Out of office: How to make remote teams work for your business


Monthly Archives: April 2018

Out of office: How to make remote teams work for your business

When technology firm IBM revealed it was rolling back telecommuting perks many called it the beginning of the end for the work-from-home trend. The tech giant helped pioneer remote working in the 1980s and since then has gone on to be a leader in the space. Before the announcement, a whopping 40 per cent of its employees in 173 countries around the world worked outside the office.

Of course, out-of-office arrangements — which let employees work from home or shared co-working spaces — in Canada remain incredibly popular. Almost half of all Canadians work remotely, according to workspace provider RegusCanada.

For IBM, the office reversal was part of a bigger strategy to increase collaboration and boost productivity after 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue. Other companies that have invoked similar policies — think Reddit, Bank of America and more — espoused similar sentiments.

But while reining in remote workers may seem like the perfect fix for productivity issues, it’s only a temporary solution. Why? It’s simple: The same problems that plague employees outside of the office can easily carry on in a new environment. To truly make a difference executives need to better communicate their expectations, say experts.

Starting off on the right foot

Tech startups have long relied on remote workers to help them rise in the industry. In fact, most companies these days offer up flexible work schedules in order to attract the best talent, especially since a majority of full-time workers,  aged 18 to 29, now prefer it. And, since millennials make up most of today’s active workforce — outnumbering both Gen-X and Baby Boomers — business leaders are keen to keep it.

82 per cent of millennials say they would be more loyal to employers if they had flexible work options, according to @FlexJobs.

Michael Prynor, founder and CEO of popular task management software Trello has found an effective way to manage remote workers that startups can employ in their own business. It all starts with the interview process, he explains in a CBNC interview. He and his team screen applicants via video conference to make sure they can effectively communicate without being face-to-face. It’s also a test to find out more about their work environment and set them up for long-term success.

“If we decide to hire someone then we go through this process of asking, ‘Do you have an office with a door that closes? If you don’t and you live in a studio, then you have to go find a coworking space if you take this job,” he says.

Trello’s requirements for remote success:

  1. Good wifi: This one isn’t a surprise since an Internet connection is required for even the most basic office work these days.
  2. Access to work resources. Workers need to be able to “log into [their machine as a local administrator” and also have access to a standard VPN for privacy.
  3. Working headset. Bad, static-laden connections are a big no-no, so workers need to have a reliable headset.
  4. An office with a door. To cut down on distractions Trello asks employees to work in an office with a door.
  5. Prioritizing responsibilities. Just like at regular offices, employees can’t expect to take care of household chores, care for children or pets during working hours.
  6. Over communicate. This piece of advice could apply to any worker. Employees should make sure stick to scheduled hours and communicate if/when problems arise.
  7. Be reachable. Employees should be able to reach remote workers via phone and other work channels.

Beat Buhlmann, general manager for note-taking app Evernote, uses a similar approach for remote workers, he explained in a podcast interview with Lisette Sutherland. That’s not all either, he explains. His team also interview employees via video and outline expectations as well as responsibilities to ensure staff understand the job requirements beforehand.

“It is important to establish communication rules in a joint team-code-conduct manner that includes teams and their wishes directly in the creation,” he says in a publicly shared guide that includes advice from some of tech’s biggest players. “When do we use chats? Why do we write emails? At what point do we pick up the phone? These answers should be a joint effort and one that is reflective of the team’s efforts versus that of one person.”

Laying the financial groundwork

Creating a so-called paper trail is critical for remote workers as well, especially since most companies don’t have one in place. Two out of five companies with remote work policies don’t have formal paperwork that outlines expectations, according to a report by Workopolis.

Related: Why community plays a pivotal role in startup success

Enter: Workable. The remote-focused company created a series of templates that both small and large businesses can use to help their company operate as effectively as possible. Another template can be found online at  Workplace Analytics that specifies everything — from pay to hours of operation– startups can utilize for their own workplace policies.

Meanwhile, for Patty Azzarello, the best thing a startup can do to help streamline remote policies already in place is designate specific work-at-home days of the week to optimize office togetherness. The entrepreneur and business advisors to companies, like Adobe and Hewlett Packard, has spent years crafting work-from-home policies that, well, actually work and shared her advice in Fast Company.

“Require pre-approval for specific work-at-home days versus people having the expectation that they can just send an email on any given day saying ‘I’m working at home today,’” she shares.

At the end of the day there are great reasons for companies to embrace remote workers, but in order for it to be effective companies need to make sure they have policies in place that will allow them to be successful and help their employees thrive.

