How To Effectively Manage A Remote Team

cookies from levain bakery in new york's upper west side

Some years back, before the days of email, internet, and video conferencing, teams needed to be in the same geographical location to work efficiently.

But now, many teams work regularly with colleagues based in different continents, countries, cities and buildings. Members of a team may come from regions with different time zones, have a different way of life and speak different languages. I know we have that at Caldera – we proudly span over 2 time zones, 3 nationalities, and all-around awesome. 

As they say, we’re in the middle of a “remote work revolution.”

Many remote teams face a variety of circumstances. Some members of remote teams are working in twos, others in threes. Some are all in the same office but have one person working individually in a separate office or at home. You may be seeing some of the members of the team every day, while you may hardly or never see others.

Regardless of the way teams are being arranged and organized, managing them, especially those ones that are spread out in most locations, can be tasking and challenging. I can’t pretend I have all the answers, but one of my 2017 projects is to hack my productivity as a remote worker. In this post, I reflect on some of the strategies that have worked for Caldera Labs to ensure that we treat each other fairly, stay on track, and buy into our own objectives.

  1. Put up an organized work plan.

    Putting up well-organized (read: prioritized) work plans that outlined what the team was expecting from each of its members was a game changer. Through this, we ensure that everyone knows and does their assignments. Since the workers of the team are not working in the same location, we make use of a project management system to keep everybody in touch. Various project management systems are now available, but we use Asana. If any assignment is updated, every member of the team is notified.

  2. Set up regular virtual face time meetings with the team.

    Communication in the virtual office often rely mostly on phone calls, video calls, emails, and Slack. The lack of face time meeting with your team means that daily performance feedback can be lacking. When one doesn’t see their team in person, they will not be able to get the information provided by cues that are nonverbal, like facial expressions and body language. You can solve this problem by making use of your Skype, Google Hangouts, or other video conferencing software on a regularly scheduled basis to check in and make sure everyone is feeling right.

  3. While you are working, schedule a time for contact.

    Set aside a convenient time during the day when you are just available for emails and Slack. I think there are two kinds of people in the world: those that are on Slack and email on day if they don’t limit themselves and therefore get nothing done, and those that will be impossible to reach unless they commit to a specific time for communications. Regardless of which one you are, committing to a specific time in which you chat will solve your problem. Open communication gives everyone the allowance to have discussions and to clear any issues that have not been unresolved.

  4. Know the expectations of your team.

Having an organized plan (#1) is one thing, but knowing what’s on it is another. Since you have no chance of coming across a whiteboard with this information hanging up in the office, it is necessary for you to have periodic check-ins of your team to see the progress they’re making and to ensure that everyone is on track in achieving the aim of the team.

Managing a remote team properly is highly essential for the growth of any company, and especially a fully remote company like ours. Every member of the team needs to be given an opportunity to grow. With these tips discussed above, you will be sure to manage your remote team the best way.

P.S. Did you notice how, at no point, did I talk about “employees,” “managers,” or “bosses”? According to management research, the remote work revolution is eroding old methods of hierarchy, which is pretty awesome because as it turns out, “management” is useless

Five Phrases That Changed My Life

some egg muffins I made for breakfast

I’m 23 years old.

This is a fact I’ve considered hiding, avoiding, flat-out lying about, and sometimes been troubled by. It’s a fact that shocks the majority of people I meet, continually amazes most of the people I know, and most importantly, constantly reminds me that despite my (can I be a little indulgent for a minute?) admittedly impressive list of accomplishments, there’s still a lot that I don’t know.

In theory, I actually only know about 20% of all I will ever know. That’s a sobering thought.

Yet, in that time, I do think I’ve collected a good bit of interesting information. I’ve been feeling especially reflective lately given the political, economic and cultural climate around me, and I started to think about what some of the most grounding and directive ideas I’ve been presented with might be. So far, anyway. As I made my dinner last night, I came up with the following list, and I hope that, while in my youth I find them especially powerful, that they can serve as reminders and guidance at anyone, at any stage of life. (Also, you should try the stir fry sauce recipe I made. It was delicious.)

How To Stand Out

1. As you enter the workforce, you’re going to be surprised at how easy it is to stand out.

It was 2012 and I had just started my first “real” job at Bank of America. I had made an appointment to go talk to Ms. Martha Evans, Adjunct Professor of Economics at Florida State University, because I was overwhelmed, confused, and looking for direction. Or something. I don’t really remember why I went in, but I will never forget what she said.

