Mike Arnesen is the founder (and CEO) of UpBuild a technical marketing company operating remotely, with a team of 5 across the US. You can find him in his own Twitter & Google+, as well as the UpBuild’s Twitter & Google+.
1. What does your company do, how many are you, from where do you work?
I frequently refer to us as a technical marketing company and what that means is that our specialty is where the skill sets of marketers and web developers overlap. Our deep expertise is in SEO, web analytics, and conversion rate optimization. A year ago, UpBuild was just me. Today we have five people!
Since you’re reading this on Remoters, you might be able to guess where we work. Anywhere! We have team members in Portland, Denver, and Oklahoma City. At the moment, I’m living and working remotely all around the United States.
I’m traveling with my wife and our two dogs and we’re visiting exciting cities around the country (we started in Portland, OR and have been to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, Austin, and now New Orleans..
I get up early and work either in the hotel or in a local coffee shop, and then my wife and I go see the city in the afternoon and enjoy exploring all day on the weekends! It was a bit of an adjustment not having a stable work location, but it’s been going great and I’ve learned a lot about when and how I do my best work.
2. How, when and why did you become a distributed company?
UpBuild has been an intentionally distributed company from Day 1.
My intention with UpBuild has always been to create an environment where the best technical marketers in the world can work and thrive. I not only want to support my team by enabling them to spend their time working on client accounts they are proud to work on, but give them the freedom to work when and where they need to in order to do their best work.
Another reason we’re distributed is that it saves us a ton of money! The overhead on an office is huge (especially in Portland) and I assure you that UpBuild wouldn’t have survived year one if we’d had to pay office rent.
I used to worry that not having an office would deter clients from taking us seriously, but we’ve never had a client express hesitation or concern when they learn that we’re a distributed team without a physical office; not having an office space doesn’t make UpBuild any less real!
I’ve found that the available technology makes being a distributed team completely possible and even advantageous (though it’s not without its challenges). As we bring new team members on board, I don’t want to be limited by geography. If there’s someone in the Austin, Texas who’s going to be a better fit and provide greater value to our clients than anyone I can find in Portland (where we’re based on paper), I want the person from the Austin!
3. Which have been the advantages to become a remote company?
The advantages are plenty! Like I said before, having everyone work remotely allows us to hire the best team members, regardless of where they’re located. It also gives team members a few hours back each day because they don’t have to commute.
Another big advantage is that being a remote/distributed company has taught us how to collaborate and communicate extremely effectively over digital channels. I never gave much thought to this when I worked in an office, but in an office it’s really easy to just walk over to the your teammate’s desk to chat about a client or ask a question. It then becomes just as easy to forget that your clients don’t get that benefit; they rarely see you face-to-face. In an office, electronic communication is only part of your day and it’s easy to forget that clients typically only “see” you as text in their inbox.
Having remote collaboration embedded in our DNA makes UpBuild really great at virtual communication both internally and externally. Our clients have commented that it’s so much easier to work with us and feel in the loop than with previous consultancies, and I think being distributed is the reason why.
4. Have there been any disadvantages and obstacles? How have you overcome these challenges?
There have been challenges, for sure. However, most of them have been solved by just adjusting to new ways of doing things. Defining a really solid project management methodology has been crucial, as well as carefully vetting the communication tools we use. Taking the time to define our culture has also been a great way to make sure we all feel like we’re on the same page, even when we’re spread out across three (or more) time zones.
One challenge that we’ve had to deal with is figuring out exactly when we work. Since we have people in different timezones and we support our team in traveling while working, we need to have flexibility but we also need to have some kind of regularity. We all collaborate a lot, so we need to specify when everyone can be online together. To solve that, we developed “office hours”. Those are the hours when we’re all online together for instant communication and meetings. The tricky part is that we had to make sure it worked across timezones.
What we finally settled on is having “office hours” that span five and a half hours during the day. If you’re in Portland, “office hours” are 9am until 2:30pm but if you’re in New York, it’s noon until 5:30pm. That’s when you need to be online so that you’re available to the rest of the team; all your other work can be done whenever you work best. You can start really early or work really late; it’s up to you.
UpBuild’s office hours:
5. How do you do to operate effectively as a remote or distributed team?
The key to effective operation is communication. We use HipChat for our daily back and forth. Within HipChat, we have rooms for each client so teams can quickly collaborate and we have a general chat for company updates, humor, sharing industry news, and anything else. At the beginning of each day, we submit a virtual standup report in HipChat so we all know what we’re working on.
Beyond that, we use Trello to keep track of our projects, Google+ hangouts for face-to-face meetings and screen-sharing, and Skype & UberConference for video/conference calls.
We also have company-wide meetings (using Google+ hangouts) each week on Tuesdays and Thursday so I can give the team company news and the team can share what they’re working on.
6. How do you do to hiring remotely? What’s the process that you follow?
We do plenty of Google+ hangouts during the interview process, that’s for sure! It’s important that we get the chance to read nonverbal communication during the interview process, so video is key. We’ll generally have two or more one-on-one interviews with a candidate and then allow the team to interview them in their own group hangout as well.
Once we decide to make the hire, we send offer letters via Docusign so we can all sign them electronically. After that, our payroll solution, JustWorks, makes it really easy to do virtual onboarding for HR and payroll.
7. What would you say to companies that don’t believe to hire employees who work remotely?
I’d say that I understand the hesitation! We’ve been fortunate so far in hiring people who thrive on working remotely, but I don’t think it’s necessarily for everyone. For example, people who just thrive on being in the same room as other people probably wouldn’t do well. Folks who get easily distracted and need more hands on management would struggle with remoting as well.
However, I think if you take the time to carefully and intentionally fill your team with people you feel great about, remote working is awesome.
8. Which are the tools that you use or help you to work remotely?
Our must-have tools are:
- HipChat – For instant messaging
- Codepen.io – For collaborating on code
- Google+ Hangouts – For video calls
- Skype – For voice and (more) video calls
- Sunrise – For quickly scheduling meetings based on our availability
- Google Docs – For collaborating on documents (with other team members and/or clients)
- Trello – For project management
- Everhour – For tracking our time
- Workfrom.co – For finding great places to work on the go.
9. How do you manage the business, salaries and things like taxes as a remote company?
We use JustWorks to manage our payroll, employment-related tax filings, and HR needs like paid time off. We also use TravelingMailbox (we learned about it from Buffer!) for receiving mail and invoice payments at a virtual mailbox.
10. What advice would you give to companies that are starting to work remotely or establishing a distributed team?
Experiment with different ways of communicating to see what works for your team. You’ll also have to find the perfect balance of how much communication you need. Do you need every single thought documented or do you not care at all as long as you’re hitting goals? Your sweet spot is probably somewhere in the middle.
As a founder or manager, you might also have to overcome the fear of not knowing exactly what people are doing all the time. It requires a lot of trust and bit of letting go. If you take the time to think on it and find that you truly trust your team, you have nothing to worry about when converting to a distributed team!