Interview: Michael Cottam

Michael Cottam: Technical SEO ConsultantMichael Cottam is a technical SEO consultant, owner of his own consultancy company OzTech Inc. You can read more about him on his own site, LinkedIn or in twitter.

1. How did you started working remotely? How did you do the switch?

In 2009, after selling the online travel company I co-founded, I started getting requests from people I knew to help them with SEO for their sites–as they knew that organic search had been what built my travel company, and that I’d “gone to school” on SEO in building that website and business.  

At the same time, I became a Moz Associate, having had known Rand and his team since a little after he founded Moz.  As a one-person consulting business back then, I didn’t need an office, and just worked out of my home.

2. Which are the main advantages that you find that remote work has?

Time savings–zero commute!  And since I’m home all the time, I don’t need to find after school care for my son.

3. Do you think you have disadvantages or that you’re missing something by working remotely?

I do miss the social aspect of working in an office.  I do get my “fix” when I go to various search marketing conferences, but that’s just 3-4 times a year.  I’ve been a Rotarian now for 14 years, and the weekly lunch meetings are another way I regain that social bit that I don’t get working from home.

Now that I have 4 employees (all of whom work remotely too), I do find that it’s difficult at times to coordinate projects, especially brainstorming and training.  Most of this we can do fine via web conference, but sometimes it really helps to have everyone in the room.

4. From which cities or countries have you worked from since you have become remote? Which has been your favorite one?

Portland, Oregon, and now Bend, Oregon.  Bend is definitely my favorite–from my office window in my house, I look out into the Deschutes National Forest.

5. From which type of place do you prefer to work from? Coworking spaces, coffee shops or others? Do you have any specific place?

I work purely from home.  I’m not a fan of laptop keyboards, nor tiny laptop screens.  I find it a lot easier to work from a desktop PC, with multiple big screens and a decent keyboard.

6. Which places would you like to travel to while working remotely or working from?

I’ve become pretty disciplined about keeping my work and my family life separate.  When I travel, I’m off the clock…I leave my work at my desk.  The exception would be traveling to conferences (MozCon and SMX Advanced in Seattle, Engage in Portland, and Swivel here in Bend).  I’ll admit to sort of keeping up with email while I’m traveling on vacation, but I’m pretty good about not actually doing “work work”.

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

I would say that you need to evaluate the employee’s personal discipline and self-management skills.  Not everyone is good at shutting out the distractions and staying focused.  Having kids around you when you’re working can be a distraction.  And some people need the energy of others around them working to “get their motor going”.

The original “remoter” job was probably the traveling salesperson–and there’s plenty of successful examples of those out there to show that it CAN work for the right kind of person.

I’m very good at being disciplined with my time–it definitely helps that I bill by the minute, and so I’m always conscious of whether I’m really working or not.  And when I’m heads-down on a project, there are far less distractions than there would be if I were in an office environment.

8. Which tools do you use to work remotely?

We use Harvest for time-tracking and invoicing.  This has been a godsend for handling all of the little projects and different people on the projects (all remote), as typically we’ll be invoicing 50-60 clients for at least a little work every month (and there’s 5 of us).

Because I’m in the SEO space, I use the usual tools there: Screaming Frog, Moz Pro and Local, AHREFS, Kerboo LinkRisk. And because I also do a fair bit of web development, all the usual web developer tools as well.

I use Vonage for phone calls (I have a lot of clients overseas, so free overseas calls is a good thing); Skype and for web conferences.  I have 100MB cable internet, and two Vonage phone lines over that internet.

The first week I moved to Bend, I lost power for 3 days and we had 3 feet of snow on the ground.  That inspired me to get a propane-powered 20KW generator and some good quality uninterruptible power supplies.  Now, I’m really only dependent upon the cable internet staying up (and it has been very reliable), and I can keep working through power outages as long as a week or two.

9. How do you manage your business and taxes as a remote working professional?

I outsource payroll to Paychex, and taxes to my accountant–who says “I like to think of a tax return as merely our first offer!”

10. What advice would you give to people looking to work remotely and companies doing the remote switch?

  • For the employee: You get back a lot of time every day by not having to commute.  And, you lower your stress level for the same reason.  Add to that you’re being more “green” as you’re not consuming any resources going back and forth to the office.  You still need to find ways to get socialization/networking to happen, and that takes being a bit proactive.  You need to be able to be disciplined with yourself and your time, but the quality of life benefits are terrific.
  • For the company: With the right kind of employee, you’ll get more productivity out of the employee as they will have fewer distractions.  Jobs where creativity and extended periods of intense concentration are key are well-suited for remote workers.  You do have to make a conscious effort, however, to keep the remote workers in touch with the rest of the company, and feeling like a part of the company.

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