How long is your commute to work? Maybe 15 minutes or more, depending on traffic, weather, and other factors? Some marketers get to just roll out of bed and go to their home office. According to Upwork, 63% of companies now have remote workers and almost 50% use freelancers. How does remote working affect productivity, collaboration, and organization of marketing teams and businesses?
Today, my guest is Nathan Hirsch, FreeeUp.com founder and CEO. We talk about decisions and tactics to consider if your company wants to embrace a remote working environment.
Eric: Your morning may look something like mine. I get up, I inevitably fight with my kids to get ready for the day, get out the door, drop them off at daycare, and I begin my commute to our beautiful CoSchedule office in downtown Fargo, which takes about 15–20 minutes to get in if I get stuck behind the train that runs right through the heart of our city, and then I’m here. At the office, I have coworkers, there are about 40 of us here, and I work with the marketing team, I work with our developers, our sales staff, and we all collaborate because we’re all in one space.
But for many of you listening and many marketers out there, there is no commute. It’s roll out of bed and go to your home office. Remote working is a huge shift and change in which organizations are existing and working together collaboratively as a team. I wanted to know how does that affect team productivity, collaboration, and really the everyday organization of marketing teams and businesses.
According to research, Upwork says 63% of companies now have remote workers and almost 50% of companies are using freelancers. As a business owner what are things do I consider before I start to embrace a remote working office environment? Or if I’m a marketing director or manager, how am I able to manage my team effectively when I don’t see them in person everyday? How do I stay on task? How do I make sure deadlines are met? How do I have conversations to help move projects along? What technologies I end up using? Finally, if you are a marketing practitioner on a team, how do you work collaboratively? How do you connect with your coworkers or other team’s stakeholders to get that job done?
These are the questions that I want answered. So, I brought on our next guest for this episode of the Actionable Marketing Podcast. His name is Nathan Hirsch. He is the founder and CEO of freeeup.com. I’m going to talk all about the important decisions and I guess really particular tactics that you need to execute, to make sure that you are able to work really collaboratively in you are in this type of environment. Great episode. My name is Eric Piela. I am the Head of Brand and Buzz here at CoSchedule and your host for today’s podcast. Let’s jump in because I want you to meet Nathan. It’s time to get AMPed.
[00:02:46] and welcome to another episode the the Actionable Marketing Podcast. I’m absolutely excited to introduce Nathan, our guest on today’s show. Nathan is the founder and CEO of freeeup.com and we are going to dive right in to what can be sometimes a giant headache, maybe even a migraine of what it’s like to have a remote team. How do you manage your remote teams if you are a marketing practitioner? How to work in remote teams? How do you stay productive? How do you keep those communication lines open? It’s definitely something that is a reality for—I would assume—a majority of our listeners today and Nathan is going to give up the lowdown and some expertise on all of that. But before he do so, Nathan, welcome to the show. I love having you here today. Where are you calling in, first and foremost?
Nathan: Yeah [00:03:37]. I’m in sunny Orlando, Florida.
Eric: I love it. I actually just came back. I’m from Fargo here. We’re recording this from beautiful Fargo, North Dakota. I was actually just in Tampa not too far from you on a family vacation. We hit up Push Gardens, we did Anna Maria island on the beach, so I’m loving your everyday life there, Nathan. I’m a little jealous.
Nathan: It’s good. It’s about to get hot here pretty soon. My business partner actually lives in Denver and he’ll be showing up pretty soon. We’re both living in pretty solid places, I think.
Eric: Good. Besides having a beautiful place to live, Nathan, obviously it looks like you’re an entrepreneur. Now, you’re leading an organization called FreeeUp. Before you got there, tell us really quickly about your journey in entrepreneurship or even in marketing in general.
Nathan: I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I learned at a pretty young age that I was going to hate working for someone else. My parents always made me have 40–50 hour a week summer jobs. I always learned a lot about sales, marketing, and managing people, but I just hated watching the clock everyday feeling like I was making other people money. When I got to college, I kind of looked at it as a ticking clock. I had four years to start my own business, or I was going to the real world and have to work for someone else the rest of my life and be miserable.
