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Managing a Company Remotely

Operations & Management

Joshua Davidson wrote this article

8 Comments

Since our inception as a company in 2009, we have always been built around two unique business concepts — being agile and being remote. Though many of us on our team consider each other as family members, see each other multiple times per year, work together, have fun together — we are all spread throughout the United States. Our team covers the four major time zones in the country (Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific). We have team members who represent the Bay Area, Southern California, New York City, the Jersey Shore, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, and the Carolinas.

So what is the point of this blog post? It is to educate individuals that running a growing company, completely remote, is not just possible — we are making it happen. Just like with most operation styles, with all the perks come the downsides — all in which I am very transparent about, this is a business model that has allowed us to lay down a foundation to build Chop Dawg to this very point and a cornerstone in which our company will continue to grow (and flourish) with.

1) Benefits

It surprises many individuals, especially seasoned-entrepreneurs, when we tell them that we love being remote. At first glance, you can’t blame people for being rather shocked. Most individuals probably think we’re outsourcing our team to somewhere overseas, we have a nightmare with our time zone differences, and our clients have no true way of being able to communicate with us. All of this could be no further from the truth.

The biggest benefit right off the bat for us is the fact we can attract talent from anywhere in the world, without being restricted by their location. Though I should add, at this time we have only hired individuals based in the United States, even at a one-country level, being able to hire the best programmers from San Francisco while at the same time the best designers from New York City has its perks. From a team member side of things, our team loves it. Outside of client and team meetings, you freely work your own hours. You get to work with wherever you feel most comfortable. As long as you’re a true role player, care about the growth of our company, can properly communicate and most importantly — produce results and meet deadlines, it doesn’t matter where someone is based.

Of course on the business side of things, the amount of savings we have as a company compared to another overhead is astronomical. We don’t pay for a huge warehouse for our team to work from. We don’t drive to work everyday. We don’t need to worry about being robbed. Our overhead costs are payroll, server costs, insurances and paying taxes every quarter. That is about it. This allows us to naturally keep our costs lower when quoting our clients and gives us more flexibility to pour expenses into things such as company growth, advertising, marketing, branding, events, traveling, etc.

2) Disadvantages

Though being remote has some amazing benefits, it does offer a few disadvantages, some of which we are still trying to conquer and figure out better solutions too. One of the biggest disadvantages is simply not working face-to-face. Though some of us will get together, work together for a time period — it isn’t the same as being in an office, a main location working together. This requires much more detail when it goes into internal communications and project management.

Another huge disadvantage is truly learning about an individual. Human-nature allows us to form judgments of others based on their body language, enthusiasm, the way they dress, the way they act. When you’re behind a computer screen, it is much harder. Of course in 2014, it is easier than before to learn about people thanks to social media, webcam tools such as Google Hangouts, even basic common sense items such as resumes and referrals — you are still receiving a cloudy, curated picture of an individual unlike as if you were able to sit aside him/her in person.

3) Communicating

As a growing company, communication is vital to our long-term success. One of the most important things that we focused on in the beginning was how to build a strong foundation for our entire team to easily communicate to other team members — and as well a place for us to remain organized throughout all the different projects that we are working on in a day.

We’ve experimented with different platforms in the past with tools such as Campfire and TeamSpeak. Each had positives but negatives always came too. Early this year, we discovered an application called HipChat. We’ve been hooked on it since and it is now an asset to our company operations.

What is HipChat and why does it help us? HipChat is kind of like a glorified instant messaging platform. This is great for real-time communications. It does things that you would expect such as showing who on the team is available in real-time, communicate to individuals in real-time, ability to share any kind of file, share URLs, all through one tool. What makes it truly an asset for us though is the project management side of things. We are able to setup channels, and we have a dedicated channel for each individual project that is currently active at Chop Dawg. It gives individuals the ability to personally communicate one-on-one privately. It holds an incredible search functionality that will search through anything and everything on HipChat — and above all, it can be used on any platform. It has a web application, iOS application, Android application, Mac application and Windows application. This provides us with consistent communications no matter what platforms we are on.