It sounded crazy at the time. Not hard to stand out?! Maybe 30 years ago, I thought. There’s 300 applicants for every job opening out there. Robots are taking our jobs. Et cetera, et cetera. Fast forward to today, and I’ve realized how much this is actually true. I’ve also learned that there’s a name for this: the 80/20 rule. Or, in our nerdy economics world, the pareto principle. You’ve probably heard this applied to your sales – for example, 20% of your marketing efforts will bring about 80% of your customers. I’m talking about your life efforts. It’s a small fraction of the amount of going above and beyond that will produce most outstanding results, and the reason for that is because going above and beyond is rare.

Do What You Love

1.5. Why are you doing this?

This isn’t a phrase on my list, but it’s closely tied to Phrase 1. About a year into my short-lived banking career, I had developed an unhealthy obsession with the customers who walked through our doors without a clue as to how to use our products for their personal benefit. I started working through the thoughts that would eventually become FinBot Mobile, and part of that was asking my manager for guidance.

I’ll never forget the way he slightly tilted his head to the side in his office, and asked, “Why are you doing this? For a class?” and I was totally stumped. “No, not really?” I stammered out. “I don’t know, I just want to, I guess? I want to make a difference.” He didn’t answer. “I don’t know, my boyfriend just broke up with me and I have a lot of extra time.” He laughed and dismissed me.

Do what you love. You don’t need a reason, and you don’t need an explanation. All you need is the fact that you want to do it, and most people don’t.

Redefine Busy

2.  Are you really doing all of those things, or are you just barely staying above water?

I’m going back in time a little bit with this one. Go back about 2 years from Phrase 1. I was a junior in high school, and I was talking to Nancy Carter, high school guidance counselor.

Ms. Carter was a life-changing force in my story. I’m pretty sure I would be nowhere without her. Actually, I have objective proof: she was the person who called Florida State University and asked for a second review of my last semester grades in hopes that I would qualify for a scholarship that ultimately made the difference between affording college and not affording college.

Nancy Carter is a catalyst for the American Dream, and she is not compensated well enough for it. But that’s for another day.

My high school years weren’t a lot of fun. I was living in a single parent household, below the poverty line, and physical and mental health problems wrecked havoc on my family.

I found myself 17 years old, working 20 to 30 hours a week, running a school club – the Japan Club, if you’re interested – taking tough classes in hopes of impressing university admissions officers, competing on the swim team (and losing a lot, but that wasn’t the point, the point was impressing university admissions officers), and volunteering every weekend. And that day, I found myself in Nancy Carter’s office crying, hysterically, wanting to quit – demanding solutions. And for better or worse, Nancy Carter pointed out Phrase 2. She asked me to think, among all the things I was doing, was I doing well at any of them?

The answer was absolutely not. This redefined the value I placed on being busy. The following year, I had quit the club, scaled back on the swim team and scaled back on work hours. Not only did my life improve, but also, the world didn’t implode. Universities still wanted me, my friends still wanted to spend time with me, and I was back at a neutral place from where I could plan my next move.

There’s some people that aren’t going to figure out until much later than senior year of high school. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve truly taken this lesson to heart yet. But experiencing it for the first time so early on means that it stuck – and when I find myself ever-so-stressed out, I look at it with a questioning eye.

Putting Yourself First Isn’t Selfish, It’s Essential

3. Do you know how, in the airline safety instructions, they tell you to put your oxygen mask on before you put it on your dependents? Why is that?

It was 2014 and I was close to graduation. Farhood Basiri, local challenger of norms and modern Renaissance man, had become one of my mentors, friends, and all-around favorite people (hey Farhood). And I don’t remember how it came up, but I remember the intense guilt that was surfacing – that I still battle at this very moment – that maybe, by not pursuing a “secure career,” I was letting my family down.

Family relationships are hard. Mine aren’t the world’s most challenging by any means, but they still aren’t great. And one of the aspects of my family interactions is that I’ve found myself responsible for members of my family much before most people ever come to grapple that reality.

That dynamic tends to be incompatible with a volatile career of entrepreneurship, e-commerce and activism / art. People in that predicament often choose security – they get business degrees and go work in banking. As I started out, I dealt with a lot of guilt. In fact, I’m still at the beginning, so I still am managing a lot of guilt. This is when I return to the answer to Farhood’s rhetorical question:

It’s because if you put yours on first, you can rescue your dependent. If you put your dependent’s mask on first, you could both perish.