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Ex-500 Startups partner Elizabeth Yin on breaking into the U.S., finding investors and more

Elizabeth Yin has spent years mentoring, managing and meeting with top entrepreneurs from across the globe. Her personal rolodex includes contact details for innovators at today’s biggest companies and since graduating from Stanford University and MIT in the early 2000s she’s helped founders raise millions in venture capital.

Some of her most notable accomplishments include cofounding B2B advertising platform LaunchBit — that was later acquired for an undisclosed amount — joining Google as one of its marketing managers, overseeing 500 Startups’ accelerator program and most recently starting her own pre-seed fund called Hustle Fund.

What are some of the biggest business lessons she’s learned throughout her career? Entrepreneurs should focus on the facts during investment meetings, understand networking is crucial for success and make smart hiring decisions.

Why Canadian entrepreneurs should stay home

For years, Canadian entrepreneurs were told that to grow their company or find investment they had to relocate to the U.S., and in particular Silicon Valley. That’s not technically true anymore says Yin, who credits Canada’s ever-growing reputation on the global stage for the change.

“Before you’d have to trek down to Silicon Valley for one to two months to network, but now VCs are coming up here … take advantage of that to get to know them and network at events.” Elizabeth Yin, cofounder of @hustlefund

“Here’s the dirty secret about staying in Canada,” she explains. “VC schedules are really busy with back-to-back meetings in the Valley. It’s really hard to get a meeting with them there, but when they’re up here their schedule is a lot more open. They’re here to learn about the ecosystem, mingle with startups at places, like the DMZ, and open to spending more time just talking.”

And, that’s not all. The high cost of living in Silicon Valley can be a detriment to bootstrapped startups. Why? Because they’re forced to spend most of their money on day-to-day living costs. A recent report by CNBC backs up this claim. It found startups in the San Francisco area are having a hard time recruiting tech talent because of high living costs.

“The cost of living — compared to San Francisco — is better here [in Canada] … you have access to grants that U.S. citizens don’t have and because more VCs are starting to come up here there’s more potential to network without having to spend money.”

Ask employees the right questions

Regardless of product or company, every founder needs a team of dedicated employees. Of course, onboarding new employees can be one of the most stressful, yet rewarding responsibilities for an entrepreneur.

Unfortunately, that also means hiring new employees can easily go wrong and cost entrepreneurs a lot of time and money. In an industry where startups are expected to scale as fast as possible, one bad egg can set a founder back years. For example, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh estimates bad hires have cost him approximately $100 million.

“Your first couple of hires solidify your company culture, which sets the tone for the rest of your company,” explains Yin in her blog. “And most entrepreneurs tend to look at candidates purely based on skill. But looking at a person based on just one axis is a huge fallacy.”

Hiring the best people means analyzing their personality. For instance, like how they’ll operate under stressful situations or go above what’s expected.

“The people with the best skills for the job can be your worst performers if the environment isn’t a good fit for them.” Elizabeth Yin, cofounder of @hustlefund

A Harvard University paper found that even highly sought after employees who engage in harmful behaviour can hurt a business’s long-term prospects. Bad hires, it states, lower productivity, negatively impact employee morale, and can cost up to $12,000 due to employee turnover.

What entrepreneurs should know to survive in tech

Passing the investor smell test

While at 500 Startups, Yin worked with a variety of tech startups. One thing she noticed during that time was that investors all too often would fund companies that looked great on paper or spoke a certain way. However, those characteristics didn’t necessarily correlate with success. What did matter in the end was execution. This is why at the Hustle Fund, Yin does most of her early investment conversations via email. It helps her focus on a startup’s figures, success and more.

“When I’m doing due diligence I’ll ask a lot about execution and timeline. I want to understand what the velocity of this startup is. Is there some signal these companies are doing something worthwhile and moving fast enough?” So far, Hustle Fund’s innovative process has produced interesting results. In 2017 47 per cent of its portfolio companies had at least one female founder.

She also looks at how fast a startup is scaling. “Are you doing customer development in three days, three months or three years?” Yin adds. “Every business is different. If it’s taking you longer to reach certain metrics than others in the same industry that looks bad.”

“I’ll ask questions about unit economics. Do I think, based on how you’re approaching your business, that the cost to acquire a customer is going to be less than what they’re worth in the end?” Elizabeth Yin, cofounder of @hustlefund

At the end of the day not finding investment isn’t a sign to quit. “If you read TechCrunch it looks like everyone is getting funded, but it’s just not true,” she says. “The good news for [Canadians] is it’s easier to bootstrap here because your costs are lower and you can survive longer to acquire customers and reach a profit without running out of capital.”

