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. Another great tool for replicating the collaboration that can come from a spontaneous brainstorming around a whiteboard is Miro.

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. 

Five IRS Tax Tips for Expats with Small Businesses

This is a guest article by Hugo Lesser @ Bright!Tax

A lot of entrepreneurs choose to run their small business from abroad. For some it’s a way to get around work visa requirements, for others it may be a tax savings decision, and many are simply drawn to the expat lifestyle. 

Unfortunately for you, the IRS still needs to get theirs. If you’re a U.S. citizen, you need file a federal tax return each year.

There are a few critical steps you can take to minimize your tax liability, and several important considerations that are unique to expat tax returns.

Use your expat status to reduce tax liability

You’re not going to escape the IRS, but to their credit they are accommodating toward expats. 

There are some key exclusions that allow you to partially reduce or entirely eliminate your U.S. tax liability.

The most common is the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE), form #2555.

The FEIE allows expats, who can prove that they’re living abroad, to exclude the first $100,000 (inflation adjusted) in earnings each year. 

The threshold for expat living abroad is as follows, per the IRS website:

“You are considered to live abroad if you are a U.S. citizen whose tax home is in a foreign country and you have been present in a foreign country or countries for at least 330 days out of a consecutive 12-month period.”

If you’re in a foreign country with a higher income tax rate than the U.S., then consider the Foreign Tax Credit (FTC) form #1116.

With the FTC you can claim a dollar for dollar tax credit for any income taxes you’ve already paid abroad, and potentially eliminate your entire IRS tax bill.

Bonus: The FTC credits rollover for future use.

Deadlines still apply so you have until June 15th to file, with a further extension available until October 15th upon special request.

Single-member LLC’s are your wallet’s best friend

Limited liability corporations registered in the U.S. with a single owner are considered ‘disregarded entities’ by the IRS.

Huh? Well, that means they don’t require separate corporate reporting, and any revenue or expenses can be included on the owner’s personal tax return.

There’s a catch though, you need to “elect” to be considered a disregarded entity by filing a special form, form #8832 (#8858 in subsequent years).

Doing that allows you to use the personal exclusions mentioned above against your corporate profits.

The IRS knows your bank account balance

You’re required to report any foreign bank or investment accounts if the total value of their combined balances is over $10,000. 

Any bank account that you have control or signatory authority over qualifies, including small business accounts, even if the account isn’t in the your name.

For example: if you have a personal savings account and control over your small business account, and the two balances combined had a value of over $10,000 at any time during the tax year, you will need to file a Foreign Bank Account Report (FBAR).

Foreign banks report their U.S. clients’ account details to the U.S. government, so the IRS knows who should be filing. Penalties for not filing are substantial. 

If you ignore this requirement, you will get penalized. From the IRS website,

“For willful violations, the inflation-adjusted penalty may be the greater of $124,588 or 50 percent of the balance in the account at the time of the violation, for each violation“.

If business is good, the IRS wants to know

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) requires expats to report their foreign assets (not including tangible assets such as property) if they are worth a total of at least $200,000 at any time during the tax year.

Qualifying assets include savings and investments, and small businesses.

If your investments and the value of your small business pass this threshold, you should report them.

You’re still going to pay for Social Security

Sole proprietorships and single owner LLCs registered in the U.S. are required to pay Social Security taxes.

If your business is registered abroad on the other hand, you aren’t.

Certain countries have Totalization agreements with the U.S. A totalization agreement means that you won’t be penalized with a requirement to contribute to two separate social security programs.

There are dozens of countries that qualify including, but not limited to: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Poland, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. 

You can view a complete list of Totalization Agreements here.

In countries with Totalization, you can opt to have your foreign social security taxes credited toward your U.S. future social security benefits.

Wrapping up…

Filing U.S. taxes as an expat small business owner can be complex, and this article is not comprehensive.

The IRS offers an overview of the rules and required forms, just remember that mistakes can be costly.

As with anything tax related, consult a licensed professional for your specific needs.

Meet David Fideler, Owner of Concord Editorial and Design

Our customers rock. We love to share their stories, and are thrilled to introduce you to the next customer in our customer spotlight series, David Fideler. David is the owner of Concord Editorial and Design, and the creator of the blog Brainstorm Every Day. 

Concord Editorial creates books for publishers in the United States, and Brainstorm Every Day helps people generate ideas and create their own business opportunities. 

David Fidler, Concord Editorial

Thanks so much for sharing your story, David. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company? What does Concord Editorial do, and what sets you apart?

