5 Foundational Tips for Remote Startups

By Laura Lopez on September 20, 2018 

Founders and entrepreneurs leading a remote company face a unique set of challenges when it comes to employee engagement, business operations, and team communication. You’re creating company culture virtually, without the luxury of in-person management. With your team’s increased mobility it becomes more important to centralize and standardize your business practices and keep everyone in sync. 

Thankfully, there are many options to choose from when it comes to affordable cloud-based tools that make it easier for your remote team to collaborate, as well as a wealth of information from companies that have paved the way. If you are about to launch a remote startup or are looking for ways to improve yours now, we’ve got a few core practices that will keep you organized and your team optimized. 

  1. Don’t underestimate (virtual) face time. We’ve written about the importance of remote communication before, but it’s worth mentioning again. A simple way to strengthen rapport with your team is to replace conference calls with video conferences. It’s a great way to connect with colleagues who would prefer to put a face to a name. Start with free, easy to use tools like Zoom, Google Meet, or even Slack Calls
  2. Use the cloud. Storing data in the cloud allows you to access and analyze important information quickly, allowing you to make informed decisions more readily. Instead of creating an Excel spreadsheet that can’t be shared in real-time, leverage free cloud-based apps until you need a heftier tool, like a cloud-based Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution. Avoid the trap of investing in software that your employees don’t end up using by testing a free tool and implementing norms around use first, and by being strategic about how the tools you’ve put in place interact with one another. 
  3. Put yourself in your client’s shoes. Running a remote company has its benefits as well as its tradeoffs when it comes to your client base. I recently spoke with a customer that was turning down clients that were only able to send payment via mail (paper-based billing is still more prevalent than you think). Since relocating from the US to Europe, receiving and processing payments from abroad was taking too long, checks were occasionally lost in transit, and they were risking not making payroll. A virtual mailbox gives you access to important correspondence, such as contracts or checks, all via an online platform. You’ll have continuity in your mailing address even if you want to travel the world or set up shop in another state. Some solutions, like Earth Class Mail, even offer remote check depositing solutions, allowing you to keep clients whose billing practices might not be as cloud-friendly as yours. 
  4. Start with data. And don’t stop. Without a doubt, centralizing customer and prospect data is a must from the start of your remote-based company. Even if you’re a solopreneur, or work on a small team, begin with something as simple as a Google Sheet, a live document that’s accessible from anywhere. As you add employees, give them access to the Google Sheet and review the data you require them to capture and enter. At a minimum, start tracking your business prospects and customers. Collect relevant contact information and lead source, the product of interest or product purchased, and other data such as the time it took to close a deal, or reason why you lost a deal, to inform future decisions. When the time comes that there are too many data points to manage, move to an affordable cloud-based CRM to centralize customer and prospect data. 
  5. Standardize processes. As you add employees to your team, be sure to communicate and train each employee on the tools you have in place and your expectations on how the team will use them to collaborate. Otherwise, you can end up with disparate data and inefficient processes. Create an onboarding document or training so that you minimize the time you spend bringing new employees up to speed. And don’t think of standardization as infringing on your employee’s autonomy. You’re building consistency into your virtual workplace the way it might be more organically built if you were working in the same office. 

Remember, if you’re just getting started, use free cloud-based tools to build out your core business processes and make it a practice to have all your information living in a central repository. If you and your employees have conquered your business workflows with free cloud-based tools and feel like you’ve outgrown them, it’s time to begin looking for a more specialized solution. 

6 Communication Best Practices For Your Remote Team

By Laura Lopez on May 23, 2018 

If you lead a remote team or manage some of the 4 million remote employees in the U.S., you’ve already noticed the heightened importance of communication. After all, remote teams forgo more immediate opportunities for collaboration, important nonverbal cues, and a shared office environment. 

In fact, employee engagement drops the more time that employees spend “off-site.” And since worker engagement is critical for collaboration, companies should take extra care to keep remote workers in the loop. Here are six ways to mitigate some of the challenges posed by remote communication.  

1. Utilize the right tools 

Communication platforms can’t replace doing the work to foster a culture of open dialogue and collaboration. But without the right tools for staying in touch, chances are that important updates and notifications will fall through the cracks, especially when your office is virtual.