It is not selfish to care after you first, in fact, it is often essential to survival of you and the people you love.

I’m still struggling with this, but when I do, I remind myself that I can’t help anyone without my oxygen mask on.

Put Down Your Phone

4. You control push notifications. Push notifications do not control you.

OK, this one is kind of funny. But seriously, this one changed my life. I was probably just getting used to my iPhone, or something. Actually, here’s what it was – I was just getting used to be being an Always On High-Tech Worker™. And I made some complaint I can no longer remember to my then-new friend, now-business partner Josh Pollock, and that was his flat, shrugged response.

Game changer. I went home and turned off every single notification on my phone. Yes, all of them. You’re gasping. And then, as I remembered I needed to know what was going on in a certain app, I turned them back on. Notifications became activated on a need-to-know basis. That simple shift revolutionized how I work.

Struggling Means You Need Experience, Not To Struggle Harder

5. You have passion. You need experience. You need to work on another project, something that you aren’t burning with fury about, and you need to learn how to be a manager and an innovator by working on that for a while.”

This is paraphrased. The real come-to-Jesus talk was a little longer. This gem, also from Farhood Basiri, came to me around 2015, near the end of my term in Tallahassee, Florida.

Hey Farhood – did you know that the past two years of my life have been driven by your advice? Now you know.

Farhood said this to me as I saw my financial education organization fizzling out (or crashing and burning, depending on your perspective). I took these words to heart, and I pushed a hard pause button on my work as a reformer of America’s financial system.

These words are what led me to Josh, into WordPress, towards Ingot, and eventually, into Caldera Labs. This was also the intention that led me into my non-WordPress work as a volunteer at a co-working space for nonprofit organizations, an employee of a national non-profit organization, and a now currently to a fellowship at a Y-Combinator-style incubator for non-profit organizations.

Here’s the thing: knowing what you need to learn is nice. Knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know is nicer. But the real juice came from going three whys deep, in this case, accepting so intimately and deeply that I didn’t know anything. I ventured into a space with the mindset that I don’t even know how to find out what I don’t know I don’t know, and an openness for discovery. It has brought me into a place of humility and turned me into a muscle ready to be worked. Is it trying my patience? Yes. Is it jarring to discover that the “child prodigy” thing doesn’t extend past schooling years? Absolutely. But I couldn’t be happier with the road thus far.

So Long, So Long, And Thanks…

And just imagine: that’s 23 years. What will the next 60 bring?

How To Manage Your Business Finances As A Freelancer

crepes in new haven

About two weeks ago, Josh and I pulled off Caldera’s first-ever promotional event. While we while we were running around downtown Philadelphia shopping for the event, we had a series of funny conversations about what constituted a business expense vs. what did not. In my mind, the definition of a business expense is very clear. The buckets of expenses that are each of our income statement’s lines live very clearly in my consciousness, always.* However, Josh pointed out something I had never realized before: that’s not the case for most people. In fact, he pointed out, freelancers struggle to understand the financial management of their business overall.

It really got me thinking about the WordPress adage that all community members have something to offer, and most don’t realize it. But that’s for another day – today is a quick and dirty course on financial management for freelancers.

The Basics

The challenges of cash flow are usually the main obstacle to most freelancers. Simply defined, the flow of cash is the money you get and the money you spend at any given time. Automating most of your interaction with your capital transactions will go a long way in helping you to concentrate on the more vital aspects of running your business. Let’s get one thing straight: financial management is not spending long hours in spreadsheets trying to calculate the amount you owe in taxes – it’s just always ensuring that you know how much you’re spending for both personal and business expenses. There are three simple steps to that:

  1. You need a separate bank account for your freelance business. It is worth the maintenance fee to keep your personal expenses separate from your business expenses (although, online banks are worthy of note – many quality options are popping up that are both affordable and service-rich). Most freelancers have this problem of not knowing and keeping a proper record of what they spend on either their personal life or their business life. It muddles your understanding of how well you are doing and where you can improve. Automate a clearer understanding.
  2. Create a budget. You need a budget. You need a budget. You need a budget. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated, but you must have an idea of about what you expect to come in, and about what you expect to go out in the process of executing business. Don’t overthink it: take 5 minutes to look back on what you have earned in the last few years (or months, or weeks – scale appropriate), then have a proper plan for the coming year / month / week. It might just have four lines: income, hosting, software, hardware. That’s a budget! Planning ahead for the future offers you the chance to organize and arrange your finances properly, and most importantly, to grow.
  3. Pay yourself first. If you’re just entering the freelance business, simply start by being mindful of your expenses on personal things as you delve deeper. Ask your friends in freelancing how they’re coping with spending. Then, as you exist as a freelancer for longer, start thinking about paying yourself a salary. Determining an amount of money out of whatever you earn as a freelancer that covers your personal expenses helps you plan for your personal life, identify overflow (or underflow), and again most importantly, organize your growth. Do bear in mind that you will pay your taxes and other bills like health insurance and the rest. It is advisable to set aside 25-30% of your earning in the beginning so that the end of the year doesn’t hit you hard.