We create high-quality books, mainly for university presses. The thing that sets us apart is the quality of our work — from the design, to the editing, to the quality control processes we use to make sure every book is error-free.

How did you get started and why?

From the day I was born, I grew up around books and publishing. My father owned a textbook publishing company, which he started as a young man. Then, when I was twenty-four, I started my own publishing company which I ran for twenty years.

After that, I started Concord Editorial to create books for other publishers. I’ve now worked to bring well over 100 books into print, probably closer to 200.

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

Not really, because all of our customers are happy with our work. That’s because we guarantee total customer satisfaction. In fact, we won’t deliver a project until a customer is fully satisfied with every aspect of our work.

In my view, every business should guarantee total customer satisfaction.

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

Five years ago I decided to move my business overseas to where I now live in Sarajevo, in southern Europe. Without question, that was my best decision. I used to be based in West Michigan, and my editors still live and work in the United States, but after visiting Sarajevo I just fell in love with the city and decided to move here.

When I started the business ten years ago I designed it to be a location-independent company, but I had no idea I’d eventually relocate overseas and even buy a home here. Book publishing is not the highest-paying field in the world, and outsourcing work to other countries has been going on for many years now. In this case, I decided to outsource myself and take advantage of the much lower cost of living here to increase my quality of life.

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

Actually, I can offer more than one. There’s a resource guide available on my website, Brainstorm Every Day, that describes in-depth “The 12 Tools and Hacks I Use to Run My Business From Overseas”. I included Earth Class Mail in that guide because it’s one of my most important tools.

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

Ever since I moved my business here five years ago, Earth Class Mail has been invaluable. I couldn’t run my business without it. It gives me total control of all my mail at a distance, and I’ve never once had a single problem with the service.

The most important feature of Earth Class Mail, for me, is the automatic check deposit feature. It works perfectly. Based on the research I did before leaving the United States, Earth Class Mail is the only company that really has this down as a complete, affordable service that is totally automated.

Whenever I get an envelope containing a check, the check is scanned, automatically identified as a check by the software, and automatically deposited into my business’s bank account. It just works flawlessly, each and every time.

Another feature that is very helpful is the cloud storage of everything you receive in the mail. After my documents are scanned and my checks are deposited I have Earth Class Mail recycle the original hardcopy documents, but keep all the PDF scans online in cloud storage until I have time to print them out and process them. I often get very busy with work so while I have my checks deposited immediately, I can wait even a few months to update my invoicing database, whenever I have the time.

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

For the life of me, I can’t think of anything. Earth Class Mail fully meets my needs, it lets you work anywhere and still have a U.S.-based company.

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

Yes — I truly believe we are living in the best time ever for anyone to create a location-independent business. I feel so strongly about this that I’m now creating an online course to help people who want to start their own business and, most importantly, do the marketing so they can get great clients no matter where they live.

When I started my book design business ten years ago I wanted to be able to work with clients anywhere in the United States, because at the time the economy was just so terrible where I lived in West Michigan. I had no idea that I’d one day move to another country, I just wanted to be able to work with anyone, anywhere. That, in my mind, was the best way to be financially secure.

So if anyone is reading this and contemplating something similar, I want to encourage them and let them know that yes, it really is possible.

Study: Majority of SMBs & Startups Mismanage Their Back Office

Back office work tends to be the red-headed stepchild of items on your to-do list. No one wants to deal with it, but it has to be taken care of. Your business mail is at the center of that burden because in it there are important notices, invoices, and checks from your customers. 

All that gold is buried in a mountain of junk. Once you’re done sorting and opening your mail, the job tends to only be half done. Now you have to scan the important stuff or head to the bank for a deposit.

You are not alone… 

  • 70% of small businesses burn over an hour each month managing mail,
  • 40% more than three hours, and 
  • 20% waste six or more hours each month*. 

That’s a crazy amount of time to spend on dealing with snail mail. In a recent survey, jointly conducted by Earth Class Mail and GetApp, 500 small business owners answered the question: 

How much time do you spend managing your business’ mail each month, including: depositing checks, scanning, and distributing to recipients?

*Survey results adjusted to exclude “None of the above” responses, and percentages normalized.

There is a real cost to all this waste

Sometimes you don’t know something is a problem until you take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Managing your business mail can turn into a routine pretty quickly, and you can probably go to bed feeling like you’ve accomplished something. But at what cost?