Interested in learning more? Check out Robert Gold, host of BusinessCast, interview Michael Gord, the founder of MLG Blockchain about how he grew his business, the power of bitcoin and how he’s changing the tech industry.

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Why community plays a pivotal role in startup success

Wattpad co-founder Allen Lau has created a million-dollar empire out of building engaging (and hardworking) communities. As a result, it means he understands just how pivotal they can be for a startup’s success.

These days his company is more than just a free story-sharing app based in Toronto. In fact, it’s now one of Canada’s most successful tech companies and raised USD $117.8 million from prominent backers like China’s billion-dollar Tencent Holdings, OMERS Ventures and BDC.

Part of the company’s rapid success lies in its ability to create a thriving workplace culture. An important feat in today’s ever-changing tech world where tech talent is in high demand.

In fact, Wattpad’s dedication to culture is a smart business move considering happy and “engaged” employees make better workers. A study from Warwick University found happy employees worked harder and were 12 per cent more productive, while a 2017 Gallup report discovered stressful work environments produced higher employee turnover and absenteeism.

“Culture is the most important part of a company,” explains Lau. “It’s the glue that holds a company together. Creating a supportive environment that allows everyone to thrive and do world-class work.”

How Allen Lau and his team create a thriving community:

  • Spend time with your employees: Wattpad management regularly meet with employees for one-on-one for feedback.
  • Create collaboration: A no-door policy and open space layout help employees work and collaborate more.
  • Keep communication open 24/7: Employees feel empowered to share ideas, thoughts and opinions, no matter their position, through shared internal platforms.

There are all kinds of communities

Of course, building a successful company goes beyond just investing in an amazing workplace culture. Community outreach plays an essential, yet sometimes overlooked part, explains Erin Bury, managing director for communications agency Eighty-Eight. Community outreach, she says, has the power to turn people into brand advocates and boost brand recognition.

“Building community outreach does not require a budget just time and authenticity,” the communication expert says. “Startups just need to identify what those communities are [that they want to help] and how they can help.” That can be something as simple as entrepreneurs volunteering their product or skills.

For example, Bury’s firm works pro bono for a Toronto-based charity called the Upside Foundation. Through its community work, the company works closely with some of Canada’s best tech startups all while making a difference.  

Maya Shoucair, Shopify’s community development manager for Toronto, understands how beneficial working with the community can be as well. The Torontonian has built a career out of helping companies grow and strengthen their local community. She is an integral part of Shopify team that helps solidify the company’s reputation as an important part of the tech ecosystem.

Her advice for companies hoping to mimic Shopify’s success? When engaging with communities outside of your office make sure employees share the same goals.

“Making sure everyone understands what problems you’re trying to solve. And also how you intend to bring your mission to life is crucial. Sometimes, this means over-communicating, so that everyone is on the same page.”

Shopify Community Manager Maya Shoucair shares three things startups should know:

  • Give, don’t just take: Never take more than you give when working in the community. It should always be a mutually beneficial relationship.
  • Be inclusive: Don’t create inaccessible spaces that don’t feel welcoming or open to different voices.
  • Share the wealth: Help employees take the lead on initiatives.

Don’t expect results overnight

Healthy Pets‘ founder Emma Harris has seen firsthand how community outreach can uplift emerging businesses. Despite only launching in 2017 her company has grown exponentially since joining Toronto’s tech community.

One recent success includes last week’s appearance on Dragons’ Den. The TV role garnered a $500K deal from Arlene Dickinson, but what the episode didn’t capture was how volunteering and attending community events was a crucial part of the company’s journey.

“Always raise the amount of money [you need] to support your growth, but you have to get out there and go to events or volunteer to truly impact your business,” she says. “I believe prioritizing community events is worth the cost.”

Dragons’ Den alum Emma Harris’ advice for community outreach:

  • Only attend or volunteer at one event per night: Instead of attending a few events every night for an hour or two, make an impact by choosing one and creating deeper relationships with people around you, so you stand out.
  • Rotate the type of events you attend: Attend a variety of meetups — an investment event one night, a sales-focused meetup the next to get as much as possible out of the city’s offerings.
  • Go in small groups or even alone: Attending or volunteering at an event by yourself forces you to meet as many people as you can and makes it less intimidating when you approach new people.

While community work helped Emma find new opportunities and grow in less than a year, not every founder can count on the same experience.

Shoucair suggests founders or companies dipping their toe into community outreach start small like Harris did. Attend events or volunteer at a manageable capacity to create real impact and change.

“Anyone looking to strengthen their community, whether they are in a community development position or not, is to never focus on growing as fast as possible at the start,” she says. “Your community will grow and strengthen organically if you’re able to provide the right value and direction.”

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