Interview: 90 Digital

90 Digital

90 Digital is a successfully distributed SEO agency with a team of people. You can find them in Twitter and his own site.

1. Could you please introduce you? What’s the name of your company, what do you do, how many are you, from where do you work?

I’m Aferdita Pacrami, the CEO of 90 Digital.  90 Digital is an integrated SEO agency, that means that while our core capability is improving the visibility of businesses on search we use our diverse skillset to achieve our search engine optimisation goals. By incorporating PR, reputation management, web development, conversion optimisation, and social we help our diverse clients get more traction from search.

We’re a team of 20 and while we have offices in Leeds and London our team is based all over the world working from home, cowork spaces, the odd cafe while between trips and meetings, and at times maybe even our office.

2. How, when and why did you become a remote team or distributed company with employees working remotely?  

Although we didn’t actively decide on this we actually started out as a remote team. At the start there was only three of us one of which was travelling throughout Asia and myself and the founder Nick Garner would occasionally meet up in Twickenham in an office we temporarily set up shop in (we took up two desks in AnalyticsSEO’s offices). In those days I mainly spent a lot of my time at the Barbican, British Library or anywhere else with decent internet, free space, good coffee and delicious cakes (albeit a bit overpriced).

A few months later we’d found our permanent home sharing an office in Marylebone with a PR agency. This was our closest to having a ‘traditional’ work environment. While we all commuted to one office we decided early on that we didn’t want a forced work schedule, that meant that we could come in and leave at a time that suited us and work from home if we didn’t fancy the commute. This was amazing for me, previously working in an office in Holborn having to do that commute during London rush hour was a complete nightmare Now I would get in outside the usual rush hour and make my commute much more comfortable and shorter and when there were days that I just couldn’t sacrifice that 1.5 hour round trip I’d just work from home.

Shortly after I decided I wanted to leave London entirely and move to the north, it was just four of us at this point and there was really no question at all of whether this would work out or not, so I moved.

I guess you could say our decision to be a remote team just kind of happened, we were a new business and we all had big ideas about how we wanted to live our lives and run the business. We didn’t know how remote organisations worked at that time we just realised it worked for us. Shortly after I moved we started to ask questions about the future of work and if we can grow as a business and fully embrace a remote and flexible culture. This is when we started to recruit people globally instead of just London and for me this was the point when we really upped our game. We’d been struggling to find the right kind of talent in London so by removing the geographic barriers we were able to find a much bigger pool of smart creatives that bought into our ideology. This was around Autumn 2012, less than a year after we started the agency.

3. Which have been the advantages to become a remote company or having a distributed team?

The biggest advantage is just having more talented people to choose from. By not being limited to location we’re able to look for smart creatives anywhere in the world, the only constant criteria being language and fast internet connection.

The other massive advantage is the quality of people that do end up working with us. Because we’re giving people freedom and accountability we’ve found that the individuals that do make it through the testing phase are of a much higher caliber. As glamorous as remote working sounds it’s tough to actually make it work, to be motivated enough to get on with your day without having anyone to watch over you is harder than it sounds. So the guys in our team are passionate about what they do and they have self accountability. This means that we don’t have any need for middle managers. Because of the structure we’ve set up it means that our agency is made up of people with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Finally, we’ve got significantly reduced overheads. While we do still have an office in London and Leeds those spaces are considerably smaller than they would be if we put everyone into one building. Rent in London is crazy and with all that money we save we can use it to organise meetups with everyone, this year we all hung out in a villa in Italy for a week, just living working and going out together. To me that’s much more meaningful than having an office with a pool table in it.

4. Have there been any disadvantages and obstacles? How have you overcome these challenges?

The biggest challenge we faced was the social aspect of working. A job isn’t (or shouldn’t be) just about the work you do and making money. You spend a large part of your life working, obviously it’s important – and generally healthy – to do something that you enjoy but you also want to like the people you’re spending this time with. By eliminating a central meeting space it’s made it difficult for everyone to get to know each other in a similar way you would if you were sitting next to them.

To overcome this we take full advantage of tools built specifically for this purpose: Skype, Hangouts, chat (we use HipChat), PingBoard etc. Of course it’s not enough to just have these tools available, what you’ll find is few people actually use them or people aren’t sure how to use them, are these tools specifically for work related discussions or can you use them just to joke around? You can’t really ask people to be social and hang out together but if you encourage and start conversations people will follow. If you take the time to skype someone just to chat, get to know them, joke around they’ll quickly learn that it’s ok to do this and they won’t be so worried about sharing an irreverent reddit thread, or silly listicles, or generating internal memes. The good thing about chat rooms or IM is that if someone is busy they don’t need to respond right away but that doesn’t mean they’re not laughing at your joke.