Fred Wilson, a famed VC investor and entrepreneur, suggested in 2011 that the average burn rate for a fully burdened employee at a startup is $10,000 per month. Marc Andreessen suggested it was in excess of $16,000 per month in 2014. Even the median income for a small business owner in the U.S. is $60,000 per year according to payscale.com, not including all of the added cost burdens that can more than double that figure.

All of that means that it’s costing businesses real money each month, from $100 to $1000 or more, and that doesn’t account for the opportunity cost of working on tasks more directly tied to business growth.

Earth Class Mail plans start at $49/mo. Learn More

Sometimes business mail is just a pain in the a$$

When mail becomes white noise it can lead to real problems for businesses. Today’s companies are dynamic, ever-changing machines. They move often as they expand and hire, they work with a myriad of vendors, and they focus on the things that drive growth. That means that minutia like updating an address with an insurance provider or the secretary of state can easily get overlooked.

“We didn’t receive a renewal notice at my last company because the insurance provider had an old address. It cost us a lapse in coverage.” Jeff Judge, Founder @ Bright.io

Missteps like that can lead to big problems. Lapses in insurance coverage, missed incorporation renewals, and worse.

Then there is the new breed of entrepreneurs that choose to run their companies without walls or borders. A 2015 Gallup Poll revealed that 37% of workers telecommute on some regular basis, and some predict that 50% of the workforce will work remotely by 2020. That sentiment is surely overrepresented in the entrepreneur class, with tech startups leading the way.

As a small startup, we didn’t have physical office space until a few months ago. Earth Class Mail took care of that and our mail, so we could focus on our business. Matthew Juszczak, Founder @ Bitlancer.com

This trend will only continue as the workforce moves to more flexible location opportunities and the cost savings of remote work are realized by larger organizations. 

Thinking ahead on the future of the back office

The need for digital solutions that mirror the benefits of traditional services, while offering more efficiency and cost savings, is only growing. Physical addresses and snail mail are still required to legally operate a corporation. 

As archaic as it may sound, there is definitely a superficial need for professional contact information as well. Just like businesses want a public facing phone number that isn’t the founder’s personal line, they need a public facing “physical” presence that isn’t also someone’s home. 

There is no shortage of tools and resources that solve these common back office problems around phone, mail, and communication. These solutions make back office operations better, and do it cheaper. There’s certainly a lot more to come, and the future looks bright for both entrepreneurs and employees.

Effective remote work with Status Updates

This is the inaugural post in the “remote work” tag of this blog. Earth Class Mail has employees across 4 different timezones (I myself am in Sweden), we take remote work seriously and try to be a remote-first company. I have worked remotely most of my life and so there are many things I take for granted, when we should actually make a point to talk about and question even the smallest things. Today I’m going to talk about the status update, what it is, why it exists and some challenges one might come across with it.

What’s in a status update?

I’ve gone through most popular remote-management practices like daily stand-ups on Skype (then Hangouts). In the past few years status updates on HipChat (then Slack) have become a popular replacement for the stand-up. Status updates follow the same principles of a stand-up but can be done asyncronously across people in different timezones. I really like status updates, but they can be done well or not so well, but the tricky thing is that it can be hard to tell the difference.

It’s easier to get lazy when writing text than it is when you’re in a stand-up and see the other people face-to-face, so it’s important that everyone is on the same page and enforce the discipline required to write good status updates.

What’s a status update?

So first of all, let’s establish a clear definition of what a status update is. By my (and most peoples) definition, it’s a text-update posted every day in a chat channel dedicated only for status updates. In our company right now we have a #status channel on Slack where everyone posts every morning, because our team is small enough we can keep this to one channel, but in larger companies you might have a per-team channel for it. But what does an update look like?

The format can vary slightly, but it usually takes on the following form.

<Date>:
Yesterday:
– list of things I actually achieved yesterday
– list of notable things that I had to do, that got in my way of
achieving what I set out to
Today:
– things i hope to achieve by the end of the day
Blockers:
– list of blockers that stand in your way of accomplishing your goals for today (if any)

I have seen variations where the separate Blockers field is left out entirely and instead baked into the the reasons why you didn’t achieve what you set out to achieve in the Yesterday field. I think either way of doing it is fine, but having a separate Blockers field may be useful if it can be highlighted sufficiently.

What’s the point?

There is a very specific goal with the status update: to keep everyone on the team in the loop and to force yourself to think about what you should be doing. If everyone knows what everyone is working on, people can plan around what’s going on and adjust their own priorities based on that. Lucid Meetings has a great blog post about different types of meetings, in which they write the following about the point of the stand-up meeting.