In addition to email, some of the most commonly used team communication tools are Slack, Skype and Google Hangouts. Depending on your specific business needs and practices, tools that might also be helpful include Twist, Zoom, and Uberconference. When selecting technology, focus less on bells and whistles and more on finding a platform that matches your team’s needs. Like: do you need built-in file sharing?  Or if your team is in different time zones, do you want options for synchronous or asynchronous communication? 

2. Centralize shared information

Avoid paper trails, especially for important information like government documents. Misplacing paper files is a sure proof way to cause headaches and lengthen project completion times. Shameless plug: if you receive high mail volumes or if you have boxes of old files preventing your from going paperless, let us transform your files into searchable, actionable PDFs.

Whether it’s Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive, teams need to choose a cloud storage solution stick with it. A common barrier to knowledge access happens when some people are storing files in Drive, some people are storing documents on Dropbox, and everyone is searching through both to find what they need. Instead, centralize information in one location. This way work won’t be further disrupted if someone is out sick or leaves the company. 

3. Use a project management tool

Managers are often concerned about how their remote reports are progressing. After all, not being able to stop by someone’s desk for a quick update adds a layer of difficulty for project management. Luckily, there are tried and true tools for tracking progress and promoting accountability when face time is not an option. Some popular options to check out include Trello, Asana, and Weekdone. Also, some project management platforms like Hibox include chat features so be sure to evaluate how these work with, or might even take the place of, existing communication tools. You don’t want to distract your team with too many communication methods.

4. Set clear and achievable goals

Don’t rely on on-screen deadlines and project tracking to replace more traditional team management. Hassan Osman, a virtual teams expert, says that if companies want remote teams to communicate more effectively, they need to first set clear and digestible goals that every cross-functional team agrees to and understands. Paired with frequent check-ins and updates that reach all team members, your team will be up to speed and you’ll have the space to allow for adjustments and corrections from the beginning.

5. Keep your team in the know

Along those same lines, leaders shouldn’t forget to keep remote staff up to date on company developments. Your remote team needs to know what the company mission and goals are and how their role fits into the bigger picture. This can be a huge factor when it comes to employee engagement. If you fail to keep employees notified about the broader vision, you might be giving them the impression that they are not important, even when the opposite is true.

Videoconferencing is a great way to get to ensure everyone understands how they contribute. Don’t underestimate the power of video conferencing and non-verbal cues. It’s the closest you can get to Another great tool for replicating the collaboration that can come from a spontaneous brainstorming around a whiteboard is Realtimeboard.

6. Maintain a balance 

Having the correct technology for syncing up online is just as important as the underlying norms of your remote team. Guard against the tendency of overlooking remote employees because they’re out of sight. Conversely, avoid cutting into too much of your employee’s time with emails, phone calls, and messages that can be viewed as micromanaging or distrust. And if the team dynamic feels off, jump on a video call and get to the bottom of it. 

How to Introduce Automation Into Your Small Business (And Make It Stick)

By Laura Lopez on May 10, 2018 

Previously, we’ve shared specific tools that accountants and small businesses can use to automate their workflows. By automating core accounting tasks, scheduling, and more, businesses across all industries can redirect staff time away from manually-intensive projects while simultaneously saving money. This is especially true for small- to mid-sized companies that are often strapped for resources at the same time they’re striving for growth. 

By making employees’ jobs faster and easier, a practice can accelerate growth through increased efficiency and strengthen its overall service. But how do you go about implementing automated processes? Don’t throw your staff into the deep end and expect them to swim. Below are some tips on how to ease into the practice of automation to make it stick. 

Establish a plan and contingencies

Before anything else, practices need a plan that spells out their end goals. For example, automating the backup of email attachments into Dropbox with a program like Zapier may be convenient, but a business must also ask related questions, such as how their team’s ability to easily retrieve the attachments will be affected? Will everyone have access or only a single point person? Will this make collaboration between teams smoother? And so on. Failure to establish a roadmap will likely result in miscommunication and crossed wires.