I started hustling in college selling books. Books led me to Amazon. I started experimenting with different products there and found success in the baby product industry. If you can imagine me as a 20 year old single college guy selling millions of dollars of baby products on Amazon, that was me. As I grew this business, I was stressed out of my mind. I was working 60 hours a week, I have no idea what I was doing, and I really had to start hiring people.
I quickly learned that college kids are not very reliable and no 30 year old wanted to work for me when I was 20. I got thrown into the remote hiring world, the Upworks and Fiverrs back in the day. I got good with it but I always wanted just some something faster. I hated just browsing through tons of applicants.
That’s when I had the idea to build my own marketplace based on the things that I didn’t like about the other ones, that I knew changes that I thought would make it better. So, [00:05:52] or 3½ years ago, I launched FreeeUp and that’s the really short version of how I went from a broke college kid, to starting an Amazon business, to eventually owning a freelancer marketplace.
Eric: I love it. What a cool entrepreneurial story. If we had more time, I love to dive into how were able to sell a bunch of baby products. There must have been a market opportunity there, Nathan. You went right for it. But here you are, freeeup.com. Maybe you can explain it a bit more, helping individuals figure out, “How do I hire? When do I hire? Who am I looking for? What talents do I need?” and really understanding as businesses are growing, how you can help them in that growth, and which is the perfect expertise that dovetails into our topic today, which is managing and working within remote teams.
Maybe the first place to start would be, I think there’s this expectation. Being 100% candid, I always live in a shell. Here at CoSchedule, we actually have not really actively embraced a remote team work environment. We have two offices. One is in Bismarck and one is in Fargo. Basically, all of our employees work in one of those locations. Now, it doesn’t mean you’re on vacation, maybe you want to work remotely here and there, but we are truly based on those two locations. Maybe we’re a little bit old-fashioned in the way, but we find it’s really strong for our culture and for the work that we do.
But I am not naive. I know that 95% of other organization—maybe not elevated there, maybe exaggerated—there’s tons of companies that are remote and I think it’s a lot of what the upcoming workforce is looking for. A lot of businesses are challenged with the, “Okay, I need to embrace this remote working philosophy. How do I go about doing so?” Maybe if you can, where are things are with remote teams? What are some of the precautions and what are some of the advantages of jumping into that world?
Nathan: I want to show up by saying that I actually did both. I opened up an office for my Amazon business around year four and five. To be honest, it was one of the worst big decisions I’ve ever made. I added overhead to a business that didn’t really need it, I had all these remote people and I made them come to the office, I created a 9–5 job for myself and for them, and I thought it would make us more productive and have better culture. That actually did the opposite. I went back to remote and I haven’t really come back since.
To me that’s the direction we’re going, whether you like it or not. If you go back 20 years ago, if you wanted to hire someone, you were pretty limited to your town and the towns around you. Now, if you’re looking to hire, you get access to people all over the world at different price points, different experience. You don’t have to hire people full-time. You can hire them part-time, or project-based, or for six month projects. You just get so much flexibility as a business owner. If you’re not taking advantage of that as a marketing agency or whatever online business you’re running, in my opinion, you’re missing out.
Now, are there some advantages to hiring some people in person? Of course. I don’t do that anymore. I run a pretty decently large business, entirely remote with 40+ virtual assistants and another 15–20 freelancers that compliment that, and they’re scattered everywhere: Philippines, US, India. For me, it’s all about the communication. You have to have to best strongest communication if you wanted to work. We hold meetings, we go over scopes of projects, we go over success and failure, and it’s all about that commitment to communication where nothing gets lost in between. You can fire off an email, you can write something in Skype, and it can get misinterpreted in so many ways, especially when you’re dealing with people that come from different cultures and different backgrounds. To me, the number one skill is figuring out how I can focus on when I’m controlling. That’s the communication that I give out to my team and it really flows around from there, if that makes sense.
Eric: Yeah. I would love to dive into that deeper, Nathan, because again I’m just going to do a juxtaposition of my everyday life here at CoSchedule and potentially some of our listeners. The idea of working remotely, which I personally have never done—I know, again, a lot of listeners probably have—there’s the idea of seeing someone having those conversations, kind of spur of the moment things, and then the idea of, like you said, you’re on the opposite end of that spectrum, where you got 40 other people and they’re all spread all over, who knows, the US or they could be international—I’m not sure if you’re a global company—but my biggest question mark is, you talked about communication; what does that look like, Nathan? It seems like, like you said, there’s so many opportunities, so many areas for pitfalls on project maybe getting not completed, or not enough communication. When you started to build this model, what are the things that you put in place to make sure it was going to be successful? Can you make it a little bit more tangible for us?