We’ve also started implementing happy hour. It’s just a hangout on Friday afternoons that doesn’t really have any purpose besides being a virtual room where people can pop in and out of if they just want some company. The biggest thing that we miss are the impromptu conversations that sometimes happen in an office so we’re trying to find ways to emulate that.

To add to this, I’ve found that it’s incredibly valuable to actually make the time to meet face to face whether it’s through various conferences that we go to throughout the year, or organised work camps, or even just visiting someone’s city and making time to meet up while travelling. This helps us build on the connections we’ve made virtually.

Another massive challenge is hiring. We’ve had to turn down some incredibly talented people because they can’t work in this kind of environment. Whether it’s because they need more structure to their day, clearer hierarchy and more defined management or because they themselves consider the next stage in their career being a manager and we don’t do managers… we have a step up, step down approach to management where everyone is considered a producer but if they want to take on account management responsibilities or lead a small team internally they can reduce part of their workload to do this. However, being an account manager, or manager isn’t considered the next step in your career progression (for us at least), constantly developing your skills and getting stuff done is where it’s at for us. We understand that this isn’t for everyone and while it’s a shame not to be able to bring someone on that we all really like it’s more important for us to maintain our ecosystem. This doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, they just prefer a different working style to our.

Sometimes it’s really apparent from the interview stage but other times it’s hard to tell if someone will be a good cultural fit, at times they don’t even know it themselves. So whenever we want to bring someone in the team different people will meet them during the interview stage, then we bring them in on small but important projects. Instead of being given insignificant projects they hit the ground running on critical work. Because our internal teams are small enough it means that it becomes apparent very quickly whether someone is pulling their own weight or is lagging, and it becomes really easy to find out if someone fits in with the remote working culture. We’ve incorporated an agile approach in this way. By getting new starters to work on a project basis we’re able to identify wins and losses and swiftly move on if someone hasn’t worked out. By not making a huge commitment from either side this means that if we need to go our separate ways at the end of the trial this is done a lot more easily and smoothly.

This is very different from the traditional approach of having a 3-6 month probation period. If you have to quit your job or relocate to start working at a new place and you live the next 3-6 months in worry that you might be let go any day with minimum notice you’re not going to be that happy. Or if you find that that employer isn’t the right fit for you you’ll be less likely to leave because you’ve already invested so much. Similarly for employers, if you spend a lot of time searching, interviewing, or going through a recruitment agency and then again with training and integrating someone in your business. By eliminating the commitment from both groups we’ve made the process of hiring a lot more fluid.

5. How do you do to operate effectively as a remote or distributed team? Have you modified the processes, tools, organization and internal activities?

Bringing in the right people into our team is the main reason we’re able to operate effectively. We could introduce so many processes to make sure we’re efficient but all that would mean is that we would need heavier management and ultimately, remote working just wouldn’t work. However, because the people in our team are inwardly motivated things just get done. This doesn’t just happen though, we need to make sure we’ve got the right recruitment processes in place to find the right people.

Once they’re in it’s a case of making them feel like they’re part of something so everything from the work that you do to strategic business decisions are open to discussion. So decisions are made by everyone instead of being dictated from the top down. Plus, we’re transparent with the work that we do, everyone knows what everyone else is working on that way, it’s the team as a whole that calls someone up and tries to fix problems if something isn’t getting done or isn’t working instead of the boss.

So for the most part, it’s not exactly processes or tools that help us operate effectively, it’s mainly the culture that we’ve built. Having said that, we do rely on tools to help us achieve the above.

We need to make sure all our files are accessible to everyone so we use Google Drive. For communication we use gmail, Skype, Hangouts, and HipChat (similar to Slack). We use Pingboard to keep track of where everyone is in the world and just to have a virtual directory of everyone. We use Breeze (similar to Trello but a nicer GUI IMHO) to keep track of projects, our development teams use Jira.

The biggest challenges for remote teams are being able to collaborate and communicate so all the tools we use help us effectively do this. Everyone has access to all documents and project information and knows who’s working on what. Each project has a project manager that’s responsible to coordinating everything and everyone for that project, this part is exactly the same as what you’d get in a normal office.

We’ve experimented using group time tracking apps like Toggle but ultimately decided that went against the culture we wanted to push. Something that I feel very strongly about is that the quantity of time you spend working doesn’t directly relate to how good a job you’re doing. One person could take half as long to do the exact same task as someone else and the end result could be exactly the same. As long as everyone meets deadlines and is able to take on a realistic amount of work without others having to pick up the slack for them and can work at a high standard I don’t really care how much or little time their spend at work. If people work quickly they can choose to spend their time learning new skills by working on projects they have little experience on, helping others out, or just taking the time off and because there isn’t constant pressure to work fast so you can take on more work people don’t feel pressured if it takes them a little longer to get things done.

