By Aliza Sherman, Co-founder, Conversify, Denver, Colo.
Two years ago I teamed up with a Colorado-based friend and rebranded the Internet consulting business I was operating solo out of my Alaska home. My company became Conversify, a social media marketing agency, and it quickly grew to include one other partner and 12 contractors who worked out of home offices spread across the planet.
My original business partner, Monique Elwell, and I made the decision early on to make Conversify an entirely virtual company. We wanted that to be an asset rather than a burden, but we didn't really have a model to follow. We didn't want to appear to be a transient group of freelancers who were spread across the country. We wanted to show that we were a cohesive agency with a professional identity. Finding ways to develop that cohesion, and present it to the public, required some imaginative thinking and innovative technologies.
There are certainly challenges involved in this approach, from communicating effectively to sharing files. But while we can't replace all the benefits of face-to-face office interactions, we've ultimately found that being virtual is worth it.
Collaboration through the cloud
Picture this: Our offices extend from Alaska, which has its own time zone, to California, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, the East Coast and the U.K. How do you foster effective communication, collaborate on projects and share documents with your co-workers when you're spread across so many time zones? We banged our heads against the virtual wall trying to figure this out.
We have many different people working on different projects, so we need ways to keep track of scheduling and the amount of time spent on different tasks. We've also created a vast array of documents, images and video that need to remain accessible, so finding a way to archive everything was very important.
We decided to use cloud-based programs like Google Apps for Business and Glasscubes to address many of our communications and archiving needs. Instead of each employee using his or her own email address, we set up a company email system through Google Apps. Instead of constantly emailing documents, we use Google Docs to share and collaborate on spreadsheets.
Beyond the standard fixes
Other technological fixes we've found are totally new to me. Finding these required research and experimentation. For example, I had no idea how we could set up a phone system that would present a unified front for the business and route all of our calls to the right people. Originally, we were all using our personal phone numbers. That's confusing to clients who expect to call a company rather than an individual.
After doing some research I came across a virtual phone service called eVoice, which connects everyone and provides different numbers for different locations. For example, we have a number that is specifically for Wyoming, since we have a presence there and we know that people in Wyoming like to do business locally.
There are technological solutions to almost every problem a virtual company might face, but you have to be willing to find those solutions and integrate them with your systems in a way that makes sense.
The benefits of face time
Despite our efforts to connect everyone digitally, there is so much potential for miscommunication -- both within the company and with customers. In one situation last year, we realized we'd been missing the important nuances in our communications with one of our clients. So we finally just said, "We're getting on a plane and coming out to meet you." And once we met them in person, there was a sense of relief. We could actually see their faces, which made it easier to communicate and build a more intimate relationship.
We've learned from such experiences, and we now try to facilitate in-person interactions between clients and our staff. Clients still expect to partner with their agencies in a fairly intimate way, and that intimacy can be lost electronically.
We really wanted to foster the bonds that workers develop when they are in the same space. But we can't stop by somebody's cubicle or stand around the water cooler. Instead, we've been congregating at a virtual water cooler in Second Life, the 3D virtual world. It's much more like face-to-face interaction than talking on the phone or through email. We've also been having our strategic and quarterly meetings in Second Life.
In 2008, our second year, we were closing in on $500,000 in revenue. This year, we're projecting that revenue will surpass $1 million. We wouldn't have been able to grow nearly as much if we hadn't been able to find technologies that fill in the gaps that occur in virtual teams.
Aliza Sherman in 1995 launched Cybergrrl, which was the first woman-owned full-service Internet company. She has published numerous books about technology and the internet, including The Everything Blogging Book. She also recently started a mobile apps marketing and content company, Mediaegg.
-- As told to Zack Anchors