Nathan: Yeah. For me I use free tools. I use Skype, I use Trello, I use email, I use WhatsApp, and I use Viber. I create different channels for different things. If it’s an emergency, then its a Viber or a WhatsApp message. Those are what I keep unless it’s something that really has to be important or I want to keep it really private, because I have assistants who have access to my emails and my Skype. For Skype, I use it for day-to-day stuff. If someone is working their customer service shift, then they should be on Skype at all times and I should be able to contact them quickly. If they’re not there, then they have one business day to respond to me, or the next time that they are coming on for a shift or for a meeting, then they can respond to me then. Emails are to be responded to, either the next time you work or have one business day.
For announcements, for updates, for sharing documents and information, we use emails or Skype. All the day-to-day operations like, “Hey, this is going on with this client. Hey, we’re having a meeting with the freelancers, the test team.” We’re going to have it all in that Skype group, all in writing so no one drops a phone call, or can go back and read it later if they miss the meeting, or if they want to review it. We keep it all in text, all in writing there, and then we keep the WhatsApp and the Viber for, “Hey, we just launched the dev update. A huge bug is there, it’s affecting business, and we need to get a hold of our developer.” We would use Viber or WhatsApp to call them.
Part of it is how you manage it and the different channels you use and how you communicate, but the factor really before that is we only work with people that have strong communication skills. When we vet people to get on the FreeeUp platform, we vet them for skill, we vet them for attitude, and we vet them for communication. We have 15 pages of communication best practices that they have to memorize and get tested on before they get on our platform. We know that it doesn’t matter what your skill is, it doesn’t matter how good your attitude is, if you can’t communicate with me, communicate with clients, communicate with other VAs and freelancers that I work with, it’s not going to work out. It’s not going to lead to a good experience.
Communication is something that we preach right from the beginning. We hold people to our communication standards. If someone is doing a great job in everything but they are not responding to our Skype messages, everything pauses until we reset that expectation of how we communicate with people on our platform and on our internal team. For me, it’s all about hiring people with those skills to begin with, then coming up with a good structure and system, and holding people afterwards to those initial expectations.
Eric: That’s really fascinating. I definitely see the need to like I say, “Hey, here are our communication mediums, here’s what you should use each of these.” You’ve basically built out that scenario of saying, “Hey, you know what? For this, use email. For that, use Skype,” and I think that provides some structure and some parameters around how are you going to communicate.
It sound like hiring for communication, it seemed like a big priority in a remote type of setting, which maybe you don’t really think about, like you think, “Oh yeah, people are just good natural communicators.” But I think really being purposeful around like you’ve got like a 15 page best practices, there are certain things that we need to make sure that in order for our business to be successful in a remote type of environment, these things need to be proficient in these types of skill sets, as well as you need to follow these parameters when communicating.
I like providing that structure because with ambiguity is where you potentially can run into some of those pitfalls. Maybe to provide the antithesis of that, have you run into areas or there are certain things that maybe our listeners should be wary of or precautionary of in a remote type of environment?
Nathan: For me, you still want to focus on the same things that you would focus on if you’re hiring someone in person. We want someone with a fantastic attitude. If they’re going to be a cancer in your office, there’s soon going to be a cancer remote. Don’t think that because you’re not surrounding them with people at the watercooler, that that stuff is not going to spread.
Keep in mind, I made every single hire in the state of [00:15:29]. The reason I created FreeeUp is because I want to learn from those mistakes and teach other people from those mistakes. But when I have a remote back in the day, there would be someone that was unhappy with me or unhappy with the something, the business, and they would go in and send Skype messages to other people. They would call them and all those communication channels are still in line.
You can create a remote culture where everyone is separate and you’re not team-building, you’re not setting the same milestones, you’re not setting the same goals, but for me that’s a mistake. Even the graphic designers that might do a project for me a week, they know what our business goals are. They know what’s going on on the team, for my internal team and my assistants. They talk to other people.
