I first met Brian Casel in 2010. At the time, he was a guest writer for Mashable, where I was an editor, and he ran a successful WordPress development consultancy. He did well in that business, but the life of a freelancer takes its toll. As he says on his website, "My income was dependent on me being at my keyboard, working. I was tired of all the busy work. Burned out from living deadline-to-deadline. Stressed from not knowing where the next project will come from."
So in 2015 he decided to start a new company, AudienceOps, a content marketing as a service product that he built with scalability in mind. That also happened to be the same year Casel and his family embarked on a months long road trip around the U.S.
Building AudienceOps as a fully distributed team was natural for Casel -- all of his previous businesses have been remote and, well, he likes working that way. We talked to him to find out more about his approach to building a remote company.
What does AudienceOps do and what do you do there?
Audience Ops offers a fully done-for-you content marketing service. Our team keeps a business' blog running with new, well-researched, high-quality articles published on a weekly basis, then sent to their newsletter and social media channels. We also create and launch lead magnets to help businesses grow and nurture email subscribers.
As the founder, I spend most of my time coaching the team, refining our systems and processes, and I handle most of the sales.
How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you?
Right now, in May 2017, there are 13 people, plus me working on the Audience Ops service. That includes writers, editors, project managers, and assistants.
All of the writers, editors, and project managers are based in the US, across several states. The assistants are based in the Philippines.
In addition, there are 3 software developers who work on our software tools that we've built in-house (and sell to the public). Our developers are based in Eastern Europe.
What led to your decision to build AudienceOps as a remote company?
All of my businesses have been fully remote, for a few reasons:
- The talent pool is enormous. That's a massive advantage over hiring local, in my opinion.
- I like working from home and from coffee shops. :)
- While we do have deadlines and daily/weekly deliverables, I don't like to set strict working hours for my team, nor for myself. The team appreciates that flexibility, especially those who have families and kids.
- Being fully remote keeps costs under control, which is very important when you're fully self-funded / bootstrapped, as we are.
Because your business operates in the service space, it's very high touch. Do you ever get push back from clients who want to meet face-to-face?
Nobody wants to meet in person because all of our clients are remote as well. Most are in the US, but we also have clients in Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
We do have calls with our clients during their onboarding phase, and check-in calls every 2 months or so (varies by client). These calls are hosted and coordinated by our Manager, along with the writer, and they're a standard part of our processes here.
The vast majority of communication happens over email though, and most of our clients prefer this, since most are busy founders/CEOs. A big part of the value we provide is the "hands off" nature of being able to outsource content for their company.
How do you keep everyone on your team feeling connected?
Slack mostly. I encourage (and we have processes) to have the team work together on things and work collaboratively.
If I'm ever traveling to an area where teammates are based, I try and meet up with them. Earlier this year, my family traveled to the Philippines and I got to meet our team who's based there.
I don't like to set strict working hours for my team, nor for myself.
The team appreciates that flexibility, especially those who have families and kids.
What are the biggest challenges you face working remotely and how do you deal with them?
Sometimes there can be a delay in communication and action, which would be less so if we worked in an office together. For example, I do a lot of work in my mornings on the east coast. If I send a request to someone on our team who's in the west coast, they won't see it until at least 3-4 hours from now, etc.
But that's normal and expected for us. We also avoid "rush jobs" at all costs, and keep a very calm and organized production process that accounts for the way we work.
Do you think there's anything you lose when you work remotely?
I worked in a small office environment early in my career, and I do sometimes miss the camaraderie, casual chats mid-day, going out for lunch or drinks together, etc. Also, with a worldwide team, it's more difficult (expensive!) to get everyone together for retreats/meetups.
But at the end of the day, I do think the benefits outweigh those drawbacks.
What do you think is the most important thing a distributed team can do to ensure successful collaboration?
I think it has to be built into your processes. You can't just tell people to work together, because it won't always happen, especially when folks are so used to working solo from home. So our creative process actually requires input and communication from multiple team members.
What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?
We do periodic check-in calls with team members. I also ask our managers to report any issues/ups/downs happening with the team, since they're more connected to the day-to-day work than I am.
What sort of culture are you trying to build at AudienceOps? Is it harder to build cohesive culture across geography?
It is more difficult to build a vibrant culture when you're remote. But I find that a lot of it has to do with the type of people we attract to the team, and the people who end up sticking with us for a long time, vs. don't stick around for long.
I'd say we all share common values: We enjoy creative, challenging work. We value working with a flexible schedule, from anywhere. We're all strong communicators. We all jump at the opportunity to help each other out. No politics here.
What do you look for in an ideal remote employee? Are there any qualities that make someone more successful at working remotely?
- Clear communication above all (no matter the role)
- Self-motivated and self-organized to manage their own daily deliverables and deadlines.
- Constructive thinker and able to suggest ways to improve our operations, make our jobs easier.
I find that a lot of [culture building] has to do with the type of people we attract to the team.
How do you successfully hire great remote employees? What's your process for making sure you find the right people?
When looking for candidates, I use a mix of different job boards, outreach to my network, and referrals from other employees.
We have a process for reviewing applications, saving a short list, inviting to interviews, then onboarding and training.
Some roles require a small test project. But regardless of the role, we find out pretty quickly (within the first month or 2) whether or not someone is a fit. Sometimes they don't work out, often not because of a lack of skill/talent, but because they don't mesh well with our processes and can't reliably deliver on deadlines.
Most of our teammates have been on the team for a year or longer (some over 2 years), and they often give feedback to say this job is easier, steadier, and more reliable for them than others they've had or have. We seek people who fit this style of position, whether it's a part-time or full-time role here.
Describe your personal work environment.
We moved to a new house a year ago, so I had a chance to design my home office. I get nice light in here, which I like. I have an adjustable stand/sit desk, which I love. Macbook Pro + Dell 28" monitor.
1-2 times per week, I'll take the laptop to the coffee shop and work a half-day there, just to mix it up.
How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?
It can be tough sometimes, especially with 2 young kids at home.
My wife and kids know my normal work schedule, and we have an understanding of when I'm expected to be "at work" or "at home". I try my best to stick to that. Keyword "try." :)
Part of the challenge is the instant switch from work-mode to home-mode. It's tough to shift gears that quickly. So I try and take 20 minutes or so in between, have a beer, take the dog out, to decompress before settling in at the end of the day.
Once I am "home", I keep my cell in a separate room, and I don't read work-related stuff. Watching TV and hanging with the family, reading non-work books, helps me clear my head at night.
Find A+ communicators, and people who've been working remotely and thrive in this sort of environment.
How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?
I listen to music most of the day while I'm working. I can't work if there are lyrics though, so I listen to a lot of instrumental playlists and film scores. If the kids are crying in the next room, or I'm sitting next to a chatty group at the coffee shop, I throw on the Bose noise cancelling headphones.
I also plan my week and day before starting work, so I know which tasks are most important. I work on those first, in the morning, when my energy and focus levels are high. I have calls and handle emails in the afternoons.
And I drink Bulletproof Coffee every morning.
What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?
What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?
Clear, "above-and-beyond" communication is key. Find A+ communicators, and people who've been working remotely and thrive in this sort of environment.