Batchbook, a web-based CRM tool for small businesses, was launched in 2007 by a team that was initially located completely in Providence, RI. Now that the company headcount has grown significantly, Batchbook employees can be found all over the United States and Canada (though they still maintain a base of operations in Providence).
CEO and founder Pam O'Hara talked to Pajamas about why she decided to embrace distributed work and how she's building a kick-ass remote team.
What does Batchbook do and what do you do there?
We make an online database that small businesses use to keep track of customers and customer-related things, like communications, order history, contact info, etc. As both a founder and the CEO, I figure out what it is we want to accomplish with this company, find amazing people to help do it and make sure we can all get paid.
How many people are at Batchbook now and how many of them are remote?
We have about 20 employees. Half of us are located in the Providence, RI area and the rest are all around the country. But only a handful of us are in the office on a regular basis. Most local folks spend the majority of their time working from home. And we recently hired our first employee based out of Toronto, Canada, which is practically another country.
You originally began as a fully virtual company before getting office space in Providence, RI. What made you decide to get office space?
In those first few years the team was all based out of Providence, but we worked from our homes and coffee shops. Even back then it was important to me that we have regular in-person meetings. There was still a lot of work being done to figure out exactly what we were building with the product and the company, so we needed that stare-each-other-down time. We’d meet at my house once a week for an all-team meeting and lunch. As the team grew, it got too crowded in my dining room, so our first “office space” was 2 rooms in the basement of fellow tech entrepreneurs, Working Planet. Initially, we’d meet at the office a few times a week, but we still spent most of our time working from home. We’ve grown into larger spaces a few times since then, but we still maintain the tradition of an office, though more as a charging station than a daytime lock-down. Team members choose how frequently they come in to the office. There are only 5 of us who are in the office more than 3 days a week. I think it’s important for both the local and distributed teams to have a home base, regardless of whether they’re coming into the office daily, weekly, monthly or annually. Having a place to collect and connect with each other is vital to our business.
With both local and distributed team members, how do you keep everyone feeling connected?
Honestly, I think our geographical dispersion helps us stay better connected than most traditional workplaces. Two people sitting next to each other doesn’t guarantee that they’ll share info or collaborate. Sometimes they just distract each other. We obsess over information sharing and collaboration. Involvement and ownership in the project drive team effort, so we regularly assess our business practices and tools to make sure that everyone has access to what they need and are working with the right people to be productive.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced when working remotely and how do you overcome them?
The biggest challenges have been administrative. Our industry is largely cloud-based, so it’s easy to forget that there are very real state and national boundaries that we’re working with. As an employer, I need to be hyper aware of the constantly changing laws and regulations that come with crossing those boundaries. I made the mistake of relying on my payroll management company for human resource services when I hired my first out-of-state employee, and I didn’t realize that they weren’t filing the correct paperwork in that state. Many hefty fines later, I decided to hire a part-time person to manage our HR efforts. She works with payroll, our attorney, accountant, insurance broker and several state agencies to make sure that we’re taking excellent care of our employees while staying compliant at various state, national, and international levels.
We still maintain the tradition of an office, though more as a charging station than a daytime lock-down.
What is the biggest benefit that having a remote work policy has afforded your company?
The retention and productivity of the team. People understand the unique opportunity of working for a “virtual first” company. It’s one thing to work from home, it’s another to do great work from home, which is hands down what my team does. They’re so motivated and dedicated to each other and to making our virtual company work that they bring excellence to everything they do. It’s such a different mindset to say to your employees, “Know what needs to be done and by when, and then get it done well and on time.” Period. Where and what hours people work don’t matter as much as excellent work delivered on time. Not everyone can be so self-structured and motivated, but the people who are are innately driven to do terrific work and are deeply grateful for the freedom to work when and where they choose. I honestly can’t imagine running our company any other way.
Do you think you lose anything when working remotely?
We do lose some of the cohesiveness that comes from spending time and physical space with another person. Building a company is hard work and it takes a great deal of trust and motivation between employees. It’s harder to trust someone and to gauge their honest reaction when you can’t look them in the eyes, so we bring virtual staff into the office as frequently as we can.
You've written about how your approach to managing the Batchbook team is always evolving. What are some of the main things that have changed over the years about how your team operates?
The technology has certainly improved. Better bandwidth and collaboration tools make it easier each year to stay connected. In the early years the real challenge was communicating with each other on what we were doing. In those days work was more siloed. When you only have four people, each one owns their work domain. One person’s coding, one’s building the database, one’s doing all the marketing and another’s doing operations. When you grow you then have a team of people doing each of these jobs, so the challenge is not just communicating but collaborating on the work. This is true of any business, but there are unique challenges to doing this remotely. Compatibility of tools, schedules, and temperaments are important. And managing remote teams has its own challenges. It’s important to make sure that managers who come out of a “watching over someone’s back” environment at a previous employer understand the open and trusting environment we cultivate at Batchbook and can be successful leading a team in this atmosphere.