Identify areas of biggest need

One of the easiest ways to begin automating a practice is by identifying the exact areas within the company that need it the most. Quite simply, pay attention to constant frustrations. By first plugging the biggest holes in workflow, firms can alleviate their employees’ collective stress, increasing the chances of getting everyone on the automation train. And you’ll help your business run more efficiently, too.

Automate easier processes first

On the flip side, if a business is fortunate enough to not have gaping operational holes that demand immediate attention, they can start their automation journey by attacking easier processes first. Returning to the example above, backing up email attachments is one of the simplest activities to automate. Following this route will make the task of introducing further automation into the practice less cumbersome and easier for everyone to incrementally grasp.

Start with a small test team

At the end of the day, you know your team best. If you anticipate that your automation roll-out might be complex or come with a steep learning curve, there’s no need to bog down the entire company all at once. Instead, form a small team who can test the software in advance.  

Project management automation software like Basecamp, for instance, is ideal for experimenting with smaller teams. By test driving it with only a few people, you can determine whether it would be a good fit for a particular department or the rest of your company. If this small subset feels like the software is clunky, unintuitive, or not user-friendly enough, then you’ve just saved time and effort that would go into rolling the program out to the rest of the company. Plus, if the test users prefer the software, they’re better able to provide support to their coworkers as software is adopted.

Evaluate process efficiency

Owners do themselves and their firms a big favor by evaluating the individual processes they wish to automate before they set forth in that direction. This involves raking over the process(es) with a fine-toothed comb to pinpoint flaws. Multi-directional feedback is key. Seek input from your employees, then, devise a process map to help every worker visualize the various processes in your company and highlights which areas need attention. If you skip this step and blindly press on, all the automated software in the world won’t fix your processes’ underlying inefficiencies. By taking stock of your business’s inefficiencies and initiating steps to correct them before committing to new software, you can reduce the risk of flushing money down the drain when you try and switch over to a new tool.

Conclusion

At its core, automation is about enabling and optimizing professionals’ work. However, automation tools can do harm as readily as they can help. The fault is not in the programs but in how they are used or if they “fit”. Companies that don’t take the time to understand which of their processes to automate, or who use software as a bandage for underlying dysfunctions in their processes, will likely decrease their efficiency. But by following the above tips on how to wisely use automation to optimize existing practices, owners can pave the way for fewer speed bumps and more growth. 

Meet Jordan Harbinger, Co-Founder of The Art of Charm

Our customer’s rock. We love to share their stories and are thrilled to introduce you to the next customer in our customer spotlight series, Jordan Harbinger, Co-founder from The Art of Charm. 

The Art of Charm teaches networking and relationship development skills to help clients build charisma and personal magnetism.

Art of Charm, Jordan Harbinger

Thanks so much for sharing your story Jordan, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company? What does Art of Charm do, and what sets you apart?

We run in-residence programs and online training to help people make the big changes they need. The Art of Charm is very nuanced, it’s not just general advice like “look people in the eye and give a firm handshake” – that doesn’t produce real results. From handling first impressions to managing intimate relationships, clients can create real identity changes in their personal and professional lives.

How did you get started and why?

I was an attorney on wall street and found that the successful lawyers at the top of the organization weren’t just hard-workers, but they had put in the time to develop their network even more than their legal skills. I also found that the people we were hiring were the most personable, not just those with the best experience on paper. This showed me that the top predictor of success was, in fact, people-skills and that’s where I’ve been focusing my energy for the past decade.

Do you have an incredible customer success story you can share?

Some of our most successful clients come from the intelligence and special forces community, many officers have gone through our program. Of the stories we can share, we had one client who after our program left a bad relationship, quit his job, started a company, got in shape, and now travels the world doing what he loves. We see this type of success every time we run a program.

What’s the best business decision you made in the last year?

The best decision we’ve made was to bring on trusted business partners who can help us with some of the areas we struggle in. This was tough because, as entrepreneurs, we hate to give up control and would rather try to figure it all out than bring on others who can help. So far, this has been an amazing decision, even though it took a while to let go.

Can you share a tip, trick, hack, tool or service with our readers that makes you better, or makes your days more effective?

