Interview: PushFire

PushfireSean Dolan runs the operations for PushFire, Inc. a boutique Internet Marketing agency in Katy, Texas. With a team of 8, they offer PPC Management, SEO Audits, and Web Design & Development.

They all work remotely from their own homes, and the 5 full-time team members spend their daily working hours hundreds of miles away from each other, but they might as well be in the same room.

You can find Sean in Twitter and LinkedIn, and more about PushFire in their site.

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

Well, unfortunately we came to this realization one-year into a three-year lease. In 2013, we found this amazing office in Katy, Texas.

Sean DolanIt was formerly a chiropractor’s office, and had this amazing vibe of happiness and health. It came furnished, and no joke, it had showers and saunas upstairs. It was gorgeous.

About a year in, we realized that we were all getting dressed up, getting in our cars, and driving to an office to speak with clients hundreds of miles away. Our price range isn’t right for mom-and-pop operations, so our location had zero impact on lead generation.

I also found that the talent pool was limited to a 30 – 45 minute drive to work, which made it hard to find the best people. Before we made the jump, I called up the one client that did come meet us at our office before signing with us. I asked him what impact our office had on him deciding whether to work with us. “None” he said, “You were referred by Steve (another PushFire client), I trust Steve, it didn’t make any difference”. That sealed the deal for us.

We sent everyone home, and for two years we’ve been paying for a beautifully empty office, with no regrets . . . other than not negotiating for a shorter lease! Our lease is up in a few months, so we’re pumped about that.

Once that happens, we’re looking at office expense savings of $5,000 per month, or $60,000 per year. So after two years of an empty office, that’ll be a $120,000 lesson.

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

The first sign that we made the right decision in going remote came in these little moments shared by our staff.

One of our team members had a new member of the family the prior year. One day he Skyped me and said “I just heard my daughter’s first words”. That really impacted me. He would have completely missed that moment, if he was in an office. I’ll never forget that.

Another team member explained how much more time they had with their children after work-hours. She explained that she could keep up with laundry throughout the day. It only takes a few minutes away from the keyboard to run a load of laundry, but at the end of the day, she didn’t have a ton of chores piled up, and the stress that goes along with that. By the time her daughter came home from daycare they could have stress-free quality time together.

A third team member told me that his wife mentioned how much more fulfilling their weekends were. For similar reasons of being able to keep up with household items during the day. If the cable guy is coming by for an install, or landscaper needs a check, no problem, just a few minutes away from the keyboard, and you’ve opened up countless hours of your weekend. Instead of waking up Saturday morning with a mile-long honey-do list, he was able to check many things off the list during the week, and actually relax with his wife over the weekend.

Come Monday, our team is fired up and ready, no “case of Mondays” here. It’s fantastic.

Case of Mondays

This lady is the #1 reason to work from home.

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

Remote work requires the right personalities. It doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve had bad hires, where it was clear they required more handholding than I could give, and without that they couldn’t find their own direction to accomplish client tasks.

I had to let these people go, but accepted that it was my fault for not hiring better. They need to have a fire in their belly, and a passion for the work, or it becomes a disadvantage. If I have to check in every half-hour to get them back on track, that’s not the right recruit.

They need to be able to ask for help. I make it very clear to my team that I don’t know everything, and they don’t know everything. But, as a team, we can get pretty damn close. As a remote employee it’s important to lean on your teammates not only for learning, but also for efficiency. If a candidate is not comfortable reaching out for help, they’re probably not a good fit.

You can test this out in the interview process by asking impossible questions, and seeing if the candidates admits they don’t know the answer, or stumbled their way through a terrible one. The answer “I don’t know,” when it’s not job-critical knowledge, can be a powerful indication of whether the candidate is quick to ask questions, and get the answers they need from the team to accomplish their tasks.

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

It’s strange. When we were in an office, I felt very disconnected from the other team members. I would knock on their door and interrupt whatever they were working on to discuss something with them. Anyone who works online knows how frustrating it can be to be abruptly disconnected from what you’re doing. When we met together about projects, it seemed very forced.

