We've been getting a lot of email and calls since we first published 20 Benefits of Building a Green Start-up by Going 100% Virtual and since BusinessWeek wrote about our approach of building a more efficient company by not having an office in the article To Expand Your Business, Go Home.
The most frequent question asked is how does OrganizedWisdom run your business this way and what tools do you use to operate such a large team so efficiently without an office?
Over the past 2 years, we've worked hard to test and assemble a powerful set of tools and services that help us run OrganizedWisdom and manage a rapidly growing company with 20 team members and hundreds of Guides dispersed across more than 15 states and 2 countries. We call this The Getting Results Toolkit(TM) and we thought it would be helpful to share it with other entrepreneurs and start-ups in the Health 2.0 space who want to find a smarter, more efficient and fun way to build a successful company.
We hope you will comment and send us your own suggestions for tools and services you've discovered.
Setting Up Your Virtual Office: The Getting Results Toolkit
It's amazing how drastically things have changed even in the past 24 months. There are hundreds of new Web services and tools designed to help you operate and manage your business in radically more efficient ways. And the best news is that many of these resources are either free or have low-monthly fees that are easy to cancel at anytime.
We can tell you from first-hand experience that these resources have helped us build an extremely efficient operation (all without an office), and one that is focused exclusively on building a quality service and a metrics-driven business focused on results.
The way we are building OrganizedWisdom is truly transformative for us. It keeps us focused on results, helps us reduce costs and be more efficient, and let's us devote our resources and energy into R&D and innovation.
Setting Up Your Command Center
Since we operate with no physical office, the first step is making sure each team member has their own Command Center and "home-base" of operations. Preferably one that is portable so they have the option to work from anywhere they want.
We've learned that the best way to get results from a virtual team is to empower each person with the responsibility of setting up their own personal command center in a way that works best for them. Happy and comfortable team members equate to better results. We don't dictate what equipment people use, we just focus on the goals and results, and let everyone decide on their own how to best arrange their work environment.
To give you an idea of the hardware that has worked best for many of our team members, here's the equipment we recommend:
- iPhone with unlimited service/data plan
- MacBook, MacBook Pro or iMac (I'm waiting to upgrade to the new MacBook Air for ultimate portability)
- Dual 24 inch monitors
- Wireless keyboard and mouse
- Headset with quality Mic
- Web cam (most new computers already have this)
- Portable Skype Phone and/or Speaker phone that works well with Skype or Vonage
- Big desk
- Quality ergonomic chair
- Verizon WiFi Card/Service (for those team members who travel frequently or want to be able to work from multiple locations).
Keeping Your Business on Plan
Managing your company's goals effectively is the most important part of running a business that wants to Go Green Virtually. It's essential that every team member knows the organization's goals, their team's goals, and also the specific goals and actions they are responsible for.
We use an elegant new application called PlanHQ to manage, communicate and update our team. We track all of our goals using this system, and use it for all of our action management so we can easily keep track of who is doing what, the status of each project being worked on, and the due dates associated with each initiative. We like using PlanHQ because it is not a project management tool. It is an action management tool and it focuses on helping your organization build your plan around you most important goals rather than a random list of to do items.
Enabling Your Team to Collaborate
We use a variety of new systems that enable our team to collaborate in asynchronous time and in a manner that tracks all changes automatically. These tools make it possible for multiple people to work on the same projects at the same time, or at different times, as well as make it easy for people to edit, add, and contribute. Specifically we use Basecamp to collaborate on projects, Google Docs to collaborate on files, reports, and anything that involves writing. We use Google Sites to assemble larger groups of documents. We use wiki's to update web-based training materials and build our knowledge base. And we use ConceptShare to collaborate on design projects and presentations.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
The hardest part of not having a physical office is building a connected culture for your team. In an office environment you can easily hold group meetings, walk up to people and check in on them, and meet face to face everyday. We don't have a water-cooler for people to stand next to. We don't have a kitchen to celebrate birthdays in. We don't have a brick and mortar wall to post our goals on and rally the troops.
But new communications platforms and Webcams and group chat, have enabled us to create a work environment that is actually better. By setting up communications channels that connect the whole team, provide for one on one interaction, and let people see one another no matter their location, we are able to connect the team effectively. The best part is that by not having an "office" we have cut out all the distractions that come with people constantly interrupting each other's work flow. And you'd be surprised at the camaraderie you can build via IM, email, and Web cam.
The key is to leverage both group communication tools as well as private communications systems. It's also important to have a system that makes it easy for people to check in and catch up on what everyone else is doing. To do this we use a group chat system called Campfire. This is our office space. We have group chat rooms set up for our Main Office, for Special Projects, and for Management. Each team member checks in everyday and can chat, ask questions, and read the transcripts for the day to see what is going on. This saves an extraordinary amount of time because there is no need for multiple conversations to take place for people to be updated. It also helps with knowledge sharing. And the transparency helps create a more connected team all working toward the same mission.
When we want to host group video chats, we use a new service called ooVoo. We can have up to 6 video windows on our monitor at once and host meetings with our team members across multiple time zones with ease. We also use an amazing FREE service called FreeConference.com to host group conference calls.
For one on one communication, you can't beat the phone. We also use GTalk/AIM and Skype. (It's not unusual for me to have 6 to 10 separate chats going all at once).
Your Corporate Network/Platform
At previous companies we used to have to hire network administrators and IT staff to manage our corporate network. Not anymore. This frees us up to invest in our technology resources focused on our product. We use Google Apps, Gmail, Google Calendar and host with services like Dreamhost and Amazon Web Services. And some of our team uses the new MobileMe service from Apple to stay in sync.
Managing Contacts, Sales and Business Development
Check out these tools we use to manage our contacts, deal flow, and sales. SalesForce.com is the most robust online CRM service, but we opt to use HighRise for our contacts and sales communications tracking. We use Pipeline Deals to monitor our deal flow. And since OrganizedWisdom is partly an advertising based model we use Google Ad Manager and AdSense to manage and monitor sales.
Stop Wasting Time Managing Paperwork
We have automated the most time consuming aspects of our HR and Legal administration. We use an amazing service called EchoSign to manage, organize and store all of our legal documents. This keeps us extremely organized, helps us run a tight ship, and makes it easy to collect e-signatures. Best of all we don't use any paper!
We also have an extremely progressive health benefits package that lets our team members choose what care they want. We simply provide a monthly stipend to our employees and they decide how best to spend it on their health and well being. We use an amazing service called ZaneBenefits to manage this for us. This solution saves our company time and money and gives our team members exactly what they want: choice and control over their health care. (We'll be writing a lot more about this topic in separate posts).
We've also streamlined our accounting and finance using services like Paycheck Records, QuickBooks Online and Freshbooks for invoicing.
Transform Your Corporate Communications by Opening Up and Blogging
We use this blog (via TypePad) to keep our team, our investors, our advisers, the press, other bloggers, and our users up to speed on our company. We use it as a platform to show off new features, share achievements and milestones, welcome new team members, and discuss important industry trends. Our company blog has become an invaluable resource for us and has helped us cost-effectively transform our marketing and public relations strategy. We find that the more transparent we are with our various constituencies, the more value we get back in the way of feedback, support, new ideas, as well as new opportunities.
We also use Facebook Groups, Twitter, a Group Email List Powered by Python, a Forum, and a shared Google Reader.
There are several other tools we use regularly, but this list is more than enough to get started, transform your business and set you on the path to Going Green Virtually.
We hope you share this post with others who you think will benefit from the lessons learned. And please send us your ideas. We'll add them to our Getting Results Toolkit.