When it comes to company meetings, we will primarily use Google Hangouts. Google Hangouts for the most part is great. It allows us to chat face-to-face (virtually), share text/links with each other, screenshare, etc. Google Hangouts also offers native mobile apps for when on the road and the ability for individuals to call-in (or be called in) as if you were using a conference line. We use Google Hangouts for both our internal team meetings and for meetings with clients. Our clients feel fondly about it too.

The only downside to Google Hangouts is occasionally it is a bit laggy. You’ll occasionally see Google Hangouts slow down to a crawl or worse, hear the echo of doom as we like to call it (where you can’t speak because you’ll hear yourself speaking on basically a tape delay). Outside of those minor inconveniences, it is certainly worth using.

Lastly, we still use email. If you read my previous blog post, you’ll know that we actually enjoy email since we know how to take full advantage of the value it can offer us. We don’t use email as much internally — but externally, email is always our number one solution. We use it for client communication, potential client acquisitions, media discussions, third-party conversations and more. I highly recommend if you didn’t read my recent post about emails that you do so next.

4) Organization

One of our favorite tools for data management, especially when we are working with our clients is Google Drive (originally named Google Docs). Google Drive really comes in handy during the wireframing and high fidelity mockup stages of our projects. It allows us to share unique URLs to our clients — which are setup privately so only those with specified emails have access. It gives everyone the ability to view the files in real-time, leave real-time feedback on the files, and view older versions to compare the progress being made. In addition, the perk of having your files backed up by Google is a major plus.

We also use Google Drive when it comes to tracking project progress — both internally and with our clients. Google Drive offers real-time editing word documents which allows us to record all pending tasks, mark our questions/concerns/feedback, leave the amount of progress completed on a particular task — and accomplish all of this in real-time. We pretty much use this for all projects, and it really comes in handy. You’re able to see who is viewing a document in real-time, leave feedback just like with the files above, and version control to see which individuals are updating the documents with their progress (or additional/edited tasks).

HipChat, the tool mentioned previously for our internal communications, also has a great built-in data management tool. You can view, in individual channels, a quick glance at all files and all URLs previously shared. It will tell you at quick glance who shared it, when it was shared, what kind of file it is, the name of the file and the ability to quickly click on it (which will open a new tab on your browser to review). This is great for when you need to grab information quickly or track how progress is being made.

Of course with a company such as ours, we deal with terabytes of data each and everyday. We actually use a non disclosed amount of servers that we use for development purposes, backup purposes, sales purposes and most important — hosting purposes. The process that goes into managing this particular data, the security that goes behind it, and everything else in-between we can save for a later blog post.

5) Culture

Company culture is huge when it comes to the future growth of your company and overall, the amount of enjoyment you have. If you don’t look forward to waking up in the morning, something might be wrong. It has been our goal as a company since day one to not only do things that make us feel fulfilled, to make a difference, but as well, to seriously have fun with our jobs, too.

One of the things we try to accomplish as a company is a very laid back atmosphere, especially on our tools such as HipChat. Mentioned earlier is how we have individual channels for each of our projects — but we also have an individual channel just for everyone to relax, talk to each other, and have some fun. You’ll often discover ridiculous animated gifs in this channel, talking smack about how the Philadelphia Eagles will be next year’s Super Bowl champions, about how Android is (and isn’t) better than iOS, etc. This is critical. It allows individuals who go through the blood, sweat and tears together some critical time to just be themselves and enjoy one another’s company. It makes our team just a bit stronger and more connected.

We also have been aggressively trying to do more company outings where we can get as much of the team, if not the whole team together to meet each other in person every now and then to do something enjoyable. A few years back when the team was smaller, we did a team get together at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey for their annual Halloween event. We have had team trips to Boston to catch a game at Fenway Park. We have had team BBQs on the beach in our home state. We’ve attended events such as StartupGrind in Palo Alto, California — taken a weekend trip to meet our clients in Los Angeles. Though for some individuals this may look like an unnecessary expense, to us we look at it as a way to keep our team closer, to build a stronger bond together and as well, a great way to relax after the grind that we go through when building companies day-in and day-out. It has great benefits.