You don’t have to keep people still focused on the ultimate goal. You have to give them something that motivates them besides money, and at the same time you got to surround yourself with good people that are honest about what they can and cannot do, that have that great attitude. It’s easy for them to go around and really ruin any kind of remote culture that you built because building remote culture is slightly harder than building it in-office. It requires that extra effort, that extra trying to communicate, that extra creating group [00:16:39] chats and introducing people to others that are working with your business.
It is a little bit more effort, but I wouldn’t trade my remote team for anyone. I think we have an incredible culture. I think people are motivate, people know what is expect of them, and because I really learned from those mistakes, when I find someone that’s not meeting whether it’s a attitude, or communication, or the way you do business, I’m pretty quick to remove them because it’s so easy to disrupt what we have going on.
Eric: That’s interesting when you talk about culture. I love your comment about if they’re going to be a cancer to your company in person, that doesn’t mean that just because they’re remote they won’t have the same negative influence. You talked about culture, you talked about how you build that remotely. Is trust harder to build? Trust is a big piece of knowing that you are relying on your other coworkers to accomplish different stages of different projects. Do you find any disconnect with that?
Obviously at CoSchedule work, part of what we do is a project management piece and making sure everyone is on the same page where things are at. Do you find that with that culture and that trust, that there’s any kind of gap there or any actual working you do to make sure that’s a big component of building what you want to build at FreeeUp, for example.
Nathan: The trust is always the factor. I don’t just hire someone and give them access to everything. You build trust with people over time. My stand on risk is pretty simple. Even if you hire your best friend to sit right next to you, there’s still always a chance that he does something stupid or jeopardizes your business in some way. There’s nothing that neither you nor anyone else can do to make that percentage zero.
The hiring is risky. There’s no way around it. But the average person cares a lot more about providing for their family or growing their freelance business than they do about jeopardizing your business or your information in any way. Should you hire someone and give them the keys to everything on day one? Probably not, but you can build trust with people over time.
One thing is that you can have people sign all the NDAs you want and set up LastPass and all of these things, but there is no substitute for just building relationship with someone. I think that where some people lose sight of the remote factor. If you just hire someone and you’re just barking orders at them through Skype, sending them projects and they have no idea what you’re trying to do, or who you are, or you haven’t build any kind of relationship, that’s usually when 9 times out of 10 that’s where the trust issues come in because you’re just one of many clients to them.
Now, if you build the relationship and you show them the goals when you hire someone that is passionate about something more than money, you can build great relationships and have great trust. I have a virtual assistant in the Philippines who handles all our billing every week and he’s worked with me for years. I would trust him with my personal social security number if I have a reason to give it to him because he’s not going anywhere. The thing that he cares most about is about growing the FreeeUp platform and I know that. So, for me you just have to make that extra effort to actually build a relationship with the people that are remote.
Eric: That’s good insight. If we take a bit of a pivot and we try thinking about maybe there’s some individuals who are looking at making that first remote hire. Again, whether that’s going to be a full-time employ or that’s going to be potentially a freelancer, what consideration should they be making? When do they know is the right time to maybe start hiring for something like that? Again, same thing like what do you start to look for or where is the risk/reward in all of that evaluation process?
Nathan: What I do is I look at how much money I made last month. Then I figure out how aggressive do I want to be. If I want to be super aggressive, maybe I’m investing 40%–60% of my profits back in my business. They go towards building an empire. If I want to be more conservative because we’re all in a different place in life and in business, maybe it’s 10%–30%. But figure out what that number is and you can make it go up and down month over month. Once you know what that number is, let’s say it’s 25%, then the next question becomes, “What should I hire for first?”
There’s three different ways to hire. You’ve got basic, mid, and expert. Basic level people are followers. Think $5–$10 a hour, non-US virtual assistant in the Philippines or wherever it is. They might have years of experience especially on FreeeUp because we’re not a marketplace for newbies. At the end of the day they’re there to follow your systems, your processes. If you’re stuck in the day-to-day operations of your business, you’re trying to get hours back, you’ve already figured out how to do something, how to make it work, but you don’t want to spend more time doing it, then you need to invest in the followers and get your time back.