The Advanced Basics

Once you’ve nailed the three essentials and have been freelancing for longer, it’s time to take it to the next level. Put aside time to look back on the past years of your total expenditures. You will get to know whether your expenses are going up or coming down every year. If they are going up each year, then you will need to factor that into your calculations of things you need and want. Your aim should be to make more money than you spend for each time period you look at. These are some of the considerations moving forward:

  1. Start tracking. Keep proper records of your earnings and expenses on a monthly basis. This will help you to know whether your earning/expenses are on schedule or not. It might look like a simple spreadsheet, budgeting software like Mint, or an accessible accounting tool like Quickbooks, Freshbooks or even the advertiser-powered-but-free-to-you Wave.
  2. Save, save, save. I know. You’ve probably heard this one in the context of personal financial management, and you’re pretty tired of it. Unfortunately, it’s a monster that keeps coming back. If you can, make it a priority to keep some of your earnings in a liquid account so that you can get access to it whenever the need arises. Freelance business is like other businesses, sometimes, there’s downturns in sales. Be prepared. In periods of abundance, when you’re enjoying higher earning, remember to set aside a greater percentage of your money for taxes, as well. That tends to be the most common “oops” that makes a freelancer wish they had a more robust savings account. Ensure that you keep it to settle estimated taxes when it’s due.

Conclusion

Don’t expect to know how to manage your finances overnight. Learning how to do that is a process. The more you put your concentration on it, the better you learn it. With these tips mentioned above, it will help you to be a good manager of your business finances as a freelancer.

*Is that weird? Am I a robot?

A Super Short Guide To Selling Anything Online Using WordPress

peruvian aji de gallina

There are just about 100,000,000 different articles online about how to start, run, and improve your web-based business. Some of them are great, most of them are good, and a few of them are terrible, and most of them are specifically tailored to one aspect of success online or aimed at someone who is already up and running – usually both.

This is not one of those articles.

This is aimed towards the person already sitting on a product. Maybe you design interesting screen print t-shirts, provide a professional service, teach lessons, or perhaps you want to distribute digital content (e-books, even a blog – yes, a blog is a digital product). You’ve looked at the options that usually come up when minds start to turn about selling things online: you’ve checked out Shopify but raised an eyebrow at the high commissions, you’ve checked out Etsy and realized that you want more say over your small business. Perhaps you’ve already been selling on Etsy or advertising on Craigslist and Facebook.

You’re ready to take it to the next level, and you’ve heard that WordPress, which powers about 28% of top sites online, might be the right fit for you. I literally use WordPress to sell WordPress products that are used to sell on WordPress. If you’re looking for guidance on where to go from here, this is for you.

Before You Jump In

While this is outside of the scope of this article, it is worthwhile to take a moment or two to think about the competitive landscape that your product is existing in. No matter what you’re selling: a service, a digital product, a physical product, or something outside or in-between, you might want to ask yourself these questions:

  1. What do I deliver that no one else can?
  2. Who am I competing against?
  3. What are the improvements to my customers’ lives that I provide?

Having answers – or hypotheses – about these questions will help guide you through the rest of this process. And, if you can’t answer the questions, it might be a good idea to revisit the drawing board until you can.

The Basics

Set up your website. While WordPress.com provides a great start, if you are the person I described in the introduction, you’re probably ready to graduate to self-hosted WordPress, which you can read more about here. After you’ve chosen a host, preferably online with a simple WordPress install that will get you up and running in no time, pick a theme you like, and –  don’t overthink this yet – you now have a website.