What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?
Our VP of Strategy is responsible for identifying and measuring our company goals and ongoing company care. She takes a very structured approach to working with teams on their goal setting and progress and a very unstructured approach to making sure the team is content.
She and I work together to review our mission statement and annual goals we set for ourselves. She works throughout the year with individual teams to help set their own goals towards accomplishing the company goals. All of our company goals can be broken into 2 categories; improving our employees lives or improving our customers lives. These benchmarks can be anything from facilitating trust among team members to improving data portability for customers. We also set financial goals, but these are viewed more as the means by which we can continue to work on our company goals than as end results themselves.
She’s also constantly looking for ways to keep local and virtual team members connected, whether it’s through bi-monthly “care packages” we send out to team members or our recent Conspiracy Santa virtual gift giving efforts. And she’s just a warm, approachable person.
Culture is a buzzword we hear bandied about the startup community a lot, but it seems even more important to have a strong, cohesive culture when your team doesn't get daily face time. What sort of culture have you cultivated at Batchbook and how have you built it?
The foundation of Batchbook’s culture is trust and respect. And the trust goes many different ways: the company needs to trust team members to get their work done, the team needs to trust each other to communicate and collaborate and the team needs to trust the company to have a good plan for success and the future. The thing is, none of us are perfect so the more open and honest we are about our efforts, challenges, failures and successes, then the more deftly we can pivot where & when needed to hit the mark and keep making progress towards making our and our customers’ lives better.
Two people sitting next to each other doesn’t guarantee that they’ll share info or collaborate.
I’ve seen businesses make the mistake of “trying out” letting a highly successful employee or a handful of employees work from home, then watch like a hawk to see if they succeed. But it takes more than one person to make this work. It takes a whole team’s commitment to a shift in their workflow. And a company commitment to investing in the resources and the patience to make it work. This can be hard and expensive, but it’s definitely worth it in the long run.
Describe your usual work environment when you're out of the office.
Everyone on the team spends at least one day a week working from home, usually Wednesday which is our “no meeting day.” By pushing everyone out of the office once a week we make sure we all, myself included, are keeping our virtual communication skills and tools honed. On Wednesday, I work from the overstuffed chair in my bedroom looking out over the treetop view of my back yard and the wooded area behind it. I keep a TV with news programming on all day. I do most of my writing on Wednesday and catch up on emails.
How do you personally manage work/life balance?
There is no balance. My work and home life are almost always unbalanced. There are times when my family takes the priority. There are times when my business takes the priority. So I work constantly to build trust and communication with my team and with my family so that they always know what’s happening, and why I’m making the decisions I am. This can be easy during “high priority” events - when a child is sick or when we’re launching a new product, then it’s easy to make the call on where the priority should be. The thousands of in between events I’m constantly monitoring, weighing and gut checking are much, much trickier. Sometimes I miss things, but I don’t beat myself up over it. And so far no one on my team or in my family has beat me up on it either. My team passionately wants me to be a successful mom. My family passionately wants my business to succeed. I work hard to keep it that way.
How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?
I measure success towards goals rather than speed of work. I’m not a fan of urgency for the sake of moving fast. We don’t measure our support team’s productivity by the number of e-mails they answer per day, we measure it by the growth in the number of customers successfully using our application.
Honestly, it is easier to measure speed; how many code commits does the the development team make a week, how many blog posts does the marketing team post per week, how many tickets does the support team close each week. But I want to know are we making progress towards our goals of making our employees’ and customers’ lives better? This is harder to measure, but it is the reason we come to work each day, so we try to keep our sights set on that. Besides, distractions are often the start of inspiration.
What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?
The cloud. Skype and Github. Google Drive. Batchbook, of course. Whiteboard walls and a phone to take pictures of it. Our snowball microphone and digital projector. We use about 50 other web based applications for project management, customer communications, analytics and other operational things, but those are the ones we come to a grinding halt if they go down.
What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?
Find the right people and be committed to making it work. Question everything you do and always ask, "Is this working for my remote team?" Remote working isn’t always easy and it’s definitely not a perfect fit for everyone. We hire almost all of our team on a contract basis first to make sure there’s a culture fit and that they’re self disciplined enough to work remotely. I’ve worked with some of the smartest, most hard-working people who just could not thrive in a remote environment, but that’s the way of the world: tomato, tomahto. You’ll know when you’ve got a keeper.