Being remote has some serious benefits. Since the beginning of Chop Dawg, we knew this would make the most sense for us as a modern day company. We’re built around the web, why can’t we leverage the web in our company operations too? Though we aren’t sure in the years ahead we will always be primarily remote (we realize that as our team expands, the more difficult being completely remote can be), it has provided us with so much value, scalability in low cost management, and the comfort of being able to work from wherever in the world we want to work — it is truly a disruptive model that we have had fun exploring as our own company grows with it too. I would argue that our entire foundation as a company has been laid because of our tactics of being a remote, agile company. It is a business model that for most modern-day businesses, especially online-based businesses, I would recommend for entrepreneurs to consider.

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There are over 8 comments. on this article. Join in on the discussion!
  • Mike said:

    Very usefull and encouraging. Thanks for transparency Joshua.
    Any other tools to recommend to remain organised throughout all the different projects ?

    • Joshua Davidson said:

      Thanks for the kind words man. Honestly those are about it. We basically use email, HipChat, Google Hangouts and SMS/Cellular for all of our communications (though each has it’s own purpose) and our server + Google Drive for organizational reasons. I think if we added anymore, it would instead clutter vs allowing us to be truly productive.

  • Hi!

    Nice post. Your culture seems much like ours at Deveo. I would like to point one thing we are doing differently though. As you talked about using hipchat in internal communication and email in external, we have tried to close the gap between these two by giving our customers and parnters access to our flowdock (similar tool to hipchat). You can restrict the visibility so that our customers and partners can only see one flow that they can use to get in touch with us. The benefits are obvious: 1) there’s a track record that is visible to everyone, not just the recipients, and 2) the feedback cycle between contact and reply is typically much shorter.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Thanks for your post Joshua, very informative and encouraging. We run an Australian based product design consultancy that operates in the same way. We definitely find the advantages (lifestyle, speed, staff quality etc.) outweigh the negatives (face to face comms, client perception).

    We push the fact that we do focused, global standard work in a super efficient and cost effective manner. Most clients would agree that this is true.

    Cheers,

    Nathan.

  • Ed Williams said:

    Well written!

    It’s interesting to see the different tools used across remote teams. Google Drive seems to be a staple. We hold a lot of our documents and other information there. We also use a set of Vanilla forums and recently moved from GroupMe to Slack for real-time communication. Slack has proven itself to be a little slice of Heaven. And it’s free. Doesn’t get any better!

    Hangouts can be a little frumpy. We’ve had issues with dropped calls, video feed not coming through, lag, and other issues. Even with 2 people it hiccups. Not sure if that’s a connection issue or Google needing to fine tune that thing. We since switched to one of our team member’s Mumble server. The audio is crystal clear and we’re able to record meetings to reference later.

    It really does depend on the individual start-up’s needs that determines what platforms, services, and tools would be best for them. It’s trial and error. Just like an office building. Where one meeting room might work for the first 3 months until you find out you’ve outgrown it and need to look into something different. And for those reasons scaling is so important to keep in mind. What might work for 2-4 people may not be the best option for 25. And what was free before may require a service that has some overhead.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject! Great to see blog posts like this with the growing number of start-ups doing this.

  • Any particular reason you guys chose HipChat over the more popular Slack? Interested to hear your thoughts…

    • Joshua Davidson said:

      To be perfectly honest with you… we were most familiar with HipChat at the time we decided this would be the most ideal route to go internally. Slack looks awesome and indeed has some GREAT functionalities that we would love. However with that said, we’ve strongly developed a culture using HipChat and have seem productive results. It would be counterproductive for us at this point to switch gears and move towards Slack, even with us being technically-savvy.

  • andrea giselle said:

    Interesting ! Just to add my thoughts , if someone require to merge two PDF files , my company found a tool here http://goo.gl/n7VuFD.

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