This is stupid simple, but I use a calendar and schedule everything from meetings to yoga classes. I find that people are always looking for the latest productivity ‘hack’ and yet they don’t even manage their daily tasks well. Having a calendar scheduled out in 15-minute blocks ensures that everything important gets done and that there’s time to do it.

Tell us how EarthClassMail makes you better at your job, or your company better at what it does?

I can batch all company mail, taking perhaps 15 minutes per week sorting and opening instead of spending time doing it each day. We also travel a lot for business and I can use the service anywhere. I’ve even delegated all company mail to my assistant to sort from home, so mail has stopped being a task for me and has simply become a duty that I can delegate to someone else.

What feature can we add or improvement can we make that would make you say, “shut the front door, I need that!” ?

Something that tells mail senders that I’m no longer at this address, or some sort of USPS unsubscribe from junk mail would be a game-changer.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today, any parting words or advice for our readers?

My entire existence is predicated on sharing wisdom and advice. I have over 500 hours of knowledge from hundreds of guests on the Art of Charm Podcast, check it out. 

Naughty and nice. Our adventure in fraud detection automation.

Here at Earth Class Mail we harbor strong feelings. We love things, and we revile things. Take a gander at a few things we love, and a few things we loathe:

We love:

We loathe:

  • Letting our awesome customers down in any way
  • Making preventable mistakes
  • Spending time on fraudsters and other unsavory characters

Unfortunately our business attracts the occasional bad actor. These undesirables suck our team’s time away from serving our great customers. These undesirables stink and we don’t want them as customers. We’d rather spend time with our great customers vs. dealing with the unsavories and their like.

What to do then? A bit ago we embarked on a journey to weed out these miscreants, so we could spend more time on the customers we love. We wanted to build a system & process that would automatically and reliably:

  • check for potential fraudsters
  • follow up with them to prompt for verification
  • alert our customer support staff, and automate our follow up

To assist in our task, we recruited a few key players to the team. We tapped SiftScience.com for fraud detection, Zapier for workflow automation, Slack for team visibility, and Zendesk automations for automated followup.

WARNING: you may want to caffeinate before proceeding, the weeds get deep on the details.

Ok, so here’s how we did it. First we tackled checking for potential fraudsters and making that visible to the team. To do that, we bolted on an API call to Sift every time someone completes an order. Sift offers a cool fraud prevention service that takes in a bunch of info and gives back a fraud probability score. The score ranges from 0-100, with 0 = no chance of fraud and 100 = certain fraudster. Once Sift returned a fraud score, we wired up a notification into our signups Slack channel. This let our team know when a likely fraudster sauntered through our doors. Here’s an example:

We let that run for a bit until we gained an inkling of what things meant. We followed up manually on every case that seemed suspicious. After a few weeks, we dove into the deep end of the automation pool to see how much time & effort we could save. Enter Zapier and Zendesk.

We wanted to send and automatic note to any potential bad guy. The note should let them know that we harbored suspicions of their sincerity. We also wanted to give them the chance to clear the air if our system screwed up and flagged them by mistake.

Zendesk rocks. We use it for all customer contact. We knew we wanted to craft any solution into it. That’s where Zapier came in.

Using Zapier, we built a Zap (cool name huh?) that created a Zendesk ticket anytime a potential villian signed up. Here’s exactly how we did it:

  • Our ordering app uses Postrgres as a data store
  • Zapier let us sniff whenever a new row appeared in our orders table
  • If an order arrives with a high sift score we created a ticket in Zendesk with the likely fraudster’s name, email, and other info. Here’s what it looks like:
  • Zendesk emails the likely shady character, telling him/her that our system flagged them as potential fraud, and asks them to verify their identity. Here’s what the potential villain sees:
  • To make sure we follow up we use Zendesk’s Automations. We check back in 48 hours to see if the potential shadester rectified the situation and corrected our false assumptions. If not, we fire off an action to re-open the ticket and add an internal note so our customer service team can close the account and refund any money. Take a peek:

We hope this gives us more time to spend with the customers we care about. If we can weed out the troublemakers before they start using our service we’ll get to do more of what we love – making our awesome customers happy.  

Interested in removing the headache of dealing with your physical mail?  Give us a try.