Add features as you need them. My philosophy is that you should add things as you need them. The number one reason for you to constantly put off doing the things you want to do is “making sure that everything’s ready.” I can sincerely tell you that nothing will ever be ready – so jump in. Initially, you’ll need little more than one page that describes your product and one page that sells them. Create your description page using WordPress pages and set that page as your homepage via Settings > Reading. To sell, consider the following WordPress plugins:

  1. WooCommerce for products,
  2. Easy Digital Downloads for, you guessed it, digital downloads,
  3. (shameless plug alert) Caldera Forms to collect leads for your service-based business

The Advanced Basics

Consider SEO (search engine optimization). In the spirit of super short, let’s not delve too deep into this topic. However, you probably want to think about people being able to find you through a Google search.

Think like your customer: what would I plop into Google if I needed my services? For Caldera, we often consider the first one “contact form wordpress.” We call that an SEO keyword – which, in itself, is an SEO keyword. Search “SEO keywords” to learn more about picking the right terms.

Eventually, you’ll want to think about incorporating those SEO keywords into your website’s messaging, multiple information pages, and possibly even a blog. But for now, let’s pull out my favorite shortcut of all time – Yoast SEO. There’s nothing I love more than plug-and-play, and Yoast SEO is it – simply put in one SEO keyword, and make the changes as directed.

Does Your Website Do What You Want It To Do?

Consider CRO (conversion rate optimization). In The Advanced Basics, you’re beginning to think about driving traffic to your site, which is what the rest of this post is about. But before you dive deeper, consider whether your site will accomplish what you want it to do: generate those sales, leads, or even donations – known as a conversion. There is a grave danger in spending money, time and effort in driving traffic to a site that won’t convert – this is where conversion rate optimization (CRO) comes in. Simply defined, CRO is the process of testing your site’s content to see if it drives conversions.

Just like SEO, the concept of CRO can get complicated. At a beginning stage, simply keep two things in mind: 1) what you like may not necessarily be what your customers like – this applies to colors, images, words, and styling, and 2) you should run a test from day one. (shameless plug alert #2) We sell a plugin called Ingot, which automates testing website content on WordPress. Nugget by Ingot, our free version, allows you to run one test. After setting up your site, set up a headline test. Try an emotional headline versus a rational headline. Even if you don’t have the traffic to extract meaningful results for a long time, thinking about this complex and expanding process now will put you in the mindset of CRO today.

Let The People Know

Let’s cover the leading categories of how we drive traffic to e-commerce sites.

Pay-per-click (PPC). You’re familiar with the idea that Google, Facebook, and other tech giants make money by selling targeted advertisements. When you start selling online, you’ll quickly find yourself on the other side of that equation. Your favorite social media sites as well as Google AdWords are excellent platforms to start serving advertisements to potential customers. Again, draw back to the basics – don’t overthink this. Set up an advertiser account on Google AdWords, and create a simple ad to drive traffic to your home page. Start with the budget you can afford – you can set up ad buys as low as $5/day – and revise, improve and increase as needed.

Content marketing. If you’ve ever followed a company on Twitter, shared a company’s Facebook post, or read a small business owner’s blog (hi), you’ve been exposed to content marketing. The idea of content marketing is that if you can provide information – which can come in the form of useful, practical, inspirational, creative, and more – that is of value to your customers, when the time comes to shop, they will be more likely to think of your company. In a hyper-competitive marketplace, content marketing can be the difference between sink or swim. Draw back to the basics – don’t overthink this. Your business doesn’t need to be on every social media platform by tonight. Pick one that you’re already familiar with, and start a conversation. Revise, improve and increase as needed.

Digital PR. This one is a tricky one, and perhaps you won’t get to it until you are feeling comfortable with the points above – and that’s OK. However, its power is crucial to your success. The driving idea behind Digital PR is that there are mutually beneficial relationships for you to form with fellow ecommerce denizens. Begin by joining groups about your topic – whether on Facebook, Google Groups or another platform of your choice – and interacting with fellow business owners. You’ll often find that you can help each other by cross-promoting each other’s businesses via your content marketing, creating joint promotions, and more. As it often tends to be, that which is the most loosely defined is often holding the most potential. Don’t be afraid to be creative, and always be bold.

How are you feeling? Overwhelmed? It is true that there is much to explore within each of the topics above. However, I hope that the key takeaway for you, as a future merchant, is that there are broad categories that are clearly defined upon which you can take immediate action to realizing your business aspirations. To drive that home, check out this nifty infographic of the key points above.

 

And that’s basically it – a super short guide to selling online using WordPress. What was unclear? What would you like to read more about? Let me know in the comments.