When we’re remote, these conversations happen so much more organically. Instead of saying “OK everyone, now is the time for you to come up with great ideas” we just wait for those great ideas to bubble up in conversation, and jump on a conference call to discuss them in depth.

I can ask someone a question on Skype, and if they don’t respond for 20 minutes, I know they’re in the middle of something, and that’s fine, they’ll get to it when they’ve wrapped things up. You can’t ignore someone knocking at your door.

We’ve instituted Friday Funday every two weeks. For an hour, we all conference in together, and play team-based games like Heroes Of The Storm (it’s like chess with guns, and it’s free). So far it’s been a big hit. I try to see the team once a year in person. When I spoke at Pubcon SFIMA, I brought a team member from Florida with me. When I spoke at Austin, I brought a Texas team member with me to the conference. For the State of Search conference in Dallas, I’ll be bringing our guy from Fort Worth with me.

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

When hiring, we spend a lot of time over the phone and email. I want to make sure I have a clear picture of their personality, particularly how it comes across over the phone and email, since these are the main forms of communication with our team and clients.

When it comes to their skill-set, we conduct tests over the phone, testing their knowledge-base. These are the kind of questions one can’t just Google the answers to. “How would you” and “What if you” and “What’s the best way to” sort of questions.

These are very open-ended questions. I want to learn how their brain works, and how they solve problems. And, I’ve accepted that I’m going to make mistakes and hire the wrong people. We hire slow, and fire fast.

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

I would ask them what their concerns are. If their concerns are whether the employee is actually working, they can install tracking programs like ActivTrak.

I would also mention that just because someone is sitting in their office, doesn’t mean they are working either. There is a website that makes reddit look like an email inbox.

If your employees aren’t honest, they won’t be honest regardless of where they are working from. Again, not everyone is cut out for remote work, and if their staff isn’t cut out for it, they need to either rethink their staff, or stick with what works for them.

I wouldn’t suggest that every business on earth go remote. Dentistry would be tough.

7. Which are the tools that you use or help you to work remotely?

We use Skype for daily communication. Teamwork and Trello for tasks. We sync our calendars. We use Grasshopper for call routing, and GoToMeeting for client calls and screen sharing. We use Pipedrive for our sales CRM.

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

First off, there is leverage for remote employers when it comes to salary. I always bring up the fact that the recruit will save hours driving to work, gas, eating out, and wear and tear on their vehicle. That all adds up. There’s a great Lifehacker article that estimates the average cost of commuting. In the article they estimate every mile of your commute costs you $795 per year. Other benefits include avoiding the daily stress of driving, and the lowered risk of being involved in a car accident.

We are able to have discussions with candidates originally outside of our price range. Now there are additional costs for us to arrange getting our team together in person, but even then, it’s a net-win for both the employer and employee.

As for taxes, we have an awesome HR manager who handles this for us. When we hire someone in Texas, she’s thrilled, and when we hire someone in a new state, she has a lot of work to do figuring out the new state’s laws. I don’t really handle that side of the business, I just make sure it gets done.

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

Communication is very important. Remote employees can feel disconnected from the team, and it’s your job to reign them in.

Provide regular social gatherings unrelated to work, where the team can hang out. Encourage the use of Skype chatter on a regular basis. Share interesting articles or news stories so the team knows that topics of conversation are not limited to work. For example:

Games of Thrones

Make it fun. Set clear work expectations early on, but let them know it’s OK to have fun at work. Also, You need to be a good remote boss. If you’re not great at being remote, your team won’t be great either. If you’re considering this for your team, you might first remove yourself from the office, and see how well you can work remotely with them. If you find that you being removed from the office environment doesn’t negatively impact performance, then you’re onto something.

In preparing for this interview, I asked my staff what their favorite benefit of working from home is. Best answer I got: No pants required. Having a good sense of humor helps too.

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