Having said that, I personally use Focus Booster because I like the way it breaks up my day into regular slots of complete concentration with regular breaks. I know some people in the team do like to use Toggle as well for helping them structure their time and see where they can improve.

6. How do you do to hiring remotely? What’s the process that you follow?

This is probably the trickiest part of being a remote team. There aren’t any recruitment agencies or jobs boards that we can go to that cater to what we’re looking for. A lot of people will recommend Upwork but this really isn’t right for us and it’s not just because of the quality of the applicants (you can actually find really good quality people there) but because they’ve got more of a freelancer mentality which isn’t exactly what we’re looking for.

To me, there’s a difference between being a freelancer and a remoter. Freelancers typically work for themselves whereas remoters (to me at least) are part of a team, that’s what I’m looking for, someone that’ll be part of my team and get involved with our culture and all the non-work stuff we do.

There are a few jobs boards that do market themselves as being for remoters but we’ve found that a lot of people on there are still ‘freelancers’. It also seems like the majority of remote work is for developers so finding people can be a little challenging.

So we have a team of recruiters that are always looking out for smart creatives. When we’re actively recruiting for a role they do look at various freelancer sites, as well as linkedin, twitter etc. Then they’ll have a chat with them, explain the way we work and what we’re looking for from a candidate. This is a pretty informal interview and it’s mainly to gage if someone would fit into our ecosystem. If everyone’s happy after this call then there’ll be a second call with the person they’ll be more closely working with. This is the more formal stage of the interview. After that I might get involved in a final call with them and anyone else that’ll be working with them. This call is more of a formality really because the decision should have been made in the last call. This is more so that they can meet a few more people in the team or if anyone does have any last objections this is the place to raise them. Our motto for recruitment is “if it’s a maybe it’s a no”. That means if anyone that’s spoken to the candidate has any legitimate reservations and can’t be persuaded otherwise by others then we won’t pursue them.

When we start to work with people we always like to start on small but critical projects. Since most of the people we speak to are freelancers they need to choose us as much as we choose them. This gives them a chance to check us out and what it’s like to work with us before making a commitment, and vice versa for us.

7. What would you say to companies that don’t believe to hire employees who work remotely?

For us, becoming a remote team was a great decision. We’ve found a great team of people that all believe in the future of work, everyone’s very invested in building a great environment, the quality of work hasn’t decreased and in many ways has improved (more accountability from people means that decisions don’t get made by HiPPOS and it’s the best idea that we implement), and we’re all able to fit work around our lives. Having said that I do know that it’s not for everyone and definitely shouldn’t be a decision taken lightly.

I would seriously evaluate what barriers companies have towards working remotely. If it’s because they think that their employees wouldn’t work if they were working remotely then I’d say that just being in an office doesn’t prevent this at all, the only thing that puts a stop to this is having the right people. I’ve been in plenty of offices where any time the boss wasn’t around people would just sit back and do nothing, literally. I’ve even seen some very creative ways of people slacking off when their bosses are in the room. Just having everyone in one space doesn’t mean work gets done, I’d even argue that with the right people work gets done much more efficiently if they are allowed to work how they want.

If companies are worried that they don’t have the right infrastructure to hire people remotely I can understand that and I wouldn’t try and convince them to change. This isn’t a decision that should be taken lightly because it can fail spectacularly without the right motivations and company culture. I would just ask people to have an open mind and look into what could help them be a remove organisation (even just partly), because the benefits are huge if they’re willing to put in the effort.

8. How do you manage the business, salaries and things like taxes as a remote company?

This is probably the hardest bit for us because no country has really any decent legislation for this. For anyone that’s based in the UK it’s simple, it’s a standard employee contract, monthly salaries, with taxes paid via PAYE. For everyone outside the UK it’s a lot more difficult because we’re not a registered company in all these other countries and don’t have offices there. So our best solution for this is bringing them in as contractors under a freelancer agreement and they handle their own taxes through the equivalent to HMRC self assessment in their respective countries.

We have a small accounting team which is actually the only team in our company that’s office based in Leeds (our London office is almost always empty except for when we have meetings or if a bunch of us are passing through London) and they pay the salaries. They’re crazy busy for two weeks of every month because they need to handle all payments and since we’re dealing with international people that sometimes work in different currencies we make sure we’re flexible with how they’re paid so it’s whatever suits them best whether it’s bank transfers, paypal, skrill, transferwise, money wallets or whatever else.

Overall management of the business isn’t really a difficult one, like all our meetings we speak on skype, we’re transparent with everyone about any strategic decisions we’re making and make sure we’re available to answer any questions and make sure everyone understands why we’re making these decisions.

9. What advice would you give to companies that are starting to work remotely or establishing a distributed team? 

All companies are different and I’d recommend experimenting to find what works for you and your team. Don’t be dismayed if you’ve followed what another successful company has done and it doesn’t work for you; there isn’t a blueprint for this.