The mid level people are the doers, the specialists. They might be graphic designers, bookkeepers, content writers. You’re not hiring a graphic designer and teaching them how to be a graphic designer, but they’re not consulting or bringing in strategy either. They’re perfect for all these project that all entrepreneurs have, that just build up over time, whether it’s a logo, an infographic, or writing for your blog. You can’t do every single project that’s going to come off your plate and if you find yourself overloaded, you need to invest that money in hiring doers, to get those projects completed and taken off your plate.
Then you got the experts, the people who bring their own strategy, their own expertise to the table. They can project manage, handle high-level game plans, maybe handle an ad budget. They could be a high-level freelancers, consultants, agencies on our platform. You’re not hiring an expert to follow your way. You’re hiring them because it’s too far outside of your core competency.
Yes, you could spend the next six months learning how to be a Facebook ad expert, but that’s not a good use of your time as an entrepreneur. You can’t master every little thing. So you want to hire experts to come in, to handle something in the high level that you wouldn’t be able to do, and that’s for businesses that are trying to do something new. Maybe you’re trying to advertise on Instagram or maybe you’re trying to build a Shopify store and you wanted to convert to the high levels. You hire an expert to build it from the beginning. So, for me it’s all about figuring out what can I realistically invest and then where does it make sense to put that money into. Do I need more followers, doers, or experts?
Eric: That’s a good breakdown, that kind of each of those tiers perhaps of freelancers. You bring up an interesting point that just jump to this concept of freelancers, but it maybe foreign to a lot of listeners because it would seem to me that maybe a company that is a bit more traditional or maybe they even do have a couple of remote workers. Is that a good opportunity to say, “Hey, we’re going to try this remote thing. Maybe a little bit less risk and try a freelancer.” Have you found success with companies trying that model, kind of dipping their toe that way or not?
Nathan: Yeah, absolutely. We have clients that are very old school. They might even have an office with cubicles and desk, and they have the people working there everyday, but they can still complement them with remote hires. Whether it’s hiring freelancers that do some specialized project that they don’t really need someone full time in the office, to hire an agency for maybe marketing because they haven’t been able to find the right marketing people in their area, to just making sure that they’re getting the highest value from each person.
Let’s say you’re hiring someone for $50,000 a year in your office and they’re spending 25% of their time on $10 an hour task. Why not hire a VA in the Philippines—I have a lot of clients that do that—make him the assistant of that full time employee you have in your office, and make sure that full time person is only doing $50,000 a year task? There’s a lot of creative ways that you can reuse remote hires to complement whatever you already have going on in your business.
Eric: That’s good insight. You’ve talked about a variety of different types of skill sets out there. If you can be candid with me, Nathan, is there a typical type of position or skill set that works best when working with marketing teams? Is it that designer? Is it that copywriter? There’s got to be a sweet spot—you can tell me if I’m wrong—but is there something where this model works the best? You find a really good fit around a freelancer or remote hire that just naturally works within an existing marketing ecosystem?
Nathan: Yeah. Every agency is different. Every agency is in a different place. I think where I encourage a lot of agencies to start is to figure out how to build your Rolodex of reliable people that you can go to because you’re constantly going to be adding new clients. Every time you add new clients, let’s say you just land a big account, you don’t want to be hiring someone for the first time or experimenting with that big client. You want to have people that you trusted, that are in your back pocket whenever you need them.
Find two or three graphic designers, find two or three content writers, find some ad people that you can go to for different things. That’s what a lot of client agencies will do on the FreeeUp platform is they get a few different people in each category added to their account, they’ll build a relationship, they’ll give them different projects over time, and as their workload and their agency grows, they have these people they can use as go-to. They might reach out to three designers and say, “Hey I need this done urgently. Which one of you can go to it first?” Or they might go to the Facebook ad person and be like, “Hey, do you have room for another account? It would be awesome if I could white label it through you.” They might have even other agencies on their account that they can use for white labeling.
By building up your Rolodex of reliable people that you can go to and maybe you don’t have them full time, or ongoing at first and it could turn into that down the line. It really opens up your business and your agency and makes it scalable. I think that’s where a lot of agencies are missing the boat.