Focus on progress and what people are actually doing, only to encourage team accountability to each other and the plan.

Written status updates have gained a lot in popularity lately, to the point where there are now several services oriented around them. Three prominent ones are idonethisTeamreporter and Status Hero, and these companies list a lot of good reasons for why you should be doing status updates.

  • Know what is going on in your team and notice upcoming problems early
  • Improve communication and become a more efficient team
  • Connect remote and/or distributed teams
  • Cut through the project management noise
  • Promote transparency & trust
  • Celebrate progress

Basically, everyone on the team should know what everyone is doing, not because of some sense of keeping tabs on people or justifying their existence, but because that’s how teams can work efficiently. It’s also a way for you to say to your teammates “Hey, you may not see the result of this directly, but I did this pretty cool thing that I’m proud of!” (celebrating progress). This can either be solved by a lot of public chat communication and internal monologues held in public, or it can be achieved through status updates (or, preferably, a mix of both). I may write a whole separate post on the importance of public “internal” monologues, but as we say, that’s a different story.

What’s the problem?

I said status updates can be done badly, and it’s often hard to tell if they are. Why is that?

The fundamental problem with status updates is that getting the granularity right is really hard, and it’s easy to just ignore a status update if the granularity is wrong. You want to write a daily goal, but when you’re working on a large project where perhaps the goal for the day is somewhat uncertain, it’s hard to really write a succinct and concrete sentence or point-list that will communicate your goals for the day, it’s tempting to just write “to get as far ahead in this work as possible”. The problem with those kind of vague updates are that it doesn’t actually inform anyone of what’s going to change during the day, it doesn’t highlight what difficulties there are and doesn’t let anyone come in and say “Hey, maybe I can help with that!”. It doesn’t achieve any of the effects we want from a status update, but it will still probably pass for an acceptable update. It’s also useful for yourself to think harder about the problem, try to set out a goal even if you know it’s too ambitious, just so you have some internal roadmap for the day, it will have a good chance to increase your focus and productivity for the day.

It’s also really easy to write something that is too detailed. The status update is not a substitute for a todo-list. If you don’t think you’ll be able to get to it today, don’t write it down. You’re also not supposed to write every little detail that you do during the day, as that will add more noise than relevant communication. If there are recurring items you do every day (like create and study a daily metrics report) you shouldn’t put that on your list of achievements every single day, it doesn’t actually communicate anything to your teammates. Rather than posting that you created and studied a report, post something if there was an anomaly in a report that needed addressing, since that can have real impact to the whole team.

Status updates should explicitly not be about micromanagement or someone keeping tabs on exactly what you do in a day. The most difficult thing with status updates is to find the right resolution. The right resolution for your updates is key, but it’s only one that can be found by some amount of trial and error. If it’s too much detail, it becomes overbearing and doesn’t tell a story of what you are doing or focusing on, it adds more noise to the public communication than it tells a story of what you are working on and where you are heading. If the goal is too lofty and doesn’t actually explain what you did that day then it’s equally useless, because it doesn’t show progress or focus. 

Basically, if you’re writing the exact same thing several days in a row, you need to be more specific, and if you’re posting a bunch of (5+ items) every day, you probably need to be less specific.

If you are writing blockers, you also need to become fairly good at judging what an actual blocker is. A problem that you can work towards solving is not a blocker, it’s something that you can work on, overcome and put on your achievements list for “Yesterday”. A blocker is a problem that prevents you from doing your work and you yourself can not address.

What’s the solution?

When you get in to the office in the morning, think back on what you did yesterday. If there’s things you don’t remember, they probably aren’t important enough to go in a status update. Try to think of what your overall achievements were for the day, try to remember what made you think “Yes, finished this bit!”. Write down those things. Look back at your status update from yesterday and see if they match up, add any major reasons for why they don’t match up (if there were just many small reasons, write that).

Then sit down and think of what you’re going to do today. If it’s a bit undefined, try to define it further, think about what would make you happy if you had it done by the end of the day, and write that down.

Try to think about whether there might be anything that will prevent you from doing what you hope to do for the day. If you can’t think of anything, all clear. If you can think of something, put that in Blockers and then go talk to the person that might be able to remove that blocker for you.

Once you get into the habit of thinking of open communication and the fact that this is intended as guidance for yourself and all of your coworkers, you will hopefully get this practice into a solid place that will make everyone feel part of the family.