When I decided to launch my own inbound marketing agency 10 years ago, I wanted to do things differently. I’d just gotten married and knew that starting a business could consume precious time that I wanted to spend with my family. But I also knew that I didn’t want to be one of those CEOs who’s never in the office, because people don’t want to work for that kind of leader.
I had a hunch that there were many talented people out there who were just like me—struggling to find that balance of having a fulfilling career while staying connected to their family and community. So I decided to build a 100% remote company with no headquarters, allowing every employee to work out of their home office.
There were doubters, of course, but the model has worked. SmartBug Media now has more than 70 full-time employees spread across 28 U.S. states and Canada, working with hundreds of national and international clients. Coming off of nearly 60% revenue growth in 2018, more than 100 industry awards and being HubSpot’s Global Partner of the Year, SmartBug’s unique structure and highly engaged workforce allows us to remain flexible, quickly scaling our growth to meet market demands.
A different type of agency
The biggest challenge in managing a remote workforce is the lack of nonverbal communication. You can’t appreciate how important facial cues and body language are until you try running a business without them. To try to replicate that level of intimacy in a remote setting, I decided to structure the company around small teams that could collaborate closely on projects.
We started by eliminating the traditional role of account managers. Every client works directly with a strategist, who is the “CEO” of the account. The strategist, in turn, works with one or two consultants, who bring in all of the other people, such as a graphic designer or paid media specialist, needed to support and deliver a project on time. Each strategist will have between five and seven accounts at any given time.
All of the strategist teams are rolled up under consulting managers. Each consulting manager oversees six to eight strategists, and we let the consulting managers run their teams as if they are running their own businesses. Under this structure, there are only two layers of management for every team, which keeps us nimble, because not every little decision needs to go up the chain of command.
Another advantage to this structure is that it’s very easy to manage growth by spinning off a new team. We can move a long-time employee with a strong understanding of our operations into a lead role and add new capacity around him or her. This adds scale and depth to the new team and accelerates the team’s effectiveness.
Why clear systems and procedures are critical
One of the biggest misconceptions about managing a remote business is that you can’t trust external workers as much as you trust employees that you see in the office every day. In fact, I talked to another agency owner who planned to install a webcam in all of his remote employees’ computers that would take a picture every three minutes to make sure they were in their seats. The idea that you need to babysit your staff is silly.
In a professional services environment, it’s obvious if client work isn’t being completed. The bigger challenge is developing the hand-off between roles that ensures consistent quality and predictable workflows. As a result, we have invested heavily so that everything we do has a system and process that supports it.
We have created measurable steps for every task or project, from giving raises to delivering a product. And each step needs to be completed before you can move on to the next one. For example, if I’m creating a web page, there are certain criteria that need to be met before I can deliver it to the development team.
This step-by-step process helps us maintain consistent quality and lets us see exactly where every deliverable is at all times. Also, by measuring the time spent on each step, we can optimize efficiency, pricing and schedules without compromising quality.
Sparking collaboration through technology
To manage and engage a workforce that is spread out geographically, you need to be proactive and intentional with both internal and external communications. For example, we have a strict schedule that we follow for team meetings, and all meetings have to be on video, not conference calls. That way we can see how team members manage their workspaces and ensure they come to meetings prepared. Because our client meetings are also conducted via video, we want to see what our clients are seeing when they work with our team members.
We also leverage technology to optimize our processes. We do most of our work using HubSpot, a marketing automation platform that supports our sales and marketing teams. But we also use technologies such as Teamwork to collaborate on and track projects, not only internally but with clients as well.
We use Zoom for video conferencing and for internal chats that keep us all connected throughout the day. There are group chats, such as “Shout Outs” to tout great work by colleagues, “Birthdays & Milestones” to celebrate special occasions, and a “Parents Group” to post pictures and share stories about our kids. Some even get together via Zoom on Fridays for a virtual “Happy Hour.”
Finally, every year the entire company gets together for SmartBugapalooza, a four-day retreat at a five-star resort. We fly out every employee plus their significant other and do team-building exercises, go on fun excursions and just generally get to know each other face-to-face. It’s so rewarding to see remote best friends solidify their friendships in person.
The pros and cons of a remote business
There are some distinct advantages to operating a 100% remote agency. I’d say our biggest advantage is that because we aren’t limited by geography, we have access to better talent and can onboard them faster. Also, employee retention is high due to a very positive and supportive workplace culture that enables workers to have both a challenging career and the flexibility to create life memories outside of work.
From a team-building standpoint, there is an energy generated by all the things people are doing with their lives outside of work, and there isn’t as much office politics. People are genuinely interested in and care about their coworkers’ lives and careers.
On the downside, the nonverbal communication thing is tough. You can get around it, but you can’t replace it. For me, though, the hardest part about everyone working from home is not being able to sense when an employee has an issue, take someone to lunch and be a friend or mentor when it’s called for. But you find ways to work around it, and you know that you get to work with the smartest, most dedicated people of your career. In fact, the only time I miss having an office is that last day of SmartBugapalooza, when I have to say goodbye.
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