Eric: Got you. There’s obviously a lot of benefits. You talked about them from this remote team standpoint. You’ve got the whole freelance network, you also just have the ability to tap into just talents that aren’t necessarily just around your backyard. You have all those things. Now at the same time, let’s not pretend that there aren’t necessarily any potential drawbacks with the remote team. If you could, Nathan, if there are some, what are those drawbacks? More importantly, how do you address those drawbacks? Obviously, there are certain things that come with a remote team. How do you go about addressing those things to make sure that they don’t become more of the pain than the value they’re bringing back to you?
Nathan: There are definitely things to watch out for. You have to understand when you’re hiring a virtual assistant at first, let’s say it’s in the Philippines, well, they have terrible weather, they had just two earthquakes in the first week. It’s almost like there’s pros and cons. There’s not a right or wrong. So, if you’re going to get the cheaper price, maybe you get an awesome virtual assistant, you have to be understanding that there are going to be sometimes things outside of their control. Just like you could make a bad hire in person, you can make a bad hire in the remote world, too.
I’m sure you’ve heard stories of virtual assistants just disappearing and stuff happening like that. There’s a lot of factors and people come from different cultures as well. For me, when I worked with people in the Philippines—we have freelancers all over; it’s just a lot of people on my internal team are from the Philippines—I’m a much more direct person. That’s just the kind of business owner I am. With that, they tend to be a little bit more family-oriented, a little bit more emotional. Obviously, you can’t put every person in the Philippines under one category, but that’s what I’ve learned from years with working with them. For me, I was losing people because I was too direct. People thought we’re taking it personally. I didn’t have any emotional element, and I too adjusted and changed it over time if I wanted to keep people around.
So, for me it’s about learning and making adjustments and asking for feedback. If I’m working with someone from the Philippines, or from India, or from the UK for the first time, I’ll ask them. It’s like, “Hey, what do your other clients do that you really like? Hey what can I do to improve? How can I communicate better? What part is not being clear? What kind of client do you like working with?” It doesn’t mean that you have to act on every little thing and completely change how you are as a person, but at least you’ll have that information and you can decide what changes you want to make over time.
Eric: Good stuff. Maybe to kind of wrap up things, I think there’s a lot of things, whether you’re a marketer or a business owner, maybe you’re leading a team, what do you think that we should be focused on? What should we focused on again as the leader of the organization or as the leader of the department? Where do you see the managing of remote team be, an aide or an assistant to that? I think there’s a lot of things for us to be concerned about. We’re executing campaigns, we’re running our business, we’re doing X, Y, and Z, and now I want to hire a remote person. Where can that really help fill a gap and what is the biggest advantages in your mind to doing so?
Nathan: It allows you that flexibility to plug people in. If you need someone for five hours a week, if you need someone for a small client, if you need someone to view some [00:31:20] because I work when everyone in your team right now is marketing, you can really just plug those gaps wherever you need them. To me, that’s a starting point. I’ve gone beyond that. I’ve hired someone part time, then I’ve hired another person part time, then I made them both full time, then I added some graphics designers, web developers, and project managers. You can get creative to plug holes and a lot of times that’s a great place to test, and then it’s getting involved to a bigger and better relationship.
Eric: Solid advice. Thanks so much, Nathan. If people want to learn more about managing remote teams or even understanding you talked a lot about these virtual assistants and freelance [00:31:57] which may or may not be in their future, but if they’re curious about learning more, where should they go and find more information about that?
Nathan: If you go to freeeup.com, we get thousands of applicants every week. Virtual assistants, freelancers, agencies from all over the world. Let the top 1% in and then we make them available to you quickly whenever you need them. Create a free account mention this podcast for a $25 credit to try us out. On the back-end, we have 24x7 support in case you have even the smallest issue and a no turnover guarantee. If someone quits for any reason we cover replacement cost and get you a new person right away.
Eric: Good stuff. I appreciate that, Nathan. I appreciate you sharing your thought leadership for managing remote teams and understanding that entire endeavor if you’re looking to do so. I appreciate and enjoy your time in beautiful Orlando there, Nathan.
Nathan: Thanks. Have a good rest of the day.
Eric: Yeah. Take care. Thanks for coming on the show.