In the last post, I demonstrated the ways in which you can save considerable time and travel expense with online collaboration tools to share with your clients. That does, however, raise another issue: do you have to be there with your employees?
When Flat World Media was first created, it was designed to be a virtual entity in the interest of cost savings for a start-up. We embraced software-as-a-service (SaaS) to its fullest extent by pushing our business into the virtual world through services and online applications. Part of the security of storing things virtually opened up new ways to share and collaborate with employees as well. As our company grew, so did its online presence within the business. Back office operations, databases, servers, email and even our phone systems set up shop online, making us reachable and versatile. How many of these aspects of your business do you really need to have housed within your four walls?
As we continued to grow and our client base became very healthy, even more online tools started to become part of our roster. We added Salesforce.com to help us communicate and keep track of discussions and progress with our clients. All of our customer databases were housed on a dedicated machine out-of-state with RAID back-up should there ever be a failure of any kind. We have no IT department. That comes with our service.
All of these tools allow you to create a nimble and robust company without the traditional overhead costs that can exist when you first set up shop. It also considerably widens your talent pool. You are no longer confined to people within driving distance of an office. The last thing we wanted was to be an environment where people were clockwatching or having to punch in and out.
A few months ago, however, we had to make a decision about whether the company should stay virtual or become some kind of physical entity. It was difficult, because the versatility of the online world made it so easy to be mobile and have colleagues who were happier and more productive working in their own environments. But, as I mentioned in last month’s article in relation to selling and dealing with clients: sometimes you cannot replace a good old-fashioned face-to-face meeting. We wanted to find a way to bridge the benefits of a virtual business with a “home base” of sorts for those times when people just need to be around people.
So we gave in, and carefully chose an office space not far from my home. What was crucial was that the feeling of the virtual space and the freedom associated with it needed to stay intact. It just became important that the local people we do deal with feel they have a space where the company exists. There are still no time clocks. There are still no requirements about local versus non-local employees as we have many colleagues who are in different time zones, and even different countries.
What it boils down to as your business grows is what compromises you feel you can make. The cost/benefit ratio becomes a huge consideration when exploring all the options that we have as small business owners. It is important to stay flexible. I certainly never intended to have a physical operation from the outset, but growth made me reevaluate what would work best for my clients as well as the employees and consultants who help keep the company robust and booming. We are actually very lucky to have those options in this day and age. We are not bound only by tradition anymore, and we can allow ourselves to be guided by what is best for the company. And truly, that is the most rewarding partnership.