More and more start ups are distributed companies, from the beginning, and customers, employees, and investors are accepting this trend as normal in high-tech and other trending industries. Our company SJN Sales, based in Albuquerque New Mexico, is fully distributed, and I’m always happy to sing the praises of working for and managing a business in this way. An aside, I think the more commonly used virtual company (“nearly real or simulated to be real”) is a lousy way to describe a business, with all of the transience it implies, while distributed (“spread throughout an area or territory”) is a better description for a company that has dedicated employees working from multiple locations, rather than from a centralized headquarters office. At SJN Sales, we currently have just over 50 employees spread across 11 states and 2 foreign countries. Here are my top 6 reasons why we love our distributed model and think you might want to consider joining the parade and making your company fully, or at least partially, distributed:
1. You’ll be able to hire great people and save money: The world is full of great candidates for your company’s jobs. Albuquerque, or even New York is not necessarily where your next great hire lives. SJN Mobile or SJN Sales healthcare or any of our other teams can hire the best salespeople and project managers for the company, and our clients, regardless of where they live. You’ll also most likely cover more time zones and reduce airfare and other travel costs by having employees distributed. The original SJN Sales employees started in one location but spread out as one after the other followed spouses to jobs or grad school. Now we’re fully distributed and while we still have an Albuquerque home-base, our teams are dispersed across all of North America. You may get lucky, as we did and get to hire top-tier employees who have already worked together at a previous employer. We hired one top salesperson from a huge software firm and it was natural for them to recruit other members of their old sales team with the option of working on remote, a very compelling perk of joining our small firm. We add people this way whenever possible. Working with old colleagues in a distributed company really seems to ease the transition of people who have been working in a cubicle farm. It helps logistically to use an outsourced company to deal with the payroll and tax needs of people working in various states, and even countries.
2. Staff will love it: SJN Sales employees tell me, and generally anyone else who asks, that they can’t fathom going back to a cubilce that they reach after a commute. Quality of life is not just a cliché for our people. Working for a distributed company they get increased time with family and friends, flexible hours, a reduced or eliminated commute, and flexible hours and they get to live where they want. Several people have joined the SJN Sales group because they have always wanted to live somewhere with a rough local job market (Wyoming ranch anyone?). Several others travel as a hobby in between traveling heavily for the company. A solid core of our highest performing salespeople work here because their spouse gets transferred regularly and they love not having to worry about starting a new job or a new empty territory with each relocation.
3. Employees who want social lives with co-workers will thrive: Some companies see a huge disadvantage in the perceived lack of social interaction at a distributed company. Most people enjoy socializing with like-minded coworkers, and very few employees want to work in total isolation. SJN Sales people are assigned in small teams and use all sorts of online and offline methods for communicating. And yes, cat pictures and a meet-up at the bar near Moscone Center are part of the team communication and social life. Our teams also see each other at client meetings and at the large number of trade shows, industry meetings, and forums we attend in-person each year. We also have a company-wide meeting at least every 3-6 months. Generally these all-call meetings take place at our Albuquerque headquarters but we have also met in Hawaii, Akumal in Mexico, Scottsdale, and Washington DC. As we grow into more widely divergent specialty teams, we continue to find new ways of gathering all SJN Sales people together in ways that make the meetings a treat rather than a time wasting chore.
4. Your work groups and offices will experience less conflict and have more fun: As a distributed company, SJN Sales doesn’t have mandatory reporting at a centralized office but we utilize all sorts of other office options that are available where our employees live and travel. Team members often work in co-working space when several team members live near one another, even when the indivduals are not assigned to the same accounts or projects. Other employees work from home, rented office space, and in one case the guest house of the employee’s hobby farm. The key is that no one has going to a particular desk every day as part of their required job description. SJN employees don’t clock in or out. They come and go when they want and typically do a fairly small percentage of their total work at their official office address. We offer suggestions on how to avoid being at work at every moment that staff spends at their laptop because freeing work from location can often mean too many hours on the job. Social interaction (both within SJN Sales and with the other businesses that share our space, whether office or airport lounge) but social interaction doesn’t generally lead to conflict or interruptions for others because SJN Sales team and management decision-making and communication is channeled online, and is set up to be accessible to everyone. SJN has always had an office. When the company started it seemed essential just to avoid client concerns about our “virtual” workforce and because we needed a centralized space for support staff to work. Now, virtually all support functions are outsourced or distributed, and our suite of offices in Albuquerque serves most often as the site for all-call meetings and for some local staff to use as a work or meeting space. We also make our Albuquerque conference room available to community groups and non-profit boards for events and meetings.
5. You will have better employee and client communications: Every company has to manage communications challenges. Distributed companies are no exception but we start with a great advantage: structural excuses to abolish inefficient, time-wasting meetings, in the hallway one-on-ones that aren’t documented for anyone else’s use, agenda free conference calls, and email and voicemail silos. We have complete freedom to set up team and company wide collaboration tools and systems that make work days more pleasant, more efficient, and more flexible. We’ve found that in nearly every case the work is better documented which leads to additional efficiencies as problems once discussed and solved can be handled again by looking at previous team efforts and results. Individual staff members and work groups, and client teams, can establish working hierarchies of preferred communications methods and tools based on travel schedules, client preferences, etc. We did learn, in a brutal but brief experiement, that we can’t actually automate our way out of having a receptionist. Yes, you can leave a voicemail but one of our hard-working and generally chipper receptionists or assistants will be happy to talk with you when you call and then handle forwarding a message in the manner that will get you a response without needing to know our systems or travel schedules.
6. You will attract and retain better employees than your firm could otherwise recruit, retain, or probably afford. This is, admittedly related to the first benefit of being a distributed company. One of the most frequent questions SJN Sales receives about our staff is, “how did you get so and so, from GianTech to work for your little company?” We do gain tremendous recruiting advantages when old-guard traditional model companies tell employees where to be, when to be, and how long to be, in their cubes or on the road. Most of our employees like the distributed model we offer because it allows them to prioritize work along with some other passion or responsibility in their life. Nearly all of us have a “refugee story” about how our old traditional work life ended, when a manager told us that we couldn’t have some accommodation because, “then everyone would want it.” If you’re great at your job and this model sounds attractive to you, check out our career page. We are growing and we’re hiring. The dental plan is only ok and salaries are competitive, but you’ll want to earn your bonus too.