sharing functions are still more efficiently carried out using Google+ Hangouts, Skype, and Dropbox, Firth says that Basecamp is invaluable for gauging each staff member’s workload.

“The projects area is great because you can set to-do lists, allocate tasks, and track tasks,” says Firth. “I can log into that and see a staff member’s overloaded and needs help. A client might ring and ask what’s happening with their project, and I could go in and see whether she’s made headway. It just means that even if we’re not all in the office, our clients don’t feel like we’re not accessible.

One challenge that Firth has found working with staff online is that it’s difficult to gauge the emotional state of employees when things get busy.

“Not knowing what position they’re in or frame of mind they’re in when you’re actually communicating with them [is difficult]” she says. “When you’re in a physical office, you can be walking past somebody. You can see they’re stressed, and decide not to bring up a difficult issue with them until later on. When you’re working virtually, you could ring each other to discuss something and not realize that in actual fact, they’ve just had a really stressful event with work.”

Annemarie Cross, business coach

Annemarie Cross is a business coach who consults with clients online and coordinates remote staff from her base of operations in Melbourne. Like Smith, she finds Google+ to be a useful tool for collaborating with these staff members. As part of her business, Cross runs a podcast in which she interviews guests from around the world.

“I might need to get together with my podcast assistant. She’s the one who searches out potential topics and guests for us. I also have an audio technician,” she says. “We use Google+ to coordinate our timetables to make sure when the recording needs to be done when it needs to be edited. It’s like having a meeting with different deadlines and different expectations and requirements, but it’s all done virtually.”

She says that one of the biggest challenges of running a business that works with international staff and clients is to successfully coordinate times between the various parties.

“Some of the staff who have the expertise that I require are in different time zones,” she says. “That can be a challenge, but it also can be a benefit, in that if I’ve got work that I need to be completed, I can send that through to them and it will be done, on my desk, via email, ready the next morning. For me, it’s finding out a time zone area that we can communicate in.”

Other than Google+, Cross uses Skype to host video-conferencing meetings, recording calls for staff members that aren’t able to attend. She claims the key to managing remote staff is to have easily accessible documents that clearly outline the business’s systems and procedures.

“One of the things that I have found really beneficial is to get really clear on the step-by-step processes,” she says. ” I have this in a private, password-protected area on my website that my staff can access. If a new team member joins, they can access this page and download the correct tool, or I send them a link where they can download it, which helps them familiarise themselves with what needs to be done.”

Finally, she advises new businesses to not get carried away with the notion that expensive tools are required to make everything work smoothly.

“You don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money on a lot of these tools,” she says. “Have a look at the needs. Once you identify your needs, find a tool that will help you facilitate that, and just have processes in place, and really set expectations.”

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